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Advice from an Apple Tech: Your first time under the hood

You have a Mac. And some half-crazed part of your brain really, really wants to take it apart and tinker with it, upgrade it in every way possible, and put it back together again. You've been warned not to do it, but warnings be damned.

Congratulations, you now possess the right mentality to become a Macintosh technician. Now you just need some free time, a Mac to tear into, and no one around to complain about it. But before you start taking stuff apart, here's some advice, from one Apple Certified Technician to a potential one.

Accidents will happen

So you're ready to do your own repair on your Mac. First things first: Be ready for nothing to go perfectly the first time. Open the case on your Mac and the circuitry that greets you is nothing short of daunting.

There will be mistakes, count on it. In the 19 years that I've been working on computers (mostly Macs), I've accidentally severed my fair share of cables, heard that brain-shattering "snap!" when a connector was irreparably wrenched in the wrong direction, and set two drives on fire. (The first incident was an honest mistake--I connected a SyQuest EZ 135 drive to a PC's parallel port, and ran Windows 95's Find New Hardware feature until smoke rose from the connectors)

You may accidentally damage a part and have to order a replacement, you may plug in a cable incorrectly, you might even lose a screw or two. It's OK, it's part of the learning process, so make sure you're practicing on a Mac that's lying around the house or no one happens to be working with in the near future.

The right tools

The nice thing about tech work: It won't run you a fortune to start out. Most Macs can be opened and worked with using a $15 electronics tool kit from Radio Shack, complete with flat head, Philips head and Torx drivers.

More importantly, an anti-static mat and wrist strap will keep you from passing static electricity through your Mac's circuitry that blows small, irreparable, microscopic holes through the parts you're working on. A mat and strap are a few extra bucks, but it's worth the investment. Rosewill currently sells a mat for $15 via Newegg.com), and a $7 wrist strap will give you a decent setup to safely work.

If you're looking to dive deeper into Apple's hardware lineup, the iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit is $70 but features 54 bit drivers (including bits for Apple's custom pentalobe and tri-wing screw designs to allow you to open assorted iOS devices, as well as safely remove Apple's batteries from its current line of notebooks) and spudgers to safely pry apart Apple's notebooks. You can buy these tools piecemeal, but iFixit's collection is essentially everything you need to tear into every Mac out there and it's a good long-term investment.

Parts

This is where it gets expensive, but if you can find a good supplier, you're home free. Other World Computing's We Love Macs always has a wide selection of parts, albeit a bit pricey. iFixit has hard-to-find parts, while Mac Parts Online recently came through with some power supplies and a top case for a late-2011 17-inch MacBook Pro top case that worked nicely.

It's catch-as-catch-can where eBay is concerned, but if you're looking for a rare part (such as an obscure logic board) and other providers don't seem to have it, eBay's vendors might. Check the seller's reputation, make sure it's the exact part you need and be sure to stay in touch with the seller until you can verify that the part works, everything's in order, and you got what you were looking for out of the deal.

The best approach

If you're feeling brave, throw caution to the wind, grab a driver and a wrist strap and dive right in. For everyone else who's daunted by working with expensive, precision, robotically-assembled components, YouTube videos and printed guides are great to have by your side.

And while it's earned a few snickers in its time, I've always loved to print out an iFixit step-by-step guide, follow each step, and after each screw is removed, tape the screws to the page to help make reassembling the Mac that much easier.

If taping assorted screws to pages isn't your thing, spend a few dollars on some ice trays to keep your screws organized as you go along. You can either sort the screws by sizes or assign each ice tray socket to a step in the repair process. Keep the screws and other small parts in order and you'll be ready for what lies ahead.

Apple certification

If, after you've poked around a few Macs, you feel like taking it to the next level, you can become Apple Certified. The good news: After June 23 of this year, Apple will discontinue its requirement to take the exams (the Apple Macintosh Service Certification Exam, the OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion Troubleshooting Exam, and the iOS Qualification Exam) on-site at assorted testing locations, and will offer the exams in an online-only format. For test takers, the online exams are more convenient and you don't have to go somewhere and be nervous as you sit down and take a test at a designated terminal. Also, current Apple Certified Macintosh Technician certifications do not need to be renewed on an annual basis.

The bad news: The Apple tests are still annoyingly difficult. You need to live and breathe Apple's Service Training and Certification program for a few weeks to prep for the exam. When in doubt, slow down, reread the question, and go with your gut. You can always take the exam again. It's not cheap, but it'll get you where you want to go.

Um, should that hard drive be on fire?

Should you choose to dive into the techie life, you're going to have some great moments and you're also going to occasionally screw up on some epic levels. There will be moments where, even with a printed guide or tutorial video in front of you, you're going to wonder what to do next and/or wind up breaking something. Try to remember it's not the end of the world, order a replacement part and learn from your mistake.

Is it worth it? Yes. After diagnosing the problem, finding the parts, following both a tech guide and your own intuition, and either upgrading or fixing a broken Mac for the cost of the parts needed, there's no feeling quite like it. And if the repair drove you completely nuts this time, the next time will be just that much easier.


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