Deconstructing Mini

Upon receiving a Mac mini yesterday — Macworld has bought quite a few of them, oddly enough — my first inclination was to walk around with it. Just tuck it under my arm and take a stroll. My second inclination was to plug it in and put it through its paces — and it worked great.

My third inclination was to take it apart to see what made it tick.

And so last night, after carrying it home in my backpack, I set about disassembling the Mac mini. After all, better I risk the life of a single one of Macworld’s Mac minis than all of you risk the lives of your cool new little computers, fresh off the truck.

So with the lives of your Mac minis in mind, I began the disassembly of mine.

Cracking the case. The first step was to pop the case. As our own Dan Frakes and that kid’s weblog have both detailed, the tool of choice is the putty knife. If you’re not a homehowner, you might not have one of these. Me, I just used mine to spackle a couple of holes in my bathroom last week. So I scraped off some dried-up spackle, inserted the putty knife in one side of the Mac mini’s undercarriage, and popped it up with a gentle application of force. I repeated that on the other side and then was able to lift the Mac mini out of its cover.

An important note: if you value the pristine appearance of the Mini’s shiny white plastic top, do all of your work on a really, really soft surface. Because that thing scratches more easily than an iPod.

Mini optical drive

Once the Mac mini’s protective candy coating has been lifted away, we’re left with a clear view of the top side of the computer. The optical drive is on top (A), and right below it on the front face are a small speaker (B) and the computer’s power/sleep light (C).

On the left side is the system’s one RAM slot (D); perched right above it, clipped on to the optical drive, is the Bluetooth antenna (E). In the back right corner, attached to a plastic post and taped to the optical drive, is the AirPort antenna (F). Both antennae’s cables run back behind the optical drive to the wireless daughtercard that’s located down in the computer’s depths.

If you just want to install RAM, this is where you can stop. Pop off the Bluetooth antenna, pop out the RAM, and stick in a new DIMM. But in the interests of science, let’s move on.

The optical drive. At this point I decided to remove my system’s included optical drive, although as it turns out that you can continue with disassembling a Mac mini with the optical drive still in place — it’s just a little bit harder to do.

Mini exposed

Removing the optical drive is easy. There are six Phillips screws, located on the drive’s left, right, and back. In a heavy system, inserting and removing screws can be tricky because they tend to fall into scary places inside the computer. The advantage of the Mac mini’s size is, you can just pick it up in one hand, tilt it in the proper direction, and use gravity to help you keep the screws in the right places.

The Mac mini’s optical drive connects to a small daughtercard (G) that’s also connected to its hard drive and to the main motherboard below. There’s no cable; the optical drive attaches directly to a connector on the card.

Once I removed the optical drive, more of the Mac mini’s insides came into view: right below is the laptop hard drive (H), at the far front is a glimpse of the computer’s motherboard (J), and off to the side you can see the Mini’s cooling fan (K). Because the Bluetooth antenna was taped to the optical drive, I had to remove the tape (L) before removing the drive.

The hard drive. At this point you’d think you could remove the Mac mini’s hard drive. At least, that’s what I thought. But it’s not true. The drive is attached to the Mac mini’s plastic housing — a black module that also holds the optical drive and fan — by four screws, two each on the left and right sides. The problem is, the two screws on the right side (when viewed from the computer’s front) are obscured by the fan and the plastic cover that goes over the processor’s heat sink. Presumably if you remove the housing, you can get at those screws, but I didn’t try in this attempt.

Removing the housing. The Mac mini’s plastic housing is attached to the motherboard in four places: the front right corner (M) and the rear right and left corners (N, O) via Phillips screws, and directly to the motherboard via the daughtercard (G) that also connects to the optical drive and hard drive.

Once removing the three screws, I was ready to lift the housing up. But first, I had to do some careful placement of wires — not only removing the AirPort antenna from its post, but taking care not to rip out the wires running to the power/sleep light in the front right corner (which tends to loop slightly over the corner of the housing) or the power button in the back right corner. Then I gingerly pulled up on the housing, including the daughtercard, which came free of its slot on the motherboard.

What lies beneath. With the housing gone, the motherboard was generally exposed:

Mini motherboard

From here you can see the processor’s heat sink (P), the slot that the housing’s daughtercard was attached to (Q), and the card (R) which is home to the Mac mini’s AirPort Extreme card and Bluetooth module.

At this point, removing the wireless daughtercard is a breeze — two Phillips screws and it’s out.

Mini wireless network daughtercard

Although taped down to hold it firmly in place, this AirPort Extreme card is model A1026 — the standard AirPort Extreme card. Above it is a smaller Bluetooth module (S), screwed to the daughtercard. At bottom you can see the connector (T) that attaches this card to the Mac mini’s motherboard.

Putting it back together. Returning the Mac mini to its original state isn’t actually too hard, but it’s important to take care. I carefully reseated the wireless daughtercard and replaced its screws. I then threaded the wireless antennae through the appropriate spot in the plastic housing and reattached the housing by inserting its daughtercard into its slot on the motherboard, then returning the screws. Then came the optical drive, as well as returning the wireless antennae to their rightful places. Finally came the RAM module. Then with a few clicks, the Mac mini had been returned to its protective shell.

Finally came the moment of truth — had I passed the three key tests of any hardware-disassembler? Step one: no blood on the case. Check. Step two: no extra screws left over. Check. Step three: system works fine once it’s put back together. It worked like a charm, which was a relief. Although I was willing to sacrifice a Mac mini for science, I’m glad I didn’t have to.

But I’ll always remember the time that I held an exposed Mac mini in the palm of my hand…

Palming a mini

(Get more on Mac mini at our special Mac mini page.)

Subscribe to the Apple @ Work Newsletter

Comments