Bringing The Best Laptop Ever Made Back To Life

Eight or nine years ago, Apple was on top of the world. The iPhone just revolutionized phones, Apple was still making computers, and these computers were actually repairable. Of the late 2008/early 2009 MacBook Pro, iFixit said, “What an incredible machine. We are very impressed by the ease with which the new MacBook Pro came apart. This machine should be a joy to work on”. Apple has come a long way since then.

macbook-reflow-shield[DocDawning] has a bit of a Mac hoarding problem, and frequently pays $20 for broken laptops of this vintage. Most of the time, the fix is simple: the RAM needs to be reseated, or something like that. Rarely, he comes across a machine that isn’t fixed so easily. The solution, in this case, is a deep dive into heat guns and thermal management. How do you bring a laptop back from the dead? [Dawning] shows you how.

Like the old XBox towel hack, the first thing to look for in dead electronics is broken solder balls. Of course, actually looking at broken solder balls is pretty hard, so you might as well just get out a heat gun and go at it. That’s exactly what [Dawning] did. With the clever application of an aluminum takeout tray to direct the heat flow, he blasted each of these chips with enough heat to hopefully melt all the balls.

With that, a working MacBook Pro was just a liberal application of thermal paste away. From $20 at the scrap heap to a working computer, [Dawning] did it. He successfully resuscitated a broken computer.

60 thoughts on “Bringing The Best Laptop Ever Made Back To Life

      1. Which isn’t helped by the fact that Apple made the body of the laptop such that flexing the outer enclosure flexes the circuit boards – unibody instead of internal support skeleton.

      1. TBH only Apple could make a laptop-ified NVIDIA chip last 8Y+.
        Ok, lied a bit….
        Any manufacturer who put the NVidia in a stable part of the PC so the assembly didn’t crush the uBGA between the silicon and its’ carrier.
        That is they…. lets say: used a uni-module heat dissipation bolck: dv6000 (only a fully clogged heatsink kills these) or a full metal shell: Dell inspirons (the GM945 era) and Apple.

        The DV9000 (HP) had what I call flappy heatsinks twisting the board up in that thin, flimsy, easily twisted peasant quality casing. Thus a repair lasted only 4 days!!!!

        The fault I found with NVidia wasn’t the balls between the carrier PCB and the Main PCB. But the uBGA between the silicon and the carrier PCB.
        The experiment involved a common failure product (Sony Viao laptop with GM45, can’t remember the model).
        I’d full reflow one and only reflow the uBGA under the silicon on the other: Both worked.
        Both failed again when pressed on (By hand and yes a 50*C heatpipe) whilst still hot and a BSOD with garbling of the screen experienced.
        Repeated the experiment several times for consistency and confirmation.

        The only solution was wiring the fan permanently to 5V with the customer aware. (Oh and a reflow of the experimented laptops got them out of the door …. …. until…. Customer scrapped them all for better machines)

  1. In my experience, this type of fix for broken solder balls almost never lasts. Even when I put one board on a professional reflow station, it still only lasted a few months before breaking again. I think the only true fix is to reball the chip.

    1. The only solution is to replace the chip, the problem are *not* the balls under it. It is a flip-chip design and what cracks due to thermal stress are the contact bumps inside of the package, *NOT* the solder balls. And you cannot fix those by reflowing the chip. All you are doing is melting the underfill and jiggling the bumps, so if you are lucky they will make contact for a few weeks – until it cracks and you are back to square one.

      1. Contact bumps you say, mind explaining what those are? The flip chip wikipedia article doesn’t mention them but does mention bumps:

        “The solder bumps are deposited on the chip pads on the top side of the wafer during the final wafer processing step. In order to mount the chip to external circuitry (e.g., a circuit board or another chip or wafer), it is flipped over so that its top side faces down, and aligned so that its pads align with matching pads on the external circuit, and then the solder is reflowed to complete the interconnect.” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flip_chip

        Solder bumps seem to be the same thing as solder balls, used for connecting your finished chip to a motherboard. Are you talking about something else like the traces between some part of the die and the pads where solder balls get placed?

        1. You’ve got it right. Flip chip is like BGA from the die to a carrier. WLCSP packages are pretty much the same thing as flip chip but for direct board mounting.

          A BGA carrier provides a reliable way to break out the tiny chip bumps to larger balls for PCB mounting. The chip pads are too tight for high density ICs to route and safely solder onto typical PCBs. The BGA carrier material, underfill (that resin around the edges of the die), and solder are chosen with similar thermal coefficients of expansion so that the die doesn’t rip itself off the carrier when it heats up, and decouple board stresses from the die attachment.

          1. (+1 wish for edit button)

            To your point, the rumors at the time were that nVidia chose a die underfill material that wasn’t appropriate for the type of solder being used for the bumps. Mechanical stresses between the dried underfill and bumps cracks solder joints as the chip heats up and cools.

          2. Well explained that fellow, thank you. So there’s a BGA from die to carrier, then another from carrier to say a laptop’s motherboard. How would you go about fixing that? “You don’t” is of course accepted but presumably you’d cut through the existing BGA and underfill to separate the two without fracturing the incredibly delicate die, is there any way to do that? Maybe a similar method to cutting glass?

          3. I don’t know if this is done or possible. But I’d guess that first you’d have to dissolve the underfill with some sort of solvent that doesn’t hurt the die, then desolder the die, clean the die, rebump, solder to a new substrate, then reapply underfill.

          1. Bizzarely, Youtube can generate subtitles from this video using voice-recognition, then translate them to a language I speak (English). The future’s not so bad, technology wise. Still feeling a bit ripped off on the flying car front, but still, not bad.

            Before now I’ve had a conversation about medical stuff on Facebook with someone who speaks no English at all, and I speak no Portuguese. We both just type away as usual, and get a pretty comprehensible translation. Mad, innit?

      2. Those Nvidia screwups of the early 00s weren’t limited to Apple. Dell and HP got hit pretty hard with them too. I had a Dell Vostro 1400 that had Nvidia GF8400M video. The machine made it thru the original warantee period just fine, but about the time I heard about the class action suit against Nvidia for knowingly shipping defective graphics chips, my Vostro died with the listed video problem. Due to the lawsuit, Dell, HP and Apple had an extended warantee covering these failures and I got my Vostro repaired without charge, even though it was out of regular warantee. Of course the fix lasted about 6 months before the system was boned again, so I parted it out on eBay… I understand, in the case of the HP failures, they actually replaced the entire affected system vs Dell just repairing the system…

        1. My out-of-warranty Canon digital camera croaked due to a similar fault with the image sensor. I googled it and saw there was a recall on it. They swapped it to a newer, better, model and they also swapped the sd-card and the batteries too because the new model was slightly different.

          Didn’t have to argue or anything, they just sent the new kit directly. Which is how it should be, I think.

  2. *yawn* I thought this was HACK-of-the-day, not “professional/hi-tech-of-the-day.” Try baking a laptop mobo in the oven.

    I had a friend who’s laptop seemed to work, as in “the lights flashed as expected, etc,” except it had no video output (had a separate GPU chip.) Took the motherboard out of the case and removed all plastic that I could. Laid it on a cookie sheet in a cold oven. Set the oven to 390 (l already knew this oven was accurate) and let it get hot. Once it showed at-temp, I left it for 3 mins and then turned it off. Waited an hour for things to cool down and then opened the door and pulled it out. Reassembled the laptop. Worked like a charm.

    1. I would have opened the door quite soon after the reflow temperature peak. Once in a company we had a small professional reflow oven (for prototype use) it even started to beep at this point to request that you open the door and started fans below the PCB. If you look on typical reflow profiles you will easily understand this. You do not want a shock, but after a few minutes the stuff should be cold.
      Was 390°C or °F? This forum has international audience, so it would be nice to specify this.

      1. Yer right, I should have specified. It was degrees F (and I believe that was the temp I used. It’s been a couple of years now.) And as to the other comments about how “this would only work for a while”, etc. as far as I know, the laptop’s been working fine since (it was for a relative of a co-worker but I haven’t been told it quit working again. And this was an HP made around 2014 or so, if memory serves me correctly It was definitely a Windows machine. So it would have used a different chip set.)

    1. Try an SSD… I have a mid 2009 MBP too and it runs 10.11 El Capitan just fine, at least as peppily as older OSX variants did on the mechanical drive. I also did a clean installation.

    2. How much RAM do you have? Back then they came with 2GB, max it out (to 8GB I believe).
      Benchmark the HDD too, back then they were SATA (not SATA2, just 1.5Gbit SATA)
      Also, get rid of stupid Photos app, it is continuously scanning all your pictures in the background, and slows things up a lot.

  3. Reflows are just a band aid, but if the heatsink is decently cleaned and decent thermal paste is used after one things might work for some long-ish time, but at least drown the thing in flux when reflowing the thing..

    1. THIS. BGA is just a horrid feat of engineering. Unless it is sitting in one place its entire life with shock absorbers and overdone cooling, it should be retired. I miss ZIF sockets and side pins.
      I am not a certified pro but have done a few bakes that lasted a while before the fluctuations in the board or heat caused them to fail again. I have more faith in the newest laptops that don’t require a person to crossflex the entire machine to get it open but those tend to also live their life as a touchscreen/tablet which get subjected to all kinds of other bangs and drops. Not sure if it will ever end.

      Maybe a human centipede of a BGA that heats itself up to “towel trick” heat every coupla months to keep things nice and sticky ;) Sadly, it too would have to be flat and not moving with proper safe cooling :(

      1. Realistically, it’s partly an issue with having ROSH solders. There’s a lot of issues with these solders, the underfills used, and the temps involved.

        A lot of these lead free solders don’t have the robustness needed to withstand the abuse we put them through (either thermally or mechanically). And many of the choices give you one or the other, such as a temperature stable joint, but it’s brittle to shock, or a shock resistant joint that has thermal expansion that is hard to match to an underfill.

        1. The news at the time of the nVidia issues was that they did use leaded solder for the flip chip bumps. At that fine pitch lead-free whiskers were (are?) too big a risk. I suppose that it passed RoHS as the lead was encapsulated in the underfill and was used in very small amounts.

  4. :back-in-the-day” this was called ‘shotgun troubleshooting’ (also known in some circles as Wild Ass Guess – or “WAG”). Absolutely no measurements made or other empirical data captured regarding what might be wrong – just keep replacing parts until it works.

    If you have a doctor or car mechanic that used the same approach, it’s almost certain that the consumer would be quite pissed (and rightly so).

  5. I give it 4 weeks. He didn’t fix jack. He applied just enough heat to expand the carrier’s substrate and reconnect the bumps on the die. Between two ‘flexible’ PCB substrates connected by a ‘soft’ solder alloy with ‘large’ surface contact, and the rigid die with comparatively much smaller bumps, which interface do you think is going to fail first?

    1. Yeah, I entered in to the situation with that in-mind. I’m not going to actually fix a design flaw on a ~8yr old dumpster find. This was my version of doing a puzzle during the weekend at the cottage. My wife pays $20 for her puzzles, as do I with mine. ;)

    1. Will have more time after work to watch and confirm for myself,

      Meanwhile can you confirm/deny if this stated the same and/or similar to my comment near the top about the uBGA between the Si and the Carrier being at fault as opposed to the carrier to MB BGAs?

      1. From reading your comment near the top what you discovered is the same issue that Luis is talking about, the connection between the die and the carrier PCB being faulty (what he refers to a bumps) as opposed to the connection between the entire module and the main PCB.

    2. Louis and I have totally different use cases. He runs a business that fixes people’s stuff and makes great points about not giving paying customer’s false hope.

      I am my own customer here. I’m not about to sell something I cowboyed after a dumpster-dive. I suppose folks would try that. I’ve bought a number of trashed old laptops dirt-cheap and most of them are posted under the guise of being unable to even POST. I typically find a healthy power adapter is enough. Occasionally memory needs a reseat and very occasionally they actually don’t POST. For the couple I had in my pile not POSTing, the fun was in seeing if I could get them to boot at all. I’ve watched a ton of Louis’ videos and there’s a ton of great info buried in parts of them. Louis also constantly shits on Apple for some good and some hilariously personal reasons. He’s a guy that knows a bunch of stuff, but has his own frame of reference (unlike Donnie). There exist no one-size-fits-all, especially in the day and age of alternative facts. Hah.

      Your take-away is don’t have illusions, enjoy the adventure and if it’s about to get scrapped completely, take a chance. A little heat like this isn’t going to correct a fundamental fault. But if you score a tossed machine for $20, and you like to see if you can make it live again, then dive-in.

      This is by no-means a manual to the business-plan for your next legitimate start-up…

      PS – I did this reflow nearly a month ago and have used one of the machines every day since without issues. Though that fact proves nothing. Just a bedtime anecdote.

  6. Fixed a 2018 Imac 20″ with graphics issues last week using liquid flux and house hold quarts oven. Been working perfect for about 2 weeks of non stop usage.

    True story I use a 2009 Macbook pro everyday for last 5-6 years as my primary device. Took it to every trip and every hacking adventure.

  7. >Rarely, he comes across a machine that isn’t fixed so easily

    Almost every single Nvidia based laptop is unfixable, there are very rare exceptions (some HP/MSI made by quanta for example) that let you disable discrete graphics with a jumper on the mobo. No, you CANT buy real replacement nvidia chips made past 2010, everything on the market is recycled pulls with chinese fake markings. The ONLY working method able to fix laptops with bad Nvidia GPU (video podklichenye hehe):

    >From $20 at the scrap heap to a working computer

    Did the HaD editor not make the least amount of effort to bother resea…. oh its you. Its one of your low hanging fruit posts :) Trying to rattle the troll feathers by publishing patentable bullshit about fixing Nvidia GPUs with paint stripper, cool. Nothing says quality website like lying to people.

    1. In fairness to HaD, previous posts of mine they’ve made articles about told somewhat different stories from the actual source content I wrote. This one wasn’t quite too far off. I was aware of Louis’ reballing BS video heading-in and what I took away from it is that it’d be dick move to sell these machines without being pretty up-front that they could die at any moment. So far, they’re working fine.

  8. “best laptop ever made” is pushing it if you are not a fan of Macs (of which I am not.)

    If I had to throw my hat in the ring (though I have owned many laptops)

    It would either be the Dell Latitude or the old Toughbook.

  9. I see lots of complaining as always, the taunts of clickbait, calling out the author, etc. I find it kind of amusing because the commenters really wrote this article. Sharing tid bits of their expertise on a subject that would not have been discussed otherwise if the complainers had their way. If we all ignored horseshit we’d never figure our what good fertilizer it makes!

  10. Having played with some early Macbooks, it’s easy so see “Bean Counters” rule the roost over at Apple.
    Who it any state of a right mind would ship a high end laptop, designed for graphics, (They say) restricted to 2 Gig Ram.
    Well, OK, the Sony Viao shipped with 1 gig ram, but that’s Sony.

  11. I’ve had and old macbook pro (early 2011) lying around, I new that the graphics card was not working, in fact there was even warranty recall for this graphics card issue but I’ve missed that train and I also didn’t want to put in oven to try to reflow but this hack seemed like a good option, so I tried to fix it with the same approach except I’ve used a few layers of aluminium foil to cover up the rest of the motherboard, didn’t expect much but for my surprise the hack worked! :) Thanks Doc Dawning and Hackaday. Now only time will show how long this fix will last.

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