Can you upgrade or repair a Mac with a T2 chip?

Addition of the T2 chip to Apple’s new MacBook Air and mini ranges may be great for protecting your security and privacy, but many users find the consequences daunting. Macs equipped with a T2 chip necessarily encrypt the contents of their internal storage, and protect the encryption key in their Secure Enclave. Replace the logic board, so your Mac gets a new T2, or replace the internal SSD, and you lose access to everything stored there.

This article looks at how this affects the risks of being a Mac user. Is a T2 Mac a data disaster waiting to happen the moment that anything goes wrong? Would you be better off avoiding these new models, and sticking to an older design without a T2?

To a great extent, our hardware aspirations are based on experience. If you came into computers before about 2010, many of them then were capable of user service and upgrade. Macs have always been an exception, though. Apple may have been a pioneer of modularisation, design of the Mac II allowing dealers to simply swap any failed subsystem such as the power supply, but it has never encouraged users to tinker and fiddle with hardware.

Just as with our cars over that period, there have also been great changes over the last couple of decades. The internals of thin laptops have always been a challenge to access, and subsystems have been increasingly integrated into a single logic board, with chips soldered in rather than socketed. Since around 1990, I have repeatedly had to explain to users that Macs are seldom designed for the user to repair or even upgrade. When PC users have looked inside their first Mac, they often complain that they can’t swap its processor or graphics card.

In the past, Apple has often kept one product line, such as the ‘cheesegrater’ Mac Pro, for those who needed internal expansion. But most of its desktop and laptop systems have been intended to be left as they are, and only opened by Apple-trained technicians.

There has been another major change in the last few years which effects repairs: traditional hard disks are being steadily replaced by solid-state drives. Being mechanical, hard disks have limited working lives, and their failure was one of the commonest reasons for a Mac needing repair. SSDs do still fail, but at far lower rates than hard disks, and most of those being made today are likely to be good for ten years or even longer.

When the tower Mac Pro was first introduced in 2006, high performance graphics cards and several other forms of ‘expansion’ could only be accommodated using internal buses and slots. The widespread use of Thunderbolt and USB-C as means of transferring data, audio and video has transformed this, most recently making it practical to add external GPUs. Accommodating expansion cards inside the case of a Mac is no longer necessary.

Of the original Mac Pro’s internal upgrade and expansion features, the only remaining need in a Mac with Thunderbolt 3 is for memory expansion.

If you want to know how difficult it is to perform internal surgery on any Mac, then the place to go is iFixit. Here’s a summary from their recent product teardowns:

  • iMac Pro (T2): CPU socketed and potentially upgradable, SSD Apple-only parts, memory only by authorised service provider.
  • Mac mini Late 2018 (T2): CPU soldered, SSD soldered, upgradeable memory (requires disassembly but not too hard).
  • MacBook Pro 15″ 2018 (Touch Bar, T2): CPU soldered, SSD soldered, memory soldered, battery by authorised service provider.
  • MacBook Air 13″ Retina 2018 (T2): CPU soldered, SSD soldered, memory soldered, battery replaceable but difficult.

All models with a T2 chip therefore effectively have internal storage which cannot be replaced by the user, and this is likely to be a design decision on Apple’s part: as contents of the storage cannot be decrypted without that specific T2 and its Secure Enclave, there is little point in adding cost and volume by putting that internal storage into a socket and making it user-replaceable. Indeed, some users of Macs without T2 chips have discovered that upgrading their internal storage has brought problems with EFI firmware updates.

So what happens if your T2-equipped Mac develops a fault and has to go for repair? Isn’t that going to lose everything on your internal storage, whether or not that is at fault?

Yes, but when sending any Mac for repair you have always had to assume that its internal storage would either be re-formatted or replaced. Nothing changes here at all.

Back in the days when Apple had lots of local dealers, each with their own service technicians, ready to cast their soldering irons at a dry joint on an ethernet port and magically fix it, your Mac often returned with everything intact and untouched. But for many years now, that ethernet port has been part of the logic board, which will be replaced to perform the repair. With your T2 and soldered-in SSD, your Mac will return to you as if it was new again, and you will have to restore to it from your backup. That’s one of the main reasons for making backups, in this new era of SSDs (except for the storage of backups, ironically).

There are some who seem convinced that Apple is doing all this to increase its revenue. Although I suppose there may be some manufacturers who manage to profit from service and repair, in fact this is much more likely to cost Apple, particularly with Macs which are repaired under standard warranty, under AppleCare, or under warranty extensions – costs which must be borne by Apple. Like all manufacturers, it is in Apple’s interests to drive down the costs of service and repair, not to inflate them.

One big difference here compared to cars is that, once sold, computers do not require any form of periodic maintenance or servicing to be carried out by the manufacturer or its agent, in the way that cars do. Apple’s after-sales revenues are now largely generated by selling us services – and it is in Apple’s interests that our Macs remain serviceable and able to purchase them.

Neither is this being done for ‘built-in obsolescence’, to try to drive those using older Macs to upgrade to new ones. It was realised a long time ago that selling premium products which fail or die early generates unhappy customers who are more likely to look elsewhere. It is much better to attract users to upgrade with new features, which is why we go through this painful annual cycle with new macOS versions.

This does emphasise the importance of purchasing AppleCare for your new Mac. In some parts of the world, consumer protection law may appear to make it unnecessary, but the great thing about AppleCare is that there is little argument as to whether Apple will rectify any hardware failure for free, unless you have physically abused your Mac. Then you know that for the next three years, it doesn’t really matter if Apple has to replace your logic board, including its T2 chip, soldered-on SSD and memory, because you won’t be paying for it.

When your Mac’s AppleCare runs out, and you could have to pay for that exchange logic board, the economics changes, and (just as you do at present) you’ll have to compare the cost of the repair with the cost of replacing the whole Mac. But most of the problems which have caused failures in the past – hard disk mechanical failure, lead-free solder particularly in graphics cards, and counterfeit capacitors – shouldn’t be risks any more. Indeed, many more of today’s Macs should still be running sweetly on their tenth birthday.

I’m sure that some of Apple’s engineers would love to design a true successor to the cheesegrater Mac Pro, a full-size heavyweight tower with an internal optical drive, four hard disk bays, expansion slots for multiple graphics cards, and ample memory expansion. From around £/$/€ 4,000, it might even sell better than the Mac Pro Late 2013 is doing at present.