How to replace your MacBook’s WiFi antenna

Today’s post is brought to you by ShitPress, a wordpress variant whose only peculiarity is that it removes all images from your post, some time after it was published.

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 the different standards b, g and n supported by the machine) 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.

My mini screwdriver set. You need fine Philips and Torx drivers
My mini screwdriver set. You need fine Philips and Torx drivers

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.

Remove all the bottom screws. The 3 long ones go to the top right corner and the two positions left of it, the others are interchangeable.
Remove all the bottom screws. The 3 long ones go to the top right corner and the two positions left of it, the others are interchangeable.
You must lift the bluetooth ribbon cable and remove the camera cable (see ifixit)
You must lift the bluetooth ribbon cable and remove the camera cable (see ifixit)

IMG_1167

Also carefully detach the display cable (at the corner of the case)
Also carefully detach the display cable (at the corner of the case)
At the top left are the three antenna connectors on the AirPort card. The fourth one is for bluetooth I think and does not run into the clutch cover.
At the top left are the three antenna connectors on the AirPort card. The fourth one is for bluetooth I think and does not run into the clutch cover.
If you don't have a spudger, wiggling the fragile contacts out of the sockets can be done by placing the screwdriver as shown here. You can use fingernails but risk bending the cables at the connector.
If you don’t have a spudger, wiggling the fragile contacts out of the sockets can be done by placing the screwdriver as shown here. You can use fingernails but risk bending the cables at the connector.
I suggest leaving the subwoofer attached to the case with the one screw present for this purpose to avoid having it flop around.
I suggest leaving the subwoofer attached to the case with the one screw present for this purpose to avoid having it flop around. You see the hole on the left? That’s where the screw is. I prematurely removed it before realizing that it was unnecessary.
The antenna cables are broken near the clutch cover - hard to see here.
The antenna cables are broken near the clutch cover – hard to see here.
This is the AirPort assembly which contains the WiFi card. Keep that safe somewhere.
This is the AirPort assembly which contains the WiFi card. Keep that safe somewhere.
Behold, the MacBook beheaded. A daunting sight.
Behold, the MacBook beheaded. A daunting sight.

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.

Clutch removed.
Clutch removed. You can see how the antennas are torn.
You will see that this yellow-black thing is held by 5 tiny screws which you need to remove.
You will see that this yellow-black thing is held by 5 tiny screws which you need to remove.

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.

The antennas literally fell off after I had removed this thing.
The antennas literally fell off after I had removed this thing.

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.

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8 thoughts on “How to replace your MacBook’s WiFi antenna

  1. My problem is that the 4th antenna (that you think is the bluetooth) ripped right at the corner where it attaches to a hook that a screw goes through when screwing the airport down in place. Is it possible for me to just solder the two ends where the break took place? I am unable to detect wifi so Im not sure what that fourth antenna really is since thats the one I severed. Would you happen to know if I have to order the 4 antennas or perhaps I can just order the one wire? Thanks so much.

    1. If the broken wire doesn’t go into the clutch cover, shouldn’t you be able to simply replace it? I don’t remember where it went (not gonna open the laptop to find out).

      For the others, if you need to replace on cable, you need to replace them all, unless you somehow manage to reattach the severed ends (I don’t know if that’s possible). The cables are soldered onto a board in the clutch cover (see pictures) so they can’t be swapped individually without removing and reapplying the solder.

    1. Strangely, the problem hasn’t reappeared after this fix, despite the face that i liberally open and close the lid these days. Maybe the wires were in some unfortunate alignment and my meddling fixed it.

      1. Could be. In the mean time, I replaced my antenna ($8) and found that the black plastic cover actually slides left and right in a bayonet-engagement. If I remember correctly, it needs to slide right to disengage (left to assemble). This is on my 2011 15″ MBP (A1286) YMMV.

        My WiFi now works flawlessly and I have RSSI at -40 to -60dBm with noise at -80. With the broken cables, both noise and RSSI were at roughly the same levels. My cables weren’t just frayed but completely broken off; I wonder how I got any data at all 🙂

        I posted a photo of my cables here: http://www.krekr.nl/?p=863

  2. Thank you, for this insightful guide!

    Do you happen to know if the 3 wifi antenna cables can be broken apart and then soldered together? What I mean – are they really just abntennas or is there something else?

    Trying to replace wifi antenna on my MBP Retina 15 mid-2014, without replacing the webcamera cable. I already bought and replaced a new airport board, and that didnt seem to be issue. My Mac simply cant find any wifi hardware.

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