MacBook Pro Corpse Reanimations

My Macintosh-hording neurosis project has equipped me with various (mostly) 2008-vintage MacBooks. I’m a particular sucker for the 17″ ones. Two of them I paid $20 for, the other two were $34 and $50. Each one of them was sold for scrap as they were tested & reported as totally non-functional.

I tend to take warnings for dares.

Most actually worked fine with nearly zero effort. One needed its RAM reseated. But two of them were really dead, that is to say, I could not get them to POST. As a person who builds the odd thing, when I look at a “broken” device, I think to myself: If I were gonna make one of those from scratch, this one’s like 99% done as-is.

Suffice to say, I got them all working and it was decently hardcore.

Starting Point

Of course I tried various things to get them working, but all I could get is the sleep light would turn-on after pressing the power button. I had two such units, 17″ models, a MacBookPro3,1 and a MacBookPro4,1.

I realized since I got these from the computer junkyard and they were already written-off as corpses, if I didn’t risk making them more dead, I’d probably never fix them at all. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose.

With basic faults ruled-out, the next thing to try was a reflow of the major components. Since the machines showed the slightest of life-signs, the CPUs became my main suspect, but I’ve had a GPU break its SMD welds before, so I decided to just reflow anything decently complex. I was considering diverting in to a project like this. But decided to cowboy it with my heat gun first.

To really get started, I had to first remove the logic boards and clean off the thermal paste/grease.

Heat Gun

I already had a 1500W heat gun I got for using with heat-shrink. I blasted it against some raw solder to get a rough feel for what it takes for it to melt solder. The answer is not much.

While I had intended on reflowing the entire board, when I’ve seen youtube videos with similar projects, folks seem to often thermally mask-off a target chip. I figured this might reduce the air-flow pressure against the various tiny caps (etc), so I measured and cut a suitable shape in an Aluminum take-out tray.

I started blasting the heat to each major chip from kind of far back, about 350mm away. I watched adjacent solder pads, waiting until they looked a little shinier (I’ve noticed liquid solder tends to be be shiner). Overall, each chip probably saw a mere 20s of sustained heat, though at times I’d briefly get as close as about 80mm.

Once I felt like I’d delivered enough heat, I left the boards for a while to cool back to ambient.

Thermal Paste

During the reassembly I obviously had to apply new thermal paste. I’ve classically leaned towards the less-is-more camp when it comes to thermal paste, but then I watched this video:

While that doesn’t really land on an exact verdict, I then considered what they looked like when I disassembled the boards:

This seemed like a crazy amount of paste to me, but Apple tends to direct Foxconn rather well. I decided to split the difference between my classic amount and what was on there in the first place. The above video gave me the feeling like rounding-up slightly seems a bit less risky that rounding-down slightly. I put on a latex glove and used my finger to spread a thin layer evenly over the heat pads, then I added a little glob to the middle:

As it happens, the repair initially had no effect on one of the two machines. So I had to try it again. It did work the second time. On my way back in, I got to see how well my choice of paste application spread around, this is what I got:

I think that was precisely what I was aiming for, somewhat less than the factory, but clearly a notable quantity.

I used MG Chemicals 860 Thermal Transfer Compound. About a year ago I read this super detailed comparison of thermal compounds, MG’s 860 has A-grade performance and it’s inexpensive (perhaps due to zero marketing).

False Failure

On both occasions the sleep light initially would only blink intermittently after the reflow. I thought I’d screwed my logic boards up at first, then released, like a champ, I’d left out my RAM. So, if you see that steady blinking white sleep light, it could be RAM.

It worked


The process worked. The machines went from nice-looking paper weights to being usable computers again. Granted these are pretty old, for ~$20 and some fun-time screwing around under the hood, I ended-up with some nice extra units to goof with. My previous post about Windows 10 on Vintage Macs would seem to apply.

This post was written from a machine with one of the repaired logic boards. 🙂

I’ve posted many pictures of this to a Flickr Album, here.

4 comments to MacBook Pro Corpse Reanimations

  • […] Rarely, he comes across a machine that isn’t fixed so easily. The solution, in this case, is a deep dive into heat guns and thermal management. How do you bring a laptop back from the dead? [Dawning] shows you […]

  • […] that. Rarely, he comes across a machine that isn’t fixed so easily. The solution, in this case, is a deep dive into heat guns and thermal management. How do you bring a laptop back from the dead? [Dawning] shows you […]

  • Benik3

    The video about thermal paste is almost pointless…
    More accurate is this one, where you can easily see, that you should never apply the paste by spreading it over the whole chip (and also never put down the heat sink and put it back…)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EyXLu1Ms-q4

  • Doc

    “(and also never put down the heat sink and put it back…”

    If you’re referring to my second to last photos, please re-read my statement: “On my way back in, I got to see how well my choice of paste application spread around, this is what I got:”

    In other words, I know not to compress the compound, then uncompress it and reuse it. I got to see how it spread only because my first attempt to reflow that board failed so I tried again. On my way back in, I then got to see how the paste had spread. When reassembling it yet again, I then had to clean off and reapply the paste.

    As for “you should never apply the paste by spreading it over the whole chip” I guess the definition of “should never” needs to be qualified. After a solid month of use, I’ve had zero issues. And context again, these were garbage-finds.