Welcome back to the Vault.
Which actually makes no sense, it’s not even a vault.
It’s my basement.
My name is Matt Mutch.
I am a computer enthusiast.
I’d like to tell you a story.
In August of 2016, which is surprisingly long ago by my mind, an old acquaintance gave me three heavily damaged Mac laptops from across the generations. She gave me a final generation, top of the line PowerBook G4 15” in gorgeous condition but it did not turn on or charge, a shockingly destroyed white MacBook 13” missing most of the internal components, and a MacBook Air 13” that turned on but most of the keyboard and trackpad did not work. I was thrilled and appreciative as to me, free computers in any condition are wonderful gifts. I promised to treat them well and give them good homes.
In truth, the white MacBook was far beyond repair. It is in a bin in the basement, just in case. However, revisiting it shows it doesn’t look so bad! At least not outwardly…
I diagnosed the PowerBook G4 and discovered the DC-in board was not functional. As one of the more invasive repairs I’d ever attempted to date, it was an exciting and successful repair and then that got sold off to an eBay scammer who caused me months of anguish but I came out victorious. But, that’s a podcast for another podcast.
The MacBook Air was a different story. It turned right on and booted to Mac OS X immediately. I was not expecting that. I hadn’t really discussed just what was wrong with any of the computers, I’d just accepted them gratefully. However, it became immediately apparent that the keyboard and trackpad did not work, and while I didn’t know why, I had suspicions of a liquid spill. A few of the keys worked, but some actually registered as the wrong characters. I considered this carefully. I would like to have a MacBook Air, and now I had almost all of one.
The MacBook Air is a highly integrated computer, with a vanishingly small mainboard, solid state storage attached, the headphone and usb port on a separate internal board, and a relatively massive battery slice. The keyboard and trackpad are, for all intents, integrated into the top case, within which the handful of other components also reside. I’ve worked on computers for a long time, but this promised to be even more fiddly than the aforementioned DC-in board. Essentially this was gutting a laptop and moving all of its bits into a new body. Granted, there were literally only about four parts, but they were four very delicate parts.
A brief search on eBay yielded fairly inexpensive results for top cases with functional keyboards and trackpads intact. I ordered one such shell and began the turtle wait.
There’s a lot going on in the current climate concerning the “Right to Repair”. I don’t know the finest points of the fight but I do know that organizations that produce the tools and the guides to fix devices and computers are important to me, and make larks such as the repair of the MacBook Air even remotely possible, so my thanks goes to iFixit.com. I’ve repaired iBooks and PlayStation 2 consoles among many other things, and without step-by-step guides things come off the rails really quickly. Both of those things still operate to this day, but I think it’s probably through sheer force of will rather than any quality of the work done to them.
That said, the illustrated guides online actually made the repair extremely quick and frustration free. The few pieces came away from the old body with virtually no sign of whatever had wrecked the keyboard and trackpad and installed in the new shell just fine. The battery made me a bit nervous, as exposed lithium ion cells should make anyone nervous, but I kept sharp objects away from it and it installed fine as well. It would eventually be replaced, but not that day. I did have a minor issue seating the headphone jack daughter board, but other than the confidence boost of a successful repair, the process was fairly unremarkable. I wouldn’t suggest that kind of thing to a novice, but it’s not out of the question.
The MacBook Air, restored to functionality, is not without its quirks. Even powered by the replacement battery, it turns itself off around 20 percent battery strength, and I haven’t figured out a fix for that. The screen, for reasons I cannot fathom, has the iconic Apple logo burned into it, which should never happen simply because there would never be an occasion for it to. But repairs can’t continue, similarly to how they could never start on the white MacBook. In interest in the pursuit of the project, I ended up spending nearly the street value of this aged computer. To dump more money into it would make no sense. Any additional expense should instead see the computer parted back out and sold to make money toward a new or used device. It’s just not cost effective. In fact, it might never have been. But something, which I think is not unique to me, made the repair the more interesting option. Plus, still for less than its current value, I got a MacBook Air. The only trouble is that now it has sentimental value.
There’s also the philosophical question of how many parts can you replace in a computer and have it still be the same computer? Is the ‘soul’ of the computer perhaps in the mainboard and all other parts may be replaced but the ‘identity’ remains?
And on the topic of identity, I never bothered to change the original Share name of the computer. Initially I didn’t think of it, but now it serves to remind me of the lovely woman who was kind enough to give me a pile of old laptops.
Got an old computer or a new computer you like or hate or are indifferent to and want to talk about it?
I’m @geekadematt on Twitter and this has been “Into the Vault: MacBook Air 13 2011”.
The MacBook Air (2011) “Lea” is an Apple Mac laptop. This one is a 13 inch non-Retina model with a 1440×900 display resolution powered by Intel’s HD3000 graphics which are integrated into the Intel Core i5-2237M CPU (formerly Sandy Bridge). The i5 is comprised of two physical CPU cores processing two simultaneous threads. It has 4 GB DDR3 RAM integrated onto the mainboard and is not upgradable. It came with a proprietary 128 GB SSD which has since been replaced with a shady m.2 adapter and a top of its class 500 GB Samsung Evo 850 SSD which was a poor decision because it is probably more valuable than the rest of the entire laptop. It features two USB 2.0 ports, one Thunderbolt 1 port, and one headphone jack. It charges via the Apple MagSafe power connection and connects to the world via 802.11n wifi or Bluetooth 4.0. Also on board is a handy SDXC slot, which I’m sad to see is becoming even less common than it once was.