What Should I Hack Next? A PowerBook 190.

March 2nd, 2006 by Benj Edwards

PowerBook 190On Monday I did a hack of a NES that I will be posting an article about soon, but I’m already hungry for my next project. I’ve caught the hacking bug, I tell ya — since I finished my last project I’ve been compulsively and obsessively looking at every object in my house in a new way, asking myself “How can I chop that device into pieces and turn it into something more interesting?” Lurking in the bottom of a closet I found an ideal candidate for a hack: an old Apple PowerBook 190 (Apple’s last 680×0 machine, circa 1995) that I bought at a local hamfest for $10 a few years ago. It works fine except for a broken screen hinge. Since it’s “broken” I thought it would be a good choice to play with.

PowerBook 190A lot of people are making their own digital picture frames out of old laptops these days (mounting a laptop screen in a picture frame with the computer behind it to hang on the wall and display a random picture slide show), but my 190 only has a 4-bit greyscale passive matrix display, so pictures won’t look too impressive on it. It would be cool to make a semi-permanent, wall-mountable installation out of it, but what would it display? Well, if I could get a reliable network connection to it, it could be a window on all kinds of things on the net, displaying activity from my MUSH, weather info, VC&G traffic statistics, news, or any number of things, as long as there is an application that runs in Mac OS System 7.5.2 to display it. My fiance suggested a permanent digital ant farm, which is a great idea, but I still haven’t found a program or screen saver for the classic Mac OS that simulates one in an aesthetically pleasing way. A friend of mine suggested that I put some form of Linux on it and then I could do all sorts of network-related things that are not as easily achieved in Mac OS 7. But putting Linux on a Mac this old and getting it to work — especially with some ethernet adapter — is a challenging project unto itself. So I’ve been tinkering and I’ve got some new ideas, but I’ll wait until I’m done to share them with you (I’ll give you a hint — well, kinda — just look at the picture above). Until then, I ask you: what should I hack my PowerBook 190 into? Ideas? Suggestions? Leave me a comment and we’ll talk!

17 Responses to “What Should I Hack Next? A PowerBook 190.”

  1. MegaKitsune Says:

    I was going to say make it a MP3 player for your car, but:

    1. I can’t find any apps for 7.5.2 that support MP3 playback and

    2. I don’t think that Motorola has a FPU built-in (of course I could be wrong).

    There’s also this thing:

    And you could always turn in into some sort of server…

  2. MegaKitsune Says:

    You could probably also put emulators on the thing:

    http://www.zophar.net/mac/nes.html – For NES, GreyBox and iNES should work.

    http://www.zophar.net/mac/gb.html – For Gameboy, I would reccomend GBMac and Boycott…

    http://www.zophar.net/mac/mac.phtml There’s tons more you could put on there…

  3. RedWolf Says:

    This book is a little underpowered for an MP3 player. I think it should just display some interesting live info or an entertaining graphical display. The question is, which info or what display?

    Hmm, since the screen is greyscale, maybe it would be a good gameboy emulator. The 68LC040 in it might be able to pull it off ok. Perhaps it could just emulate random games constantly as wall art. 🙂 Which reminds me — I bought a couple scrap PB 190c’s recently (haven’t arrived yet), and with them I can convert the unit to color. Whoo!

    If anybody else has any ideas, or if you have more, Kitsune, let me know. Thanks for the help.

  4. MegaKitsune Says:

    You could always use it as the brain for a robot project…

  5. Brian Says:

    Hmm ok I’m not sure how available compilers are to run in that OS, but it would be very cool to hack together a script where you could mod it into a wallmounted GB emulator.
    Assuming there was a proper serial connector, you could hack a cheap joystick into one of those 4″ RadioShack “project boxes” to mimic a gameboy “controller”, with a dpad and a and b buttons. The scripting would be necessary for the coolest part, which would be a “randomize” button either on the corner of the display (you could use one of the mouse buttons), or on the controller, that would randomly choose a gameboy ROM to load.

  6. MegaKitsune Says:


    That would be what you need…

  7. MegaKitsune Says:


    That would be what you need…here’s a download site:


  8. RedWolf Says:

    Thanks for the ideas, guys. How about this? It could be a wall-mounted Game Boy playing installation that not only played random games, but also ran random emulator script recordings of people playing the games (like speed runs, or just earlier videos of you playing the game), so that even if you aren’t playing it, there’s something interesting going on on the screen. Or just scrap the controllers altogether and make it all display.

    And if you want to get really impressive, train a neural net to play a certain game repeatedly and display the results on the screen as it’s learning. Boy, it would be cool.. but a little beyond my present programming experience. 🙂

  9. MegaKitsune Says:

    So it’s nix on the entire Gameboy deal, eh? Hmmm… don’t worry, we’ll come up with some good ideas…

    Ever see that Pong Clock thing?

    You could make your own… I’ll see if there’s something that can convert a windows screensaver into a Mac screensaver…

  10. MegaKitsune Says:

    No dice. -_- People just didn’t love System 7, I guess…

    You could always let it run After Dark, I guess…



    more modules:

  11. RedWolf Says:

    Yeah, the Pong clock thing crossed my mind.

    Up to now I have been playing with After Dark on the 190 and that’s about it.. thanks for all the links, though. That will help a lot! I know running a screensaver is kinda lame, but some of them are really cool. I might be able to program a screensaver module myself.

  12. MegaKitsune Says:

    No prob man, if I can figure out anything better than a permanant screensaver, I’ll let you know…

    And thanks for making a blog that I actually love to read everyday. ^_^

  13. El Gecko Says:

    Personally, If I had a grayscale laptop to do that with, I would make a perpetual wall calendar, that notifies me of events I have scheduled for that day.

  14. anon Says:

    i know!!! make it into an etch-a-sketch!

  15. RedWolf Says:

    Not a bad idea, anon. If I could find or modify a simple full-screen drawing program, I could mount the touch pad right under the screen and it would be an “interactive art installtion.”

    The perpetual wall calendar is a good idea too. Thanks for the ideas, guys!

  16. RoganJosh Says:

    http://www.macupdate.com/info.php/id/1963 for a software fpu – used to use this to get some demanding afterdark screensavers to work on our old Mac LC – you may have already ch osen a direction for this project but there is a half decent mp3 player that isn’t too demanding cpu-wise, cannot recall exact name – maybe fileplayer or mediaplayer. Nice project, always wanted a powerbook 😀

  17. RoganJosh Says:

    sorry, I was wrong – getting my dates mixed up – it was soundapp – seems it needs a powerpc to run – how time flies…

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