Tuesday 15 September 2015

Repairing a Macbook Pro - Yes it's possible!

Originally my first blog post wasn't going to be about how I broke and then repaired my Macbook, but to be honest it's been the center of my world for these last few weeks, so I'll write about this first.

tl;dr version - Don't spill stuff on your Macbook.  If you do, it may still be possible to repair it, or have someone repair it.  That being said, I strongly suspect that there aren't more than a handful of businesses (other than this guy) that can actually attempt a half decent repair. 

It all started with a small amount of orange juice getting spilled in the same bag as my laptop.  After realizing my mistake, I quickly wiped it down, and everything seemed to be fine.  I *thought* I had gotten off lightly.

Protip: Don't try to save that single serve container of orange juice from the airplane in the same bag as your laptop.  Especially, if you are travelling to somewhere at high altitude (Bogota).  Your container of juice will puff up like a blow fish, and probably explode everywhere.

A few days later I noticed that my laptop was no longer charging, and that telltale charger light wouldn't turn on any more (and I know that the charger itself still works).  Shit.

Unfortunately, my Macbook is no longer under warranty, and even if it were, orange juice spills are not covered (You can lie, but they'll know - Apple puts moisture sensors inside the Macbooks, so they can tell if the damage was the result of a spill).

So the first thing I did was google Macbook repair, and landed on the IFixit website.  They have some really good instructions on how to disassemble and reassemble your Macbook, but not much in the way of actually figuring out what's wrong. 

I've occasionally fixed a few pieces of electronics, by opening them up and looking for anything obvious (gunk shorting out wires, obviously blown components, etc.)   So I *carefully* followed the instructions to disassemble my Macbook A1502, cleaning off anything thing that looks like it might have gotten orange juice on it (using rubbing alcohol), and hoping for the best.  Unfortunately, nothing was *obviously* broken, and that pesky charger light is still off.

The insides of a Macbook Pro are hideously complex, dense, and not easily amenable to DIY repair.  In fact, the IFixIt page for Macbook Pro gives it a repairability score of only 1 out of 10!  Ouch.

I was highly sceptical of sending it somewhere for repair, since the conventional wisdom is that modern electronics are effectively unfixable.  Modern electronics and computers are highly complex, but relatively low cost, making it difficult for local repair shops to turn a profit by repairing them.  So, most can't or won't, limiting their services to replacing larger modules such as screens and hard drives.

Repair Manifesto [Source: iFixit]

I'm not the only one who's frustrated.  There's even a something of a movement called "The Right to Repair".  In my mind it's not really so much a right, as it is acknowledging that modern electronics are often borderline unfixable without schematics and replacement parts.  Also, by making electronics that are not cost effective to repair, electronics manufactures are significantly contributing to the eWaste problem.

So at this point, I'm considering throwing in the towel and ordering a new Macbook.  However, I use my Macbook for building Android (AOSP) from source, and:

  1. It is a very expensive Macbook Pro (~$3000)
  2. It would require about a month or more of lead time to order and ship a new Macbook, since it's not kept in stock. Meanwhile, I'm in limbo without a (good) computer.
... So, I'm going to keep trying just a bit longer (がんばって)

More googling revealed mostly ad-hoc theories for what can cause various Macbook power problems (this sort of thing happens quite frequently).  I didn't find anything that was very helpful.

Then I find this guy: Louis Rossmann.

He's got a Youtube channel where he either rants about things he feels strongly about (hint: almost everything), or walks you through (in detail, and with some warranted profanity [1]) the various Macbook repairs that he performs in his Manhattan repair shop.

I watched a few hours of these videos before I started to get the hang of how to go about Macbook repairs.  In fact, after watching a few of these videos I was convinced that if I sent my Macbook to Louis, it could be repaired.

But... I'd gotten this far, so rather than send my machine in, and wait a few weeks for my Macbook to be repaired, I decided to see if I could persist just a bit longer and do it myself.  If the repair ended up being too complicated, I could always send it to Louis.  Besides, I'd be pretty proud of myself if I actually managed to fix this myself (with help of course).

I managed to find the schematic and board view for my Macbook logic board online.  I suspect that the whole business of schematics and board view files is somewhat of a grey area in the repair industry, and is one of the main gripes that fuels the whole "Right to Repair" movement.  Technically, the schematics and boardview files are proprietary, but on the other hand everybody seems to have them. Nobody would actually be able to repair these things without them.  

After watching about 2 or 3 hours of videos, I learned that the Macbook Pro power subsystem is quite complicated.  That little green light on your connector will not turn on until it receives a 1-wire message from the Macbook SMC, and for that to happen the power controller checks *everything*

The long story short, a Macbook is so well protected against shorts, it will refuse to turn on at the first hint of trouble.

I found one video in particular that walked me through how to diagnose my problem: Macbook charger green light; or what is the onewire circuit and why should I care?

After checking some of the test points that Louis describes, I finally find the problem.  At 21:35 in the video, Louis literally states my problem: "So if this [adapter sense] is 16 volts, this [1-wire circuit] doesn't work right, and that usually happens with a bad DC-in board".


There's not much left to this story.

I managed to find and order the $20 part from some really nice guys at commandmacparts.com, and within an hour of the part arriving, my Macbook Pro was working like new.

Wow.  That felt good.  I think I'll buy myself this skill badge (from iFixIt) to remind myself of how awesome it feels to fix stuff yourself.

Conclusion:  It is possible to fix some modern electronics., even Macbooks. Fixing stuff by yourself is awesome, but if you can't  if you can't (or don't want to) fix it yourself), find someone like Louis who really knows what they're doing.

[1] If anyone feels that the profanity isn't warranted, they probably haven't spent much time either fixing or building stuff.  Especially fiddly stuff, like very fine pitch electronics.  When I was growing up,  my father completely renovated our home and later went on to build a summer home, pretty much by himself. I don't think he would have bothered if he wasn't able to swear a blue streak when things started to get frustrating. Swearing feels good, admit it.


  1. THANK YOU!!! for your kind comments and glad your laptop is working again.

  2. Your comment on profanity is so true. I just finished building my own house, and I took my wife out to dinner a couple of times using the proceeds of the swear jar. (A toonie goes in every time my wife objects to my swearing at inanimate objects).