Building My MacBook Pro

The best one before the M1.

As I’m back to travelling for work (prior to March 2020), the powerful 15inch Macbook Pro that I had has become the single heaviest item in my backpack. I love the machine - its fast, and the scaled 1920x1200 resolution keeps all the work within my view comfortably. At first I was thinking to buy a 12inch “Single port USB-C” Macbook to use solely for travel, but then I might end up spending for a machine I don’t use much. So I decided to live with a slightly less powerful machine, but with better portability and big enough screen to comfortably display my work. The mission, as I accepted, is to find a resonable price used/refurbished 2015 13inch Macbook Pro.

My initial lookup under local e-commerce platform returns not so good results. They either not the minimum spec I wanted (16GB RAM) or simply price with sentimental value. After almost calling it a quit, I found just the right machine on Ebay with 2.9Ghz i5 and 16GB of RAM - or precisely, half of it - a faulty Macbook Pro with working keyboard/trackpad and the rest of the topcase. The only downside was it is being sold as for repair/parts conditions with no return allowed. Based on pictures provided it looks clean and almost new that I had to try to buy it. In order to minimize the risk of waste of money, I submitted offer for even lower price and got accepted right away.

As clean as it can get.

Two weeks later, it safely delivered to my house. The first thing I do is punch the serial number to to verify the specs mention. I can do nothing at this point if I ever got scammed, but doing this will let me know if this Macbook has ever “Illegal modifications (as Apple put it)”, as there are technicians who can perform RAM and Processor upgrades on these kind of soldered Macbooks.

I was pleased to see that it all got checked out.

I had to put the restoring project aside when my country (and almost every part of the world) enforced the first Movement Control Order (MCO) in order to fight Covid-19. I moved back to my hometown and took the 15inch with me. As I didn’t need to move around for uncertain period of time and will be working from home, I don’t have to worry about carrying it around. I spent the rest of MCO until the government relaxes the restriction and allow people with permit return home and go to work.

The first thing that I need to do is to get the logic board fixed, because it won’t make any sense to proceed further if it can’t be repaired. The most expensive parts are the screen, which the funny thing is I found a replacement screen for 2016/2017 Macbook Pro is much cheaper than the 2015. I took the logic board to my go-to guy who specialized in Mac hardware repair, and turned out later it had a damaged processor from getting in contact with liquid. He was amazed by the cleaning job done by the Ebay seller, because they have done it really well. The only thing that gives was the contact point, which will turn red from white just in case it has contact with liquid. Replacing the processor cost me as much as buying the logic board, as the 5th Gen “Broadwell” Intel processor wasn’t widely available compared to former architecture.

Fun fact : All 2015 Macbooks (13inch Macbook Pro, 13inch/11inch Macbook Air, 12inch “Single port USB-C” Macbook) and 2017 13inch Macbook Air were the only lineup to received the 5th Gen Intel “Broadwell” processor - the 2015 15inch Macbook Pro is still powered by the 4th Gen Intel “Haswell” architecture which also on the previous Late 2013/Mid 2014. The diferrent between those three generation are minimal - 2014 gets minor processor speed bump over 2013, and 2015 had double PCIE bandwidth, Force Touch Trackpad and Radeon GPU instead of Nvidia. Intel will soon discover they had to rely on 14nm process with bunch of ++++ and it just got worst with 6th Gen “Skylake” architecture, which led Apple to building their own silicon. Adding salt into the wound, AMD “Zen” architecture turned out to way better than expected.

In a nutshell, this is a perfectly capable machine as long as you didn’t try to code on it.

After I got the logic board fixed, I sold the 15inch Macbook Pro to fund the rest of restoring project. Almost all parts except the battery, had to be imported from oversea for much cheaper price than to outsource them locally. As the drawback is delivery time, I rely on my iPad Pro and was surpised with how much can be done with keyboard and mouse attached.

The first one to arrived is the most expensive part on the list. Although 2013 and 2014 Macbook Pro LCDs are interchangeable, this does not apply to 2015 model since it has different connector pin that won’t power on the backlight and even had different Facetime camera pin connector.

Next is the battery. Prior to this, I purchases few battery oversea but they all turned out dead in just few months and returning for warranty is really PITA. I found a local battery supplier with Panasonic battery cell that claimed to match with Apple original specs. But even as good as it is, after 100 cycle it begins to deteriorate in battery health quality. Apple original battery will last longer, mostly exceeding 1000 cycle but it also comes with Apple pricetag.

The cheapest part on the list to arrive - Force Touch Trackpad connector. I had to import this one two as local retailer sold this for 3x as much. Meniaga style firaun.

The last one to arrive - 512GB SSD that I bought from Ebay. I could’ve settle out for third-party NVME SSD, but power consumption and endurance rating won’t even matched to stock Apple SSD.

Now they are all here, I begin with assembling the screen first. Do note before securing it tightly, you need to align the screen with the topcase or otherwise it won’t match when you close the lid.

Next was the battery, as this unit already came without battery, I just clean up leftover residue, peel off the pre-applied adhesive on new battery and stick it properly.

Next, securing the SSD and installing the Force Touch connector.

I finalized the whole assembly by putting Thermal Grizzly Kyronaut before screwing the bottom case off. The key secret when it comes to stuff like this is simple - make sure you have the correct tools and don’t try to cheat your way out.

The last time I did a fresh installation of macOS was back in 2014. After that, I just have it restored from Time Machine backup. I never encountered any stability issue and few hours later, I am back to work.

The portability gain over performance trade-off seems a bit more than expected. It feels sluggish than Late 2013 I had from two years ago. It turned out to be the penalty from Meltdown and Spectre vulnerability patches on MacOS and every other operating system as well. Fortunately, after few macOS updates it gets better to the point of acceptable performance level. If you happen to own Macs affected by same vulnerabilities (2015 5th Gen Broadwell, 2016 6th Gen Skylake and 2017 7th Gen Kaby Lake architecture based Macs), it is important to keep your Mac up to date. Verify how badly you are affected with this script if you are handy with Terminal.

Now that its all sweet and done, if you were thinking of doing the same, I am going to tell you now- its not worth it. As matter of fact, no Intel-based Macs are worth owning as to date. With the Apple silicon and the way ahead, you better spending your money getting the M1 or M2 Macs instead.

For me, I already invested from the start and I don’t want to be left with half-baked project. And at the time when I made the decision, Apple silicon isn’t in the image just yet so it was the right call, logically. We all know its coming (Apple silicon), but we just don’t know how soon. I have no regrets even after spending more than I should, as in return the experience make it up for it. As conclusion, these are three most important part that I learned along the process :

1. The ability to calculate budget based on each part.
If I don’t have enough money to buy all the parts at once, I can buy part that I can afford for now instead. I can allocate my paycheck for the next part. And also I can decide if I want a new part or perhaps used parts.

2. The experience of building a Macbook.
Building a desktop computer is easy, you pick processor and mainboard, the rest is pretty much work accordingly based on how much you can spend. Building this Macbook, I can pretty much screw up if I bought LCD for Late 2013/Mid 2014 instead of 2015 since they shared the same A1502 model number. Research twice, buy once.

3. Maybe, a story worth telling.
Not everyone can say they built they own Macbook. In fairness, maybe all I did was just assembled it - same goes to every PC builders out there. Unless of course, if you can fabricate your own processor and design your own mainboard. I don’t really wanna say it, but after spending more than you should, this is the motivation to keep on going.

Posted June 5, 2021