Why I Like My MacBook, But I’m Beginning To Really Hate Apple

Battery Replacement on a 2015 MacBook

I realised a couple of weeks ago, much to my horror and chagrin, that I had been walking around with a potential incendiary bomb. Not that I had done anything wrong – this is a more common practice than we’d like to admit, and it’s quite possible that some readers are doing the same, equally unaware.

The culprit was the battery in my 2015 MacBook. Now unlike the batteries on older laptops, this is sealed inside the alloy case, and not immediately visible to inspection. My laptop was still working fine, with battery life still around 2 hours even under quite hard use, which is not bad for a hard-used 3 year old machine. It was running a bit warm, especially in Namibia, but not so much that it indicated any real problem.

The only thing which was a bit suspicious was that it no longer sat flat on a table. The middle of the base-plate seemed slightly raised relative to the edges. At first I blamed myself, thinking that when I had taken the base off to check to see if you can upgrade the hard disk (you can’t, but that’s another story), I hadn’t screwed it down straight. However over time the problem seemed to be getting a bit worse, and I also started to note that the lid didn’t always close completely flush.

I would probably have let this go on a bit longer, but I happened to mention it to two others on the Namibia trip, who immediately suspected the possibility of a dying and swollen battery. Now this can be a serious issue, so as soon as I was back I went on eBay to order a new battery (fairly readily available at about £70), and opened the laptop up for inspection. If I wasn’t already convinced of the problem, I reached that point when I had undone about three screws and the base literally “pinged” open. With all the screws removed I could see that not only one, but all six sections of the battery were badly swollen. Yikes!

So the battery definitely needed replacement, and a new one was on the way. I carefully discharged the old one by playing a movie until the battery was below 2%, and switched my work to my spare machine. I then started researching the process of replacement.

Now pretty much every laptop I have owned or used in the last 20 years has the following simple process for battery replacement:

  1. Unclip old battery
  2. Clip in replacement

In some Toshiba and Dell/AlienWare machines you can even do a “hot swap” without powering the machine down. The 2011 MacBook gets a bit more complicated, as the battery is inside the case, but it’s still pretty straightforward:

  1. Unscrew the base
  2. Unplug the battery from the motherboard
  3. Unclip the battery
  4. Clip in the new one, and plug it in
  5. Screw the base back on

So surely, it wasn’t going to be that difficult to do the 2015 MacBook battery? Surely not?

I should coco. Like the 2011 Macbook has standard memory boards, and the 2015 device has soldered chips, or the 2015’s SSD has a unique connector, Apple have made battery replacement deliberately difficult. This is the one component which is highly likely to fail through age before the rest of the machine, but it is glued to the baseplate, with key components then mounted over it. The iFixIt Guide has no fewer than 72 steps (I’m not making this up), at which point you have stripped almost the entire laptop, used some quite powerful solvents to melt the glue, and have your new battery in place with the instruction “To reassemble your device, follow these instructions in reverse order”. The last time I followed 72 instructions and then “reassembled my device following the instructions in reverse order” it took me two days, and I ended up with a Renault 5 with working engine and clutch, but 5 large bolts left over. Not keen.

Should I get professional help? For a machine up to about 5 years old, Apple will do a battery replacement, for about £300. Apparently they strip out all the components from your MacBook and mount them into a new chassis complete with new battery, keyboard and trackpad. Presumably the old chassis and related components go to the skip. However apart from the time this might take, I could see my MacBook coming back with all my keyboard customisations undone, and my hard disk which boots into Windows carefully wiped and OSX installed. Not keen.

[Aside: this is still a better position than if you go to Apple with a 5+ year old machine seeking service. Their official position is apparently “We are happy to recycle this for no cost. Here’s the price list for a brand new one”!]

I could look for a specialist, but again I was concerned about timing, and whether I’d get the machine back as I left it. So I decided on a self-fix, but trying to find a solution that didn’t mean stripping out the motherboard and all the peripherals. Now I could see that it might be possible to get a lever under the outer battery cells (the six cells are largely independent) without major disassembly, so I decided to try that route, hoping fervently that the iFixit guidance was overkill (as it appeared to be).

Obviously it’s a bit risky levering up already damaged lithium ion batteries, as you don’t want a fire, but hopefully the risk would be small since they were almost fully discharged. I took the precaution of having a heavy saucepan and lid sitting on a metal skillet at the end of the desk as a fire bucket, and used plastic tools as far as possible.

I also sourced a Torx T5 screwdriver for the internal screws. While the case screws and the inner screw heads look similar, the former have 5 points, and the latter 6. Just to make it a bit more difficult. Actually I’m not surprised Apple have a five-pointed design – the pentagram fits well with their generally Diabolical attitude to service, maintainability and the risk of immolation from faulty batteries…

So here’s my rather shorter process for replacing a 15″ Retina MacBook battery:

  1. Make sure the battery is fully discharged. I left it playing videos which is a good way to exhaust the battery without having to battle battery-saving timeouts etc.
  2. Unscrew the base. Make a note of which screws went where – they are not identical!
  3. Unplug the battery.
  4. Following the instructions on the iFixit guide, carefully remove the trackpad ribbon cable, which runs over the battery and is actually stuck to it.
  5. Unscrew the batteries’ circuit board (to which the plug is attached).
  6. Unscrew the two screws in each speaker which adjacent to the batteries. You can’t remove the speakers (they are held firmly in place by the motherboard and other components mounted on top), but removing the lower screws allows them a bit of movement.
  7. Using a flat plastic lever (I used a plastic fish slice) and (if essential) a wide-bladed screwdriver, slowly lever up the rightmost battery cell.
  8. When it’s free, use side-cutters to snip the connection to the other cells, then place it in the fire bucket.
  9. Repeat the process with the next cell in.
  10. Repeat with the two left-hand cells.
  11. Lever up the two centre cells from the sides until you can get your fingertips under them. Do not lever from front or back as you risk damaging the trackpad or keyboard connections.
  12. Once you can get your fingers under the central cells, they should continue to prise up and will eventually pop out.
  13. Carefully remove any remaining adhesive tape from the chassis.
  14. Site the new batteries, making sure the screw holes for the circuit board line up with the motherboard. This is the bit I didn’t get exactly right, but managed to “fiddle” afterwards.
  15. Remove the protective film, and press the batteries down. Once this has been done they are glued in place and will not move, so this needs to be done carefully. However leaving the speakers in place means that you have good visual guides for positioning as well as the circuit board mounts.
  16. Re-assemble the trackpad cable. This isn’t explained in the iFixit guide, but basically you need to carefully slide the ZIF connector into its socket, then press down the black tab. You can then plug in the other end and screw down its cover.
  17. Screw down the battery circuit board. Replace the speaker screws.
  18. Plug in the battery. Boot up the laptop to make sure all major systems (especially the keyboard and trackpad) are working.
  19. Turn the laptop over and screw up the base. Remember that the two central rear screws are slightly shorter than the others and need to go back in those holes.
  20. Check everything and fully charge the battery.

It worked, I didn’t set fire to anything, and my laptop now sits absolutely flat on the table. We’ll know shortly how life of the new batteries compares with the old.

However, it really doesn’t have to be this way. If Apple cared remotely about their customers and the environment instead of screwing everyone for the maximum revenue then the battery replacement would be a simple clip or screw process similar to the 2011 version, optimised for repairability rather than designed to actively minimise and inhibit it. I’m not impressed.

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