iBreakit, iFixit

This past weekend ended up being the weekend of repairs as two lingering problems increased to a point that they could no longer be ignored:

  1. The drain pipe of my bathroom sink completely detached itself from the sink basin.
  2. The aluminum frame on the display of my laptop began peeling away
    from the LCD panel to such an extend that I was concerned continued
    use could result in cracking the front glass.
this can't be good

this can’t be good

I will spare you, dear reader, the gory details of the fix to the first problem (it involved a trip to the hardware store, some plumber’s putty and an old tooth brush) and instead focus on the latter.

As is usually the case with these things, my trusted laptop had long since left its comfortable status of “covered under warranty” when this issue began, and while some googling revealed that I am not the only one to experience this phenomenon it seemed I wasn’t going to get much loving care from Apple and I was fairly certain they would have made some silly claim that they couldn’t do anything for the clearly mechanical problem because I was running Linux on my machine, instead of OS X (full disclosure, they probably would have been justified saying so in this case: one hypothesis of the cause of this problem is excessive heating of the upper left corner which breaks down the glue holding the aluminum backing to the LCD panel. While a number of non-blasphemous, OS-X users clearly had the same problem, my case certainly isn’t helped by the fact that two of the things that don’t always work out-of-the-box on a new Arch Linux install on a MBP are the fan control software and “sleep on lid close”. As a result, there have been a number of times my laptop has overheated after I pulled it out of my bag to discover it had never gone to sleep when I put it in. Plus, I’ve definitely dropped the thing a number of times, as the dents and scratches indicate. Woops. That all being said (warning: tangent alert), I was told of another experience in which an Apple tech rep thought perhaps there was a virus after seeing a syslinux boot screen pop up1.

It would have cost $60 to have the nice folks at the campus bookstore take a look at it, not including any repair costs. The Apple-sanctioned “fix” for this is a full replacement of the display assembly (which seems silly since there’s really nothing wrong with the display), costing around $400-$600, depending on who you talk to (or apparently $1000 if you’re dealing with Australian dollars). Long story short2, I decided I didn’t have much to lose3, and some substantial costs to be saved if I attempted a DIY fix.

Now, let me be very clear: The fact that I happen to have a degree that says “Computer Systems Engineering” in the title has little to no bearing on my skill set and knowledge base required for this repair. Honestly (and those of you who are currently pursuing a CpE degree, please reassure the non-engineers that this is the truth). I say this because it is important that everyone know they are fully capable of making many of their own repairs to there various pieces of technology4. The topic of technological elitism came up last year in a GEDI course, there is concern that as we integrate more and more technology into our lives we are becoming more and more dependent on those who understand how the technology works. My counter argument to that concern is that while there certainly is more to learn and more skills involved in the service and repair of a computer than say, a pen and paper, there are many excellent resources freely available to anyone who takes the initiative to learn about them. One great resource that I used for this particular repair is ifixit.com, a wiki-based repair manual containing step-by-step guides for everything from replacing the door handle on a toaster oven to various repairs of your smartphone. Since I knew if I had any chance of pulling this off I would need to lay the display flat, the guide I found most relevant to the endeavor at hand was Installing MacBook Pro 15″ Unibody Late 2008 and Early 2009 LCD.

Supplies needed5:

required items

  1. The computer to be repaired
  2. mini screwdriver set
  3. Donut, preferably coconut
  4. Coffee
  5. working computer that can access ifixit.com
  6. 5 minute epoxy
  7. T6 Torex screwdriver
  8. A reasonably heavy, flat object
  9. Stress relief

Step-by-step image gallery

  1. Follow the steps in the ifixit guide to remove the display assembly from the body of the laptop.
  2. Reset donut
  3. attempt to apply epoxy in gap between aluminum backing and display, apply pressure, wait for a couple hours
  4. reassemble laptop, power on and use
  5. determine that epoxy is not holding, either due to age, bad application due to limited access to the surface
  6. powerdown and re-disassemble laptop
  7. Using a heat gun to loosen the remaining adhesive around the display casing, gently pry off the aluminum backing completely
  8. This is a perfect opportunity to “pimp your mac” and add some sort of creative graphic behind the apple logo. All I could find was some engineering paper, which turned out somewhat ho-hum.
  9. attempt to remove old adhesive with acetone and/or mechanical force. give up.
  10. Working quickly, (it is 5 minute epoxy, after all) mix up a fresh batch of epoxy, apply intelligently around edge of display casing, choosing places that look least likely to cause problems if it runs over (e.g. avoid iSight camera housing)
  11. Carefully position aluminum backing back on display casing, press firmly and wipe away excess epoxy.
  12. Apply gentle pressure for 5-10 minutes, let cure for another hour or so before reassembly.

    analog media is still relevant

    analog media is still relevant

  13. Re-assemble.
  14. success!


1 It does make you wonder which dictionary Apple’s marketing department was using when they came up with the “Genius” title. A more accurate title, with 100% more alliteration, would have been “Apple Automaton” since they do an excellent job when a problem is solvable by means of a pre-supplied checklist). Don’t get me wrong, I think Apple’s tech support is generally pretty good, as are their employees. And they are completely within their right to refuse to offer any service or advise to customers who have opted out of the software/hardware-as-one package they provide. But it doesn’t (shouldn’t) take a genius to determine that a different bootloader from Apple’s default is not a virus.

2too late

3aside from possibly rendering my display useless

4 if you have ever replaced a tire on your car, but freak out at the idea of fixing your own computer, briefly consider the consequences of a botched repair job on both. Statistically you are much more likely to die in a horrible, fiery crash as the result of a bad tire replacement than a botched attempt at re-gluing your laptop screen together. Just something to think about.

5wordpress fail: I could not figure out how to tell wordpress to use letters to “number” this ordered list without changing the style sheet for my theme. It could be user error, but I prefer to blame wordpress.