TidBITS reader Andrew Roazen has alerted us to a widespread problem with the discrete graphics processors in 2011 models of the 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pro that causes graphical glitches and system freezes. Because they lack discrete graphics, the 13-inch MacBook Pro models aren’t affected. Three Apple Support Communities forum threads on the issue have over 850,000 views and more than 4,400 replies.
Symptoms reported by owners of both early and late-model 2011 15-inch and 17-inch models of the MacBook Pro include:
- Display artifacts
- Left and right halves of the display being swapped
- Blue screens
- System freezes
YouTube user MrWojzilla has made an example video showing severe artifacts on his early 2011 MacBook Pro.
Causes and Solutions -- The issue seems to be isolated to the AMD Radeon HD graphics chipsets (the 6490M, 6750M, and 6770M) in these MacBook Pro models. Interestingly, previous — back to 2007 — and subsequent MacBook Pro models instead used Nvidia chipsets for the discrete graphics processor.
A temporary workaround is to force the computer to switch to the integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics chip using Cody Krieger’s free gfxCardStatus utility, which also shows you which graphics chip is in use at any given time. The integrated graphics are slower, but consume less power (see “Improve MacBook Pro Battery Life with gfxCardStatus,” 21 February 2011).
Many forum posters believe that lead-free solder — which is environmentally friendly but makes for weaker connections — is the source of the problem. Improper use of lead-free solder is blamed for the Xbox 360’s “red ring of death” issue, which caused a substantial number of unit failures.
Unfortunately, since the AMD chip is attached to the logic board, the safest solution is to have the logic board replaced by an Apple Store or an Apple Authorized Service Provider. Reports from users price out-of-warranty repairs by Apple at $320 for a flat-rate depot repair, which involves shipping your computer away, and around $500 for a faster in-store repair. Either way, be sure to make a complete backup of your data beforehand in case Apple decides to replace the computer entirely.
Another reported solution — if you’re desperate, technically adept, and a little crazy — is to try reflowing the solder connection yourself with a heat gun, as illustrated by Geoff Hill at the Make Stuff/Do Stuff blog. Here’s to the crazy ones.
We hope that Apple acknowledges this widespread problem and issues a recall for affected customers.