The 'Book Beat

Bringing a PowerBook 520 Back from the Dead

- 2005.11.28

Over the last year, I've developed something of a reputation as a "rehousing project" for old Macs. Just last week I was given an old PowerBook 520 by someone who hadn't used it for years. The machine had been in storage for quite some time.

With its built in ethernet support, it offered an ideal machine to keep stashed under the sofa and pulled out when I wanted to check my email.

Dead Out of the Box

PowerBook 520This was the first 68k Mac laptop I've ever laid hands on. I tapped the power button as soon as I had it on my desk, but nothing happened. So I pulled out the mains charger and tried to run it from the mains.

Still no signs of life.

At first I was a little distraught at the idea that this machine was just a big old paperweight, but then I thought back to the PowerBook 5300 and its flaky socket for the mains charger. A bit of cable wiggling later, and the 520 sprung into life.

A Pleasant Surprise

The 520 then revealed some very pleasant surprises. I'd already noticed that the case had a PowerPC logo on it, which seemed odd given that this was a 68040 machine.

A quick check under "About This Macintosh" revealed that what was sat in front of me was actually an upgraded 520 &endash; one with a 99 MHz PowerPC 603e processor (quite a leap from the 25 MHz I was expecting).

Even better, since the scarcity of PowerBook RAM upgrades nowadays meant that a memory upgrade was pretty much out of the question, I was really pleased to see that the memory was raised to a very respectable 40 MB (some of it coming from the CPU upgrade card).

The Bad News

There was bad news, too. For some reason, the machine wasn't recognising the two "intelligent" NiMH batteries that were installed. Removing and reseating them made no difference.

As far as the PowerBook was concerned, the batteries either didn't exist or weren't worth charging.

Much time was then spent surfing the 'Net looking for a solution to my woes. Some people had gone as far as to take the batteries to pieces and replace the cells inside them, but this seemed a bit of overkill.

What kept being mentioned in all these articles was the "Intelligent Battery Reconditioning Software" &endash; why wasn't this software on my PowerBook?

A little bit of hunting online, and I found a copy of the software from - but was this going to be the answer?

Try and Try Again

The reconditioning software only works on the battery in the right-hand bay. I tried it on the first one, only to get the error. "Your battery could not be updated, please return to an authorized Apple dealer".

Switching the batteries produced the same result.

Frustrated, I took a tea break. Upon returning to the machine, I decided to give it one more try. Lo and behold, the reconditioning software got about 10 seconds into the process before it failed with the same message.

Failure again, but we'd gotten further this time. One more try and - wonder of wonders - the reconditioning cycle ran through. It failed again, right at the end this time, but the PowerBook was now recognising one of the batteries.

The laptop now spent about 10 minutes charging before reporting the battery was 100% full. The machine was able to run on battery power alone for the first time in years. She managed about two minutes before shutting down due to "low batteries". Still, it was progress.

Restarting from the mains, I decided to try reconditioning battery number two. Again, we got an error at the end of the process, but now both batteries were being recognised. They both hold their charge for mere minutes before shutting down, but now the process of reconditioning and recharging them can begin.

The Moral

The moral of this story has to be that even a seemingly broken machine may still have life in it. With a bit of effort and research, this dark grey paperweight has been turned into a functioning laptop once again.

There's probably also something to be said for Apple, whose reconditioning software made this dramatic recovery possible. LEM

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