Screwed: My Story of Laptop Self-Repair
Surplus Parts left over after performing surgery on my old laptop computer -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl,
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55 f/2.8 @ 55mm — 4 sec, f/11, ISO 100 — full exif
Parts left over after performing surgery on my old laptop computer

As I mentioned yesterday, my 18-month-old MacBook died yesterday. I think the disk controller went bad, taking out the hard drive as well (the big disk that I'd installed myself early on). Apple's products are wonderful when they work, but their laptops have a history of “longevity issues.” I guess that's what happens when you push the envelope as far as they do. I wholeheartedly recommend their laptops, but be sure to build into the cost the extra few hundred dollars for the extended warranty, as I did when I bought mine.

Apple is picking it up tomorrow for repair.
(UPDATE: and they returned it – fixed – 47 hours later!)

My Old iBook

I really dislike working via Windows, so I thought to dust off my old iBook, which the MacBook replaced 18 months ago. The iBook had developed a problem with the screen backlight, a well-known iBook problem that I'd had fixed once under warranty, but which came back again a year or so later, out of warranty.

The fix involves replacing a small and inexpensive bundle of wires – between the body and the screen – that get pinched due to an “overly aggressive” design when the laptop is opened and closed (where in this case “overly aggressive” is a euphemism for “poor”). I've had the parts on hand for ages, so I took the opportunity yesterday to finally get around to making the repair.

The short story is that it was much more involved an operation than I realized until well into it, involving the dismantling of the top-front shell, top-back shell, back shield, lower-top shell, lower-bottom shell, lower shield, and display hinge. Prior to this, I hadn't realized most of those parts even existed, much less that I'd have to deal with them. Each involved a dozen different screws of at least half a dozen randomly-different types.

An hour and impressive disarray later, I had the umpteen major pieces of the iBook laying in piles all over my already way-too-messy office, and I could finally get around to actually swapping out the broken bundle of wires.

Then it came time to try to put it all back together.

I'm Screwed

An iBook has a lot of screws. Fully half the weight of the entire computer consists of nothing but screws. Not only many screws, but many different types of screws. A few of the many types are easily distinguishable, but for the most part, they all look more or less identical at first glance, their differences waiting to ambush you the moment you try to use them.

These many screws were in all kinds of small piles in whatever bare spots I could find on my desk, but, alas, I neglected to label them as I removed them, and as such, I froze like a deer staring down headlights when it came time to take the first step in the long journey of rebuilding the thing. Which screw goes where? I had no idea. (Hey, there's a reason I'm a software engineer rather than a hardware engineer 🙂 )

Luckily, I'm a smart and resourceful guy. I mean, I can put together a child's toy without reading the instructions, and I can get myself un-lost without asking for directions, so this laptop issue should be a piece of cake. I recovered my composure and decided to wing it, figuring it out as I went.

One thing that hindered my progress was the stupidity of the Apple hardware engineers, who used a lot of screws and random parts where they are not required. By the time I had the thing put back together (taking twice as long as it did to take it apart), I had an assorted pile of leftover screws and parts that I had decided were not necessary (or that I couldn't figure out where they went). There were a few more pieces lost in the plush carpet of my office as well.

I saw with great satisfaction that the screen light came on right away the first time I powered it on. My fix worked.

Sadly, something else didn't work, and it wouldn't boot. I decided to call it a night.


I took it apart again today, re-seated the hard disk cable, and while it was half open on my lap, tried booting again. It worked perfectly.

I got it put back together again, the process having resulted in half a dozen additional screws added to yesterday's “left over” pile.

All buttoned up again, I powered on to find.... the backlight didn't work.

Much wailing and grinding of teeth later, I realized that the problem was another well-known iBook issue: a defective design resulted in micro-cracks in the motherboard such that any pressure applied to a certain area of the case caused the backlight to turn off. My iBook was at the point that merely putting the case on caused the problem: the case put slight pressure on the hard drive, which put pressure on the motherboard.

Those Stupid Apple Engineers

Again, the problem was the inept engineers at Apple, who mounted the hard disk with rails that floated the disk over the motherboard. Remove the rails and let the disk sit on the motherboard directly, and you've gained a quarter inch of space that was needlessly wasted. This means that the case no longer presses on the disk, and so the motherboard is no longer strained: problem solved. An additional benefit is that the motherboard now acts like a big heatsink for the hard drive, keeping it refreshingly cool.

I wish I hadn't wasted the better part of two days on it, but it's satisfying to be writing this blog post via my self-repaired and now-considerably-lighter iBook. The picture at the top of the post shows the surplus parts (not counting those lost in my carpet), including the superfluous disk-mounting rails.

As an Apple shareholder, I can only hope that they've since abandoned this wasteful use of needless screws and small knick-knack parts. Heck, they could avoid using screws altogether by simply using big gobs of glue. I'll have to suggest that to Steve Jobs the next time we chat.

All 9 comments so far, oldest first...

It’s not just apple that does this… I have a similar story from an IBM T40 that I took apart about 2 dozen times trying to get it to work. I eventually decided that it was a similar microcrack issue because it only works when the whoel thing is taken apart. As soon as I put any of the shell pieces back on, the thing flaked out again. It’s still sitting in a heap of parts and pieces waiting to go on eBay “as is” for someone else to use as parts. I have batteries to go with it that are probably worth more than the labtop…

— comment by Sean Phillips on January 21st, 2008 at 11:30pm JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

So what keeps the motherboard cool? The disk drive? Perpetual motion?

— comment by Mel Lammers on January 22nd, 2008 at 2:38am JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Actually, he doesn’t worry about keeping the motherboard cool anymore, since a few of those screws are from the smoke detector he had to disable in order to run the computer in the house.

— comment by Marcina on January 22nd, 2008 at 3:10am JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

A tip for the next time you disassemble something with lots of screws. Use a muffin tin to store the screws as you go along. Put each set of screws into its own cup as you disassemble each part. Then, when you start putting things back together, you just reverse the order. I read this trick on a web site a few years ago when I was taking apart some piece of equipment. It helped quite a bit. Since then, a muffin tin is an essential part of my tinkering tool set.

Sure, or an egg carton. The problem here is that I thought there were just four screws, and when I ran into another layer, well, two groups are easy enough to keep track of. But then two groups turned into three into five into 10. I simply didn’t pay enough attention before I started. Also, it turns out that the muffin/egg thing is not really appropriate here because there are various types of screws in each step, so you need to be able to remember exactly which screw came from which hole. Basically, you need to tape the screw to a drawing of the parts. (Or, just leave the screw out, which is what Apple should have done in the first place ;-)) —Jeffrey

— comment by Joanna on January 22nd, 2008 at 5:04am JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I used to work in the computer repair business back in Tokyo. We could always tell if a laptop had been opened before (including by us) based on if screws or other parts were missing. I’m pretty sure there’s some scientific law which mandates that at least three screws will be left over after any laptop is fully disassembled and reassembled. Fighting science is generally a losing battle.

— comment by Steven Levithan on January 22nd, 2008 at 3:34pm JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

You should seriously consider a career of humor writer 😉

— comment by ksv on January 22nd, 2008 at 4:30pm JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I don’t know if they have a guide for that particular replacement, but has some amazingly good guides for taking apart various Apple laptops. I used their guide (again) to replace a disk in a 12″ PowerBook a few days ago (we gave away our 12″ ‘books when the Intel laptops came out; but of course when they break they still come back to haunt us….)

Anyway – the guide made it super easy to swap the disk and, more importantly, keep track of the screws.

They have (for the 12″ powerbook) a 3 page “screw guide” with a little place for each type of screw where you can put them as you take them out (tape it to the paper!)

The disk replacement is pretty easy, but even that leaves you with 30-40 screws. I can’t imagine how much suffering replacing display parts is[1].

– ask

[1] Actually, I can — my first and last “real job” before I started my long cycle of various states of self-employment included repairing Apple laptops.

— comment by Ask Bjørn Hansen on January 22nd, 2008 at 8:39pm JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Sorry to hear about your trouble, but it brings back good memories of my triumphantly successful surgery on my original blueberry clamshell iBook. I used an ice cube tray and took lots of pictures with my first generation 640 x 480 digital camera, so I only had 3 screws left over and it worked like a charm, even the annoying vibration in the CD-Rom drive disappeared. In my estimation you forgot an important — perhaps essential — component in any laptop surgery: alcohol.

— comment by nils on January 23rd, 2008 at 1:10am JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I just went digging through my oldest archives, which are on this fly-by-night medium called SuperDisk, a little 120MB removable USB drive, and I found my iBook surgery from my blogger site in 2002. I’ve uploaded it for comparison:

— comment by nils on January 23rd, 2008 at 12:17pm JST (16 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink
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