Living in a 68K World

In December of 2020 the topic of the “PowerPC Challenge” came up again on Mac Yak. If you are not familiar with the PowerPC Challenge, it is a yearly event that the Mac Yak podcast folks created to challenge themselves, and others, to use PowerPC-based Macs for an entire week.

The idea is to rely less on your modern Mac or smartphone, and try to do day-to-day tasks on your vintage PowerPC-based Macintosh computer. You can find out more on this website here. So my thought was, well… if everyone has had such success and fun doing the PowerPC challenge before… why not make it more interesting? What about using a Mac which came before the PowerPC machines for some day-to-day tasks? Like 68K Macs? (These are called 68K Macs because they use a Motorola 68000 series CPU)

I realized from the inception of my idea that there would be some things I clearly could not do. Some silly ideas were now nearly impossible, like sending tweets from a 68K Mac. It was possible a while ago, but Twitter’s security and protocol settings have since changed, closing the door (at least for now) at such high-tech sorcery.

But besides browsing social media, viewing videos on YouTube, and using modern email services, a lot can be accomplished on a 68K Mac. Sure, not as much as a PowerPC Mac, but still – work could be done! The idea of the challenge after all is not to get fired from your job for not being able to do your work, but more to have fun in your leisure time with these aging machines. This was something I wanted to do, I missed out on the previous PowerPC challenges, so I wanted to make up for it in a big way.

Tower of Power

But what machine would I use? I have quite a collection of 68K Macs, and it got me thinking, what would make the most sense? Well it needed to be fast, expandable, and in working condition. Sadly, my Quadra 840 AV ticked all those boxes, except the latter – it still does not want to work. But what about the next best thing, a Quadra 800.

The sibling to the 840 AV packs a respectable 33MHz processor when compared to the speedier 40MHz processor on the 840 AV (the fastest of any 68K Mac!). Although it lacks some extra digital signal processors, video input jacks, and some other bells and whistles, the 800 is no slouch. In fact, at first glance you could mistake the 800 for the 840 AV, as they share a very similar case. Plus, using a desktop Mac like the 800 would allow me to experiment with accessories, add-ons, and peripherals.

The Quadra 800 has the unique ability to run a wide array of Macintosh System Software (that’s the equivalent of the macOS for you modern folks). It can’t run System 6 (which is a shame), but it can run System 7.1 all the way through Mac OS 8.1, and everything in between.

The trials and tribulations of me cleaning and setting up my Quadra 800 for the challenge are documented in a video series on YouTube. The playlist for these videos are embedded below. Give those a watch if you haven’t, because from here on out I’ll be assuming you watched them.

Preparing The System

Cleaning the Quadra 800 was no small task. And while I’m still not 100% satisfied with the case, I’ll be honest… it’s spent 99% of it’s life now with the case being off. That’s because half the time I need to troubleshoot something, and half the time I want to insert a new NuBus card or check on something inside.

The problem is that the case of the Quadra 800 (like it’s siblings) is made out of plastic that has become quite brittle with age. Even taking the upmost care while handling this machine, small pieces of plastic have snapped off here and there. Thankfully the machine is still in overall great shape, but unfortunately, nobody is making replacement cases for this machine… yet.

So rather than risk further damaging the case by taking the front cover on and off (and that’s all it is, a cover), I have decided to leave it off, at least for now. It looks ugly, but it works, and really – that’s all I care about.

Setting up the machine came with it’s own issues, which are documented in the videos linked above – so I won’t go into that here. But needless to say, I ran into enough issues that would make most people give up and never come back.

Let The Challenge Begin

Fast forward to January, when everyone was expected to do the challenge, life managed to get int he way, as it does. However, I did still use the machine as much as it made sense to. I never planned to only use my 68K Mac, I had a handy 12″ PowerBook G4 to help with modern tasks too, and a Mac mini G4 model to act as a bridge machine between file transfers to and from my Intel-based Macs.

Most of the tasks I were able to perform on my Quadra 800 were pretty simple, word processing, some light image editing, and record keeping. In fact, I record and write all of my vintage Macintosh repair note for my clients on my Quadra 800. I fire up ClarisWorks 4 and type away on a lovely Apple Extended keyboard, which is such a joy to type on. In fact – I’m using such a machine now to type this blog post!

The desk I have next to the Quadra was built for the days of having a chunky printer below your desk. So it’s a perfect spot for my ImageWriter II dot matrix printer, which you may know I have a small obsession with. As a little dorky treat for those who appreciate these vintage machines, I print out my invoices and notes from my client’s Macs and include them with their repaired systems. Sure, it takes some extra time, but it’s honestly a joy to do.

I’ve probably spent more time playing games and tinkering around than I have writing however, although I’ll be honest, I haven’t been keeping track. And the cold floor of the basement sometimes urges me to retreat upstairs with my PowerBook instead.

I used the PowerBook G4 to interface with my older Canon 8800F scanner, which does a nice job of scanning transparencies and film. Sadly the scanner doesn’t work on anything past Mac OS X 10.11 “El Capitan”. The PowerBook worked fine, so fine that there really wasn’t anything to report.

68K Upgrades

The Quadra 800 performs pretty well, although I have needed to force restart it now and again. I’ve been spending most of my time in Mac OS 8.1, and this works a treat with some of the hardware upgrades I’ve performed which haven’t (yet) been featured on any videos. (Spoiler alert!)

Most drastically comes the memory – something that would have been silly expensive back in the day. I’ve upgraded this lovely machine to it’s maximum amount, adding 128 megabytes of memory, bringing me a total (after rounding) of nearly 140 megabytes installed. The machine will take longer to do a memory check on boot, but this ensures I don’t run out of memory when launching applications (or at least it should).

The second upgrade was video cards. Since I started playing with this machine I have been picking and choosing which NuBus video cards to play around with. I am very fortunate to have a variety of cards to choose from, SuperMac, E-Machines, RasterOps, etc. I eventually settled on a RasterOps Paintbrush video card, which seems to be one of the best in my collection. This card has a special place in my heart as it was previously in my father’s Macintosh IIcx computer, which was the first Mac I ever used. It pairs beautifully with the massive Sony Trinitron, and although there are some resolution quirks, it does work quite well.

Video Temptations

I did have one toy that I wanted to use on the Quadra ever since I thought of using it for the challenge… and that is a Radius VideoVision audio / video capture card. I purchased this card, with the original box, back in the summer of 2020. It included some disks, booklets, and a required AV breakout box for connecting video and audio signals to the NuBus card. Although it arrived covered in stickers (which the shipped put on for some reason, maybe to cover the graphics on the box?) I was able to painstakingly remove them and save 99.99% of the original graphics on the box.

Unknown to me however, there was a problem with my prized $50 purchase. The massive NuBus video card looked very similar to what the diagrams and drawings in the manual showed, so I paid it no mind… but when I plugged the card into my Quadra, and then went to connect the breakout box, I discovered a fatal error. This wasn’t a Radius card!

Nope! Somebody must have upgraded to a Radius card, and tossed the old card away back in the Radius box. What I had here was a video-only card that could only capture composite video… to make matters worse, it needed its own breakout box. Thankfully someone had archived the manual, and the manual was nice enough to include the pin outs for the breakout cable so you could theoretically build your own capture cables.

But this didn’t excite me – the whole reason behind this VideoVision Studio card was to have the silliest, most expensive adapter inside my Quadra. I wanted to record video and do some editing! Sadly, like most vintage Apple things, people ask silly money for them on eBay. A listing I found wanted over $500 for what I previously thought I owned inside my Radius box.

Thankfully – someone in the UK had exactly what I needed, just the Radius capture card – WITH the Studio Upgrade card, and WITH the 2 megabytes of video memory add-on, just like mine was supposed to be. The only problem was – the seller was asking a bit much for it, and it didn’t have the break-out cable it shipped with. Thankfully, I had the cable, but when I inquired about the card, the seller realized he only had half of what the kit needed to work.

Through our discussion we reached an arrangement which I thought was fair, and for less than 1/5th of the asking price of the boxed card on eBay, I secured the card I was after – for real this time! The card eventually arrived in my mailbox and I was super eager to try it out. But, another road block – like many that came before.

My boxed copy of Adobe Premiere 3.0 says that the serial number is invalid – even though the box has a serial number label right on it! Thankfully in internet helped me out, and I had the software installed (along with some required Radius drivers), and then was ready to dive into the exciting world of digital video editing!

Except… no. Nope! It didn’t want to work. The Radius card I purchased was seemingly dead. When plugged in (with the two upgrades installed), it didn’t seem to have any video output. This was challenging because I’m using a VGA monitor with a DB-15 video card, so an adapter with dip-switches was required for the task. This required a lot of tinkering to ensure I had the right settings with the adapter, etc.

Well, to make a long story short – after inspecting it with the microscope and so on – resenting each part of the NuBus card (with and without each upgrade) I got the full card to work! It seems that it was just trial and error. It didn’t help that the card gets very close to some logic board components, making a perfect fit a test of your patience.

Digital Video

During a lengthy Skype video call with most of the Mac Yak folks, I dug myself further into the rabbit hole of trying to accomplish some sort of video editing on my Quadra. Figuring out which AV settings worked, and which didn’t, was it’s own battle. Even with nearly 140 MB of memory, Adobe would give me errors about running out of memory or my hard drive being slow.

I even plugged in a fast SCSI hard drive because I thought the SCSI2SD adapter may have been too slow to handle full-quality video recording. However, even with that set as the destination disk, I was forced to record in lower video quality if I wanted to stop the dropped frame errors Adobe Premiere displayed.

Once I had things settled, I made a few test recordings using a set-top-box antenna box. This was just capturing some clips off of a TV antenna. The process was straight forward, but it made me realize how much I take for granted. After you import some video footage, you have to wait for the machine to compress the video and audio. And this is WITH some dedicated processing power on the NuBus video card.

End Of Line

Now, I’d love to tell you that I pushed on through and edited a small video and posted it to YouTube – as that was my initial plan. However, I never got to that point. I spent so many hours configuring the Radius capture card and trying to get it to work, that I didn’t want to look at the darn thing again!

And so – I didn’t play with the video capture side of things since then. I’ve been using the Quadra to write documents, copy disks, and play games. I’m sure I’ll return to do some video editing (or attempt to) sometime in the future. Or, at least try and use that NuBus card on a faster Mac… although the manual gives some generic warnings about not working with a Power Macintosh 7100, so who knows if using the card on a PowerPC based Mac is possible.

But you know me – I won’t give up. I’ll still play with the Quadra sometime soon, who knows when, but the challenge of getting these machines running always calls me back… even if it’s not during a specified challenge timeline.

Article by Steven

Owner of Mac84.