With the new MacBook Pro range not exactly delighting diehard Apple fans, many are investigating how to stick with their existing machines – until next year’s models are released, at least.
After all, you can max-out your Mac’s RAM and fit solid state storage in order to turn a slow, cranky Mac into something so speedy that it’s literally faster than new. Additionally, sites like iFixIt provide illustrated guides to replacing every component of just about every device Apple’s ever released.
However, to undertake Apple upgrade or repair work so you’ll need a unique toolkit, which includes everything from the right screwdrivers to antistatic precautions. The ridiculously secretive Apple doesn’t make public the servicing guides for its products so putting together a suitable box of bits can be hard work. Luckily for you, I’ve done just that for Manc Mac Support, my Apple upgrade and repair business.
I’ll bet you’ve never realised screwdrivers are interesting. Well, okay, maybe they aren’t enough for a dinner party conversation. Or any conversation. But the diversity of screws used in Apple products is a curiosity because Apple usually doesn’t want you to access the insides of their products, so they use tamper-proof screws (a.k.a. security screws). These have different shaped heads compared to the flat and Philips screwdrivers used historically for just about everything.
If Apple existed in isolation tamper-proof screws might succeed in their ignoble aim but, in reality, unlicensed Chinese manufacturers flood appropriate screwdrivers onto eBay and Amazon. Most cost just a few dollars.
There are many, many different types and sizes of security screws but below are listed the types you’ll need to not just open the case of most Apple products but also work with components inside. Using the exact size and type required is hugely important because the screws Apple uses in its devices are notorious for stripping, making them nearly impossible to remove.
You’ll find complete screwdriver kits on eBay and Amazon, designed for use with small technology like Apple products. These include most of the types and sizes listed below via interchangeable bits that magnetically attach to the driver handle. These certainly do the job but the heads have a habit of detaching in use, or becoming lost when not in use. I prefer using long-handled/long-blade screwdrivers for each size and type wherever possible.
Pro tip: A neat addition to any screwdriver is a small magnet attached to the blade by which you can safely collect screws as you remove them.
- Pentalobe: This is Apple’s security screw of choice and is used to attach the MacBook bottom case (including Pro/Air), as well to hold the iPhone together, and at multiple spots inside Apple products too. Apple apparently refers to them as “Pentalobular” but the rest of the world calls them Pentalobe – although because the screw head consists of a five-pointed star, people sometimes call them Apple Star. Wikipedia reports that Pentalobe is almost exclusive to Apple products and because it’s one of Apple’s many trade secrets, there’s no agreed way for third-party manufacturers to describe each size. However, in brief, you’ll need P5 (also called TS5 or PL5) to open the case of all modern MacBook/Pro/Air models, while the P2 (or TS1/PL1) is used to gain entry to most iPhones. However, getting a complete set of Pentalobe screwdrivers (P1 to P6) isn’t a bad idea. Be sure to include the all-new PL2 if you can, which is the tiny screw used to attach Apple Watch bands to the lugs.
- Torx: Older and more established compared to Pentalobe, Torx security/tamper-proof screw heads have been in use for decades. To make matters confusing, people sometimes call them Star screwdrivers because the screw head is a six-pointed star (compare and contrast to Pentalobe, which looks similar to the untrained eye but only has five points). There’s also a version called Security Torx that’s identical apart from a stud in the centre of the screw head to prevent people bypassing the “security” by jamming a good-old flathead screwdriver in there in order to turn the screw. Notably, Security Torx screwdrivers can be used with regular Torx screws, but because of that stupid stud the inverse isn’t the case. Torx screws in Apple products are found in diverse locations — everything from fixing iMac screens in place, to holding down ribbon cables (on both Macs and iDevices), to fixing components to a MacBook Pro’s logic board. Basic Torx screwdrivers are numbered T1 upwards, but with the exception of a T25 for a single screw within the 5K iMac, you won’t need a size larger than T10 for work with Apple products. Security Torx use the TR nomenclature instead, and don’t forget that a TR10 will work just fine with a T10 screw, for example, although the inverse is not the case. This is why many kits with interchangeable magnetic bits include T3, T4, T5, and T6 sizes, but then switch to TR7, TR8, TR9 and TR10 for the larger sizes in order to provide the most flexibility. Notably, disassembling the Mac mini 2014 model requires a Security Torx TR6 screwdriver in order to open its case, and this isn’t commonly supplied in such kits.
- Philips: It might be a technology old as the ages but Apple continues to use Philips-style screws internally on modern Macs. They were used also externally on older models of Macs that were intended to be user-accessible in order to replace the battery, RAM or disk. The Philips-style screws typically used in Apple products are PH00 — used to hold on non-retina MacBook Pro bottom cases — as well as the even smaller PH000 and the larger PH0 and PH1 sizes, with the latter being used to release the memory access panel in iMacs. Curiously, it’s likely that the Philips-style screws used in Apple products are actually Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS). This is a virtually identical screwdriver with a slightly different cross-shape head, but they have the same nomenclature – J000, J00 and so on – to correspond with Philips’ sizes. Because of Apple’s notorious secrecy and also the tiny screw sizes utilised in Apple products, I’m not 100% sure JIS is used rather than Philips, but it would certainly make sense considering Apple devices are manufactured in the far east. While confusing Philips and JIS can make a difference at larger sizes, where stripping of the screw head can occur, the tiny sizes of screws used in Apple products don’t invite the kind of turning force (torque) that makes this an issue so the two formats are essentially interchangeable. Still, if you have a set of JIS then you might use them instead of Philips to avoid any risk of stripping or aesthetically marking the screw heads.
- Tri-wing: Not the Rebel Alliance but yet another type of security/tamper-proof screw design that’s also called Y-wing. At first glance it looks almost identical to Philips/JIS but look carefully and you’ll see just a three-prong design, rather than Philips/JIS’ four. Apple uses almost microscopic Tri-wing screws in the Apple Watch but the most common usage when it comes to Macs is the Y1 tri-wing used to fix certain MacBook Pro batteries in place. To confuse matters (and why not?) Apple also uses a slight variation of the Tri-wing, referred to as the Tri-point — the Y0 tri-point is again used with certain MacBook Pro batteries.
Spudgers, suction and other essentials
Outside of screwdrivers your kit should contain a handful of other essential tools:
- Spuders: Outside of screwdrivers, a definite inclusion in any Apple toolbox is a selection of spudgers, also known perhaps more accurately as pry/prise tools, or even jimmys. On eBay they’re often sold as “mobile phone opening tools” or simply “opening tools.” Spudgers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and are constructed from plastic, or sometimes thin springy metal as in the case of tools like iFixIt’s iSesamo [sic]. As you might’ve guessed, a spudger’s goal is slip between small gaps between two surfaces in order to separate them, such as an iPhone or iPad’s digitiser from the case, a newer iMac’s display glass from the case, or remove the glued-in batteries in a MacBook Pro. They can also be used to gently ease ribbon cable connectors out of the logic board. Spudgers are perhaps the item in your toolkit most likely to cause serious damage and need to be used ultra-cautiously, especially if removing batteries, which can literally explode into flames.
- Suction cups: These come in various sizes and are typically used in co-operation with spudgers to remove glass, such as the protective screen glass of an iMac. Once you’ve taken care of screws or fixings, and wiggled any necessary spudger(s), you simply attach the suction cup and then pull its handles to lift away the glass. Larger suction cups tend to have a locking mechanism to create the necessary seal, while LCD screen opening pliers face-off two suction cups to provide a neat way of opening iPhones.
- Heat tools: Apple is increasingly keen on glue to fix its devices together and heat can be used to make it malleable. An iOpener from, you’ve guessed it, our friends at iFixIt, is ideal if working on modern iMacs that have the protective screen glass glued to the case, or iPad screens. You’ll get a heat bag that you microwave and then rest on the glued surface. Alternatively, a low-wattage heat gun will also do the job and provides direct heat you can simply direct at the glass. Unfortunately, these are typically designed for tasks like stripping paint and therefore require immense care so as not to overheat the glass. Misuse can also damage the screen beneath.
- Elbow tweezers: These are useful for either catching a screw as it’s being undone, or holding one in place while it’s fastened. Magnetising the tweezers is a good idea.
Misc items and consumables
A good toolbox might require a handful of additional items and consumables, as follows:
- Sticky pads/double-sided tape: Fitting solid-state disks (SSDs) to iMacs fills a lot of my professional life as a Mac techie and because these drives are notebook-sized (2.5in) rather than the usual PC-size (3.5in), the iMac offers no method to hold them in place. Instead, standard practice is to firmly attach them to the interior of the iMac’s case via sticky pads. Double-sided tape can be used to re-stick the glass screen to an iMac, as well as in other situations. Products made by 3M are pricey but also the most reliable, and you really don’t want the stickiness to fail at any point in the future. Pro tip: Ensure surfaces are 100% clean before applying the pads or tape.
- Canned air: If a Mac is a few years old it will have collected an unbelievable amount of dust inside the case, so much so that you won’t be able to work on it without getting rid of it. Canned air does the trick (pro tip: Always start spraying pointing the straw nozzle away from the device, to minimise the risk or propellant vapour spraying onto hardware).
- Microfibre cloths: Talking of cleaning, I always aim to return Macs to clients as clean as possible. Considering most Macs I work on are filthy to various degrees (especially laptops), this is an easy way to inspire customer satisfaction. Washable microfibre cloths are ideal for cleaning, and you might opt to add-in screen cleaner too. Be careful using cloths inside the case near components because they could dissipate static electricity.
- Spare CR2032 batteries: Some iMacs use a variation of the common-old CR2032 battery to store the system management controller (SMC) values when the power is turned off. The variation Apple uses is called BR2032 but it’s essentially the exact same battery. Even if the battery isn’t depleted replacing it is a good idea if you’re undertaking a task like fitting an SSD, where the client might be anticipating several years more use out of the computer.
- USB memory sticks: I have a keychain of memory sticks in my toolkit with the full installers for versions of macOS/OS X going back to 10.6 (pro tip: Never upgrade a client’s operating system unless they specifically ask for it). Another USB stick contains the installers for typical apps users have on their system, such as Microsoft Office (2011 and 2016), Dropbox, and Adobe Creative Cloud. A further USB stick contains diagnostic and malware removal apps, such as Maintenance by Titanium Software, Etrecheck, and Bitdefender Virus Scanner, all of which are free and I recommend strongly. In short, you can never have too many USB sticks.
- USB-to-SATA adapter (plus 3.5 hard disk power supply): I carry around a 1TB hard disk plus a USB-to-SATA adapter in order to undertake an emergency backup of any client’s data, if required. Additionally, I use the adapter to clone a Mac’s existing hard disk contents to any SSD I’m fitting for clients. The simplest way to get what’s needed is to buy any external 3.5in SATA hard disk caddy that includes an external power supply, and then strip out the electronics. This can then be used for both 2.5 and 3.5in drives.
- Screw containers: Get used to collecting any spare screws, of any size, in case you lose any while working on a Mac. Pentalobe screws in particular are not as cheap as you might anticipate, and all of the tiny screws used in Apple products vanish as soon as they encounter carpet.
- USB Keyboard and mouse: Useful if the client’s own keyboard and mouse are malfunctioning, or simply low on battery, as often seems to happen. Any keyboard and mouse will do, with no requirement to get a Mac-specific model (remember that the Windows key on a PC keyboard doubles-up as the Cmd key). A USB mouse can also be used as a diagnostic tool: if its laser lights when an otherwise non-booting Mac is powered-on then the logic board is receiving power and you can be sure that the Mac’s power supply is still at least partially functional.
- Cables: A short cat5e Ethernet cable can be used to attach a client’s older Mac to his/her all-new model in order to clone one to the other using Migration Assistant. Any short cat5e cable will do and with Macs there’s no need to get a special ‘crossover’ cable, although remember that newer MacBook/Pro/Air models will require some kind of USB-to-Ethernet dongle. The likes of a spare USB cable can also prove handy. For example, a client recently asked me to fix an unreliable wi-fi printer beside her desk, and the solution was simply to attach it via USB. A standard 3-pin “kettle” power-lead (known technically as IEC C13) is useful for obvious reasons, as is buying spare Magsafe 1 and Magsafe 2 adaptors for MacBook Pros (ensure you get high wattage chargers designed for use with 15 and 17in models; these will also work fine with smaller Macs). Nowadays a USB-C power supply should be added to this list too.
- Small LED flashlight and magnifying glass: Both are surprisingly useful for seeing things inside Macs. Cheap handheld mini-microscopes can be useful for examining things like Lightning ports for damage or dirt.
- Non-slip mat: For ensuring tools and screws remain on the surface you’re working on, rather than indulging in their lifelong desire to dive for the floor.
- Copper tape: When upgrading iMacs you might need to cut through metal tape that provides electromagnetic (EM) protection. Narrow copper tape of a type favoured by gardeners provides a relatively inexpensive way to reseal the gaps.
- Thermal grease: Sometimes you might have to remove a Mac’s heatsink to enact a repair (typically when removing a logic board), in which case you’ll need some replacement thermal grease to put it back in place. You’ll also need something to remove the old grease.
Overlooked even by many professionals, electrostatic discharge (ESD) precautions are a necessity. Put simply, every human body collects several thousand volts of static in various ways and you really don’t want that to discharge through a RAM module or SSD that you’re fitting to a client’s computer.
Via an entertaining video from the 1980s (complete with bonus Woz appearance!) Apple explains what it expects of its own field service engineers when it comes to ESD precautions. This is as relevant as it ever was (the laws of physics haven’t changed since) but put simply you’ll need the following:
- ESD mat: The item you’re working on sits on this mat. Mats should be as big as possible without being unwieldy or difficult to store, and should be kept clean via an alcohol-based cleaner (I wipe mine over with isopropanol).
- ESD wristband: Attaches to your wrist to provide a conduit for static electricity away from your body. The wristband attaches either to the ESD mat, or to…
- ESD grounding plug: The mat and wristband attach to this, and it then plugs into a standard mains socket to make an electrical earth connection.
Rather than buy each of the above items separately, some manufacturers sell inexpensive field kits. If nothing else these remove the requirement to decide upon whether you use banana plug connectors to join everything together, or crocodile clips (the latter allow you in extremis to earth yourself to something like a copper water pipe but rarely attach securely).
Notably, all the items above include a one megohm [sic] resistor to avoid the risk of electrocution from a faulty socket or household electrical circuit. However, if you find yourself frequently visiting client premises then adding an outlet tester to the above kit is an enormously good idea. These plug into any outlet and instantly tell you if the socket or electrical circuit has a fault.
If there is a fault then simply skip using the ESD grounding plug, while still using the mat and wristband, which should be attached to each other. In this instance avoid touching any other electrical item while working and rest components you remove or mean to install only on the ESD mat and not on any another surface. All you’re doing here is matching your body’s electrical potential with that of the hardware you’re working on, while every other item nearby will have an alternative electrical potential – and therefore present the risk of sudden electrostatic discharge (or, indeed, sudden electrostatic charge). This is why this mat+wristband alone do not provide an ideal everyday work setup.
Note: This article was first published on the Macworld UK site.