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.
Dean, of Geekade.com, formerly of the Stone Age Gamer podcast, the Papercuts podcast, and of the Vest and Friends series, had a friend who was kind enough to gift him an old laptop. Dean knows I enjoy tinkering and wanted to know about the laptop and how it could be serviced and best used and such, so he handed it off to me for evaluation. I’m always excited to get my hands on a computer, especially a functioning one, and doubly so when it’s a Mac, and a little more when it’s a laptop.
I got the MacBook Pro from him and examined it. It was in great condition, everything working as well as was to be expected from an older model and it was clean. Lacking a charger, though, we weren’t sure how to proceed so it got left alone for a few days.
The unibody MacBook Pro line distinguishes itself in a number of ways from its predecessors in the years up to 2009. Primarily, the models from 2009 onward are milled from a solid block of aluminum to offer exceptional rigidity in an impressively streamlined form. Also, less noticeably, the magnetic closure of the display lid to the body. Gone was the physical latch of iterations past.
No more physical latch holding the lid closed. Just magnets.
Magnets hold the computer closed.
One evening, I was minding my own business when out of the corner of my eye I spotted the MacBook Pro, on the shelf where I’d left it, was open. It wasn’t fully open, not like in operational position, it was just open about a half an inch, like a door ajar, or perhaps the amount a display hinge might be open if someone popped the latch.
Except, as I hope I made explicitly clear, there’s no latch. Why then was the laptop ajar?
I opened it and looked in to see the trackpad was popped up and out of the body. Now what could possibly cause Oh my god the battery is exploding.
Lithium polymer batteries common to many modern laptops, almost all smartphones, and similar devices, and dissimilar devices where conventional cylindrical cells do not fit well, can, under certain conditions, begin to expand. I would hazard that most often this is merely a function of age, and something I don’t fully understand causes aged batteries to expand slowly and steadily. Personally, I consider these to count as exploding batteries for two reasons: 1) they are exploding, just very slowly, and 2) if they are kept enclosed and pressure builds up to a certain level, they will explode not slowly, but violently.
This was the case with the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco a while back. Ultimately the issue was that when charging, the batteries had a tendency to expand just a little bit, but space tolerances inside the device were incredibly tight, so any expansion would result in a potentially catastrophic failure.
Now, not knowing the true danger of expanding lithium polymer batteries, I only knew what I’d been lead to believe up to that point. Expanding lithium polymer batteries explode.
There was a slow bomb in my house.
First I tried to call my neighbor. I was planning to tell him if he didn’t hear from me in an hour or less to call an ambulance, but he didn’t answer.
Then I thought about bomb disposal, and the suits bomb disposal techs wear, which I obviously did not have at my disposal. So on that fine spring day, I got out my heavy canvas work pants, my heavy work gloves, my dress leather jacket, and some polycarbonate work goggles and got dressed for some work. In my makeshift bomb suit, I picked up the laptop and went to place it gently outside.
When I got outside I realized it looked like rain. This in turn lead me to realize two other things: 1) I was determined to save this computer and rain wasn’t part of that plan and 2) rain could potentially short something in the computer and maybe move up the explosion time table.
I brought the MacBook Pro back inside. Now the slow bomb was back in my house.
I brought it downstairs to my work bench and I considered my situation. The modularity of the trackpad may have saved me, but the battery was still under pressure since the body of the laptop was only two solid aluminum pieces, held together by about ten screws.
I looked up the number for the local Apple store only eight minutes away but was very disappointed to get routed off to a centralized switch board and placed on hold. They then asked for all sorts of information about who I was, what the product of concern was, and still I had not been presented with a person whom I could ask what to do with the bomb in my house.
It would be better outside than inside. The battery had to come out.
Ever mindful that precision screwdrivers are sharp, I started removing the screws on the bottom plate. It helped the situation, but did not help my nerves, that every couple of screws loosed allowed the battery to puff up a bit more. Luckily, the bottom plate came away, almost bounced away, and the battery was allowed to breathe without exploding.
At some point, an Apple rep finally picked up and I forced my way through his script to explain that I was very concerned with the exploding battery in front of me. I did not believe he understood the situation exactly, or was confined to preconstructed answers, as he did assure me that I was not in immediate danger, and that the laptop could indeed be brought into a local store for proper disposal. I explained the battery was out, but he either didn’t understand or wasn’t able to acknowledge that the battery had been removed from a unibody MacBook Pro. What the rep did impress upon me that I was actually not really sitting on a bomb, and that It would be fine to bring in and get rid of.
I kept my gear on, and wrapped the battery in about four inches of bubble wrap, placed it gingerly in the trunk of my car, and headed for the mall.
It was not a great feeling walking through the local mall with a thing I regarded as an admittedly slow bomb. It also wasn’t super to be wearing all of that heavy clothing in early fall but I wasn’t getting blowed up that day, no sir.
While the Apple rep had said he’d called ahead to the store for me, no one in the store seemed particularly aware, and I’m certain they were confused by the strangely dressed man bringing in a giant ball of bubble wrap. I explained what it was and left like a man who had just disposed of a bomb.
Truth of the matter is that, as I’ve mentioned that I was told, the danger wasn’t that great. Batteries do catastrophically fail and explode, and when they do they can certainly make the news, but just because they’re expanding does not mean they’re about to blow. It was probably a good idea to release this one from the body of the MacBook Pro. I didn’t stab it, on purpose or by accident, so I was probably going to be okay. But these things are scary. That specter of doubt and fear lingers in the back of the mind. I still have an old iPhone 3GS sitting on a shelf somewhere, completely burst open under duress of a bloated battery, but I remain too timid, even after this experience, to extract it. Somehow it seems better to just leave it be, quiet, undisturbed. I know that makes little to no sense.
As for an epilogue, the trackpad miraculously seated back into place, and while it gave me some software-related issues for a while, bizarrely it righted itself after a few weeks. Those moments are always heavily bittersweet, as the problem is fixed but… what the hell happened? There’s no lesson to be learned, no knowledge to be gleaned!
A replacement battery was ordered, received, and installed from eBay for a bargain price. Reviews were good enough to offer some degree of peace of mind. And ultimately, the MacBook Pro is fine! Granted, it turns out to be too old to do any of the things we really wanted to do with it. And it’s financially inefficient to offer it any upgrades at all, due to how low the street value is. And it’s a shame, because it’s a wonderful machine in nearly perfect condition. It sits and quietly sulks because the price of a power brick outweighs its value. Such is the fate of these machines.
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 Pro 2010
The MacBook Pro 2010 is a 13 inch display based model with a Core 2 Duo P8600 CPU with two physical cpu cores capable of processing two simultaneous threads total. It runs at 2.4 GHz and is supported by 4 GB of DDR3 RAM. Storage needs are satisfied by a 250 GB 5400 rpm Hard Drive. The graphics are handled by an integrated nVidia GeForce 320M GPU which handily drives the 1280×800 display resolution. Two USB 2.0 ports are complimented by a Firewire 800 port, a miniDisplayPort, and a headphone jack. The MacBook Pro 2010 communicates with the world through a gigabit Ethernet jack, 802.11n WiFi, and Bluetooth 2.1 EDR. It also has an SD card slot and an 8x Superdrive capable of writing and reading both DVD and CD media.
Had we our druthers, we might upgrade the machine to an SSD for the primary drive and swap the optical drive for a caddy to hold the original 250 GB drive for additional storage. We’d bump the RAM to its maximum 16 GB, or at least 8 GB. But by the time any of this is done, unfortunately that money would be better spent toward any modern laptop, the very lowest of which would blow this old Mac right out of the water.