Apple repairs: a symphony in built-in obsolescence?

5 October 2023

“Guiyu e-waste” by Bert van Dijk is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
  • MacBook Air repair scope widens.
  • Over-engineered lid switch now repairable by third-parties.
  • Victory for independent repair shops.

An independent technology repair shop in Dortmund, Germany, has developed a tool that breaks anti-repair locks on Apple laptops, according to a report in 404 Media.

The self-styled Nerd. Tool. 1 allows independent repairers to replace the display angle sensor, a ‘feature’ of Apple laptops for the last three years. It is designed to give the hardware a high degree of control in detecting whether or not the lid is closed. If the sensor develops a fault, users have no option but to use Apple’s repair services and pay the ensuing bills that are typically very high.

Without the necessary repair, Apple MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros will not register if the laptop lid is closed, leaving the device running, its screen on, and fans running. This significantly shortens the hardware’s operating life.

Apple claims the need for a callibrated lid switch is a security feature, yet when it fails or develops a fault, the computer remains on – as do its microphone, speakers and, potentially, its camera.

Switch to a third-party

Laptops from every other manufacturer use a mechanical switch to sense when a machine’s lid is closed, and its operation is typically easily controlled by software. It’s also a part that’s easily replaceable#able in most instances. Not so with Apple devices. It uses a textbook example of over-engineering where the sensor requires calibration from a perfectly flat surface, using proprietary software for setup that’s not available to anyone outside Apple.

“To whoever it is at Apple who decided to not make this available to technicians, ‘Fuck you, we win,'” commented independent repair advocate, Louis Rossman of the Nerd. Tool 1.

The inventor of the third-party tool, Stephan Stein of Notebook Nerds, has put his invention on sale.

“We are selling the nerd.tool.1 to be able to spend time in developing other solutions,” he said. “We will do our best to get nerd.tool.2 to fix other issues which repair shops are facing. The response has been awesome! The community is very kind, which shows how painful these missing tools are for many independent repair shops.”

MacBook Pro repairs always temporary

The latest iterations of Apple portables have met with criticism from repair advocates, with iFixit giving the latest version of the MacBook Air 3/10 on a repairability scale (this article’s contents uses a subheading of “Repair Nightmare,” which is broadly indicative of its author’s opinion).

Apple has come under increasing legislative pressure to make its devices more repairable and offer more self- or third-party replaceable components. To this end, the company now releases guides for third-party repair shops that aid them in their work.

However, with built-in obsolescence in its operating system updates, Apple users always work against the clock. After a set number of OS updates, owners of even highly specified hardware cannot update to any latest release. That forces the user to either accept that the software they run will begin to stop working on the older OS or (as Apple wants) buy a newer model.

Apple’s approach is that of a measured level of interest shown in repairability to appease lawmakers, especially the EU, while ensuring its users are forced into new purchases at regular intervals.

While Microsoft Windows 10 will happily run on ancient hardware (albeit slowly, depending on workload and hardware specifications), Windows 11 requires a TPM 2.0 security chip to be present on the hardware it runs on. The company’s minimum specification for memory and processor speeds means many organizations have had to buy new machines. Support for Windows 10 ends in October 2025.