Why people restore old computers and how you can too.

If my PowerBook G3 were a person, I’d be of legal voting age and counting down the days until it’s legal to drink. As a computer, it is next to useless and surpassed by even the most basic smartphones.

So why keep it? And not just keep it, but also spend huge sums of money to maintain and preserve it? Because it is an important part of the history of modern computing. Like the other geriatric computers that clutter my office shelves, its design tells a story, and it’s worth preserving.

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

Why do people collect vintage computers?

When you tell people that you like refurbishing and restoring old computers, the first word you say to them is “why?”

It is a fair question. The 15 machines in my collection combined are less powerful than a modern gaming computer. They can’t run the latest titles and some of them struggle with the modern internet. Although I view my little museum with affection, I know that each machine is fundamentally obsolete.

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

I suppose you could say the same to a collector of old cars. Why bother repairing a 1960s vehicle when a contemporary model will undoubtedly be more fuel efficient, comfortable and reliable?

For some people, figuring out how something works is fun, as is putting it back to work. Whether cars or computers, the goal is the same.

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

Then there is also the historical aspect. It’s comforting to know that if there’s a computer in my collection, it won’t end up at the recycling center. Beyond that, another reason I enjoy collecting old Apple computers is that I get to follow the company’s changing approach to hardware design.

The PowerBook G3, for example, is fundamentally modular. Accessing components is embarrassingly easy. Simply lift the keyboard, which snaps into place thanks to three simple latches.

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

As you dig deeper, you notice that the CPU and RAM sit on a daughter board that connects to the laptop’s logic board. This opens the possibility of updates. In fact, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was possible to purchase CPU upgrade cards from third-party companies.

On future models, you’ll see that approach to modularity go out the window. In the next generation of Apple PowerBooks, the CPU was soldered to the logic board. Over time, Apple began to integrate all components, from RAM and storage to network cards, as integral components on the logic board. This prevented people from upgrading and repairing their own machines.

If you have a large enough collection, that ever-changing design philosophy becomes obvious.

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

Where to find old machines

You can find old machines in the usual places: eBay, Craigslist, Gumtree, garage sales, etc. They are not hard to find because most people consider them junk. Beauty, as they say, is in the eyes of the beholder.

What you’ll pay will vary depending on the condition, rarity, and capacity of the device. For example, first-generation Intel MacBook laptops are dirt cheap right now. I found some for as little as $20. This is because they are as common as trash.

In 2006-07, Apple was selling over a million of those every quarter. Also, at the moment they are largely useless as a day-to-day machine. The latest operating system they can run is Mac OS X Lion, which was released in 2011. The latest versions of Chrome and Firefox won’t even run on them.

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

The original covers for the iBook G3, on the other hand, cost more because they are older and have an iconic design. Apple also sold far fewer, making them harder to find. It’s not uncommon to see them cost upwards of $200, especially if they’re in working condition with all original accessories and documentation.

There is a perception in the retrocomputing community that the price of older hardware has skyrocketed this year. Theories swirl as to why this could be. A frequent explanation is the pandemic. Some think that people have taken up the hobby to pass the time. Others blame popular YouTubers, like and for popularizing the hobby.

However, I do not envy this trend. I’d rather see old equipment restored than end up trashed. The best way for this to happen is if more people get involved.

One could also argue that if there is more demand for retro computers, more people will start selling their old machines. For the hobby to thrive, there has to be a continuous supply of old hardware.

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

How to revive an old computer

Once you have your machine, it’s time to start the restore. The complexity of this task largely depends on the condition of the machine. If it’s in working condition, you won’t have to do any repairs, although you might be tempted to do some upgrades.

If you find any faulty component, you may have a hard time replacing it with like alternatives. It’s hard to find new IDE/PATA hard drives, for example. Also, many of the older specifications of RAM have been out of production for a long time; You can only find them second hand.

However, you have a couple of options. You can buy another of the same machine you are restoring and cannibalize it for components. Alternatively, you can be creative. When it comes to IDE hard drives, you can use an mSATA to IDE adapter. This will allow you to use a modern (and inexpensive) storage format.

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

You’ll end up with slightly faster storage (you’ll still be limited to the performance speeds of the old IDE/PATA sockets), as well as significant battery performance gains. You can also find IDE adapters that support M.2 and CompactFlash cards.

Keep in mind that completely repairing and upgrading an old computer can easily cost more than the original purchase price of that machine. Also, if you ever want to resell your upgraded machine, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to recoup your costs.

If you’re not embarking on a restoration project with financial goals in mind, you’ll be fine. The payoff here is keeping something working long past its expiration date.

And the software? Fortunately, it is possible to find older applications and operating systems on various abandonware sites. Macintosh Garden is an excellent resource for anyone restoring older Apple computers.

Of course, if you expect to use your refurbished computer for actual day-to-day work, you’re going to face significant headwinds. Something as simple as browsing the web will prove problematic.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid these problems. If you have an older PowerPC-based Mac, you can rely on community-driven browser efforts and . If you’re trying to patch up a first-generation Intel Mac, you can use or run a newer version of macOS via . In all cases, your mileage will vary.

Alternatively, you can install Linux, which is what I did when restoring an old IBM ThinkPad. The main advantage of this approach is that I can use a fully updated browser from its original source, instead of an unofficial “spin” from the community.

Many older Wi-Fi cards will also struggle to work in contemporary routers, especially if your machine’s chipset maxes out at 802.11b. In that scenario, you have the following options:

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

Use a wired Ethernet connection – then you can avoid the problem altogether.
Install a newer Wi-Fi card – this will not necessarily require you to open the machine; you can get one that uses USB or PCMCIA CardBus.
Get one: These are ideal because you don’t need to install any drivers. They act as intermediaries for your local wireless network and forward traffic over Ethernet.

Potential minefields

There are a few things to be careful of when restoring old computers. The sad reality is that these machines can fall victim to old age. Screws become less durable and can strip, making the disassembly process more difficult. Plastic can yellow and become brittle. You will have to be careful with the most fragile parts and components.

When you get an old computer, one of the first things you should do is remove (and preferably replace) all internal batteries. Most have an internal battery that is used to keep track of time (among other things). These are known as CMOS or PRAM batteries. However, the batteries eventually fail. In some cases, they also leak. If that happens, your machine could suffer major corrosive damage.

In most cases you should be able to find replacements. It’s not uncommon to see some laptops using . Alternatively, you can find third-party alternatives on eBay or Amazon.

Why people restore old computers and how you can too

However, for some machines that is not possible because Apple uses a semi-proprietary format. However, the circuits are quite simple. It is possible to reverse engineer your own replacement using the housing of an original, some replacement cells, and a soldering iron.

It’s worth noting that many older machines may have faulty capacitors. These circuit-level components are used to ensure a constant supply of power to the rest of the circuit board. Like anything else, they are also prone to failure from use and old age.

Replacing them is a complicated task. If you’re unsure with a welder, you may want to consider outsourcing this task to a competent friend.

The tools you’ll need

If restoring old computers is a hobby you want to pursue, you’ll need to invest in a solid toolset. A good screwdriver is worth its weight in gold. The cheapest ones tend to be flimsy. You may even find that the metal on the screwdriver comes off when you’re trying to remove a stubborn screw. As the saying goes, “buy low, buy twice”.

Other tools you will need are spudgers and picks to open panels and circuit boards. Many computer repair kits include these. You should also invest in a magnetic screw bin or tray, so you don’t lose any important screws you’ll need to reassemble your machine.

Keeping a computer cool is an important part of its maintenance. If you buy an old machine, the thermal paste that was originally applied has almost certainly become solid and brittle. This means that it is no longer an effective conductor of heat.

Definitely invest in a pair of tubes from Arctic Silver. You’ll also need some Q-tips and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol to remove any old, caked-on thermal paste. (There’s something quite cathartic about scraping off that crusty old goo.)

Of course, a can of compressed air is always a handy way to remove dust found in a machine. Unclogging the heat sink is also possibly the easiest way to make a computer run cooler (and quieter), while consuming less power.