Replacing the Battery in a MacBook Air

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MBA taken apart
13-inch MacBook Air Disassembled. Photo by Brad Moon

I recently wrote a year end post about products that had disappointed me in 2014, and one of the featured culprits was a 2008 vintage MacBook Air whose battery had swollen to the point it was distorting the aluminum case. Since Apple no longer sells components for this notebook — even though the battery is a consumable (thus the reason for my griping) — I was offered the choice of using the MBA only while plugged in, finding a third party battery or buying a new laptop. I bought a replacement battery from Other World Computing (OWC) and installed it, proving that the non user-replaceable battery in these things is indeed easily user replaceable.

Since switching to the unibody aluminum design, Apple’s notebooks have been equipped with a battery that’s more like the one you’d find in a smartphone or tablet than in a typical laptop. It’s flat, thin and specially designed to take advantage of every spare cubic inch of room within the case. That means it can’t be swapped out.

If your battery dies, Apple replaces it for you ($139).

One of my kids now has the option of using a laptop in class and, rather than go with a Chromebook, I decided to pull an original Apple MacBook Air out of storage. It was a backup machine that hadn’t seen use in several years, but very portable with a decent keyboard and Aidan was familiar with the Mac operating system; so it seemed like a good use for the machine.

While prepping it, I noticed the lid not quite closing true one night, and by the next day the entire bottom half of the case had swollen up alarmingly. At that rate, it looked ready to burst. The battery only had 300 or so cycles on it (it was rated for 1,000) but it was old and didn’t owe me anything. Batteries wear out. Unfortunately, when I took it to the Apple Store as instructed, I received the news that Apple had stopped stocking or selling parts for this MBA — even the battery.

MacBook Air swelling
This MacBook Air is either pregnant or preparing to explode. Photo by Brad Moon

Some people have resorted to opening up their laptop and pricking the swollen battery envelope with a pin to release the gas. That seems like an inherently bad idea. The gas is undoubtedly toxic and YouTube is full of videos of such operations going sideways, often in the form of sparks, smoke and the occasional explosion.

I chose to order a NuPower replacement battery complete with a one year warranty from Other World Computing (OWC), a Mac upgrade and accessory specialist.

The battery cost $79.95 and, although shipping would have been free in the US, it was another 30 bucks or so to get it to Canada. That’s okay— still less than the Apple replacement (had it still existed), even after exchange.

Replacing the battery yourself on a unibody Apple notebook voids your warranty. With a six year-old machine that’s no longer under warranty, that’s not a concern. The battery included the necessary screwdrivers, so opening up the MBA was a simple matter of removing 10 screws and pulling the case apart. Aidan sat in on the operation to see what the “guts” of his laptop look like.

The battery replacement itself is dead easy. It’s held into place with more screws, but there are no other components to remove and no glue or tape. Simply remove the screws, disconnect the battery from the board, remove it, fit the new one into place, replace the screws and plug the connector in.

MBA battery is swelling
The offending battery with the swollen, gas-filled envelope visible on the right half. Photo by Brad Moon

The only complication I ran into was a tab on the battery connector (meant to make it easier to remove) that wasn’t perfectly placed and prevented a full connection. I didn’t discover this until I’d reassembled the MBA, powered it up and found the battery wasn’t recognized. Once the offending tab was removed, full contact was made and everything was good.

So if you have a unibody Apple MacBook Air or MacBook Pro and the battery is dead, swelling or dying, you do have options. Even if Apple no longer supports your machine — or if you simply want to save a little cash — you can pick up third party batteries from reputable retailers and do it yourself in 15 minutes. It’s not as difficult as they would have you believe.

And the Apple Store will safely dispose of the old battery for you. Even if they consider the machine to be an antique.

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