Apple's new MacBook Pros raise quality concerns

Excess thermal paste shows 'shoddy assembly work,' says expert

Apple's new MacBook Pro has some quality-of-build problems that shouldn't be seen in a notebook that costs $1,800, a teardown expert said today.

While disassembling a 15-in. MacBook Pro, iFixit.com -- a site that regularly tears down electronics and publishes do-it-yourself repair guides -- found several signs of substandard assembly.

Among iFixit's findings were a stripped screw near the notebook's subwoofer enclosure and an unlocked ZIF (zero insertion force) socket for the infrared sensor.

"[These] should not be things found inside a completely unmolested computer with an $1,800 base price," said iFixit in the teardown description posted on its site.

The refreshed MacBook Pro models launched last Thursday in what one analyst called a "ho-hum" upgrade.

IFixit also spotted an unusual amount of thermal paste applied to both the central processor and the graphics processor. "Holy thermal paste! Time will tell if the gobs of thermal paste applied to the CPU and GPU will cause overheating issues down the road," iFixit said.

Thermal paste, also called "thermal grease" and "heat sink paste," is a compound that computer makers apply to increase the thermal conductivity of a processor so heat is drawn away from the chip more efficiently.

"Paste fills in the valleys of the bumpy surfaces on both the heat sink and the chip to exchange heat between the two more efficiently," said Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research, which specializes in research on graphics devices and processors. A heat sink is the component that's mounted atop a processor to dissipate heat.

But too much paste doesn't mean that the underlying processor will necessarily overheat and thus fail faster, cautioned Peddie.

"Excess paste shows sloppy application, shoddy assembly work," said Peddie. "If you can see [the paste], it ain't workin'," he added, talking about how extra, visible paste doesn't contribute to increased conductivity.

Miroslav Djuric, iFixit's director of technical communication, explained his firm's findings in more detail in an e-mail reply to questions today.

"Fit and finish was a bit of a factor for this teardown, since we really haven't seen these kinds of problems with Apple machines in the past," Djuric said. "I don't think that the stripped screw, unlocked ZIF socket, and excess thermal paste are indicators that Apple is going downhill in terms of manufacturing quality, but it did raise an eyebrow. Just like everything else in life, the manufacturing process for electronics is not perfect, and neither is Apple's."

Djuric said iFixit would keep a wary eye on future Apple devices it tears apart to see if the flaws in its MacBook Pro are the first signs of a trend.

MacBook Pro's CPU and GPU
IFixit found excessive amounts of thermal paste on the MacBook Pro's CPU and GPU. (Image: iFixit)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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