Adam's Apple

Working with Vintage Macs

Solving Mac Startup Problems

Adam Rosen - 2007.12.12 - Tip Jar

As readers of Low End Mac know, Macs are durable machines that can remain useable and useful a decade or more after they were manufactured. Whether in use to run legacy applications, old games, repurposed as systems for the kids, or acquired as collector's items, many old Macs can (and do) see service long after the warranty expires.

I deal with older (pre-G3) systems regularly, both through my consulting work and my personal collection, the Vintage Mac Museum. Here are some tips I've found for keeping the old beasts running.

Startup & Boot Problems

When a Mac's been sitting on a shelf too long (or in the garage, basement, etc.), it may have problems starting or booting up. This could be related to a dead or low battery, a dead or stuck drive, or a failed component.

Dead PRAM Battery

If the date and time reset each time you unplug the Mac and you get a warning on startup, you need a new PRAM (NV-RAM) battery. Some batteries are easy to change; others (especially portables) can be very difficult. A dead or low PRAM battery can prevent a system from booting or can cause erratic boot behavior; this is particularly common with laptops.

If a replacement battery is not available or the battery is inaccessible, plug in the AC power adapter and leave the computer charging for 30-60 minutes. This often recharges the battery enough to permit booting. If an hour doesn't work, leave it plugged in overnight and try the next day.

Failed Hard Drive

Often an old Mac will power on but not spin up the hard drive, or the drive will try to get going but instead make groaning or ticking sounds. This could be caused by dried up lubricants in the motor bearings or other mechanical wear. Leaving the drive to struggle and make noise too long can cause further damage, but sometimes a bit of power-cycling can help. Switch off the Mac, wait a few minutes, and try again. Repeat a few times, with the drive off but AC power connected between starts. This sometimes jiggles and warms things up enough to get the disk unstuck.

Some people recommend freezing a drive to fix this problem; I haven't tried this method myself, so caveat emptor.

However you get it working, the disk may or may not continue to work fine after it loosens up, so copy any important data off a disk that's behaving in this fashion to be safe.

Boot from CD or Floppy

If your Mac has a CD-ROM drive, you can boot from an Apple software install CD (hold the C key down at startup). Use original Apple CDs for Systems 7, 8, and 9 if possible; these have a longer life span and are more compatible with older CD drives than copies made to recordable CDs (CD-R).

All Macs with built-in floppy drives can boot from a floppy disk; very old Macs require floppy drives to boot. Keeping a few extra floppy drives around, especially external drives you can plug into the back of a Mac which has a floppy drive port, is especially helpful.

Other Hardware Problems

A groaning or buzzing sound that revs up and down at low RPMs (and sometimes sounds like a wounded animal) is often a cooling fan undergoing a slow death. Fans are easy to replace and worth taking care of before more expensive damage occurs.

If you Mac doesn't make any noise at all when switching it on (no fans, no motors, no lights, even after charging overnight) or you hear a popping sound when starting up followed by nothing, you may have a damaged power supply, logic board, or other hardware component. Usually finding a second Mac of the same model is needed to swap out parts; see Getting Inside Vintage Macs and Swapping Out Bad Parts for further details.

More Tips and Suggestions?

I'm sure there are many other tips and suggestions on the topic of working with old and vintage Macs; write in to the Low End Mac Mailbag or contact me with your suggestions and we may do a follow-up to this column with additional ideas. LEM

This article was originally published on Adam's Oakbog website. It has been adapted and reprinted here with his permission.


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Adam operates Oakbog Professional Services and The Vintage Mac Museum. He publishes The Vintage Mac Museum Blog. If you find Adam's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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