So the dreaded day came when my beloved “late 2011” 17 inch MacBook Pro died. The screen wigged out while it was in use, then it would only boot halfway before stopping at a gray screen. From experience, I knew that it was suffering from the dreaded AMD GPU logic board failure. What commonly happens is that the solder joints in or around the GPU daughter-card fail over time, resulting in a gray, blank or garbled screen.
Ordinarily I would not attempt to repair any board with solder failure but new logic boards are simply not available for the late 2011 models and used ones are absurdly expensive (and may be close to failing anyway). The repair I describe below worked perfectly for my 17 incher and also applies to the 15 inch models from the same era.
Best MacBook Pro ever?
IMHO, Apple has never made a better laptop for the the specific use case scenario where some limited portability is required and screen real estate is more important than size/weight. This was the last of the 17-inchers, perhaps forever, and I plan to keep using it until it is pried out of my cold dead hands. Okay, the last part is a bit of an exaggeration but my MBP does everything I need it to do and is still plenty fast. Over the years I’ve managed to keep it ticking by upgrading to 16 GB RAM–Apple only officially supports 8 GB, but this works just fine thank you very much–and a 1 TB SSD.
Several people suggested that I should just put the old relic out to pasture and update to a new 15″ MacBook Pro. “You can fit even more stuff on the new 15 inch screen!” they say. Indeed, the 17-incher’s 1920 X 1200 pixel native resolution seems puny compared with the current 2880 X 1800 px Retina display. But my eyes ain’t what they used to be and cramming my workspace into 15 inches just makes everything too darned small.
Non-intrusive repair option
Anyway, back to the repair. The least intrusive way to make a MBP with GPU failure operational again is to disable the AMD GPU via software. The built-in Intel GPU will take over but video performance for demanding tasks would suffer greatly. I use my laptop for photo editing so that wasn’t a viable option.
Logic board repair options, from conservative to crazy
The other common fix is to reflow the solder in and around the GPU by using a heat source. Multiple techniques, ranging from reckless (and cheap) to professional (and expensive) have been applied, with mixed success. I hit the web to see what worked best.
During my research, mainly on Youtube, solutions included: bake your MacBook in the kitchen oven at 350 degrees for an hour (like a cake?), disconnect the fans and leave it running and wrapped in blankets for a couple of hours (so snug and warm), open the bottom cover and hit the logic board with a hairdryer until you smell stuff melting, or (yawn) remove the logic board and put it though a programmed heating profile in an expensive professional reflow oven. This video was one of my favorites.
So lacking a reflow oven but wanting to be halfway scientific about doing the job, I decided to reflow the GPU using a common hot air gun. This video does a good job at demonstrating the technique and is pretty close to how I did it. The time/temperature points I chose are a little different based on my review of lead free solder reflow oven profiles, with times and temperatures increased slightly to compensate for hot air heating inefficiency.
Hot air reflow procedure
Note that all temperatures are specified in degrees Centigrade.
- Disassemble the MacBook Pro, referring to an online guide like those on ifixit.com, and remove the logic board.
- Clean all thermal paste residue off the CPU and GPU, using thermal grease solvent, flux remover, methanol or any other PCB-friendly solvent that works. Just please do not use rubbing alcohol. It contains water and could create some new problems.
- Create a mask for the GPU using two or three sheets of aluminum foil. You’ll want to cover all of the logic board except for the GPU. Don’t install the mask yet.
- Place the logic board on a heat proof surface. With your heat gun set to high and held a couple of feet away, heat both sides of the logic board for a couple of minutes to around 100° C. The temperature isn’t really critical at this stage. The goal is warm up the entire board, but not so much that it cannot be handled by its edges.
- Attach the aluminum foil mask that you made in step 3. If you are using a thermocouple for temperature measurement, affix the end so that it is resting on a corner of the GPU. (I used a Fluke multimeter with a Type K thermocouple). An infrared thermometer also works great; keep it aimed at the middle of the GPU.
- In the subsequent steps, stay as close to the recommended times and temperatures as possible. If your heat gun has high and low settings, select low. Hold the heat gun about 3 inches from the GPU, moving it closer or further as necessary to hit the temperature targets.
- Apply heat until the surface of the GPU reaches 200° C, then continue applying heat for 3 minutes, keeping the GPU at 200°.
- Slowly increase heat to 220°, no more than 3° per second.
- Hold at 220° C for 2-1/2 minutes.
- Increase GPU temperature to 290° C and hold for 1 minute.
- Slowly back away the heat gun, decreasing heat by no more than 6° per second until you reach 200°, then turn off the heat gun and allow the logic board to continue cooling to room temperature
- Apply new thermal paste to the CPU and GPU, reinstall the heat sink and reassemble the laptop.
So far my success rate with this process is 100% 🙂 During my web research, I saw several comments indicating that this repair should be viewed as only temporary because the original design is flawed. But if it my trusty 2011 17″ works for another six years, I’ll be more than satisfied with the couple of hours time invested in fixing it.
This repair was performed in March 2018 and I’ll make a follow-up post if the same failure occurs sometime in the future.
Update – December 30, 2018: The repair only lasted for nine months before artifacts started appearing again whenever the GPU was activated. At this stage, I had already shifted to a new 15″ MacBook Pro as my main computer and relegated the 17-incher to my workshop, where it is mainly used for slicing 3D prints. The GPU’s improved graphics performance has no benefit for this application. Integrated graphics work just fine.
Instead of spending half a day performing another heat gun repair, I installed Cody Krieger’s excellent gfxCardStatus menu bar app to permanently disable the GPU. gfxCardStatus is free and open-source, but please consider giving Cody a generous donation if you use his app to extend the useful life of your $1500+ laptop.