On the occasion of a Sweat Equity Macbook Pro Upgrade

  • Fri 07 February 2014
  • misc

My 2009 MacBook Pro had been acting a bit dodgy recently and I'd promised myself a reinstall and upgrade to Mavericks (I never went to ML, having been happily running Lion for a couple of years now). Providence and a friend's neighbor with a glass of wine intervened in the form of a MacBook Pro 13" 2011 edition that needed a bit of TLC, thus setting in motion a hand-me-town trend that will (at last) get my sister off of Windows, thus simplifying my support burden.

Yes, a red wine flavored MacBook Pro is a sad sight to behold. I approached the whole affair with a fair amount of trepidation, given that I'd never had a Unibody MBP further apart than it takes to swap out a noisy fan, install a new hard drive, or upgrade ram. After determining that just paying someone else to make it their problem was a non-starter (too expensive), I figured I'd forge ahead and try my best to not think about my terrible experiences tearing apart a G4 iBook, widely considered to be one of the worst laptops ever from a service perspective.

First thing I needed to do was see if the machine worked at all, or was indeed salvageable. I tried to power it on but no joy. Turns out that the power switch is part of the (inundated with wine) keyboard, so no surprise that didn't work. OK, time to see if there's a way to turn it on without using the power switch. A switch on an external USB keyboard is a relic of a bygone era, but after investigation it turned out that there is indeed a way to hotwire the Mac. There are a lot of references to "power on pads" on the web, but these are highly variable depending on the specific mainboard rev at hand. A more reliable approach (in Unibody space anyway) is to short pins 4 and 5, or 5 and 6, or 5 to ground, depending on who you believe, with an appropriately fine jeweler's screwdriver. More on this technique. It's convenient that all Unibody keyboards seem to be more or less the same across the past few years, perhaps varying slightly in the throw to the power switch depending on the geometry of the particular model (13/15/17"). The connector to the mainboard appears to be identical.

I disconnected the internal keyboard and poked at the appropriate pins on the keyboard connector. Whoopie, the MacBook chimed and the screen turned on! My joy was short-lived though. With the external keyboard I had hooked up I tried option-boot (holding down the option key to select from a list of bootable volumes). Didn't work. Strange... The machine came up the rest of the way, and there was phantom typing going on. I surmised that contamination on the mainboard in the vicinity of the keyboard controller was the source of my woes. I turned everything off and started the disassembly slog, at least far enough to get the mainboard out.

One of the nice things about living in 2014 is that for any given technical or disassembly problem you can bet that someone has made a how-to video for YouTube about it, a phenomenon that I have exploited to good effect when it comes to the F250 that I bought several months ago and am slowly bringing to proper reliability standards for pulling trailers to go camping etc. Note to self: Don't take on another Big Car Project until you've built the garage/shop. Anyway, I digress. I won't bore you with the details of disassembling and getting the mainboard out. There are plenty of videos and narratives out there, mostly centered on the notion that one is about to replace the top case. The protip which I'll offer is that most of the screws are not interchangeable. It is a great idea to lay the bottom plate of the Mac next to your workspace, and place the screws in mirror image of how they came out on the pattern on the inside bottom, so you'll know where to put them back. This is an upgrade/update of my previous approach of tracing the Mac onto a piece of paper and laying out the screws that way.

Got the mainboard out. There was visible contamination on it (red wine on a PC board is fairly easy to see, particularly when it tints the tops of the tiny capacitor cans). How to get it off? Yup, water. Distilled water is available from your local grocery store; some people like to use it in their electric irons. I got a container, rinsed out a clean coffee mug with distilled water, and heated it to 140 F in the microwave (checked with a probe type thermometer!). I figured that since the CPU runs hotter than 140 that there'd be no harm in 140 degree distilled water, and that'd make it a whole lot more aggressive at dissolving stuff that oughtn't be there. After irrigating liberally with distilled water (and a drying flush with 93% isopropanol which was probably superfluous since the remaining 7% is water and it left little beads on the surface after the alcohol evaporated) I put the board atop a dinner plate, put the plate atop the stove in the kitchen, and turned on the oven so as to provide some gentle heat to help it dry.

Three hours later I reassembled and jump-started again. Success! Option-boot succeeded. I installed Mavericks from a thumb drive after wiping the old hard drive. This is when life intervened and I had to go visit Colorado for a week. I left the Mac running atop an inverted cookie sheet on the dining room table in order to evaluate its stability, poking at it remotely on a daily basis via screen sharing. So far so good.

I made the decision based on the relatively painless experience with the mainboard that I would simply replace the keyboard rather than replacing the topcase as a unit as Apple is inclined to do. Off to eBay where I found an appropriate keyboard, brand new with a new lighting assembly for a mere $36 including shipping. Funny how those assembly lines over there run longer than they're actually contracted to run.

About a week later the keyboard arrived having come from California. In the interim I ordered some other useful items for the Mac that I planned to install while I had the machine apart. Based on the fact that wine had obviously gotten into the internal DVD drive as part of the spill, I was a bit dubious about the viability of the drive in the machine. Now, I hardly ever use the internal DVD drive anyway; when I need a removable flat disc drive it's usually BluRay that I'm looking for anyway, so sacrificing the internal drive in favor of something more usable was definitely on the table. I've long known that OWC had drop-in replacements for the Mac DVD drive that could be used to house a second hard disk instead. Their prices were a bit steep for my tastes, but someone pointed out that there were far eastern knock-offs available on eBay for under $10 apiece. Sure. I'll take two. And an external DVD enclosure just in case. That order actually showed up before the keyboard. I flaked out on ordering up a RAM upgrade and an SSD online, so I paid $50 in "convenience fees" to buy locally at Micro Center. 16gb of Corsair RAM and a 240g Samsung 840EVO later, I was ready to demote the 500g "rotating rust" drive that the MacBook Pro came with to internal bulk storage, while running my system and my software from a speedy new SSD.

Now experienced at mainboard removal I extracted it in record time and started down the road to removing everything else I needed to in order to make it down to the keyboard. The battery didn't need to come out, nor did the trackpad, which is good since I don't have pentalobe or tri-wing screwdrivers at hand. Maybe the Easter Bunny will bring me a CARE package from Wiha. I have a gimpy Harbor Freight interchangeable bit tiny-Torx set since my Wiha set is temporarily missing; you can get by with these but the build quality is pretty meh. Again, I'll refer the reader to YouTube. Watch a couple of different videos to get the idea about different approaches, then give it a go.

At last, I was down to the back of the keyboard and I gently peeled away the backing and the backlight to expose the back of the keyboard itself. Wow. That sure is a lot of screws. The back of a MacBook Pro Unibody keyboard is held in place against the inside of the case by no fewer than 30 or 40 screws (I didn't count)... and they're all tiny enough that they make the ones that hold on the back plate look like lug nuts by comparison. It was time to turn up the lights and take off my glasses. Did I mention that I'm 45 and probably a little overdue for bifocals or progressive lenses, at least if I'm going to do crazy tiny stuff like this. No wonder most of the old guys in the ham radio club like tubes and discrete transistor stuff. Removing the screws was further complicated by them being gummed up with wine.

Once I got out all the screws, removing the keyboard had a distinct slow-band-aid-pull feel about it as I broke the adhesion of the wine. Ugh. Cleaned up the inside with kitchen wipes. Installed a new keyboard, carefully putting all the screws back in. There are tiny pins on the back of the keyboard to help with backlight alignment (the trick to getting the backlight perfect is to peel back a tiny corner of the adhesive strip backing so you have a tab, center on the pins, and then go around the edge slowly peeling the backing and pressing down behind it.

Reassembly, as they say, is the reverse of disassembly. Heh. Got everything all back together including the hard drive move/upgrade. The cheapie DVD replacement shoe? Well, as they say at Brownell's when ordering custom pistol parts, "some hand fitting may be required". In this case, I needed to trim back some plastic to match the contour of the original DVD drive so that things would go back together properly.

Total time elapsed, between debugging, testing, repairing, and ordering? About 7 or 8 hours. I'll leave the economical repair calculation to the folks who know the fully loaded cost of an Apple Genius.