A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

I spent my last two days and change at SXSW without a working power adapter for my MacBook Air, and remaining productive on my laptop was far easier than I could have imagined.

Frayed MacBook Air chargerThe insulation around the cable on my 2012 model’s MagSafe 2 charger had started fraying just off the power brick months ago. Sometime Sunday afternoon I realized that the wiring underneath had become entirely exposed, and the thing would only charge if it fell away from the brick at the right angle. By that night, it wouldn’t charge at all.

It’s a testament to the enormous popularity of Apple hardware that keeping my laptop charged over the next few days was so little trouble. It was nothing at all like the horrendous experience I had after forgetting to pack the charger for a Dell laptop on my way to CES 2007, when compatible power bricks for this model were a lot harder to find than Dell’s popularity at the time would have suggested.

Instead, my biggest hangup was properly spacing out my “hey, can I borrow your charger” requests so each of my SXSW pals with a MacBook Air wouldn’t feel too put upon. The closest I came to genuine inconvenience was when my Yahoo Tech colleague Jason Gilbert and I, sitting side by side with depleted laptops, had to take turns with his power adapter: We’d plug in one MacBook, charge it long enough to get its battery gauge out of the red, then plug in the other.

It also helps that laptop battery life has advanced enormously since 2007: Even after two and a half years of charge cycles, my MacBook can still last for four hours, then retain most of its remaining charge while asleep.

I didn’t even bother going to the Apple Store in Austin, far north of downtown, or looking up other computer stores downtown. I saved that errand for when I got home, when I paid $83.74 with tax for a replacement charger. Oof.

I’m not a fan of the minimalist, mono-port design of Apple’s new MacBook, but at least its use of the compact and crafty USB-C standard for charging means its users won’t have to pay those kinds of monopoly prices if they wind up in my situation.

In the meantime: Is there anything I could have done to the charger before it failed completely? The guy at the Apple Store who sold me the replacement said he sees plenty of charger cables shrouded with electrical tape, and it appears that I could have patched the cord with sugru–but of course I had neither of those things handy when the charger still worked, sort of. Sigh.

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13 thoughts on “A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

  1. electrical tape works, but the “just at the right angle” symptom says to me that there was a fray deep in there.

    Depending on how mac power cords are set up (I haven’t checked) — mine kept working with tape on it, but if push comes to shove you can sometimes “unravel” the cable into its component sub-cables and tape them together individually, then wrap it up in another layer. I used to do this with coax and even once with an old VGA. It don’t look pretty, but the cost was $1 worth of tape and an hour.

  2. This is a serious flaw in the cable. I am at the “electrical tape stage” right now, and I’m just waiting for it to eventually fail. The bad part is that you have to buy a whole new brick because of the broken wires. Really bad design.

  3. As added a comment on Google+, here’s the “pigtail” method of wrapping the power cord that prevents /this/ type of failure of the power cord.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Rob. I had the same exact symptoms (only charging with the cord in a very specific position with respect to the charger), but the insulation remained intact. I actually had the insulation split a lot right near the magsafe connector, for some reason. But that was with my late 2008 MBP, I’m being extremely gentle with the cord on my newer Mid-2014 MBP, and half the time I don’t need the cord, since as you said the battery life is so much better.

  5. I’ve had this problem with a MB MagSafe, but my new MBP and MagSafe2 hasn’t yet frayed it’s cord – it has other issues (like not wanting to consistently start charging depending on what side is up and retina display antireflection coating issues).
    That said though, on my problemed original MagSafe, I did a field repair that lasted another 3 years until I bought a new computer. Long story short… you cut the cable a couple of inches from where it is frayed, slip on some big and small diameter heat shrink tubing, strip away the insulation and the broken grounding shield and then solder it all back up. After the electrical fix, shrink down on the patch and then on the union from the brick to past the repair. The patch looks nice, is solid and it prevents wear at the brick. And, because the heatshrink tubing over the patch was considerably longer than the patch itself, it moved the stress away from the brick and patch and spread it over more surface of the cable.
    If I do have another catastrophe with a MagSafe, I’m going to explore other options: like slimming down a MagSafe adapter to MagSafe2 dimensions or getting a cheap and cheery charger with a USB or standard pinned brick output, cut my MagSafe cord into the adapter’s cable and keep most of the $85 bucks in my jeans. All you need to do is read the charger label and see to it that it has very close to the same output voltage and equivalent or more output current (amps, but sometimes stated as power in watts, so you will need to do a little math).
    It’s petty selling really good computers with cheaply built chargers. I really expect better from a premium product. It would be nice if Apple did something to make this problem go away – like MagSafe’ing both ends of the cable. Nickel and diming loyal, repeat customers for chargers is just chintzy.

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