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MacBook Pro Unibody 2011 Graphics Defect

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The era of the Unibody MacBook Pro proved to be one of the most popular product lines in Apple’s history. They remain popular for Apple consumers who don’t require the latest tech but enjoy the ability to perform hardware upgrades such as RAM and hard drive. While they can provide many years of service, select models from 2011 have a particular built in defect that can render your beloved MacBook Pro useless. In this post I’ll explore the defective Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) that affects many owners of the 2011 15″ & 17″ MacBook Pro. I’ll explain the problem and what can be done to resolve it.

Dual graphics

Logic boards with two graphics processors are very common. For low power consumption tasks, the integrated Intel HD graphics onboard the CPU performs well. For more intensive graphics processes the dedicated GPU takes over. This allows you to have the best of both worlds in terms of energy saving and performance with the ability to switch GPUs for the job at hand.

Apple’s first dual graphics laptop debuted in 2006 with the MacBookPro1,1 sporting an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 with 128mb of RAM. Throughout the years Apple has sourced GPUs from both AMD and Nvidia. The latest iteration of the MacBook Pro has an AMD Radeon 560 Pro with 4gb of dedicated RAM.

The 'Flip Chip'

Both the CPU and GPU in the Unibody MacBook Pro use a flip chip design. Flip chip designs were introduced in the 1960’s and continue to evolve and improve. By 2022 flip chips will be a 46 billion dollar industry. The primary advantage of flip chips are their compact size. They’re an advanced form of Surface-Mount Technology where bare semiconductor chips are turned upside down and bonded directly to the PCB.

Looking at the figure below we can see bumps used to attach the die to the PCB of the GPU. These bumps can be made of varying materials such as solder or gold and can also be in the form of studs rather than bumps. Any gap is filled in with an under-fill substance for stability, reliability, and redistribution of stress.

Cross-section of flip-chip semiconductor

The Defect

When the 2011 15-inch and 17-inch models were introduced, the dedicated graphics chips supplied by AMD were not up to the task of enduring the intense thermal environment created under normal-use conditions. When experiencing high temperatures, the solder balls under the GPU would warp and fracture causing the connection with the circuit board to fail.

More concerning for the GPU is the bumps under the silicon core would get damaged. The ventilation was poor and the thermal compound used during assembly was substandard. To complete the perfect storm these models used one heatsink for both the CPU and GPU. The Sandy Bridge CPU is a hot chip to begin with and combining that with a robust GPU exacerbated failures for many consumers. For owners of those models this meant at anytime the system could malfunction and render the computer useless in many cases.

The Symptoms

This graphics issue can manifest itself in a number of ways. The most common symptoms include lines on the screen, flickering, booting to a gray/white screen, and failure to boot at all. You may also experience the laptop is warmer than normal or even hot.

Horizontal lines on screen Horizontal lines on a screen due to a defective GPU. Vertical lines on screen Vertical lines on a screen and a generally distorted image.

Apple’s Response

In traditional Apple fashion, they would not acknowledge there was a problem and owners without additional AppleCare insurance would be made to pay in excess of $600 to replace their logic board with an equally defective unit. Faced with growing outrage Apple was forced to address this issue in October of 2014 when law firm Whitfield Bryson & Mason LLP filed a class action lawsuit in California federal court on behalf of consumers affected by GPU failure. The complaint included allegations about steps Apple took to conceal the GPU defect.

When they were released in early 2011, Apple’s 15 and 17-inch MacBook Pros were being marketed as providing graphical performance three times faster than 2010 models. The suit alleged this performance caused the laptops to run so hot that the solder attached to the laptops GPUs would deform and crack, eventually causing system failure. The updated suit alleged that in 2011, Apple released a software update that reduced the performance of the GPUs by 33 percent in order to prevent them from reaching temperatures that would cause the GPUs to fail.

On January 29th, 2015 Apple filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit but ultimately ended up offering affected customers a replacement logic board. The replacement boards had the same defective chip and users would eventually face the same dilemma without Apple’s support. Apple ceased offering this replacement service in December of 2016.

Repair

Currently there are limited options for repairing a logic board with a defective GPU. The most commonly attempted ways to resolve this problem include reflowing the GPU, reballing and/or replacement of the chip entirely. Which methods are a band-aid and which ones will last? Let’s take a closer look at each method:

Reflowing
This is a process where the affected GPU is heated to a temperature that would melt and re-flow the solder under the chip in an attempt to repair any damaged connections. Since the main problem lies in the connections underneath the silicon core of the GPU, success through this method is typically achieved as a side effect since the majority of the time only the solder balls under the chip are noted as the cause of the problem.

The AMD 216 series of GPUs used in the 2011 MacBook Pro have almost a thousand solder balls on each chip. Achieving a uniform re-flow with a heat gun or other standard tool is not as easily done and carries a risk of damaging other components on the logic board. Professionals who focus on refurbishing of flip chip GPUs many times have expensive specialized equipment producing consistent and accurate results without the greater risk of collateral damage. While this method does not address the GPU itself as a problem, it can sometimes make the computer work normally for a short period of time until the symptoms return.

Reballing
Another method of resolving the GPU problem is re-balling the GPU. In this method the chip is removed from the logic board and the old suspect solder balls are replaced with fresh solder balls. While being touted as solution over reflowing, the core issue being the chip itself is still not addressed and success here can also be attributed to the bumps under the silicon die being heated enough to reconnect similar to reflowing. For many users this repair could allow them to use their computer normally for a matter of months before defect symptoms reappear.

Cross section of a BGA chip. The balls connect the chip with the logic board.

Replacement GPU
The best method of repairing the GPU defect is replacing the chip entirely, right? While this could be a solution, actually obtaining a new replacement chip is very difficult. Compatible GPUs sold online are typically pulled from boards and refurbished with new solder balls but these chips are the same defective units originally used by Apple. With the proper equipment replacing the GPU can sometimes extend the life of the logic board for another year.

Workarounds

There are a number of workarounds that have been researched, created and tested by the community of users affected. The primary goal of any of these methods is to prevent the computer from switching to the defective GPU and only allow it to use the Intel HD graphics on-board the CPU. These are the most common and best methods you’ll find:

gfxCardStatus
The first tool that you may encounter is gfxCardStatus. This is an open-source menu bar application created by Cody Krieger that keeps track of which graphics card your dual-GPU MacBook Pro is using at any given time and allows you to switch between them on demand. Many users enjoy using gfxCardStatus as a way to manage temperatures as well.

switchGPU
A developer named Joachim Roeleveld, in response to the community’s needs released a program called switchGPU. This uses gfxCardStatus and a stripped MacOH.sh script to facilitate a preset to either discrete or integrated graphics early enough that you can run on integrated graphics when your discrete GPU would otherwise overheat and crash.

StackExchange
Answering a users question on StackExchange, member LangLangC lays out a thorough and detailed method of manually disabling the GPU.

RealMacMods
The crew over at RealMacMods has taken things a step further detailing a combination software and hardware mod to disable the GPU even addressing successful mods for updating and running High Sierra while keeping the failing GPU turned off. Consumers looking for an easy and virtually automated tool to turn off their failing GPU should pick up one of RealMacMods bootable USB drives.

Regardless of the method, disabling the dedicated GPU can result in a decrease in performance for graphics/video intensive tasks but can allow you to boot and operate your computer where that may not have been possible with a failing defective GPU.

A Reliable Solution

Apple’s last model of the Unibody 15-inch debuted in 2012, and this time Apple went with NVIDIA. They supplied a more durable GPU much less susceptible to the previous year’s defect. Owners of the 2011 15-inch model have the option to upgrade their computer with a 2012 logic board. The newer board fits in the computer well as the Unibody case design remained the same.

The Upgrade

Lots of people contact us concerned about their 2011 15-inch MacBook Pros with graphics related issues. We wanted to put together a long-term solution to the issue. That solution is to replace select parts in the 2011 model with their 2012 equivalents to essentially convert the ailing 2011 15-inch MacBook Pros into the defect-free Mid 2012 model. A complete Mid 2012 upgrade would replace the logic board, RAM, and AirPort card.

Advantages

The biggest advantage of upgrading is that the Mid 2012 logic board is free of the graphics defect that plagued the previous models. The 2012 model has a number of enhancements that go beyond a defect free logic board. The USB ports are 3.0 as opposed to the slower 2.0 ports on the 2011. The whole system gets a bump in speed thanks to faster 1600MHz memory. Adding a 2012 Airport Card can upgrade the Bluetooth from version 2.1 to 4.0. Furthermore, you get a newer generation CPU and GPU. The only limitation is that this type of upgrade is only possible on the 2011 15-inch models.

2011 Model2012 ModelUpgrade Benefits
USB2.03.0
  • 10x speed increase
Bluetooth2.14.0
  • Range increase
  • Support for additional features such as Apple Handoff
Memory1333MHz1600MHz
  • Faster system operation
  • Improved multitasking

Conclusion

If you have a 15 or 17-inch MacBook Pro you have limited options to resolve GPU issues. Owners of the 17 inch model have the least options and would be best served turning off the GPU via one of the workarounds. Those with the 15-inch model have the most options available including the most reliable and complete ‘repair’ which is swapping out the logic board for the 2012 board. If you have one of these models and you’re experiencing intermittent graphics issues, back up your data immediately. If you continue to use the computer, we recommend you backup your data frequently. Once the device can no longer boot, the only way to retrieve your data is through external means and removal of the internal drive.

About The Author

Wes Keener

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