Adventures in troubleshooting: Replacing a MacBook Air's faulty SSD

macbookair ssd

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The first time my MacBook Air crashed on wake, I didn’t think much of it.

But after about the fourth or fifth time within a couple weeks, I started getting concerned. Not only did it seem to crash a goodly fraction of the time I woke it up (sometimes with a black screen, sometimes with a spinning beachball, other times with a frozen login box), but on first restart it started giving me the dreaded folder with a blinking question mark.

Not good.

I tried Apple’s suggestions for combatting that issue: resetting the NVRAM—where your Mac stores many of its settings when it’s off—and the System Management Controller (SMC), but no solution ever seemed to take. It might offer a day or two’s worth of respite, but just as often it was right back to the same old problem. I repaired my disk—and my disk permissions—and ran the meager diagnostics accessible via the Apple Hardware Test. Everything claimed the system was working fine.

Until I decided to try booting in Internet Recovery mode and running Disk Utility. To my surprise, the 120GB solid state drive in my Air didn’t even show up.

Double not good.

macbookair diskutility

Booting from Internet Recovery, Disk Utility didn't even show my main drive in its listing, just the recovery system booted from the network. Uh oh.

And so, seeking wisdom and understanding beyond my years, I took the Air into a local Genius Bar. The fellow behind the workbench nodded sagely and ran a few tests, then deemed it a software problem. Dubious though I was, I let him wipe the computer  and do a clean install of Mavericks. (Having prepared for the eventuality, I’d backed up using both Time Machine and Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper; you can never have too many backups.) That, he declared, should fix the problem.

But when I got home and woke the computer, I was confronted by the return of the freeze and its friend, the question mark. (Which, come to think of it, sounds like quite the comic book team-up.)

My sneaking suspicion—that the solid-state drive had gone bad—was supported by conversations with a knowledgeable coterie of Mac experts. So, back to the Genius Bar I went—this time to a different Genius in a different store. This gentleman found nothing in the initial tests, and thus suggested I grab a beverage while he ran some more in-depth diagnostics—upon my return, he confirmed my fears: the solid-state drive was basically toast.

Alas, as the Air was no longer under AppleCare, the Genius said that the company would replace the drive for a few hundred dollars, but it would take several days to turn it around. When I asked if I might be able to replace it myself—I believe I described myself as “reasonably handy”—he concurred.

Minimally invasive surgery

The first good step in any repair procedure is making the shopping list.

I also laid out a piece of paper on which I sketched the bottom of my MacBook Air to help me keep track of the many screws I’d have to remove from the bottom of the laptop.

macbookair open

The MacBook Air, mid-surgery, its delicate innards exposed to the world. Surprisingly compact, right?

Following iFixit’s instructions made the process pretty painless: The only real worrying moments are unplugging connectors from the logic board—that’s the point when one false move could land you in much hotter water than you’re already in.

But all told, the whole process from start to finish took only about 20 minutes—and part of that was retrieving scissors from the other room when I realized I couldn’t rip open the anti-static bag the new SSD came in. (One thing I later wished I’d had handy: a can of compressed air, to disperse some of the dust that had accumulated inside the case.)

New SSD installed and case re-attached, I booted the Mac up from my SuperDuper backup and set about restoring my old system, with fingers crossed.

Restoration comedy

Restoring from SuperDuper worked a treat. (I first tried to restore using Disk Utility, but it gave me grief because my 1TB backup disk was larger than my 120GB SSD.) The one problem I ran into was that FileVault was not enabled on the new SSD, and when I went to activate it, OS X gave me an error saying that FileVault couldn’t be turned on for my disk.

macbookair superduper

SuperDuper, from Shirt Pocket, is an invaluable tool for making a bootable backup of your Mac—yes, even if you already have Time Machine set up.

A trip to Google turned up the culprit: Because I’d formatted the new SSD from scratch, it didn’t contain OS X’s Recovery Partition, which is required for FileVault. A little further searching led me to Christopher Silvertooth’s handy AppleScript utility, Recovery Partition Creator. As it suggests, it can create a brand new partition on your startup disk or an external disk, as long as you have an OS X installer handy. (I re-downloaded the Mavericks installer from the Mac App Store.) Ten minutes or so later, and I was able to re-enable FileVault with no problems.

Thanks to the restore, my computer’s back to full functionality, and I can pick up pretty much seamlessly from where I left off—hopefully with a more reliable drive. 

Fix it yourself

Computer repair is becoming more and more of a rarefied skill these days, thanks to smaller and smaller components; many of us are also understandably squeamish about taking apart the devices on which we depend every day.

macbookair badssd

The cause of all my trouble? This small part.

Apple’s most recent devices are particularly hard to repair, in large part because the company has taken to making tradeoffs in order to make its computers as small, light, and power efficient as possible. Replacing the RAM—a task that was as easy as easy could be on many of my previous Macs—is pretty much impossible on my MacBook Air for anybody without specialized skills and equipment, as it’s soldered into place. (For what it’s worth, I’ve upgraded my fair share of components over the years, from RAM and hard drives to processors: I swapped out the 400MHz processor in my blue & white G3 tower for a G4 processor, back in the day when such a thing was both easy and not uncommon.)

Though I’ve sometimes shrugged a bit at the crusade of repairability that sites like iFixit have embarked upon, I have to admit that being able to pull open and fix my own MacBook felt good. I imagine it’s the same satisfaction felt by folks handier than I when they fix a problem on their car that would have otherwise cost them a pretty penny. 

And, for those among you concerned with the bottom line, even factoring in the amount I spent on tools and shipping, the total cost of my repair still came in at less than Apple’s cheapest estimate of $280—and I picked up a new skill along the way. Part of me hopes that, as more and more consumers veer towards tablets and smartphones, Macs and PCs might gravitate back towards the world of the hobbyist and hot rodder—but I’m not holding my breath.

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