MacBook Pro 15″ Early 2011 A1286 820-2915

This is one of those notorious 2011 15″ MacBook Pros with the flakey graphics chip. It will probably never be repaired…

Procurement

A nasty crack in the screen glass.

I purchased this on Gumtree for $180. I don’t usually buy 15″ MacBooks of this era, as they have so many problems with the graphics chips. And I don’t have the equipment required to replace a BGA chip of that size. So just why did I buy this one? The answer is that the seller put the wrong information in the ad. They listed it as a 13″ MacBook. Had it been correctly described, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Virtually every one of these computers has died, or will die due to a failed graphics chip.

I guess I could’ve kicked up a stink about the incorrectly advertised item, but I couldn’t be bothered making a fuss. Plus I needed a broken computer to play with anyway.

The wacky UK keyboard layout.

It was sold with no hard drive or charger, but everything else was intact. A couple of decent sized dings in the case, and a small crack in the left side of the screen glass. One other really annoying thing was discovering that it had a UK-layout keyboard. There’s nothing really wrong with a UK layout, but it will affect the final sale price.

Symptoms

Startup screen looking a little funky.

As soon as it arrived, I connected it up to the power, instantly got a green light on the charger, that then changed to an orange light to indicate battery charging. The fans started spinning and the screen came to life. The display was a slightly reddish hue, with lots of horizontal lines on the screen. After watching the Apple logo come up and the progress bar get about two thirds of the way along, it went to a blank white screen and stayed that way. Classic symptoms of a problem GPU.

What’s inside?

Some corrosion around the U6201 audio codec

As usual, I opened it up for a quick visual inspection. It didn’t look like anyone had attempted a repair before, and it was absolutely full of dust. I pulled out the logic board and hit it with an air compressor to clean it.

I could see a few little spots of corrosion, but nothing particularly bad. I reflowed the solder in these areas, and cleaned up anything that looked a little bit green. There was a capacitor from the Vcore regulator that looked a little nasty, so I cleaned up around it and replaced it.

Given the remarkably good state of this board, the cause of the graphics issue was almost definitely due to a faulty ATI graphics chip. So I decided to give the board a good clean in the ultrasonic, then put it back together and work out what to do next.

Now you see it…

Hey presto, it’s working! For now.

As I suspected, after reassembly, it fired up and worked perfectly. I attribute this to the heat that was applied to the logic board during the solder reflow. These graphics chips will often miraculously start working after being exposed to some heat. It might seem miraculous, but it’s only a short lived miracle. Sometimes the computer works for a few hours, sometimes a few days, and sometimes a few weeks, but they inevitably fail again.

These MacBook Pros have two graphic chips. The first is an Intel HD Graphics 3000 chip, and the second is an AMD Radeon HD 6490M. The Intel chip kicks in when the graphics demands are low, to extend battery life. When a bit more grunt is needed, the AMD takes over and provides better performance.

Cody Krieger has created a nice little tool called gfxCardStatus. It allows you to manually select which of these two graphics cards to use. In theory, if your AMD chip is not functioning correctly, or if you want to avoid using it, you can force the MacBook to only use the Intel chip. The problem is that if your AMD chip has failed, you may have trouble getting the machine started at all, which stops you from being about to switch to the Intel chip.

I may be talking nonsense here, but I would just love for someone to create a modified BIOS chip that made the computer ignore the AMD chip altogether. No one’s done it, so I’m guessing it’s too hard, or just not possible.

Trying to break it

GpuTest in the process of “stressing” the GPU

I don’t ever want to sell a MacBook with a known issue (I don’t do business that way) so I’m trying to figure out what to do next. I downloaded GpuTest, which is a really clunky bit of software that allows you to run a range of tests designed to tax your GPU. There is the option to run a “stress test”, which will just loop through an animated sequence over and over again. It’s the best way to try and kill the GPU.

I’m using the following rationale: if it survives a few days of this strenuous GPU testing, I’ll probably just keep this laptop for myself. This model has a pretty good 2Ghz quad core i7 CPU, which is way faster than the main laptop I’m using right now. I’ll bump up the RAM, drop in an SSD and hope for the best!

New glass

Heating the edge of the glass.

After five days of trying to break the GPU, I finally gave up. I’m still not confident about selling it as it is, but I’m more than happy to start using it for myself.

I ordered some new screen glass, then started removing the old, damaged glass. This is one of those jobs I really don’t enjoy. I used my hot air station set to a low temperature to slowly heat the glass edges to soften the adhesive tape (without melting the rubber) then gently inserted guitar plectrums between the glass and the case. I’ve removed intact glass before (to replace a cable) but I’ve never removed cracked glass before. The existing crack affected the strength of the whole glass, which made it a nightmare job. Every time I applied even the slightest pressure, it broke into more pieces.

A novelty guitar plectrum, wedged between the case and the glass.

I placed some masking tape on the glass to try and hold it all together, and I wore some nitrile gloves (for some protection, however minimal). I persevered, and worked my way around the edges until all the glass was out.

I chucked away the old glass, then used my air compressor to clean the LCD before putting the new glass in. This process takes forever. You don’t want to be staring at a trapped piece of fluff behind the glass for the rest of the life of the MacBook. I also use sticky tape, rolled into a loop with the sticky side on the outside. You can use this to gently place onto any stubborn pieces of dust to lift them without leaving fingerprints.

The old glass, broken into a million little pieces.

The glass I bought had its own adhesive, and a protective layer to prevent any dust. I removed the protective layer, dropped the glass into place, and was just about to apply pressure when I noticed a great big piece of fluff. So I gently lifted the glass again, removed the fluff, cleaned with the air compressor again, and then sealed up the new glass. It looked pretty darn good.

A new family member

Ready for use.

I use a few MacBooks in my line of work, but none are as high-spec as this one. I dropped in an SSD and 8Gb of RAM, and now it’s my new main workhorse. Let’s see how long it lasts!

Addendum

It’s now more than six months since the initial repair, and the MacBook is still working perfectly. I gave it to a colleague, and it’s now his primary work laptop, and is in use virtually every day. I have also restored functionality to another three of these models: one for a customer, and the other two for myself. I certainly don’t want to try and make out that I have a definitive repair for these problematic models, but it does seem like the particular process I follow can resurrect an otherwise unusable MacBook, even if it is only for a limited timeframe.

If one of the four repaired 15″ MacBooks starts failing again, I’ll be sure to post it here immediately, but if you don’t see anything further added to this post, please assume that they are all still working well.