Apple’s Self-Repair Program Manages to Make MacBooks Seem Less Repairable
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Apple’s Self-Repair Program Manages to Make MacBooks Seem Less Repairable

On Monday, Apple announced it would finally, officially let Mac owners repair their own computers with parts and guides sold by Apple itself. On Tuesday, its Self Service Repair store started taking orders. This, on its face, seems like good news—but as it turns out, their self-repair program makes MacBook Pros seem less repairable. How is that possible?

There are three things you need for a repair: the part you’re replacing, the correct tools, and the knowledge to do the repair. Historically, it’s been up to the fixer to harvest parts and collect (or create) the tools they need, and it’s mostly been up to folks from the iFixit community to make the guides.

The thing is, manufacturers often already have those guides. They need them for warranty repairs, or Genius Bars or Geek Squads. At iFixit we try to encourage manufacturers to release those manuals—it’s a whole point on our repairability scale—and many companies do. We’ve happily awarded service manual points to HP, Fairphone, even Apple when they quietly released iMac service manuals (more on that later).

A map of Apple repair centers
Apple’s 2020 map of their 5,000+ service locations—peep those wide empty expanses.

Now, these guides don’t have to be perfect. Even our guides are a continually improved community project. But the guides have to be usable, and they have to get you through major repairs—especially screens and batteries. And Apple’s generally do that quite well. In the case of the new MacBook Air service manuals, they’re in-depth, mostly logical, and well worth an additional repairability point. The MacBook Pro guides threw us for a loop, though.

Battery replacement is pretty much the only guaranteed MacBook repair. Even if you never use the laptop, you’ll still need to replace the battery due to natural degradation. Every other component is subject to environment and use—how many times have you spilled your iced tea? Dinged the case? Stepped on the USB-C charging cable (welcome back, MagSafe!)? Those factors will change what repairs you’ll need, but battery replacement is inevitable. Batteries are consumable, and just like your tires, they’re rated for a certain lifespan—heck, there’s a battery health menu item that says this outright. It’s a fact of our lithium-powered life.

Our 14″ MacBook Pro battery replacement guide is 26 steps. That might not seem like a very speedy guide, but the Surface Pro 6 is twice that long, and iPad guides can be upwards of a hundred steps. In the scheme of things, 26 steps is pretty good. Imagine our surprise when we found that Apple’s official MacBook Pro battery replacement method clocks in at 162 pages.

MacBooks may not be the most upgradable laptops these days, and we do resent that plenty, but we’ve always praised Apple for immediate access to iPhone and MacBook batteries. They’re clearly prioritizing battery replacement. Or so we thought.

A screenshot of an Apple Self-repair program guide featuring the last step of a battery removal procedure
If you made it this far into the repair, congrats, that’ll be $500.

But let’s not compare Apples to Phillips Screws—it’s not 162 pages because Apple has changed where batteries sit in the MacBook Pro. It’s that long because the manual says that to replace the battery, you’ve got to replace the entire top case. At the time of writing, Apple will not sell you a replacement MacBook Pro battery. They sell you a “Top Case with Battery and Keyboard.” And so their guide has you remove literally every component from the top case. The laptop is built on the top case, so to get to it, you’ve got to demanufacture the whole thing. 

The procedure stretches to the very last page of a 162-page document, making it essentially a 162-page guide with multiple steps per page. And the first step: “Read the entire manual first,” which means you’ve gotta scroll the entire 162 pages.

Now if a “Top Case with Battery and Keyboard” that a laptop is literally built into sounds expensive to you, it is! It costs more than 500 bucks—with an $88 core return it’ll run you $439. That’s about 30-50% of the cost of a brand new MacBook.

Which is what makes this so awkward—and we really do want to give these M1 MacBooks an extra repairability point. But Apple seems to be saying, “Actually our batteries are so hard to replace, they’re literally the last part you remove.” 

Apple’s serviceability team is trying valiantly to make DIY repair work—they put a lot of effort into this guide. Considering the MacBook Air’s available battery-on-a-tray, the Pro’s design and subsequent safety decision not to package the battery solo has really boxed them into a corner. 

Apple seems to be saying, ‘Actually our batteries are so hard to replace, they’re literally the last part you remove.’

So we’re wondering. Are MacBook Pros more repairable now? 

We’ve raised scores for Apple before, for publishing manuals: In 2019, Apple published repair manuals for its 21.5- and 27-inch iMacs. At first, we thought it was a mistake—but then a Congressional hearing revealed that it was actually part of an ongoing internal debate about where Apple should stand on Right to Repair. Apple’s environment team wanted the guides released to score a point on the green environmental purchasing standard EPEAT. When it became clear that the repair manuals weren’t published by accident and it seemed like they were going to stay, we bumped up those iMacs’ repairability scores by a point.

Funny enough, it looks like we jumped the gun. Looking for these new repair manuals on Apple’s site, Shahram realized recently that Apple had quietly taken down the iMac manuals it published in 2019. Why? Not so clear. The most charitable explanation is that they might be aiming to replace those manuals with DIY repair versions of the same manuals, like the manuals they’ve released for the iPhone and M1 MacBooks. Or maybe the internal debate about repair manuals has swung in another direction. 

RIP iMac manuals, we hardly knew ye.

This time, along with the manuals, Apple is presenting DIY repairers with an excruciating gauntlet of hurdles: read 162 pages of documentation without getting intimidated and decide to do the repair anyway, pay an exorbitant amount of money for an overkill replacement part, decide whether you want to drop another 50 bucks on the tools they recommend, and do the repair yourself within 14 days, including completing the System Configuration to pair your part with your device.  Which makes us wonder, does Apple even want better repairability?

We’ll leave you with the bright side, which is this: the upper case assembly notes that “in the future, a battery replacement part will be available.” But you know what they say about Apple products without definite release dates… 

Full disclosure: the Samsung OEM display assembly, including battery, that we sell takes the same approach as Apple—our criticisms of its construction are well known—and it is about 1/3 of the price of a new phone. We’ve compensated for that with an aftermarket battery and alternate guide, not endorsed by Samsung.