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Hello, friends. In the interest of documentation and enrichment of internet repair guides, I share with you today my adventures to the land of no WiFi. Before you ask – yes, I made it back safely, having wrestled the nefarious Clutch Troll, braved the thick and spikey shrubbery known as the Jungle of Antennas and emerged with fewer nerves, but more wisdom.
Click any image to embiggen it, but do not expect too much – my DSLR is away so I only had a digicam available.
For the past couple of months (difficult to say when it all started), my MacBook – a 13″ mid-2012 model, A1278, Number 9,2 – suffered from a continuously deteriorating case of WiFi problems. It was difficult for me to obtain a connection unless I was close to the router (or whatever source emitting the signal). I was bothered, but didn’t realize the extent of the problem until a few weeks ago where it suddenly stopped working in its entirety unless I was within about 2 meters of the router. This prompted me to investigate some more.
My first guess was that the AirPort card was at fault which would not have been a huge deal for being rather easily replaceable. I saw no reason why it should break, but surely failures of this part are not unheard of. It turned out however, that the card was fine, it was the antenna cables which were the problem.
The unibody MBPs are made of aluminum, meaning you will not get a signal if you stick your receiver into it. This is why from the AirPort card (which in my model is in the lower case beneath the power button; this is not the case for all models), 3 antennas (perhaps for wifi and bluetooth and … what else?) vanish in the black clutch cover between display and body. This thing, being made of plastic, allows the antennas to pick up signals.
The MacBook is packed densely and the antenna cables alongside the webcam cable are routed along one of the hinges. Due to something only little short of a design error, the cables get stretched and torn whenever you open or close the lid. Ideally, the cables would be in the centre of rotation, but they aren’t really (well, because the hinges are in the way). Seeing that, it didn’t surprise me to see the whole set of antennas severely torn and frayed. The connection was all but severed, the antenna parts in the clutch almost useless for lack of connection with the airport card.
This is where the trouble begins. Finding out which part you need for your specific model requires a lot of research, since Apple does not release the service manuals for technicians and thus you have to google it up. In my case, the parts for mid-2012 and late-2011 models are mostly identical. The second problem is actually obtaining the item you determined is needed. In Germany, the supply is very short. Surely you can have it shipped from the US, but I ended up having a local retailer procure the part and send it to me. My advice: If you don’t find it in your country in stock somewhere, head over to ebay and get it from America. Retailers in Germany also need to order it from somewhere and it is my strong suspicion they do it in China or the US. Might as well do it yourself.
Anyway, I have some experience in tinkering with my laptop. Upgrading the main memory is child’s play and installing a dual hard drive setup is also easy (replacing the optical bay with the original HDD and putting a faster SSD in that one’s place). Replacing the WiFi antennas is a somewhat more delicate matter. Read on and find out why.
The first few steps of what needs to be done are those explained in this ifixit guide. You read that right, you must separate the display from the body. Sounds fun, eh?
In principle, none of this is particularly hard or critical. I have no skill in fine mechanics or electronics and made it still. All you need is a lot of patience and the right set of screwdrivers. In particular you need a Philips #000 screwdriver (I think), but I found the #00 one worked just as well if not better. I am unsure which of the drivers you see in the picture is the #00 one, but the two smallest ones both work.
Also, inside the MacBook, a lot of torx screws are used, the ones to remove here have a T8 head. Just get one of these screwdriver sets off Amazon or ebay or so, they are around 10 Euros and are handy to have around anyway.
As outlined in the guide, removal of the bottom case, a bunch of cables, the AirPort assembly as well as separating the display from the body are rather simple.
You then have to remove the clutch cover which is a pain. You can rock it gently back and forth and try to pull it upwards, but you might have to pry a little at the left edge with a screwdriver or fingernails, since it’s rather tight at that spot. Getting it off is not the hard part, however, getting it on again was a huge pain in the ass.
Having removed the cover, you can see the WiFi assembly which is about the only thing in there apart from the iSight and display cables. Remove the crews and take it out, inserting your replacement. One problem is that I have an excess camera cable. The camera cable naturally disappears behind the screen and cannot be replaced without completely removing it. This is possible, but I would not dare do it myself. Luckily, the camera cable was intact, so no need to replace that too. The problem is that I had to fit the excess cable somewhere. I tried to double it around the black and yellow thing, but I felt it was preventing me from replacing the clutch which is rather tight. My tip is to route the two camera cables out along the display and antenna cables and just leave them inside the body instead of fitting them inside the clutch. Since the inside of the MacBook is so dense, I don’t think having to extra cables hang around will be a problem. Just remember which of the cables is the excess one and which the one that’s already connected. Then you can replace the clutch which for me constituted the major part of the operation in terms of time and nerves. You need to first make sure to insert the clutch at the side where the WiFi antenna’s leave which is the trickiest part. Then push it down and try to work it back towards the other side until it locks. I don’t have a good recipe, but I did not manage to get it on with the excess camera cable doubled up inside.
After reassembling the laptop, WiFi was up and running again, although it is difficult to tell whether the reception is as good as it was originally since the quality has probably been decreasing gradually over some time before becoming unusable.