Lessons Learned from Repairing the Trackpad on a MacBook Air

Symptom: The keyboard and trackpad of the early 2011 model Macbook Air was completely unresponsive.

We tried all the basics; you know – rebooting the Mac, pressing the caps lock key to see if the integrated LED glowed green, trying to boot into Safe Mode by holding down the shift key and cleaning the trackpad with a lint free cloth but the keyboard and trackpad categorically refused to cooperate.  It was as if something was internally disconnected.

So we took this obstinate little laptop into the Apple store and made an appointment with the Geniuses. A few minutes later a Genuis Bar employee emerged from the thicket of blue shirts and ascertained that we needed to replace the top case because of “internal damage due to normal wear and tear”.  Cost: over $700.

Now, given that cost was more than half the cost of the entire laptop I knew there had to be a cheaper way.

I started googling and found some people with similar issues.  I eventually ended up ordering a trackpad from Powerbook Medic for $75.  Then I scoured youtube for video tutorials but they were either antiquated or irrelevant.  None of them gave me the confidence to perform laptop surgery on the petite and fragile Air.

My quest for answers led me to a voluminous, but helpful, 25 page tome from iFixit.  The laptop repair was arduous to say the least but iFixit isn’t to blame for that.  In fact, the iFixit guide was excellent.  It was replete with detailed photos, well placed warnings, and thoughtful captions that really gave me the confidence to deconstruct the Air.  The most difficult part of the repair is just being patient.  This is an exacting task that requires a steady hand and ample time.  If you don’t have two hours to spare don’t try it.

Here are four lessons I learned from my repair:

1. An Apple Genus can be wrong

Don’t take the opinion of these techs as absolute.  Their opinion isn’t definitive.  I would get a second opinion from a disinterested geek friend who isn’t compelled to suggest high price repairs.  The Genus Bar techs are intelligent but they don’t know everything and sometimes they make hasty conclusions on slight evidence.

Despite Apples suggestion that I replace the top case, I decided to only displace the trackpad and, fortuitously, discovered that maneuver actually fixed both the track pad and keyboard.

2. You need specialized hardware

The Macbook Air uses a weird screw driver with a tiny star head that has five vertices.  I later learned these are called T5 screws.  I couldn’t find these anywhere! Ultimately, I found what I needed but that’s after I almost wore myself out calling local tech shops.

3. Don’t force anything

The inside of the Macbook Air is cramped, miniature, and delicate.  For example, I had to remove the Solid State Drive (SSD) before I could remove the top case.  The SSD looks like a stick of RAM but you have to slide it horizontally (not vertically) to remove it.  If you try to force it up and out of the board, you’ll get resistance.  If you ignore the resistance and pull anyway, you risk breaking the socket from the motherboard.  Then, well then — you’re screwed. Pun intended.

Here’s another example: After I carefully screwed everything back into place I only had two remaining screws to affix the bottom cover to the Mac chassis; however, I simply couldn’t get the screws to catch the thread to close the cover flush with the chassis.

After doing the same thing four times, I stopped, wiped the sweat from my forehead and reopened the case.  I looked around but didn’t see anything hindering the bottom lid from closing.  Yet, every effort to close the gap was abortive.  I was obviously doing something wrong.

So, I flipped the Mac over and noticed the trackpad was permanently depressed.  It looked like someone jammed it into the Mac body.  That’s when I realized that, although I screwed the trackpad into place, I didn’t position it properly before closing.

I took the computer apart, found the problem and quickly made the change.  If I impatiently forced it shut I could have irrevocably damaging the track pad.

4. Sketch a diagram

You need to be super scrupulous when it comes to storing each screw — put them in labelled locations.  Some screws have different lengths, others have different heads so you need to keep track of where these things go. There were over a dozen infinitesimal screws; so tiny that my skinny fingers could barely grasp them.  Grouping similar screws into a safe place where they won’t roll off a table is important.

You might tell yourself that you’ll remember where they go but trust me on this one, you’ll probably forget.

Take a moment to draw a rough sketch of the bottom of the computer.  I drew small hollow circles on a sheet of paper to represent screws of medium length and draw blackened circles to represent the longer screws.

In conclusion, taking apart a Macbook Air can be a painful process.  The Air is teeming with tiny screws and demands a great deal of patience; however, if you draw a diagram to mark where each screw goes and if you’re careful not to forcefully remove anything, you can tackle this project and save a few hundred dollars too.  The most difficult part is being patient, I can’t emphasize enough how imperative it is that you have block of uninterrupted time to do this.  But once it’s done, and it’s working right… the reward is very gratifying.

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  • Daniel Sem

    Just what I was looking for, thanks!

  • Cheryl Kreiser

    The trackpad on my Air just stopped clicking..and my machine isn’t even two years old. I’m gearing up to perform surgery! Thanks for the helpful advice.