The Macbook Air is a great laptop but unfortunately repairs can be expensive (especially if it’s out of warranty or doesn’t have AppleCare). That’s why I want to show you how I replaced the keyboard on a Macbook Air without the Mac geniuses cajoling me to buy a new Macbook.
When the keyboard sizzles because of liquid damage or keys just stop working you might start to wonder if you its time to buy a new computer. Well, given that the cost of a new Macbook Air is over a thousand dollars, I wanted to attempt the repair myself. But the problem with the Air, is that you can’t just replace the keyboard, you actually have to replace the entire top case. I brought mine for $250 on iFixit. If you’re not feeling particularly audacious then you can have someone replace the keyboard for you; TheMacGeniuses (not affiliated with Apple Inc.) will do it for a cool $280.
Not too bad.
Pain, pain, pain
I’m going to describe my journey to keyboard nirvana in a bit, but first I need to tell you that replacing that thing was a bitch.
It’s not fun, it’s not quick, it’s not easy. Instead, it’s the antithesis of everything good. Replacing the keyboard requires that you dismantle the entire laptop, keep track of over 30 screws the size of poppy seeds and then put everything back together – perfectly. If you leave one thing unplugged, or forget to route a wire through a ribbon guide, or get impatient and break the logic board then your day is going to turn foul, fast.
I actually should dissuade you for embarking on this journey because it’s a pain. I don’t recommend anyone attempt what I did. If you got here through Google or some social site, I hope you weren’t expecting something happy because there was nothing happy about my experience. It sucked but I want to share why it sucked so you can avoid an equally sucky experience.
Why it took me over 5 hours to replace a keyboard
The Macbook Air is a svelte piece of machinery. It’s the veritable Ferrari among computers. Sleek lines, slim physique, and enough curves to have you swooning like a buffoon, the sheer physical appearance of the laptop is enough to have you slack jawed. It’s gorgeous.
When you open it up and look inside, make sure the drool doesn’t drip from your lips onto the SSD (they’re expensive to replace). Everything inside is expertly engineered, thoughtfully placed and a marvel of human ingenuity. I literally stood transfixed for a full minute the first time I saw the interior of the Macbook Air.
You’ll say things like: “Wow, is that the Hard Drive?” or, “What the heck, how did they make that?” Undoubtedly, you’ll be filled with a new veneration for Apple’s elite team of engineers but the wonder won’t last long.
The moment you actually start removing stuff your ineffable since of awe will abruptly end.
Copious, itty, bitty, tiny screws
Removing the components such as the I/O Board and SSD are laborious because of the tiny size of the screws. Many are just one or two millimeters and even for a guy with long slender fingers I had a hard time managing them all (I counted 34 screws).
Also, the magnetic tips of my drivers became more of a bane than a boon because the stupid screws kept back flipping and spinning around the tips on the slightest tremble of my hand. The screw head never wants to stay in place and when you finally manage to balance it there it’ll suddenly flip off the tip and stick to the side of the driver.
It took me a long time to get this balancing act down. You need a steady hand, lots of patience and the ability to hold your breath. With each inhale and exhale the silly screw, screws you up… (pun intended).
Removing the guts
The key is to take it slow. This isn’t a Monday morning pre-work project. No, it’s more like an all day endeavor that will leave your eyes hurting and head pounding with pain. Make sure you have superior lighting because everything is already hard to see, you don’t want to make things worse with a dim room.
Since the components are small you can’t really use your fingers to move, wiggle or remove them. Some connectors have a little security latch that locks the data cables like the display ribbon shown in the graphic below – but this is the exception; you can’t remove most cables with your bare hands.
That’s why you need to make sure you have the right tools.
- Pentalobe driver (to remove the bottom case)
- T8 (for the screws that fix the LCD display to the laptop chassis(yep you have to remove that))
The graphic below shows each of the tools in order starting with the spudger on the left end.
The spudger is the simplest and cheapest of the four but could be the most critical because it lets you poke places your fingers are simply too big to get to. Also, you can use the sharp tip of the spudger to flip open latches, re-route cables, retrieve screws that fall on the laptop and guide connectors into sockets.
Before you start pulling, always make sure you know how to remove something first. Some pieces pull straight out such as the SSD but others you need lift straight up such as the logic cables. If you lift something out the wrong way you risk permanent and costly damage to the socket, so make sure you’re extra careful here.
I followed the iFixit guide, all 47 steps, and two hours later arrayed the goods on my desk:
From left to right clockwise: you have the trackpad sitting under the blue handle drivers. The long slender black L thing is the left speaker. Followed by the keyboard ribbon, the I/O-Board, and Fan. The gumstick shaped thing under the fan is the 128GB SSD. Next to that is the I/O Board cable. That little wire in the upper right corner is the microphone.
Continuing clockwise from the microphone is the right speaker, with the logic board in the center.
And that’s it.
This is the brains behind the sexy exterior of your Macbook Air. Pretty amazing isn’t it?
The hardest part about removing the guts was overcoming my propensity to forcefully remove stubborn components.
You really need to be exacting and patient to remove everything without breaking anything.
Caveats about putting it back together…
As I was reassembling the Mac, a few annoyances happened that required me to reverse my steps and start at the beginning. This really killed my morale and made my feel like giving up. Let me share them with you so you don’t fall into a similar trap.
Make sure the cables are correctly routed
When you reattach the logic board make sure you explicitly pull the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth cables through the little loop on the logic board. The wires don’t naturally follow this path and keep trying to hide under the board.
It was only after I secured the logic board with seven screws that I realized these two cables were missing. This setback added some time to my efforts because I had to remove the board again and then pull the wires through to the other side.
Make sure the fan has power
Yes I know it sounds silly but I forgot to re-plug the power for the fan and then wondered why the laptop was acting weird. Unless you’re intentionally trying to meltdown the board, use the spudger to flip the socket flap down to secure the power ribbon in place. This will keep the fan spinning and cooling the system after you power it back on.
Take your time with the Trackpad
The trackpad has six 1.6 millimeter Philips screws and one 1.4 millimeter T5 screw. These are actually the smallest screws you’ll contend with and therefore require the steadiest hand. The 1.6mm Philips screws secure the trackpad to the under belly of the top case. The picture below shows the right corner of the trackpad. The left corner is identical. You only end up removing the top three screws on each side.
The 1.4mm T5 screw sets how much play, or give, the trackpad has when you press it down. In other words, you use this screw to calibrate how far the trackpad is depressed when you perform the click action.
This is where I had the most problems: I just couldn’t get the set depth right. If you screw it in too far then there’s no give but too much means it doesn’t work right either. I had to reassemble and disassemble three times to get this perfect.
Something I wish I did before removing the old screw from the old top case was noting how far it was screwed in. I should have taken a picture first so I knew how far to screw in the new T5 on the new top case. Don’t make that mistake.
In the picture below you can see two T5 set screws. The old one is sitting next to the new one which is recessed into case.
The Bottom Line
It all starts with the brand new top case sitting in a box on your desk. Mine came mummified in magenta bubble wrap yours will probably have similar protection. The key to installing a new Macbook Air keyboard (in less than five hours) is keep all your screws organized and gently remove all the guts. When it’s time to close up the Macbook Air, ensure the cables are routed right, the fan has power and the set screw in the trackpad is at the right depth. If you do these things then with the right tools, loads of patience, and great instruction guides you’ll be happily typing away on your new keyboard.