Sunday, January 16, 2011

Thursday's Mystery Device

Last Thursday there was a bit of a disturbance at the Receiving desk -- a batch of old equipment arrived in boxes, and one of the boxes turned out to have a dead mouse in it. (The meaty kind.)

The box also contained this:
Mystery Device
At first glance, this appears to be an ancient scanner, filthy and discolored from exposure to sunlight. When it failed to actually be a scanner (i.e. there was nowhere to stick paper into it), I rescued it for further investigation. This turned into a really fun teardown.

Here are a couple more pictures:
Mystery Device: Left-hand side
OK, so it has a key on the side... and something stuck in a door on the front.
Mystery Device: Right-hand side
Here are a few bigger hints: first, an "eject" button, and second, if you're familiar with old Macs, you'll see a floppy drive on the lower part of the right-hand side.

Plug it in and press "Eject" and here's what you get:
Mystery Device Ejects
That looks an awful lot like a laptop!

This derelict piece of plastic is actually a docking station for an old Powerbook, circa 1992 or so. Docking stations are used to attach laptops to external monitors and peripherals, and often to extend the capabilities of the laptop beyond what they could otherwise do (e.g. by adding additional drives, memory, etc). The condition of the device tells a story -- it's so decrepit and dirty that it must've been in a pretty harsh environment for a long time. But the laptop itself is in nearly mint condition:
Powerbook Duo 230
The laptop probably lived out its last decade safely docked inside the docking station. It's a surprisingly modern-looking device considering it's from 1992 or so; the tell-tale signs that it's an early laptop are e.g. the trackball used instead of a touchpad. More specs and history are available here at Wikipedia.

It's a blazing-fast 33mhz machine -- if it were 50x faster we would possibly still scrap it. But in 1992 it was the top of the line, and would've sold new for more than $2500 (says

Believe it or not, this machine is on the very threshold of being able to run Linux. Not a modern Linux like Ubuntu, of course -- just a few very basic programs. (For years, the low-end threshold for running the Linux kernel was a 386DX processor, circa 1989 or so, and 4MB of ram.) There are a few pages online describing abortive attempts to run Linux on it e.g. here.

It would be a beautiful curiosity if it could run Linux -- but that would take a tremendous amount of time and at the end of it the machine wouldn't be useful. So with a heavy heart I decided to scrap it. This involves removing the hard drive so that it can be properly destroyed.
Inside the Powerbook Duo 230
Taking off the keyboard and part of the case reveals the motherboard (top half), empty battery slot (bottom left quarter), and hard drive (bottom right corner, under blue foil). There's a memory expansion card installed just above the left-hand corner of the hard drive. The trackball is just between the battery slot and the hard drive, and just below that is a small backup battery used to preserve settings and the internal clock when the machine is turned off.

Hard drive
The hard drive is a miniature SCSI drive, a little over 300MB -- as far as I know, nobody outside of Apple used these. SCSI drives have a long reputation for being expensive, thus I suppose they're perfect for a '90s era Macintosh... It's manufactured by IBM, who of course was a major rival of Apple's at the time.

With the hard drive removed, I re-assembled the machine, and in a touching attempt to delay the inevitable, meticulously cleaned the trackball, which had accumulated almost two decades of lint and grease. This returned the machine to essentially mint condition.

Powerbook Duo 230, fully embalmed
The Powerbook, with a battery charger and spare battery. The batteries themselves are defunct and the hard disk has been removed, but this computer is otherwise fully functional and in mint condition.

Here are its last words, infamous for any Mac user:
Help me, I'm confused and can't find a disk.
And with that, it was scrapped.

So -- because there are probably a number of Geeks out there howling for my blood for scrapping this beautiful piece of history: alternatives?

With the hard drive removed, it is essentially useless but bears absolutely no risk for Free Geek Vancouver if it leaves the premises since it no longer contains any private data. The hard disk, I suspect, is too difficult for Free Geek to wipe, but I could be wrong, and even if I'm not, others are probably available online.

Should gems (well, gems in my tremendously biased opinion) like this make their way down to the store for a week before they're finally scrapped? Other ideas?


  1. As for the docking station itself, it's an interesting device -- but I have NEVER encountered a piece of technology that was so difficult to disassemble. It ended up requiring a claw hammer.

  2. Ahhhh, the DuoDock. How I hated this piece of gear. Ask Jax about how terrible it was working with this hardware. The Duo 280c wasn't bad as it had an 040 CPU, and I believe there was also a PPC version of the notebook. But the earlier ones where just terrible.

    I really wish I could have been part of the claw hammer procedure :)

  3. Honestly, I'd love it if nearly everything "somewhat neat" yet junk (old-ish laptops, etc) were put into the store for virtually free -- sometimes it's just fun to screw around with old hardware.

  4. Kelvin -- totally agreed. There are two catches:
    1) we have to be certain that no personal info is going out on the device; all drives etc. need to be removed or thoroughly wiped, which can sometimes be time-consuming and tricky with old gear;
    2) we have certain obligations as an ethical recycler about what we do with gear that's not fully tested (and thus considered as-is). I believe there's now an agreement customers can sign that covers this angle.

    I think (with a little coordination with the store to ensure everyone knows what sells and what doesn't) that a $5 as-is interesting stuff bin would do good business. We just need someone to pitch the idea at a monthly meeting and help work out the details.

  5. Hey - stumbled across your reply! Only a year late =)

    Certainly - devices which have drives in them would need to be zeroed (ridiculously simple with software like boot&nuke) or pulled, but it's fair to say that there are a lot of devices with no internal storage medium which can be just as fun to play with - I snagged a free Tandy 100 from a recycle bin recently, for instance - and if such things were given a two week span in a $5 bin, I could totally see geeks like myself having a blast with that!