Project Airbag: MacBook Air Rev. A USB SSD + Sound Fix

Howdy!

I’m back again with another project! This one is another relatively short one, but it’s full of hilarity, so hold on to your hats.

DSC_2215System Backstory: I managed to get a hold of a Rev. A MacBook Air (Original) in poor (but salvageable) condition a few months ago. It had a damaged hinge, damaged display cable, no hard drive or hard drive ribbon, non-functional on-board sound, no battery and a damaged I/O ribbon. These computers are interesting because their motherboards are quite tiny! Here’s a photo of one. You could put that in just about anything. Plus, it wouldn’t take a large heatsink to convert the cooling system to completely passive! Neat.

Anyway, due to the damage, the computer was extremely cheap. But, it needed some things. A lot of things, actually. Another thing to note, these machines (Rev. A) will only run up to OS X 10.7.5. Additionally, the hard drive is a PATA microdrive. Drives not really known for performance, or long term reliability. Rather than opt to use another PATA microdrive, I sought an upgrade. ZIF-PATA SSDs are expensive for their size. Or, were manufactured by brands with poor quality/poor warranty support. Well, as it turns out, you can get something that performs close to, if not better than those ZIF-PATA devices, with a bit of work.

Parts:

MacBook Air Rev. A Battery

SanDisk Micro-SATA 64GB SSD

1.8 Micro-SATA to ZIF Adapter

MacBook Air Rev. A Hard Drive Ribbon

MacBook Air Rev. A Display Cable, Hinge and Plastics Set

1.8 ZIF to USB Adapter

USB Sound Card Belkin Ultra-Mini USB Hub

Let’s start with some failure: I thought it would be as simple as popping in a new HD ribbon, connecting the uSATA to ZIF converter, and dropping in my SanDisk SSD… But, for whatever reason the MBA would not detect the uSATA to ZIF converter. But, when I hooked it up to my ZIF to USB converter, it would detect just fine. I found a lot of useful info here, but unfortunately, my tinkering did not pay off.

I tried removing the 5V regulator and components (as the drive in the MBA.A is 3V3, as is my new SSD), and soldering a jumper to force mode select on the adapter. The good news is that the SSD is very short, and fits well (even with the adapter) in the area where the hard drive previously was. I was also able to find some interesting information about the latent USB ports on the MacBook Air motherboard. Which (while unfortunately, only full-speed) could be used for utility devices. Here’s a link to the info on those. My big plan originally, was to solder in the USB sound card onto one of these locations, and wire it into the original headphone jack. But, with the hard drive not working… I had to come up with a new strategy.

I decided the best course of action (Bahahahahahahaha… Best… Right…) would be to cut the USB port out of the I/O panel, wire in a USB hub, and the wire the USB port back into the hub, allowing me to hook up USB high-speed devices internally. Then, wire in the USB sound card, and the SSD via a ZIF-to-USB converter board.

And, that’s what I did. It’s not pretty, and the fitment isn’t wonderful… (There’s not a lot of room in there, not that you needed me to tell you that.), but it works. The benchmarks are respectable given the circumstances. It falls somewhere between UDMA2 and UDMA3. Hardly a speed demon, but it’s very usable. Operates like a normal setup would. The only caveat is that effective disk bandwidth will fluctuate according to activity on USB.

Here’s an Xbench benchmark:

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The Process: I used my Dremel to remove the USB port from the I/O plate, mounted a replacement port in it’s area (which required a bit of Dremel action as well, since that connector is half-length). After splitting the casing off of the USB hub, I removed the 4 USB female connectors, and soldered the hub input onto the MBA root port pads. I used a ribbon cable to connect the new USB port to the USB hub. Then, I removed the micro-SATA connectors from both the ZIF-to-Micro-SATA adapter, and the SSD, and soldered them together. (The connectors add a lot of height to the stack.) I also removed the status LED and USB mini connector from the ZIF to USB adapter, as they also added a lot of height.

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I removed the casing from the USB sound card, removed the 3.5mm connectors, and USB male connector. I soldered two ribbons to it, one on the pads for sound output (which were soldered onto their corresponding pads on the MBA 3.5mm jack) , and the other linking the card to the USB hub. I had to cut the 3.5mm jack off of the I/O panel (without damaging it) to disconnect it from the logic board, since it was causing interference, despite not functioning.

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Once that was done, I soldered a ribbon from the ZIF to USB adapter onto the hub, and sealed it all up with electrical tape. In the end, the case bulges on that side a bit (but, does not offset the computer…), and I had to remove the aesthetic strut that goes across the bottom panel for some extra room. I sealed all of my solder joints with hotglue once everything was tested and working, and then did my best arrange the components for best fit.

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While there isn’t much (re: any) space left, the hard drive ribbon is now unoccupied. I’ve toyed with the idea of trying one of these 8GB Intel PATA SSDs on there, for the OS, and then use the 64GB for extended storage… But, it works great as is. There are some subtle things to watch out for when using USB for your main boot device. Plugging something in could A. Consume too much power, crash your SSD/System, B. Short out the USB hub, crash your SSD/System, C. That port may not charge high current devices, if your SSD is on the same line (because of it’s current draw).

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Was it worth it? Well… The value of all the components tallies up like so:

SanDisk Micro-SATA 64GB SSD – 70$

1.8 Micro-SATA to ZIF Adapter – $5

MacBook Air Rev. A Hard Drive Ribbon – $15

1.8 ZIF to USB Adapter – $5

Belkin Ultra-Mini USB Hub – $10

(Note, the auctions I linked are not directly ones I purchased from originally.) Comes to $105. I’m not including the cost of other parts for repairing the other defects in the storage device comparison. Comparatively, OWC has a 60GB drive upgrade (without the need for an HD ribbon) for $130.

That +$25 gets you a 3 year warranty, +40MB/s performance and you can spend the hours of your life you save, watching TV instead. In the end, it’s a wash, but I had fun doing it. The MBA presented me with an interesting challenge.

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If you’re one of the Rev. A models with busted sound, give this a try:

Strip one of the $2 USB sound cards down to it’s PCB. Remove the USB connector, and the 3.5mm connectors. Solder a ribbon cable from the USB pads on the sound card, grab 5V and GND from the root port on the I/O panel, and tie D+ and D- to one of the free USB ports illustrated in the linked article above. Solder a ribbon from the 3.5mm output jack pads (on L/R/G) to the 3.5mm jack pads on your I/O panel (check out my photos to see which pads). Snip the headphone port from your I/O panel PCB, and BOOM! Your sound works again (albeit only through headphones).

Macbook Dye Project

So, I’ve decided to start my mod-blog-whatever, with my Macbook Dye Project, aka ‘Hallowbook’.

There are some examples of previous projects here that inspired this work:

http://www.mactech.com/2006/09/02/yellow-ibook-g3

http://applefritter.com/hacks/tronbook

http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=502086

The project follows in the footsteps of the iBook RIT dye procedure, but with a sandpaper-based twist.

I’m just going to come out and say a huge thanks to my girlfriend M3L, for letting me attempt this madness in her kitchen.

Want to skip my ranting and go to the pictures? Head down to the bottom, Champ.

Caveats:

The MacBook’s polycarbonate lid, bottom case, clutch cover and fan vent cover are all sealed with a strong gloss layer. That means that unlike the iBook, the plastic will absorb dye slower, and will resist the color. The display bezel is made of a softer plastic, and will absorb the dye very quickly. The keys will also, as they aren’t sealed the same way. (The newer black Macbook Pro/Unibody line keys are sealed with a gloss layer.)

The only way to remove the gloss layer, is with sand paper. This can create a coarse surface, if done improperly. But, if properly wet-sanded and grit-stepped, can almost mirror the original finish. Personally, I chose to leave it coarse as I don’t like gloss, and prefer matte. To each their own. Note: You don’t NEED to remove the gloss layer to dye the plastic, but I’ve found that the color is absorbed more evenly (and quicker) when sanded.

Another caveat is that the because the display bezel is made of softer plastic, it is also more susceptible to heat. Get it’s temperature up too high and it’ll become deformed. Like a Shrinky Dink, no coming back from that.

Parts are very easy to crack or deform. Take time disassembling the computer. Let me be absolutely clear: You can remove EVERY part on this computer without major force. If you’re forcing something, it’s likely you’ve forgotten a screw. Adhesive is used on some parts, which require a slight bit of force to remove. The Apple logo, for example. You should use a heatgun to loosen the adhesive and pop it out. Don’t try and force it out. You WILL crack the lid. I speak from experience.

It’s important to remember that just because computers have the same model number and name does not mean they share parts. Core Duo Macbooks have a completely different motherboard mount and fan vent strut. Core 2 Duos were the advent of ZIF low rise sockets for a half of the connectors on the board. 2009 Core 2 Duos changed the optical drive connector, and who knows what else. Point is, they’re all different, damn it. Get parts specific to your Apple Order Number or Design Year. Mactracker is a wonderful resource for this. Couldn’t recommend it enough.

You will ruin pans, oven mitts, spoons and anything plastic within a 1 mile radius. (Okay, not that last one. But, hey, shoot for the stars.) Try to keep the destruction to a minimum so your Mom/Girlfriend/Boyfriend/Roommates don’t want to kill you. I also wouldn’t use anything you use for this again for food. RIT dye is toxic, and is meant for clothes/fabrics/things that don’t normally touch your mouth. So keep that in mind.

Unlike other previous models, my Apple logo was painted white, so in order to change the color, I needed to sand off that crappy paint. (Apple lid designers, if you’re reading this: Dude, come on. Changing the color of the logo was fun. Do you people hate fun or something? C’MON.)

You cannot remove the keyboard from the inner top case without a lot of work. You can take the keys off, but you need to split plastic mold in order to remove the keyboard. It’s possible, but I went with black accents instead of attempting that split. I’d recommend painting that part with the keys and trackpad removed, if possible. If you’re more adventurous than me, do it big. And, make sure to post a link in the comments here if you do. I would LIKE TO SEE.

On color consistency specifically, just because the dye says a color, doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll get. M3L picked out a “Teal” and got what I’d like to refer to as “Pine Green”. Still looks awesome, but not quite the expectation.

Disclaimer:

Just throwing this out there, I accept zero responsibility for your actions based on anything you read here. If you dye half your stove, your cat, your hands, and permanently ruin your computer, it rests on you. “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Also, the water is boiling hot. Do I need to show you my burn marks/scars? DO I? BE CAREFUL AND TAKE CARE. Do as I say, and not as I do.

Supplies:

3 Boxes of your favorite RIT Fabric Dye color (Powder, I haven’t tested the Liquid.)

A Deep Pan

A Cookie Pan Roughly The Size Of That Deep Pan

Running Water (I recommend a slop-sink or shop sink. Nice and roomy.)

White MacBook

Rubber Gloves

Wooden Spoon

Salt

Sandpaper (120, 200, 400, 1600 Grit for Grit Step or just 120 for Rough Mode)

Denatured Alcohol or cleaning solvent

Stove or sustained heat source

Lots of cookies (To eat in glorious celebration when you are finished!)

Process:

Well, first… Take apart your computer and separate the plastic parts from their metal counterparts. Take care not to leave any electronic parts in the dye pieces, or you’ll be replacing those parts. I’m not going to detail taking apart the computer here, I’ll leave that to the wizards at iFixit. Their take-apart guides are the absolute best on the web. Follow them to a T, and you’ll be butter.

All of the glossy plastic pieces need to be sanded down until the gloss layer is completely gone. The best way to tell, is they will no longer glimmer in the light. I used 120 Grit sandpaper for this. If you grit-step, 120, 200, 400, 1600  is the way to go. By the end, you should have a very smooth finish. I’m not patient enough for that, so I stuck with 120 all the way through.

Once the parts are sanded, they should be thoroughly cleaned. Denatured alcohol and a paper towel works well, and dries quickly.

Go get a pair of rubber gloves, and put them on. RIGHT NOW. I don’t care if you aren’t even contemplating this project, you should be wearing gloves.

Get a pan (An inch or so deep, if possible.), and fill it with water (4 cups of water per packet, 8 cups.)  Add two boxes of RIT dye of the color of your choice into the water. Add 2 tbsp of table salt into the water and stir. Place pan onto your stove, and heat. (Make sure the pan is stove safe.) As the water starts to boil, place your dye part into the bath. (If you’re dyeing the display bezel, keep the flame as low as possible to avoid warping the bezel.) Add water as necessary, it will boil away quite quickly.

It took about 45 minutes for the lid and bottom case to become saturated with the orange. For darker colors (Navy Blue, Scarlet, Black, Pine Green) more time may be required. The display bezel took 10 minutes to become saturated, as did the clutch cover and display spacers. Check your parts as you go, and flip as necessary. The larger parts require a hotter and longer bath.

Adding too much dye to the bath will cause spotting, and inconsistent color distribution, so try to keep “free floating dye” to a minimum. Don’t forget to keep stirring your bath throughout the process.

Remove part from bath, clean excess dye with paper towel and cold water!

Check for even distribution of color. If it looks good, reassemble! If not, go ahead and throw it back in the bath. The small parts can warp, as I’ve said, but the large parts can take a lot of heat/beating/abuse. They’re like the Hercules of plastic or something.

YOU’RE DONE! (Well, okay, you still have put your computer back together. Don’t celebrate just yet.)

Is your computer back together? Does it look awesome? It’s time for those cookies I was talking about earlier.

Okay, with all that out of the way: Photos!

Finished Photos:

So, originally I had a white MacBook. (I used the white pieces for the lid and bottom case.) I decided that I like the way the black accented the orange, instead of doing full orange. The inside top case is also very difficult to dye, as the keyboard cannot be easily removed. I took a poor old liquid-spilled black Macbook I had and swapped some parts.

(I apologize for this atrociously annoying to use gallery. (Sorry, WordPress.))