The SE/30 That Does It All: Interview With An Expert Vintage Mac User | Cult of Mac

The SE/30 That Does It All: Interview With An Expert Vintage Mac User



James Wages is a man on a mission. Where you and I might see a tired old computer that’s not much use to anyone anymore, he sees a decent machine with plenty of potential.

The results of his tinkering are spectacular; this ancient SE/30 is in regular use by the Wages family, for writing things, drawing things, and (most impressively, I think) getting online.

This little puppy is as maxed out as an SE/30 can get. These machines originally appeared in 1989, running System 6 and costing only $6,500. Blimey. Now you can pick them up for nothing – or even cheaper – and if you’re prepared to put the work in, maybe you can get yours doing all the stuff James has got his doing.

This machine was built before the web was invented, but he’s got it surfing quite satisfactorily. How did he do it?

I asked him.

Take it away, James:

“It connects to the net via its MacCon PDS Ethernet card. I
then connect a cable to my 10/100BT Ethernet Hub, which in turn connects via a 100Mbps fiber optic modem to the net. Of course, I cannot take full advantage of my fiber connection with the SE/30 alone, but downloads through Netscape 2.0 are about 57kbps, which is pretty good.

“I’ve not found download speeds increase or decrease when using other browsers either, and I’ve tried MS Internet Explorer 2.0 and 4.0, Netscape 3.0 and 4.0.8, and iCab (68k version). I’ve also tried some text based browsers, but those are unusable for me.

“Netscape 2.0 is simply the fastest 68k “graphical” browser available. I think iCab is promising, which is why I wrote to the author more than 2 years ago about keeping up the 68k version, but apparently there is insufficient demand for him to do that. It’s a shame too because iCab has the potential to support all the bells and whistles of a modern web page on
68k Macs.

“Netscape 2.0 is no slouch, but it cannot parse CSS well and some sites are a real mess when viewed on screen. Of course, graphics are all converted to B&W so they are not a thing a beauty, that’s for sure. But I must say that when my wife is on my G4 Cube and I am eager to get on the net, my SE/30
serves me well enough. But again complex CSS sites are not very usable – Netscape 2.0 is best to view sites that are built with “table layouts.”

Wonderful stuff. But what can you use a machine like this for? Can it still be useful? James says it certainly can.

“I do most of my main email work in Entourage on my G4, so I don’t use my SE/30 so much for that. But again, if my wife is on the other computer, I can use my SE/30 to access email. Rather than use an email client though, I just fire up the browser and use the web interface to access mail. That way
I don’t need to keep local copies of mail on my SE/30, since my SE/30 is not my primary email machine.

“MS Word 5.1 is fast. I would say wicked fast, even on a stock 16MHz SE/30. WriteNow 4 is a tad faster, but both apps load and work faster than any modern word processor on OS X today. And yes, I’ve composed many text documents on my SE/30.

“My 5 year old daughter likes MacPaint and some other educational software I’ve got on the SE/30. She thinks it’s a cute computer, which makes playing on it fun. It also lacks color, which sometimes can be an advantage. With too much color on a big screen, she sometimes doesn’t know what to click on. But the SE/30 is more straightforward for her to use because it’s simpler.

“I guess I use the SE/30 most often with my Newton, to add packages to the Newton and to backup all my Newton files on the SE/30. There’s an incredible amount of Newton software out there, especially for the 2000/2100 series. NewtonTalk is a popular forum that I participate in to learn about the latest and greatest.

“Although the Newton can synch with modern computers and even OS X using some special software that Newton enthusiasts have developed through the years, I still find that a serial connection to my SE/30 is the most reliable and enjoyable experience. I even have a Newton patch that allows serial transfers at 57,600bps, which is faster than the maximum 34,800bps that Apple’s Newton Connection Utilities would originally allow.”

This machine has been through a lot of upgrading. James had better tell you the details:

“I filled all the slots with 16MB SIMMs to give the SE/30 128MB RAM, the maximum the machine allows. This was an unthinkable amount of RAM at the time the machine made its debut, and even when 16MB SIMMs later come on the scene they were so expensive few upgraded SE/30s to that much RAM. But lots of RAM allows me to load any 68k software I want, including RAM-hungry Photoshop.

“The stock SE/30 has a 16MHz 68030 processor, which is certainly no slouch relative to the 8MHz 68000 the original Mac 128k came with in 1984. Even so, I found the 16MHz a bit slow for web browsing so I installed a 50MHz DiiMO accelerator. This makes all operations snappy and web browsing usable. I also own a 40MHz Daystar 68040 accelerator, but I found that some programs were incompatible even with the 040 cache disabled, so I fell back to the DiiMO. I really like the DiiMO because its just as compatible as the stock SE/30, yet faster.

“I have a 4.5GB SCSI hard disk attached. Originally, that hard drive was fitted internally, but to reduce heat I moved it into the external zero footprint enclosure you see
under the Mac in my photo.

“I partitioned the drive 3 ways in order to retain System 6 compatibility. System 6 cannot see anything over 2GB. I
have a boot partition with System 6.0.8, System 7.1, System 7.5.5, System 7.6.1 and OS 8.1. I use System Picker to switch among them.

“System 6 is just plain fast. It boots in 13 seconds and all apps (such as Deneba Canvas 3.5.6) are so fast it blows the mind. But I still keep newer Systems on the machine for compatibility reasons – some programs just won’t work under 6.

“I can network to my G4 via System 6.0.8 too, but only when I am booted into OS 9 on the G4. It works well though.

“The other thing I use my SE/30 for is a link between my ancient Mac 512k and my Cube. I can read my 512’s floppies in the SE/30, and I can also connect to the SE/30 via LocalTalk (PhoneNet).

“I actually have two older 512s, one is a stock 512 (a 128k machine actually that has the 512k motherboard upgrade, but with the original 64k ROMs) that has an external Apple HD20,
20MB hard disk. My other 512 is has 20MB GCC internal HyperDrive in it.

“The SE/30 always comes in handy to grab older Macs software off the net, convert it to 400k floppies and allows me to use it on the 512s in no time. Without the SE/30, it would be much more troublesome to prepare older software for these ancient Macs.”

All I can say is: wow. I’ve played with plenty of vintage kit in my time, but I’ve never had the patience or the ingenuity to make a success of a project like this. If anyone ever tells you there’s no point putting retro computers to good use, point them in James’ direction and see what they say then.

(Picture used with permission. Many thanks to James for his help and friendly co-operation.)


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33 responses to “The SE/30 That Does It All: Interview With An Expert Vintage Mac User”

  1. Peter says:

    Sweet memories … ;-)

  2. Peter says:

    Sweet memories … ;-)

  3. Craig says:

    The SE/30 was my first Mac. I installed a 320MB HD, 8MB of RAM and a PDS 8-bit color video card, and ran an external 14″ monitor next to the “porthole.” eventually sold it to buy a Quadra 650 back in 1994. It was a thing of beauty and I still miss it.

  4. iDave says:

    Dear God, this is fantastic. Cult of Mac, James’s story is the finest reporting you’ve done on a true “cult” member in a long time. I wish we could find out what he uses his Newton for. Everything, I hope!

  5. Sky says:

    The SE/30 will always be the one computer I wish I kept. Arguably the best balance of form / function / power in its day. This really was Apple’s first “brick”.

  6. TheMacMommy says:

    Great post! Loved it! You would probably appreciate my husband’s current physics lab which consists of about 8 or so Performas, Quadras and other vintage Macs which are networked to 2 parallel printers. The kids use Word and Excel on them in class for graphical analysis. My husband is in a very small minority at his school who use Macs in their classroom. All of the machines and equipment come from donations. My husband and I are not in the habit of getting rid of Macs, no matter what their model and we try as best we can to reduce, recycle and reuse which is why we’ve still got a couple of them hanging out for parts in our garage. Sounds like you’d appreciate my latest post as well.

    Thanks for putting this out there! Great job!

  7. Steven says:

    I wish I still had mine to run vintageware from the late ’80’s as that was one sweet machine. Somewhere in my boneyard I have the SCSI cables for the peripherals (ext HD, Syquest drives, etc.), but the 2,400 baud modem is long gone. And recently I re-discovered the ‘top-secret’ 10″ hex wrench needed to open the SE’s case! And yes MacMommy, the Performa that I tweaked from a 68030 to a 68040 is also sadly missed. But alas, my 2.4GHz Intel iMac is my current heart throb. Just think of what we paid for 16 Meg of RAM back then? I think it was about $300+ USD.

  8. Steven says:

    BTW, who in their right (or left) mind signed off on the new slim Al++ keyboard w/o the Apple on the command / splat key? Apple-S, Apple-S has lost it’s meaning even though I still Apple-S out of habit.

  9. HandyMac says:

    Isn’t that an Apple II keyboard? (My first computer was a Mac Plus in 1988, so I never had any previous Apple model, but I do remember seeing that keyboard somewhere.) ADB connection, so it’ll work with early Macs, and its footprint is slightly smaller than the smallest Mac keyboard, allowing it to be used on that little desk.

    I never had an SE/30, *but* I had an FDHD SE with, I think, an SE/30 motherboard in it (or maybe it was an accelerated SE), with two floppy drives and a hard disk stuffed inside it: my personal hot rod computer of the time. The SE family were fine computers, though the screen killed my eyes until I got a Kensington glare filter for it. My next computer was a Mac Portable, and I’ve stayed with portable Macs ever since.

    If you don’t have an SE but would like to get a taste of the experience, try Mini vMac:….

  10. Splendid Performance says:

    how does Crysis run on that monster?

  11. James says:

    Great article and just the sort of news we at the RetroMacCast love to read!

  12. cindywan says:

    My Mac SE/30 was my first Apple product. I bought it back in early ’89, and… I still have it! Haven’t turned it on in about a year (when I was doing spring cleaning), but it still works well, except that the battery that powers the internal clock died a long time ago, and I have to use the boot floppy to start it up for some reason or another. I kept it mostly because I didn’t want to get rid of it, even when space was a problem. It has a 20MB hard disk, and peeking inside it, I’m always shocked at how huge that hard disk was. The micro SD card for my cellphone can store gigabytes! Look how far we’ve come. When he’s old enough, I’ll show the SE to my baby boy, and I’m sure the look on his face will be priceless…
    By the way, I’m amazed at what the Wages family has accomplished with their SE. Absolutely amazing! Great post.

  13. Bill Brown (Taco Bill) says:

    Yup, That’s an Apple IIGS keyboard. The IIGS used an ADB board just like the Mac. I have a couple that I prefer to the Mac ‘boards. The IIGS board is the closest production board to Apple’s ‘Snow White’ dream board of that era. Only in prototype, the Snow White board eliminated even that narrow edge around the keys – all keys, only keys.

    I goosed up my SE-30 with the same 8 x 16 MB memory cards for the full 128 MB of RAM. In a graphics production SE-30 (yes, with the Xceed color card and grayscale adapter – thanks Gamba) with ALL of the heavyweight graphics apps of the day, I could never get that SE-30 to use more than 55 MB of memory. And it took so long for the startup to count up all that RAM! I backed it down to 68 MB (4 x 16, 4 x 1) and all was much happier. This SE-30 is still in regular use along with its Hitachi 21′ monitor doing brochure work.


  14. nick canterucci says:

    great article…all hail the almighty SE/30 !!

    AMAZING almost 20 yrs on, this little compact mac is alive and well, doing it’s thing..
    NeXT to the Lisa, the SE/30, is my fave mac…as well as the IIgs kb.

    My SE/30 has 32mb of ram and a 1 gb hd..running 7.5.5. hook to either a imagewriter, or stylewriter 2400..

    The closest next compact macs that can rival the SE/30, is the classic II, and the much loved Color Classic..

    thanks for a wonderful article

  15. Larry Chace says:

    I use an SE/30 in production every day, running an assembler for the Intel 8051 family of microcontrollers. This is “uASM for the 8051” by Micro Dialects of Cincinnati, Ohio, and it assembles programs very fast. Sad to say, it is a 68K application and requires 24-bit addressing since it is 32-bit dirty. The company is long out of business and never had an opportunity to produce a 32-bit clean version. As a result, the SE/30 needs to run a system that allows specification of 24-bit mode. (If only Apple had provided that as an option in their 68K emulator for Power/PC machines, then this would still run on quite modern machines. Of course, a 68K emulator and a Power/PC emulator would have been welcome on the new Intel-based Macs…)

  16. Dave says:


    I’m restoring an old se/30 and would like to know the name and model of the 4.5 gb drive mentioned in the article. Anyone know ?

  17. JDWages says:

    Dave, in answer to your question about my SE/30’s hard drive, you will find all the specs and a photo of the label of the drive in my Flickr photo collection here:

    For general talk about the SE/30 and other compact Macs, I highly recommend the Compact Mac forum at the 68kMLA (where I am known as JDW):

    Best wishes.