Broken Mac? You should be fine — unless you want to repair or upgrade it yourself, that is...
Should Apple revise its closed–system approach?
The good news: Apple’s latest MacBook Air is more repairable than ever. The bad news: The T2 chip in this and other models blocks unauthorized repairs.
Apple devices do not have a good reputation for repairability. Repairers and upgraders have complained for decades that Apple routinely uses screws with non–standard heads, making it a challenge just to get inside, and components glued or even soldered in place, making it hard to repair them, let alone upgrade them. For example, the memory is not user–upgradeable in iMacs and MacBook Pros post–2012, and the SSD storage is soldered directly to the circuit board in MacBook Pros post–2016.
Now, though, in one of its renowned teardowns, iFixit has found that the 2018 MacBook Air is much more repairable than previous models. The base is easier to remove, with no concealed cables that could be damaged if you’re not careful. “Apart from the pesky pentalobe screws, this laptop opens about as easily as any,” iFixit says. Once you’re inside, “Just six Torx screws and a few cable connectors stand between us and logic board removal — not bad!” Some components are modular, such as the fan, Touch ID button, and Thunderbolt 3 ports, so they can be individually replaced. The batteries and speakers are held in place with stretch–release adhesive — you simply pull the tabs to remove it. “We don’t love adhesive,” iFixit comments, adding “reusable screws are nearly always better,” but this is certainly “loads better than gooey solvents and blind prying,” and its use suggests “that someone at least thought about possible repair and disassembly situations.”
Even so, iFixit awards the 2018 MacBook Air a repairability score of only 3 out of 10. The keyboard is integrated into the top case, requiring a full teardown for service; the trackpad shares a cable with the keyboard; and the RAM and SSD chips are soldered in place, meaning they can’t be removed.
There’s another issue: Some repairs or upgrades will require authentication using an Apple app available only to authorized service providers — meaning that attempting to repair or upgrade your Mac yourself, or using an unauthorized repairer, could render it inoperable.
“For Macs with the Apple T2 chip,” a leaked Apple internal document confirms, “the repair process is not complete for certain parts replacements until the AST 2 System Configuration suite has been run. Failure to perform this step will result in an inoperative system and an incomplete repair.” Apple distributes the AST 2 suite only to Apple Stores and certified Apple Service Providers.
Four Mac models currently have the Apple T2 Security Chip: iMac Pro, 2018 MacBook Pro, and the Mac mini and MacBook Air introduced October 2018. For the iMac Pro, the software check is required in the case of a logic board or flash storage repair. For the MacBook Pro, it applies to display, logic board, Touch ID, and any top case repairs, which include the keyboard, trackpad, speakers, and battery. Apple’s document predates the release of the new MacBook Air and Mac mini, but it is likely that the position is similar for these. A matt er of security? The T2 chip handles data encryption, secure boot, and other security features such as Touch ID, so it makes sense to check work involving related hardware — logic board, storage, trackpad. The chip also acts as controller for features including access to the camera and the computer’s response to spoken “Hey Siri” commands, but it’s not clear whether repairs to the related parts are involved, or why the speakers are.
It may be justifiable if the diagnostic software is required to verify that the critical security features controlled by the T2 chip are operational, to prevent these being circumvented by swapping out components, or to register or activate replacement parts. Critics note, however, that the move favors Apple’s service network and disadvantages independent repairers. It also makes legitimate repair difficult in cases of hardware failure, they say, in much the same way that the T2 has made manual data recovery all but impossible — an encrypted SSD is unreadable if removed from the machine whose T2 chip encrypted it. (So make sure you keep that Time Machine backup up–to–date!)
It may be, as iFixit says, that the “secret repair kill switch hasn’t been activated — yet.” But proponents of the “right to repair,” which Apple has consistently opposed, see this as another way to deny Mac owners control over their own hardware.
The latest MacBook Air is more repairable than its predecessors, thanks to several design changes.
Macs containing a T2 chip could become inoperable after unauthorized repairs.