Restoring a legend: The SE/30


In the world of 68k Macs, there’s one model in particular that consistently tops the list. In fact, many people go so far as to say the SE/30 is the best computer that Apple will ever make. The SE/30 was the fastest and most powerful of the original compact black & white Macs; it was essentially a server in a tiny case.

I’ve wanted to get my hands on one of these for a while, and at long last I finally came across one! This article will go through some interesting tidbits on the machine, and my experiences in bringing one back to life.

The Macintosh SE/30

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 7.01.49 PMTo start things off, let me provide a quick rundown on the machine. The SE/30 was released in the late 80s and featured a 16mhz 68030 processor (Thus the “30”.) It came with an optional 40 or 80mb hard drive and 1 or 4mb of RAM. The SE/30 is highly expandable and can take much larger SCSI drives and upwards of 128 mb of RAM. Out of the gate, it’s several times faster than it’s predecessor, the Macintosh SE. It’s also 2 or 3 times faster than a Mac Plus, the Classic, or even the later-released Classic II.

Some other fun-facts

  • The SE/30 pops up in lots of interesting places, ranging from Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment to Ozymandias’s desk in the Watchmen movie!
  • It can be equipped with a graphics card to show full grayscale on the internal display and supports 8-bit color on an external display.
  • Apple’s naming convention at the time was to add an “x” to model names that featured 030 processors, like the IIfx. They obviously couldn’t just add an “x” to SE, so they named it the SE/30 instead!
  • In 2020, accounting for inflation, the SE/30 would cost over $10,000.
  • A custom ROM is available called the Rominator which makes the system 32-bit clean, allowing it to address more RAM and run later versions of the Mac OS.
  • Here’s a not-so-fun fact: CRTs can be extremely dangerous! The official service manual indicates the importance of discharging the CRT before working inside the computer. SE/30s along with other late compact macs have a so-called bleeder resistor to drain the charge after powering off, but this is still not a guarantee. So… safety first. Here’s more info on the topic and another site with information on the shock danger.

Bringing an SE/30 back to life

To find one, I’ve visited flea markets and yard sales without much luck – so I went the sure-fire route: eBay. The SE/30 can go for several hundred bucks online, so I added an alert and waited until one came in at a lower price point.

Eventually, one came along for a good price – however it was in fairly questionable condition. I typically look for at minimum a flashing question mark indicating that the ROM, RAM, logic board, and hopefully power-supply are fine.

Upon arrival I was happy to see the machine looked better than it did in the photos. Really no case blemishes to speak of, and the coloring of the plastic was excellent. However turning it on led to…. nothing but fan noises. Uh-oh.

gutsThe CRT

I’ve seen compact Macs with bad logic boards, and typically you’d see “something” upon powering it on – a sad mac icon, or even if just a garbage pattern. My hope was that something simple became loose during shipment – and sure enough, the board on the back of the CRT yoke had slightly come ajar. A super-careful press back on solved the issue.

Adding a SCSI2SD to the SE/30

Once the CRT powered on, I could see the Mac booting up as expected. The unit actually had a very large internal hard drive already in it, but I decided to swap it out for a SCSI2SD– for even more space, speed, etc.

The unit had a super-long SCSI cable inside, which was flailing around. This was most likely what knocked the CRT board off. I removed the old drive, installed the SCSI2SD, and wired the drive activity light onto the SCSI2SD board for “full effect”. I considered running both the large drive plus the tiny SCSI2SD, but opted for just the one since physical space is at a premium. I also cleaned up the cable management by tying down the long SCSI cable.

The large drive that came with the unit is now running happily in my Macintosh Classic! Everyone wins!

NOTE: Unlike the PowerMac 7600 and LC 575 I’ve previously used SCSI2SDs with, the SE/30 required termination turned on to work properly.

Replacing the SE/30 Floppy drive

Another issue the machine had was the floppy drive simply did not work. I believe it probably could have been cleaned up and lubricated, but I had a spare SuperDisk floppy drive in excellent condition that I swapped it out for. To remove the old floppy drive, I simply had to slide the logic board out and un-screw from below.

Clean Up

While everything was apart, I cleaned up years of dust (honestly it smelt like a musty library) – I also replaced the PRAM battery, as the one in there was dead and probably ready to burst.

Up and running… almost

At this point, I was able to successfully set up my SCSI2SD and install a few variations of System 7. System 7.0 & 7.1, for reference can see up to 2 gb, where as 7.5+ can see 4. I created 4 x 2 gb volumes for the most flexibility.

I initially used the patched/hacked Apple HDSC Setup, but the disk initialization was taking up to an hour or more per drive – I found that the Drive Setup Lite application from a Mac OS 8 disk was able to do it in less than a minute. Specifically, I used the Drive Setup Lite application to make my partitions – then “downgrade” the drive with the Apple HDSC Setup via the “Update” button. Weird, but now I have multiple drives and plenty of space to play with!

This machine only has 5mb of RAM – so I turned on virtual memory. As expected, I had a ton of crashes until I updated to 7.5.5. At least the SCSI2SD helps virtual memory perform a little faster than a traditional hard drive would.

Alive and Kicking

The SE/30 lived up to all of the expectations I had for it. Here’s some of the fun stuff I’ve been able to do with it:

  • Use browsers like iCab, Netscape, MacWeb, etc for some web surfing – using my Raspberry Pi for internet over serial.
  • Listen to music via trackers, midis, and EVEN MP3s… albeit somewhat choppy. But it’s surreal to listen to modern music via a computer from the 80s. The 030 can support QuickTime and the SE/30 actually has Color QuickDraw capabilities despite the black & white screen.
  • Lots of classic games, of course. Anything from the original black & white era plays beautifully on the SE/30.

What’s Next?

There are lots of ideas and plans I have for this machine. Here’s what I’m thinking…

  • The audio is very quiet, which I’ve read is a sign of capacitor failure. I will probably need to undertake replacing them in the near future. (Or have it sent out for a professional to handle!) As a work-around, I have a loud external speaker set up with it.
  • The Rominator II, as mentioned earlier. This will make the machine 32 bit clean and allow more RAM and newer OS installation.
  • With the Rominator installed, it should be possible to run System 7.6 & Mac OS 8.
  • Linux… maybe
  • More RAM! 5 mb is nothing compared to what the machine is capable of.
  • Expansion cards. External displays, accelerators, or perhaps an ethernet card!