This is the story of how I fixed a Disk II drive

    It may sound crazy, but there was a time when Apple computers and accessories could be repaired by the user. This is a story about how I fixed a Disk II drive without any electronics training.

    Software and resources used

    I cleaned the green phosphor monitor and repaired the crack

    Cleaning and repairing a frame crack took a lot of time, but I’m happy with the result. I also closely inspected the capacitors and couldn’t find anything unusual. The board looks like it just came out of the factory, but there is a strange smell coming from the monitor when it is on. I suppose I will have to wait until the mysterious capacitor begins to leak.

    The green phosphor monitor just arrived

    This was only a quick first test to make sure it was working. Now, there’s a lot of cleaning and a small crack to fix, but I already love that it matches the IIe much better than the one I was using before. It is the correct choice for the time period.

    Cleaning the Apple IIe

    This Apple IIe arrived pretty dead, and even though I don’t have any training in electronics, soldering, or any of the many other skills, I decided I would fix it. The list of problems is endless, and I’ll do what I always do in situations like this. Break it up into smaller problems and solve them one at a time.

    First step: cleaning.

    Without experiencing the unknown variables, it’s impossible to organize efficiently

    The best way to organize things, whether they’re physical or digital, is to accept the mess for a while. That’s why my strategy for organizing things is to always start with a messy environment, a blank canvas to play with. However there’s a catch: I have to pay close attention to what I’m constantly searching for and using.

    It is only after rearranging things again and again and learning my necessities that I am finally ready to begin building the system that will meet my needs. But, there is no doubt in my mind that that will not be the final version. The world around us constantly changes, and we must adapt to keep up.

    The tricky part is figuring out the exact moment when the messy stage has to give way to some order. I like to use a concept I borrowed from economics: Transactions Costs. In other words, if the mess is making me less and less productive, it’s time to pause and organize by choosing the best workflow I’ve come up with so far.

    If you haven’t already, I encourage you to watch the video below. It’s about an Evernote notebook being built from empty to fully functional. It started out messy, and I added tags, links, etc. as I learned what I was constantly looking for and using.

    And like I said before, it’s a strategy that works in both the digital and physical worlds. Last week, I finally organized my workbench inspired by the way I moved objects around when I was working on the Apple IIe restoration project. I’m pretty happy with the final result, but I already had new ideas for it.

    The messy approach is also a way to foster creativity. There are many good books about this subject. There’s one literally titled Messy, but The Click Moment and Algorithms to Live By also discuss it.

    Moving things around forces us to look at a problem from a different perspective, which helps us come up with unexpected solutions. But it is important to keep in mind that the project on which we are currently working is not our sole concern. In my case, the messy workspace was also a project in progress.

    Take a look at the shelf and the soldering station; they are all made from scrap wood. By the way, I love that cool industrial vibe. You can even tell from the black circles on one of the shelf legs that the piece of wood was once below the table glass. It was a test; I was trying to figure out how many crossbars I needed to keep everything stable and I ended up replacing the studs with the thicker ones that are there now. As for the rest of the replaced pieces wood, they were used on other projects.

    But there are more repurposed materials. The desk itself is made up of the top glass of an old kitchen table, supported by some cheap Ikea trestles. As for that Chromebook, it will not get Chrome OS updates anymore, but it is still good enough for Google searches and the Evernote web client.

    So, the next time you are working on a complex project, don’t be too hard on yourself. Every so often, a little mess is what you need to unlock a solution that was always there, but you couldn’t see.

    By the way, switching to another project also works, but that’s a story for another time.

    ADTPro tutorial and how I fixed the 'transfer aborted' problem

    Back in the 70s and 80s, software was also sold on cassettes because files could be transferred to computers using sounds. It was a pretty ingenious method, but it came with its own problems.

    Volume, for example, played a significant role in the process of saving or retrieving software. Too loud or too low would cause errors, meaning that we would have to press stop on the tape deck, rewind, and go through the process all over again trying a different volume. And we are talking about unreliable physical nobs, not the precise digital control we we currently have on our phones and computers.

    Fast-forward to today, and it’s still possible to do it thanks to the headphone port that endures in many devices. If all you want to do is send files to a vintage computer like the Apple IIe, the audio connector on some phones, tablets, computers, or even an iPod will suffice.

    However, if both parts (the old and new computers) have to exchange information with each other, there have to be two audio cables connecting the output of one to the input of the other, and a modern software like ADTPro is needed to manage the communication.

    What you need

    • Vintage Apple computer
    • A disc drive to save the images
    • Two audio cables
    • Modern computer
    • ADTPro
    • Java

    In the video below, you can learn how it works, how to set it up, and some tips that will help you with the audio settings. But, you should also read the blog post because there is valuable information there as well.

    Unlocking the volume level

    Recently, I wrote about the challenges of bringing my 2012 MacBook Air back to life. When I finally did that, I unlocked another level of the Apple IIe restoration project saga. My plan was to use that computer to transfer files to the IIe. However, like everything else in this project, that was easier said than done.

    The MacBook has only one audio port, and I needed two. That’s easy, right? A USB dongle will do it, and thanks to Apple’s insane relationship with computer ports, I happen to have many of them lying around.

    Well, that simple task quickly turned into days of swapping dongles and tweaking the in and out volumes on the MacBook. As evident, this restoration project is increasingly resembling an 80s adventure game.

    Fun fact: the IIe doesn’t have a volume control, and that was a big problem when I was a kid and wanted to stay awake until late at night playing games.

    Fortunately, thanks to an error message appearing on both computers, it is relatively easy to quickly know that a file transfer is not working. Naturally, I knew about the volume problem from experience, but I decided to first make sure audio was coming out of all the ports. It was.

    Next, I started moving up and down the in and out volumes, until I finally found the correct spot. Putting it like that makes it look so easy, but, believe me, it was a painful process of trial and error that involved restarting the file transfer several times. It took me hours, but it was so gratifying when I finally did it.

    Of course, I saved that information on Evernote. And to help others with the same problem, the settings below are the the ones working for me.

    ADTPro not saving to disk

    When I finally figured out the audio settings, everything was always working fine with the smaller software. But the process would not finish when transferring larger images. At the final stages, a loud noise would come from the drive, and the process would be aborted.

    Unlocking the disk drive level

    What I didn’t tell you so far is that transferring a file is just part of the process. These computers didn’t come with a hard drive. All they have is an internal memory that is wiped as soon as the power is turned off. So, the next logical step is to start saving all transferred files to disks. And if you prefer an era-appropriate word, here are some options: floppy, floppy disk, or diskette.

    Since my recently purchased Disk II (the device that reads and writes to diskettes) arrived last week, and a couple of days later so did the the box of disks, it was all set for the big day.

    I opened ADTPro on the MacBook Air, typed the commands on the IIe, then went back to the Air and started playing the tunes. I knew that the transfer would go smoothly because, at that point, I had already thoroughly tested it. It was finally time to record the first file onto a disk. If you have never done this before, I need to stop here for a moment and set the tone.

    The transfer and recording take a few minutes and happen in several steps. The first part of the data is sent to the vintage computer’s memory (the one that is wiped if the IIe is turned off). Then the transfer is paused while the computer saves that part to the disk. Next, the IIe cleans that first block from the memory and ‘tells’ the MacBook to send the next block. That’s why the cables going in and out on both sides are needed.

    This process is repeated many times, and the first program I was trying to save to disk was the Apple IIe side of ADTPro which so far I had to always send to the IIe to actually start transferring any other software. This would save me some time in the future because loading software from disk is many times faster than using audio.


    I now had my first disk and was eager to copy the next one. XPS Diagnostics is a software that can help me test several of the IIe components, including the disk drive itself. So, here we go again…

    This is a much larger piece of software, meaning that there are more of those send to memory and save to disk steps. Everything was going fine as before, but on the very last ‘save to disk’ step, a loud noise came from the drive, and the process was aborted.

    Oh, no!

    I tried it again a couple of other times, only to end up with the same results. That was so frustrating. At that moment, it was clear to me that I would need to start working on the Disk II level of the IIe Saga.

    Spoiler: I did unlock it and managed to move to the next level, but this is a story for another day.


    After helping me fix the issue with the ROM chips a few weeks ago, my son got to play Gremlins on the Apple IIe.

    Is your computer truly yours?

    It is remarkable how contemporary technology is built around the loss of control over our devices. In contrast, the Apple IIe, which is considerably older, is so open to experimentation and modifications.

    One or two years ago, I wanted to try ChromeOS Flex and decided to install it on my old MacBook Air 2012. I enjoyed the process of installing it and had fun with the OS. Now I needed macOS back on the computer to be able to use it on the Apple IIe restoration project, but when it came time to reinstall macOS, things didn’t go well at all.

    macOS Recovery

    If you start macOS holding command + r, you’ll be prompted to reinstall the OS. I was counting on this when I decided to try ChromeOS Flex. Anyway, I tried all possible variations of the command + r command, but at some point, near the end of the process, a glitch would always stop the installation.

    Another issue was that the countdown to the end of the process would display a huge negative number, which would also result in an error message. I searched online and found out that the negative number was related to a network problem, but my network and internet connection were working perfectly well.

    I also tried to reinstall macOS by holding the option key. This is how you tell the Mac to search for external drives when it starts up. However, I was unsuccessful there as well. I was probably doing something wrong because the system would never recognize the installation disk on connected drives. It is also possible that the bootable part of the disc was damaged during the installation of Chrome OS Flex. I don’t know. Regardless of the reason, I am puzzled as to why I was encountering such difficulty. After all, it is my computer.

    Downloading macOS

    We are provided with downloads of older versions of the operating system, but I challenge you to try installing it on a computer with a dead or new hard drive. One must go through numerous workarounds to make it work. By the way, during my saga I also learned that Apple does not provide any official instructions for how to install an older OS over a newer one. Even worse, it tells us that we cannot do it.

    Carbon Copy Cloner

    After jumping from one website to another and failing miserably, I remembered that my wife didn’t get rid of her old Mac mini from 2012. My new plan was to clone the Mini hard drive using Carbon Copy Cloner. Of course, I had problems there as well. First, I had to find an older version of the program that worked with macOS Mojave. Next, the mini drive is 500 GB, and the Air’s is 64 GB.

    To make a square fit into the circle, I created a new admin user (me) on my wife’s computer, and on Carbon Copy Cloner, I unselected her user and all the non-essential files before cloning. Of course, figuring out what are the essential files is easier said than done. After lot of trial and error, I was successful, but I would not be able to use this same strategy on a slightly newer Mac. My 2012 machine has a removable SSD, and I happen to have the correct USB enclosure. In other words, I could remove it from my computer and connect it to my wife’s Mini via USB.

    My computer finally started, but the OS was extremely slow. It would take several minutes to boot, and the mouse was jumping all around the screen every time I moved it. Thinking that some issue could have occurred during the cloning process, I repeated it several times, but I had no success. It was time to take a break, like I usually do when I get stuck.

    The next day, I remembered that macOS has an Activity Monitor. I ran it, but to my surprise, the total CPU load was over 90%, even though no software or process was taking more than 5% of the CPU time. Back to Google!

    Resetting PRAM and SMC

    In the end, there wasn’t anything wrong with the cloning process. The issue was with the different computers. Using Carbon Copy Cloner to make a copy is like transplanting a brain from one person to another. The new brain in my MacBook Air was from a Mac Mini. To put it simply, I had to help it adjust to its new body.

    I don’t have enough technical knowledge to explain this, but there’s a way to reset basic macOS configurations called PRAM and SMC. I reset them, and the OS started working like a charm.


    Anyway, all this was just another step in my Apple IIe restoration project. I could finally install the ADTPro software on the MacBook Air to copy old software to the IIe. Of course, I hit a new brick wall. But this is a story for another day.

    The Disk II arrived

    The case and cable were filthy, and the rubber feet were super sticky, as if they were melting constantly. I cleaned the case and cable with isopropyl alcohol and temporarily added wire tape to the feet. I’ll replace them in the future.

    The next step was to open it and peek inside. Good news! Everything appeared impeccably. Furthermore, the PCBs are in excellent condition, and there are no signs of capacitor corrosion.

    Finally, I hooked it up to the computer, making sure the ribbon cable was correctly connected. Be cautious here. Unfortunately, because of the cable design, it is possible to connect it incorrectly and burn the drive.

    Anyway, after typing the PR#6 command, I could verify it was at least spinning. But I will only know for sure if it is working properly when I receive the floppy disks I ordered a couple of days ago.

    Apple II 5.25 floppy disks specifications

    Although 5.25 floppy disks are still available for purchase, there are different specifications, and not all of them work with the Disk II drive. For example, the more “modern” high-density (HD) disks will not work. The correct specification is:

    • Double Density (DD)
    • Single Side (SS) or Double Side (DS)
    • 48 tpi

    Whether you choose Single or Double Side, it doesn’t matter. But DS means that both sides of the disk can be used, and that’s why I always buy and use Double Side. But there’s a catch.

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