Introduction: Broken MacBook to Desktop!

About: I like fixing up old technology in my spare time!

Hey! In this guide I will be showing you all how to turn a broken 2010 MacBook into a “iMac” like desktop! Why would you want to do this? Well you might have an old damaged MacBook lying around gathering dust.. maybe sitting right next to an old monitor. Why not combine them and get a functional computer out of it!? Keep in mind that the 2010 MacBook is quite old at this point so it's not going to be the fastest computer around, but with the right choice of components it should at least be usable for everyday stuff.

In this guide I am going to go through what I did to get my specific MacBook( mid 2010 White Unibody) turned into a functioning desktop computer. Your broken MacBook might be broken in different ways or you might need different parts to fix it so this guide might not have the exact info you need to turn yours into a desktop. It's crititcal to do some research into what you will need to get your particular build up and running before committing to it(otherwise you might waste money on a MacBook that is never going to work).

In each step I’ll talk in general about the process(in italics) and then go into detail about what I did to get my particular build running.

Disclaimer: This guide does contain steps (mainly soldering a new power switch) which could damage your MacBook’s motherboard! Backup any important data before proceeding! This guide is mainly for MacBook’s that would otherwise be recycled/never used again anyway. In other words: only perform the following steps on a computer that you are OK with loosing if something goes wrong(the soldering step is fairly difficult).

Step 1: Evaluate the MacBook

What is wrong with it? Is it suitable for this project? The main things to check are if it still boots up and if the USB ports and video output ports still work. You will need some parts and tools to see if the MacBook will start up. At a bare minimum you probably will need a power supply and some RAM(I also needed a monitor and video cable since my display is broken).

I got this MacBook used for very cheap. It was listed as “for parts not working”. The description also said it wouldn’t boot and had a broken screen. Lets take a look at it.

I opened up the MacBook and I can already tell that the screen is indeed broken. Then I plugged the MacBook in and tried to turn it on with the power button… nothing happened. But the green LED on the power adapter turned on, so that is a good sign!

I then took the bottom off. Looks like the motherboard, RAM and DVD drive are there. No obvious liquid damage to the motherboard. The battery and hard drive are missing though. There are also some broken connectors that look like they are for audio stuff(like a speaker or mic). The hard drive cable looks intact which is good.

So why won’t it start? Well my theory is that at some point someone poured liquid into the keyboard and shorted the keyboard out. The power button is part of the keyboard on this MacBook so sometimes when the keyboard goes, the power button goes with it. Fortunately this MacBook has some test pads on the motherboard(see photos) that can be shorted to start the MacBook when the power button is not working.

In order to start the MacBook using the test pads I unplugged the Mac from the power adapter(If it had a battery I would have unplugged that too.).

Next I disconnected the keyboards ribbon cable from the motherboard. I did this because shorting the test pads might not work if the keyboard is indeed the faulty part(since the power button is part of the keyboard.).

Next I plugged the mac back in and tried shorting those test pads with a small screw driver… Success! It lives! Make sure you don’t short out any other components when doing this. It can take a couple try’s to get the screwdriver to make good contact with the test pads, so be patient. The fan spun up, the chime sounded and the screen’s back light turned on, all good signs!

I then further tested it by plugging in a monitor, USB keyboard and USB mouse and turning it on by shorting the test pads again(If the MacBook won't output video to the monitor try closing the built in display and restarting it). On the monitor is the file with a question mark in it(which means it successfully started up but can’t find a hard drive to boot from). I unplugged it and turned it on one more time, this time holding down the "command", "option", and "r" keys It then showed the “network recovery” icon with a dialogue to choose a network. I then tested a USB keyboard and USB mouse and everything seems to be working!

Step 2: Choose Your Build and Get the Parts and Tools You Need.

So now that you have figured out that your MacBook is suitable, you need to decide where to put the MacBook in your build. There are all kinds of possible builds you could do. You could put it under the monitor, build it into a desk, put in in an old Apple TV enclosure or iMac case. So many fun possibilities! Also this is a good point to get all the parts and tools you need together.

I decided to attach the MacBook to the back of the monitor with zip ties so it is out of sight when using the computer. I figured since it was pretty secure in it’s original case that just leaving it in there would be easiest and most cost effective approach.

I also decided to add a new power switch to the case since the built in one no longer works.

For my build I used the following parts:

  • A 2010 “white unibody” MacBook with a broken screen and keyboard.
  • Power adapter for the MacBook(Apple A1184 60 watt mag safe 1).
  • 4 GB DDR3 RAM for the MacBook(I used 2 sticks of 2gb RAM that were already in the MacBook)
  • a 120 GB 2.5 inch SATA SSD for installing macOS on(a Solid State Drive is preferable for performance reasons but an old 2.5 inch SATA laptop hard drive will work too).
  • Video adapter dongle(A1307) for the MacBook(I already had a mini DVI to VGA adapter so that’s what I’m using. You might need a different adapter depending on what your monitor can use as video input.)
  • 2009 wide screen Dell monitor with built in USB hub(most any old monitor will work as long as it has an input that matches your MacBook’s video adapter dongle’s output).
  • Power cable for the monitor.
  • Video cable for the monitor (I’m using an old VGA cable).
  • USB cable for the built in USB hub in this monitor(type B to type A). This part is not really required as I could always just use the ports on the MacBook itself, but since this monitor has a USB hub though I figured I might as well use it.
  • External USB keyboard and mouse(can be wireless or Bluetooth).
  • A new power button since the power button is broken on this MacBook(SPST switch).
  • Some wire for the new power button.
  • 3 large zipties to attach the MacBook to the monitor.
  • USB flash drive to install operating system(not needed if you already have an old hard drive with macOS on it, or if you have access to a WIFI network to install macOS, or if you have the Snow Leopard install DVD)
  • Masking/electrical tape.
  • Double sided mounting tape.

And I needed the following tools:

  • Safety goggles
  • A separate functioning computer(to make bootable flash drives, do research on ect). In this case I used a Lenovo t400.
  • Multi meter.
  • Small Philips head (also known as cross-recess) screw driver.
  • Small flat head screw driver.
  • Soldering iron and solder.
  • headlamp.
  • “helping hands” tool for soldering.
  • Wire cutter/stripper tool.
  • Wood clamp.
  • Hammer.
  • Small nail.
  • Hot glue gun and hot glue.

Step 3: Fix What Needs Fixin

Fix what needs fixing to make the MacBook into a desktop. And plug everything together.

In my case I needed to install a new power button since the old one was dead. I installed the switch directly into the case of the MacBook so it is secure and won’t get yanked out.

I came to the decision on where to mount the power switch based on a couple of things. First I don’t have a battery and am not going to get one, so the space where it used to be makes sense for mounting the switch. Second I wanted a place where it would be easy to reach when mounted to the back of the monitor. I also wanted the MacBooks thermal vents to face upwards when I mounted it to the monitor to help with cooling. With that in mind I decided to mount the new power switch on the “front” edge of the MacBook, this way I can easily reach under the monitor and push the power button to turn it on once it is attached to the monitor.

If your MacBook has a battery another possible power button mounting location would be where the DVD drive is located(you would have to remove the DVD drive of course).

So to actually drill the hole I clamped the case to my desk so it wouldn’t go anywhere. I then put on my trusty safety goggles. Then I used a small nail and hammer to make a small indent where I want to drill through the case. I drilled the hole using a small drill bit at first and working my way through four drill bits small to large. I had originally planed to have the hole for the switch go through the bottom of the case, and the switch be held in place by it’s retaining nut. After I drilled the hole with my largest drill bit, I realized the hole was still not large enough. So I used some wire cutters to cut the top part of the screw hole out making it large enough for the switch.

Next I installed the switch in the case and made sure the wires were long enough to reach the test pads on the motherboard. Then I masked off the contacts on the MacBook’s motherboard I want to solder the wires from the switch to(I really don’t want any solder falling onto random connections on the motherboard!). These contacts are the same one’s I used to test if the MacBook would boot earlier. I then removed the unnecessary ends from my wires(they were recycled from a different project) and stripped about 2mm of insulation of the ends of them.

I then turned the soldering iron on and set it to max temp. I tinned the end of the iron, the wires and the contact spots with a bit of solder. I then used the helping hands to hold the wired onto the contact points I wanted to solder. Adding a bit of fresh solder to the iron I then soldered the wires onto their contacts. When soldering don’t leave the iron in contact with the mother board any longer than necessary. The traces on the mother board can transfer heat and possibly damage other components on the board. This is a tough spot to solder to, so if your new to soldering I would practice on something else before attempting this project.

After soldering the wires to the motherboard I then soldered them to the switch contacts. I then tested the switch and used hot glue to hold it in place in the case.

I also removed the rubber bottom off the bottom of the MacBook’s case. It was half off already and just looked bad. This was way harder than I expected! I had to use a screwdriver and the hair dryer for maybe 40 minutes working it slowly off. If I had to do it again I would leave the rubber bottom piece on it.

I then plugged the Solid State Drive in to the MacBook’s hard drive cable and used some double sided mounting tape to hold the SSD in place. As it’s not a hard drive(which is more fragile) I’m not worried about really securing it. If you are using a hard drive I would recommend using some screws and the built in brackets to secure it. These brackets have some rubber bits that maybe isolate the drive from vibrations a bit.

Step 4: Install an Operating System.

So when it comes to what operating system you want to install you have 3 main choices: macOS, Windows and Linux.

Which one should you install? It really depends on what programs you want to run and which OS they require. All three are reasonably easy to install on this machine.

I ran some benchmarks on this machine with the different OS's just to see if one was markedly better performance wise. Here are the results:

  • macOS: Single Core 1197, Multi Core: 1994
  • Linux: Single Core: 1210, Multi Core: 2001.
  • Windows 10: Single Core: 1105, Multi Core: 1531
  • Geek Bench 4 average for mid 2010 MacBook: Single Core 1548, Multi Core: 2544

As you can see from the benchmarks the Geek Bench average was significantly better than all the of benchmarks I ran. This might be because my MacBook is missing it’s battery(I have heard these models draw power from the battery and power adapter to supply the motherboard, even when plugged in). Other than that though Linux and macOS are more or less tied performance wise. Windows 10 is significantly worse than both on the Multi Core test.


It being a MacBook and all... I guess we should try macOS first!

The main issue with installing macOS on this MacBook is that this laptop can not run the latest version of macOS(Catalina at the moment). It only officially supports High Sierra. If you absolutely need Catalina then you might need to use a newer Apple laptop that supports it. This laptop does however allow the installation of up to date versions of Linux and Windows 10.

Even if it can't run the latest version of macOS, older ones are still useful sometimes. So let’s try installing macOS over a WiFi network.

I held down the "Command", "Option" key and the “R” key while the system started up. I held them until the spinning globe appeared. I then connected to my WIFI network. Then a progress bar took forever to load(I imagine it was downloading something). After a bit it then leaves you with some options like “Disk Utility” and “reinstall MacOSX” ect. If you choose reinstall macOS it will then download it over your WIFI network and install it. The version it installs on this MacBook is Lion(10.7). After that I could use the App Store to download more up to date versions of macOS, up to High Sierra, theoretically.

There are a couple other ways to install macOS. You could use a Snow Leopard install disc if you have one or you could buy a USB installer off ebay. There are probably other ways as well. These three are just the ones I have tried before and had work. If you happen to have an extra hard drive with macOS already on it you can try putting that in the system and seeing if it will boot(back up any important data off the hard drive first!). I have swapped hard drives between macs before without issue.

I also wanted to install El Capitan so I could run some bench marks. I installed El Capitan from a USB stick. I got the error “OS X could not be installed on your computer. No packages were eligible for install. Contact the software manufacturer for assistance.” This is a bug due to the date being set wrong(MacBooks don’t have CMOS batteries and since this MacBook is missing it's battery it can’t remember the date). I used the terminal utility from the install environment to change the date with the “date” command. For instance “date 062810232019” would set the date to June 28th 10:23 2019. After changing the date the El Capitan install proceeded without any issues.

Windows 10:

Windows 10 is not too hard to install either. Google “windows 10 media creation tool” and click on the link that is Microsoft’s official website. Follow their instructions and you will soon have a bootable Windows 10 USB drive(note: for full use of Windows 10 you might need a windows key).

So to get the Windows 10 flash drive up and running I first downloaded the windows media creation tool. Next I accepted the license agreement. Then I Picked “Create installation media”. I then chose USB. I then chose the flash drive I wanted from the list. When I installed windows 10 it finished installing and then had to restart about 4 times before it booted. But after that it was all good!

Ubuntu Studio: Ubuntu Studio is a good Linux distribution that includes a bunch of audio/graphics/office programs already installed. Plus it uses a lightweight desktop environment and is good for older computers.

To install Ubuntu Studio I did the following:

First I downloaded an Ubuntu Studio 19.04 disk image from the Ubuntu Studio website.

Next I formatted the flash drive using Windows.

Then I downloaded the program UNetbootin from the UNetbootin web site.

Finally I ran the program UNetbootin. I clicked on the "diskimage" option, then selected the Ubuntu Studio disk image that I downloaded. They have instructions on how to do this on their website if you need further help.

Now we have our bootable USB flash drive set up! Let's install Ubuntu Studio!

It’s actually surprisingly easy to install Ubuntu Studio once you have the flash drive set up. Just hold the option key while the computer starts up, then choose the flash drive option(in my case it was called “EFI boot” and had the yellow flash drive symbol. It had a weird screen with a few pixels lit up for a couple minutes, then proceeds to boot the live environment. From here you can install to the solid state drive by clicking on the install icon on the desktop. While installing I choose not to install the 3rd party software as the live environment seemed to be doing fine without it(graphics and wifi already seemed ok).

It’s neat this MacBook can run all three of the major operating systems!

Step 5: Mounting the Macbook to the Monitor.

I decided to ziptie the MacBook to the back of the monitor so it is out of the way. If I’m being honest I think just setting it under the monitor like in step 4 is just as good if not better but…. I kinda like it out of sight behind the monitor. So with this particular monitor you can slip a zip tie between where it connects to the monitor and the base. I then attached two more zipties in a loose loop. I then put the Macbook(with it’s thermal vent facing up) in and tightened the zip ties up. Next I wrapped and tucked the cables so they looked good(ish) and plugged everything together.

Step 6: Conclusion.

I think this old MacBook is still usable today, at least for lightweight stuff. Playing around in Garage Band, editing some documents. Running iTunes(RIP) to restore an old iPod. It’s not a high performance computer or anything but it sure is a cheap macOS computer. And this particular model can be upgraded to 16 GB of RAM which is not bad, especially when also using a SSD. Even though I used VGA video output in this particular build the video quality is not bad either.

I liked this computer so much I decided to keep it set up permanently behind my main computer’s monitor. Whenever I feel like playing around in macOS I just unplug my desktops keyboard and trackball and plug them into the little MacBook hiding behind my monitor.

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