Not a fan: Repairing my 2021 MacBook Pro

I bought my 2021 MacBook Pro 14" in April, and it’s been a reliable and hassle-free machine. It did develop one issue within 3 weeks – the left fan became noisy.

It sounded like a loose bearing, and I feared for the worse, but I couldn’t wait for service because I was in the middle of courses and a couple full site builds. And I’m a 3-hour drive from the nearest Apple store.

The fans rarely turn on my MacBook Pro, so it didn’t seem like a big issue, and the left fan still seemed to be moving air, although noisily, so I left it alone for the last few weeks while I focused on my work.

I figured it out it was the left fan by downloading Macs Fan Control and manually setting the RPMs. It was most noisy around 2500 RPM.

Screenshot of the Macs Fan Control app

Can we fix it?

Today I read through iFixIt’s teardown article and mustered up the courage to take a look inside. While there’s no way I can replace the fans without taking out the logic board and potentially triggering a software booby trap(!!!) that disables both True Tone and the TouchID sensor, I did want to make sure there wasn’t a stray hair or other debris causing the issue. I do have six cats, after all 😸

I’ve taken apart many laptops over the years, for both myself and clients, but I have to say, this is probably the scariest one I’ve ever taken apart – and all I did was take off the back cover.

Booby traps everywhere

The back cover was secured by 8 pentalobe screws, which I had a bit for thanks to the iFixIt toolkit I bought in 2017. My particular MacBook uses size P5.

Upon removing the screws though, I encountered a snag. The back cover does not simply lift off. I was worried I might end up bending the thin aluminum or snapping some unseen clips.

Turns out, not only is it secured by the weird pentalobe screws, it is also secured by several hooks on the back cover that slot into the top of the chassis, where the screen hinge is, and then two clips in the middle of the back cover snap onto two standoffs sticking up out of the chassis.

In the photo below, you can see the cover clip and chassis standoff, circled in red:

Photos showing the clip and standoff system on the MacBook Pro cover

You could leave all 8 screws out of the back cover, and it would still be extremely secure. It’s not coming off without sticking a plastic pry bar inside the two fan intakes on the sides to unsnap the two clips in the middle, and then once you do that, you have to lift the bottom edge (near the trackpad) of the back cover and gently pull away from the hinge side, in order to unhook the top edge. Then you can safely lift the cover off.

2021 MacBook Pro 14" with back cover removed

While I can’t remove the fans without triggering the booby trap I mentioned earlier, I did deploy some compressed air and gentle massaging on the left fan, which is on the right side of the above photo.

Can we fix it? Yes, we can!

You’ll have to forgive a Bob The Builder reference, and also that particular video I just linked.

I put the cover back on, which was another irritating exercise, and fired it up. I’ve been typing this article for the past 15 minutes with the left fan set to 2500 RPM, and I can’t hear it at all unless I physically pick the laptop up and position it next to my ear. This is a huge improvement compared to before, when I could hear the fan at 2500 RPM while standing 6 feet away.

Knock on wood

The fan is working normally now, but I’m sure as soon as I publish this article, it will start acting up again. That’s just how these things work.

While this repair was easy, I’m not a fan of the difficulty of repairing other things in my MacBook Pro, but that’s just part of the choice I made when I bought it. I’m hoping the fan continues to behave, because the only alternative is to take it in for service if it acts up again.

Replacing the battery packs and trackpad should be fairly easy later on if I decide to do it myself. The packs use pull-tab adhesive strips and didn’t look too difficult to replace in the iFixIt article.

I will say the internals look very nice and well placed. It’s a stark contrast to the many PC laptops I’ve worked on. There’s a gap around the battery packs on the lower half, which I think is for heat dissipation and room for the packs to expand as they age.

Fingers crossed 🤞