/Baked MacBook Air: A cautionary recipe

Baked MacBook Air: A cautionary recipe

Putting a £1,000 Macbook Air in the oven might not be the first port of call
after your trusty laptop fails to power on; I however, was feeling lucky that
day. TL;DR: Cranking the temperature up higher than the recipe suggests is a
bad idea, unless your goal is to simultaneously desolder most components from
the motherboard. Here’s a timeline of events:

Day 1: The MacBook’s sudden coma

This is the MacBook Air, bought in 2014 and specced up with maximum RAM and the
fastest CPU (see FAQ at end for details). I’d expected to eek many years out of
it; little did I know it would soon be entering a sauna of silicon destruction.

It was time to pack up the MacBook after a loyal day of service. When returning
the laptop to its soft case, I misjudged the approach and my trusty machine
dropped 30cm or so to the floor, landing on its corner. I thought nothing of
this originally; it wasn’t first time the MacBook had been dropped and it
usually coped perfectly fine. However, when opening the lid to check I hadn’t
broken the screen, the tiny CPU fan screamed up to full speed, accompanied by a
flash of the keyboard and screen backlight. Then all went black, the MacBook
was limp and unresponsive.

Day 2: Administering first aid

Not a problem I thought, dropping it on the corner like that might have shaken
a few bytes of SDRAM around, but nothing a power reset wouldn’t fix. However,
whilst holding the power button down for increasingly desperate lengths of
time, my optimism dropped until the point of acceptance that it just wasn’t
going to switch on.

Following tech support guidance from the internet, all the following were given
a shot:

  • Performing multiple NVRAM/PRAM and SMC resets.
  • Leaving the battery disconnected overnight.
  • Disconnecting all components/connectors from the logic board, then
    reassembling.
  • Bridging the logic board “power on pads”, optimistically hoping for a broken
    power button.
  • Trying multiple power supplies.
  • Applying a little percussive maintenance.

Nothing worked, the MacBook remained lifeless. It wouldn’t even take a charge,
the light on the charger refused to illuminate at all.

Day 2: Bake day

The internet has happy
tales
of other owners
reviving their dead MacBooks by gently baking them in the oven. I figured, if
it’s good enough for those four people on the internet – it’s good enough for
me. The idea is to heat the logic board just enough to reflow
solder
any broken connections.

Only the logic board should go in the oven, so the first stage is to remove all
components and connections from the board. Despite the MacBook Air’s tiny form
factor, this was surprisingly simple, although it does require use of a
pentalobe and Torx driver bit. The I/O board was also removed from the chassis,
as my suspicion was that the offending component would likely by located on
that board – plus it would give the logic board a companion during the
bake-off.

Recipes suggest baking at 170 °C for 7 minutes. The instructions are not
specific about whether this is for fan ovens, whether preheating is required or
whether an egg-wash should be applied beforehand. In my mind, thermal shock is
also a greater concern when baking a motherboard compared to a Victoria sponge,
so I opted to bake from cold. Weighing up the consequences of covering our main
oven in molten MacBook, I also chose to use our standalone oven (purchased
solely for extra Christmas dinner capacity) instead of our kitchen oven.
There’s also the matter of fire safety, which I mitigated by placing the
standalone oven within booting distance of the outside door.

Arranging the logic and I/O boards on the middle oven rack, I cranked up the
dial to 170 °C and nervously waited for the oven to reach temperature.
Unsurprisingly, gently baked MacBook doesn’t smell particularly delicious, but
thankfully I’d prepared for this in advance by placing the oven in an isolated
room with a door to the outside kept wide open. Six minutes into the bake,
everything was still looking cushty. A few small wires had started going a bit
gooey, but I was positive that the boards would survive.

With confidence high and the bake nearly finished, for the final 60 seconds I
thought I’d go off-piste and crank up the temperature to 180 °C – I wanted to
make sure things were cooked through. Curiously peering through the oven
window, all hell broke loose within 30 seconds: The room filled with sounds of
popcorn being made as resistors and components desoldered themselves from the
logic board and dropped onto the oven floor. The previously clear air was
replaced with an acrid haze. Then the bake reached it’s finale as the logic
board bowed up in the middle, accompanied by the screeching sound of the CPU
being wrenched off its socket. I lunged for the power switch and yanked open
the oven door, hoping to limit damage. Then, as quickly as the bowing started,
everything calmed down and the board returned to its original shape. With the
board still hot, a wooden spoon was employed to desperately poke the CPU back
onto its mount – with little success.

With the acrid air clearing and the oven gently ticking as it cooled, I began
re-assessing the decision to place a £1,000 MacBook in the oven. Hoping to
salvage some functionality, I heated a soldering iron and spent 30 minutes with
a tweezer, unsuccessfully trying to solder the miniature components back onto
the logic board. After the third ‘ouch’, I called time; there was no hope left.


Why not go to the genius bar?

Even before I stuck the MacBook in the oven, it was already out of warranty. I
know other owners that have paid many hundreds to have Apple replace the logic
board. In my case I couldn’t even be sure that the logic board was the only
broken component so didn’t want to start that cash sink.

Although I am tempted to take it to the genius bar now, just for entertainment.

What MacBook Air model was this?

Purchased in September 2014 with:

  • 1.7 GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.3 GHz.
  • 8 GiB 1600 MHz LPDDR3 SDRAM.
  • 128 GB PCIe-based Flash Storage.

Why not use a thermometer?

Pure laziness. I own numerous digital oven thermometers and infrared
thermometers that would have been up to the job. The entire bake was performed
in a rushed 60 minutes after work one weekday. In hindsight, if I’d have spent
half as much time as I spent preparing this article on proper temperature
control, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here with a bunch of useless spare
parts.

Have you replaced it with another MacBook?

Not yet – I purchased a cheap tower PC instead. It had been over 10 years since
I moved to laptops only and I wanted to see what had changed since. Turns out a
lot has changed and this new machine has quickly become one of my favourites!
Specs:

  • AMD Ryzen 3 2200G CPU (/APU) with Radeon Vega 8 Graphics – considering the
    cost is exceptionally low, the performance of this unit really impresses.
  • 8 GiB DDR4 RAM – already nudging up on this limit regularly, so will likely
    upgrade to 16 GiB.
  • 120 GB SSD – used for boot and root filesystem, encrypted with LUKS.
  • 1 TB spinning rust HDD – used for bulk files, encrypted with LUKS.
  • Standard Ubuntu (not very exciting I know). In the beginning, kernel support
    for this line of APU was poor, there was a seemingly 50/50 chance that it
    would boot successfully and it would often lockup randomly. However, since
    4.18.0 everything seem to work well!

While on the road (well, train) I now sport a bright purple HP Stream
11-r001na, which my colleagues have branded the “Fisher-Price” laptop. Trying
to get Ubuntu 18.10/GNOME 3.30 working within it’s 2 GiB RAM (whilst leaving
room for anything else) was too much of a challenge, so I’ve switched to
Lubuntu and LXDE/LXQT, which has made this mini-machine just about usable. The
specs, for entertainment:

  • Intel Celeron N3050 1.6 GHz
  • 2 GiB DDR3L SDRAM
  • 32 GB eMMC

What on earth is that oven?

It’s a Klarstein MasterChef 60 Mini Oven (not that 60 L is very mini), which as
mentioned above is owned solely for extra Christmas dinner capacity. It does
have a small convection fan, but the heat sources are from four unshielded
elements: two at the top and two at the bottom. Not the most ideal oven for
even heat distribution, but certainly a safer choice than using a built in
kitchen oven as it allowed the acrid fumes to be kept outside. It was also a
safer choice for myself, as a I fear there would have been some disapproval if
I’d have managed to fuse a circuit board to the inside of our kitchen oven.