Everything I Know (Now) About The 13-inch MacBook Pro (non Touch Bar) Solid-State Drive Service Program

This Fall, Apple announced a service program for the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pros (also known as the MacBook Escape, for the hardware Esc key that they still have), specifically around the solid state drive that stores the operating system and user data. Think of a service program a lot like a car’s technical service bulletin program: designed to identify a potential failing of a given make and model of machine, and resolve that defect before it turns serious.

The Apple documentation for this repair is clear: the machine will have all of its data wiped during the firmware fix. Apple states: “Prior to service, it’s important to do a full back up of your data because your drive will be erased as part of the service process.” This means that you must backup the data before you take the machine to Apple. In our case, where Time Machine backups exist, we will perform a final update to the backup before the machine goes in. Where one does not exist, we will use Carbon Copy Cloner to backup to a disk image.

Today, I got to watch as a technician completed this process on a client computer, and I wanted to catalog what happened, as there’s not a step-by-step guide available for admins. In this case, I had three affected machines, and a Genius Bar appointment. Two of the machines failed the diagnostic portion of the firmware fix, and one was successful, which gave me a look at both cases of the SSD Firmware Update.

The Basics of the Solid-State Service Program

Before the process began, each of our machines was inspected and made sure to be in operating condition. After a brief check to determine OS level and functioning status, the machine was restarted, its PRAM zapped, and then it was run through standard onboard diagnostics (ie, hold Shift-D at boot). Our friendly Genius also reminded us for the third time that all data should be backed up at this point, or forever hold your peace. Now the machine was ready for the next step.

The firmware update process was handled in a NetBoot environment, as these machines are not T2 machines, and thus can be NetBooted. A specifically-created NBI was used by the Genius to boot the machine to a single-use tool. The appearance of this tool was very similar to booting into recovery, where a standard window appears and offered a single tool, the SSD Firmware Update.

The actual process of running the SSD Firmware Update is quick. I clocked it at well less than three minutes. If there’s a failure, it’s even faster.

In The Event of a Failure

If the mechanism doesn’t pass muster, a failure dialog is displayed, and it advises that the machine’s SSD needs to be replaced. This is not something Apple was ready to do on the spot, and said it would need to go to depot for repairs. There was a silver lining here: the existing volume was preserved with its information. This allowed us to take the machine back and do a direct transfer of data to an alternate loaner machine and schedule the depot repair at our convenience. In short, the machine’s ready to go back to use for the time being, and you’ve got a good backup.

In The Event of Success

If the mechanism does pass muster, you will get one last confirmation before everything is wiped from the drive. This is the fourth time I was asked if there was a backup of the volume. There was, we proceeded.

After a short period — three to five minutes by my recollection — the firmware was updated and we could proceed. It was then booted into Internet Recovery, and we used Disk Utility to create a new APFS volume on the otherwise-vacant SSD. After the firmware update, there was nothing on the disk, not even an empty volume. In order for the OS to be reinstalled, a volume had to be created first.

Once that was completed, the OS was reloaded, and twenty minutes later we had a working machine again.

Summary And Opinions

The process here was, thankfully, fairly painless. The machines that failed the upgrade weren’t erased and can go gingerly into the hands of their users until we can identify sufficient loaners. The machine that succeeded is now deemed cured and shouldn’t have this problem again. But that takes us to the problem’s mere existence. We had 40 MacBook Pros that fit the description of the warranty program, and something like 22 of them have to go to Apple in the coming months. I feel particularly awful about the company where 11 of their 18 machines have to go in.

The effect of this service program occasionally requiring a depot repair is also deeply unfortunate, because how many loaners is a 15-person company supposed to keep around? In this case, it should be possible for an org to arrange to just have these machines replaced in their entirety. Machines that have this defect can just stop working in their entirety, leaving a trusted member of your staff facing a nightmare scenario of recovery. Worse, depot repair is 5-7 days.

To bolster good will, I would hope that Apple would consider a new machine swap for these machines to get them transferred in a way that was more respectful of the time of Mac Admins and Apple customers in general. It is also quite frustrating to arrange with Apple to do these firmware fixes en masse. It takes an hour to prepare the machine, an hour to transport it to Apple and wait in the store, and then another hour to two hours to restore the operating system and user data to the machines. In addition, this service program requires Apple to participate. For shops that are using internal technicians who are Apple-certified, this tool is apparently not available via Global Service Exchange or GSX. That means you either have to find an AASP who will help you, but still require you to bring in the machines to their bench, or you have to make Genius Bar appointments for these machines.

All of them.

This isn’t a good experience for the companies that pay to be part of GSX, or the organizations that can’t participate on that scale. And these machines are fairly popular, as they represented a good balance between cost and functionality in a world where the Touch Bar is still a bit of an unknown quantity.

Yes, this is a special situation. It’s unlikely that any future machine will need this fix, due to the migration of the storage controller into the T2 silicon that Apple uses for its storage controllers. That, however, underscores the need for a better customer experience to fix this issue in the longterm.

We now have to go back to users and request their permission to disrupt them again in the future, and that’s not a fun experience. Just swap out the defective hardware for new, and populate the refurb store with the difference. It’s the least Apple could do.