My MacBook Pro and I had a wild weekend: I reflowed the solder on its logic board three times in one day, then drilled 60 holes in its bottom case. Why?
I first started noticing heat issues about a year ago. My model of MacBook Pro is notorious for running too hot. And I run mine pretty hard: I’m a programmer for iFixit, and in my spare time, I game and make electronic music. On an average day, my laptop hovered between 80º and 90º C. One time I saw it climb as high as 102º C—hot enough to boil water.
So I tried some simple fixes. I blew out the inside of my laptop with compressed air. I bought a laptop stand and stopped using it on my lap. I enabled smcFanControl, a program that lets me run my fans at the max speed of 6200 rpm all the time.
But it still ran hot. And one day in March, it died. I was working on it when the screen suddenly went black. When I powered it off and on again, the power light lit, but I got no boot chime and the screen alternated between glitchy and black—it all screamed that something on the logic board was busted. Probably the water-boiling temperatures had caused the board to flex, knocking solder loose from its ball grid arrays. The likely fix? Reflow it: Heat it up until the balls of solder melt back into their assigned spots.
I’d never reflowed something before (though I’d read about people doing it to fix the Xbox Red Ring of Death). I thought about sending my laptop off to a professional reflow outfit, but I would’ve had to go a couple weeks without it. Fuhgeddaboudit.
Instead, I cracked open the back of my laptop, disconnected all eleven connectors and three heat sinks from the logic board, and turned the oven up to 340º F. I put my $900 part on a cookie sheet and baked it for seven nerveracking minutes.
After it cooled, I reapplied thermal paste, put it all back together, and cheered when it booted. It ran great for the next eight months. Temperatures averaged in the 60s and 70s C—although recently, they began creeping up again.
Then, two weeks ago, it died again. Same story: It was working one minute, then the next minute it went completely black. Again, no boot chime. No video.
I had a hunch that the problem was related to the thermal paste: When I disassembled it the first time, I had to scrape some thermal pads from under the Thunderbolt controller and the system hub. This left a large gap between the heat spreader and the chip. I’d tried to fill the gap with an extra big gob of thermal paste, but I suspected that the paste hadn’t gotten a good seal. So after putting my logic board through another oven treatment, I bought a couple of thin copper sheets, cut them down to size, and thermal pasted them into the spaces under the chips.
It booted and ran again—until Friday.
So Saturday, a friend and I played laptop doctor all day. We started by trying to locally apply heat to the logic board with a heat gun. Since we didn’t have an infrared thermometer, we had to eyeball it, waiting for the solder to look a little gooey and the board to smell like it was cooking (the smell is somewhere between baking cookies and burning plastic). We tried to aim the gun at the chips where I thought there was a problem, and we shielded more sensitive parts with little strips of aluminum foil. After that first reflow, the computer booted and ran, but just for an hour.
The second attempt, we tried using the heat gun again, but this time it wouldn’t boot.
Finally, we sent it back into the oven—for seven and a half minutes, in case getting it a little hotter made a difference. And while it baked, we decided it was time to break out the bigger guns. That is, we pulled out a drill. With a 1/16” bit, we drilled holes in the bottom case, under the fans (we figured out where the blades of the fan were exposed based on the dust pattern stuck to the inside of the bottom case). The speed holes worked: The boot chime rang. The screen glowed. The fans blew.
There’s noticeably increased airflow—when I put a piece of paper on the bottom of the computer, it sticks to the case. Its average temperature is down in the 40s and 50s, lower than it’s been since before March.
It’s a little early for a final verdict, but the computer has now been running without incident for fifteen days. Unconventional electronics repair tools they may be, but that’s how I saved my MacBook Pro with a drill and an oven.