by Rebecca, rebeccak@smalldog.com

By now, there are plenty of articles floating around praising the new Apple portable line for its beauty, speed and innovation. I can certainly agree that the new line is drool-worthy, but as a technician, I’m even more curious about its serviceability. Are the new machines another foray into frustration, à la the 12” PowerBook? Or, are they as they as ego-boostingly-easy as the MacBook Airs? Luckily, I only had to wait a few days to find out!

Matt handed me a 13” MacBook and told me to go nuts. The first thing I noticed, before even touching a tool, was how solid the new MacBook feels. Portables take a beating, and I would often see MacBook Pros with dented-in corners from impact damage and MacBooks with bent optical drive bezels from being lifted by the right side while the display was opened. While I’m sure there will be folks out there who will still find a way to kick the crap out of their portables, I can honestly say that this line physically feels like it will withstand more bumps and squeezes than the previous generation.

Opening up the new portables is a piece of cake, and it definitely reminds me of the MacBook Air design. One latch on the bottom removes the access door revealing the user-installable battery and hard drive. The battery pops out with a gentle tug at the pull-tab and the hard drive, also complete with pull tab, is held in by one captive #00 philips screw. Easy! Replacing the RAM is only slightly more involved; remove eight #00 philips head screws on the bottom case, lift off the bottom case and you have access to the RAM (as well as the ability to see the real beauty of the machine’s internal design).

As the MacBooks evolved with each revision, I marveled at the increased durability in the cables, braces, clasps and framing. I’m pleased to find that some big changes have been made with the new MacBook. The LVDS and camera cable each have their own solid metal guide now where the MacBook used to have plastic hinge covers. These brackets not only add durability, but they also work as great protection for those vital cables in case of impact. I also appreciate that most of the cables in the machine have set routing patterns defined by grooves in the casing.

For serviceability, the new MacBook design is smart by granting easy access to the components that have higher fail rates: the hard drive, battery, optical drive, and fans. Even the logic board and display are relatively easy to remove and replace. There are a couple snags, though. For one, the AirPort card is now hidden within the clutch cover. AirPort card malfunctions have historically been a relatively common issue. Triaging AirPort issues used to be as easy as popping a top case and swapping an AirPort card to test. Now, one has to remove the display assembly entirely, remove the clutch cover and then re-install the display to test the new card. The other big thing to watch for is new cable design. Apple has moved more towards a flat cable-connector design, which really helps to slim the machine. Technicians, though, will be faced with disconnecting delicate cables, and it should be mentioned that many of the cables have to be removed by releasing clasps or by lifting in a direction that may not seem intuitive.

Lastly, let’s talk about that display assembly. Most of you by now know that the LCD is covered by a pane of glass. Beautiful, yes, but anyone who has serviced portables—especially in a college town—is well aware that replacing cracked LCDs is a part of life; it’s also not covered by warranty. Apple is known for having pretty high prices for LCD replacement, ranging from $880-$1380, depending on the machine.

Apple Authorized Service Providers often offer lower rates by using a non-Apple-branded LCD for replacement (At Small Dog, we offer a lower cost screen replacement service using genuine parts). The new portable line, however, states that LCDs can only be replaced as part of an entire display assembly module. This is not only expensive, but it means that only the Apple-branded part can be used. Unconvinced, I attempted to “safely” get into the display assembly. It was an epic fail. I tried suction cups, used for glass panels on the new iMacs, removing the display rear housing, digging a pick under the plastic border, etc. As someone who’s used to being able to go well beyond the service manual, I was pretty embarrassed by my defeat. I’m sure out there an engineer is laughing at me. The only conclusion I could draw is that the glass panel is glued to the display housing. If someone out there can prove me wrong, I’d be ecstatic! (Note: I am not paying for the broken display assembly nor your hospital bill when you break the glass.)

All-in-all, I commend Apple for coming up with a new line that appears to have a good mix of serviceability, functionality and beauty. Jonathan Ives obviously gets the big bucks for a reason; if only I looked that good with a shaved head.

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