Be­yond re­pairi­bil­ity

Bro­ken Mac? You should be fine — un­less you want to re­pair or up­grade it your­self, that is...

Mac|Life - - CONTENTS - BY Alex sum­mersby

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.

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