TechnologyTell

Creaky MacBook Air? Tighten some loose screws…but there’s a catch

Sections: Features, Laptops, MacBook Air, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Opinions and Editorials

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An OS X Daily contributor reports that his/her 11″ MacBook Air has been creaking a lot lately when picked up, and the noise, which has gradually increased, has been traced to loose screws. The obvious solution is to simply tighten the screws, but Apple has made that customarily simple task difficult by its employment of screws with non-standard heads, the dreaded “pentalobe,” which defeats your average household screwdriver from working either to tighten or loosen the fasteners.

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Consequently, if you want to perform tasks from screw-tightening maintenance to warranty-voiding case opening, you’ll need to buy a Pentalobe screwdriver, available from iFixIt at Amazon.com for $5.95.

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The Register’s Bill Ray says that with a little research he was able to find a half-dozen companies that sell suitable facsimile Pentalobe screwdrivers for under $10, one for as little as $2.35 plus shipping. It’s a worthwhile investment in light of the limited availability of replacement pentalobe screws.

The expense is further justified by the fact that its very hard to replace a single screw, so if you lose one you’d have to have to pop for a full replacement set from a company like iFixIt, which also sells pentalobe screwdrivers.

Incidentally, the pentalobe fasteners were the main reason why iFixIt awarded the 11″ MacBook Air a miserable 4 out of 10 repairability score in its teardown evaluation of that model.

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However, anti-user internal access roadblocks are nothing new for Apple laptops. Reportedly, the Pentalobe screws first appeared securing the new built-in batteries in place on 2009 MacBook Pros. And long before that, Apple for years insisted on using several strategically located Torx T8 fasteners in its notebooks, presumably also to discourage user-servicing attempts. While Torx-head screws are not exactly uncommon (they’re widely used in the auto industry), the tiny T8 size is not usually found in typical Torx screwdriver and socket sets, and can be hard to find at what passes for hardware stores in most locales these days.

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I recall my first encounter with the T8 roadblock back in the ’90s. I needed to do something relatively minor to my PowerBook, but discovered that on the Pismo you needed a T8 screwdriver in order to execute tasks as simple as adding RAM in the bottom slot or changing a hard drive.

I live 50 miles from the nearest (small) town, and I’m highly doubtful I would’ve been able to buy a Torx T8 screwdriver there anyway. Our provisional workaround was to take a small screwdriver with a broken bit, saw the bit remnant off, and file the new tip down to a triangular shape that would insert in the head recess of the T8 screws. With gentle application of torque to avoid stripping the not-especially-hard metal of the cheap hacked screwdriver, we succeeded in removing and replacing all of the T8 screws encountered in completing the task at hand.

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I subsequently obtained a Torx T8 screwdriver from Wegener Media, and somewhere along the line have acquired a second one, the provenance of which now eludes me. I imagine that little hacked triangular jobbie is still around somewhere as well. However, it’s significantly more difficult to chase down the applicable size(es?) of Pentalobe screwdrivers, since they’re reportedly an Apple proprietary design, reminiscent of the Torx but with five rounded lobes instead of six pointy ones, that is sold by Apple only to its authorized Apple service providers.

iFixIt offers a $9.95 iPhone Liberation Kit that includes a special driver to remove Apple’s proprietary pentalobular screws, plus a new pair of Phillips #00 screws, and a #00 Phillips screwdriver so you can replace the pentalobes with standard Phillips or Torx-head screws, which would be my inclination on principle.

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You can watch an instructional video on YouTube.

The pentalobe farrago amounts to more of a minor expense and tedious annoyance than a deal-breaker, but it still rubs me the wrong way. To my way of thinking, the ideal laptop computer or other electronic device would be designed and built to facilitate easy internal access and component replacement, incorporating as much modularity as can be practically accommodated.

That said, people who endeavor to open a computer or other gadget should be fully prepared to take responsibility for any damage they might do, and it’s fair ball for Apple to impose a warranty-voiding policy on unauthorized internal access, but a sticker seal bearing a notice to that effect is the limit of what’s appropriate.

I would never buy a car with the engine compartment sealed and requiring a key only available to authorized mechanics in order to open it (although I’ve actually heard of that notion being seriously proposed). I’m inclined to think likewise about computers. At the very minimum, you should be able to replace or upgrade the RAM, storage drive, and any batteries without having to schlep off to a repair facility or ship the device to Apple. One of the things I love about my decade-old Pismo PowerBooks is that they’re so easy to take apart for upgrades, repairs, or service (at least once you have a Torx T8 screwdriver in hand). Probably the single most likely factor that would ever persuade me to defect from Apple computers would be modular componentry with easy internal access.

Regrettably, Apple seems dead-bent on going the diametrically opposite direction. These pentalobe screws are just the latest emblematic example. There are also the built-in batteries in recent-model notebooks, and the new MacBook Air’s RAM being hard-soldered to its motherboard, with no upgrade path or potential offered downstream of the manufacturing stage. Boo, hiss redux.

So why does Apple insist on doing this? They won’t keep anyone determined out, and as third party products such as SSD upgrades for the MacBook Air come on stream, pentalobe screwdrivers (or at least usable facsimiles) will become more conveniently available just as Torx T8s did. It seems a perverse exercise in futility. Or crassly cynical planned obsolescence.

“This is planned failure,” iFixIt CEO Kyle Wiens writes in a blog post. “Apple is making billions by selling us hardware with a built-in death clock. It is designed to fail after 400 cycles, conveniently coordinated with their annual hardware release cycle.”

“This screw head clearly has one purpose” declares Wiens, “to keep you out. Otherwise, Apple would use it throughout each device. Instead, they only use it at the bulwark on the outside case of your iPhone and MacBook Air, and protecting the battery on the MacBook Pro so they can keep you out of your own hardware.”

Some Apple apologists are actually defending this keep-out policy. Check out this video of Kyle Wiens debating the issue with CNET’s Natali Morris.

It’s also been suggested that Apple is selling a “total product experience,” and if that concept doesn’t appeal, you have no one to blame but yourself for buying their products, which is an arguable point, but that leaves folks with a do-it-yourself inclination but who are addicted to the Mac OS or iOS kinda’ between a rock and a hard place. I just wish it didn’t have to be this way.

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