Apple’s Mac Pro SSD Kits Prove Security Is No Barrier to Repair
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Apple’s Mac Pro SSD Kits Prove Security Is No Barrier to Repair

Ready for some happy news? In a surprise move, Apple this week released SSD upgrade kits for Mac Pro owners, along with DIY instructions, and (crucially) the secret-sauce software that makes the repair viable. These resources are publicly available, directly from Apple. We’re as pleasantly gobsmacked as you are—this removes arguably the biggest remaining barrier to repair inside what was already Apple’s most repairable machine in an age.

It’s still Apple’s most expensive machine of all time. So if you’re not in the target market for this six-to-sixty-thousand-dollar workstation, and thus find this news not-so-revolutionary, we can relate. 

But hold on a tick. What makes this a revelation is not that Mac Pro SSD repairs are possible, so much as SSD repairs on a Mac with a T2 chip are possible. Even if you don’t own a Mac Pro, what you’re feeling right now is the Apple orchard’s earth moving underneath your feet a little. Apple just confirmed what we’ve always suspected, but couldn’t prove: that DIY repair and security can coexist within the same machine. Even one with a fruity logo on it.

T2: Judgment Data

The T2 chip is Apple’s custom ARM-based coprocessor which, among other things, took over secure boot, encryption, and SSD controller functions on most Mac products in recent years. In exchange for this enhanced security, your Mac’s SSD is married to the logic board at the factory—so the bad guys get nothing, even if they steal it, but legit owners have zero flexibility for modifications or upgrades. Even the iMac Pro, which had nice tidy modular storage blades, couldn’t be upgraded by any publicly available means—hardly ideal in an expensive “pro”-grade device.

Other Macs fared even worse. Beginning in 2016, Apple released MacBook Pros with soldered-on, locked-down storage chips that couldn’t be repaired or replaced—even by Apple. (Apple certainly could do it, but the procedure is so impractical and uneconomical that they likely never will.) MacBook Air and Mac mini models quickly followed suit. Even if you’re armed with a BGA rework station and the microsoldering chops to swap out your Mac’s storage chips directly from the board, thanks to the T2 chip, you’ll be left with a skillfully crafted paperweight.

The situation has gotten so dire that security-minded enterprise customers who replace or upgrade their laptops must now routinely drill working MacBooks full of holes and discard them, rather than risk releasing them to the secondary market. This seemingly preposterous outcome is simply what happens when your sensitive or classified data gets stuck on a non-removable drive.

You Buy the House, Apple Keeps the Keys

Enter the new Mac Pro. We found it to be the most repair-friendly Apple device in years, scoring 9 out of 10 possible points on our repairability scale. Upon release, Apple even provided its own DIY repair and upgrade instructions for a handful of Mac Pro components. 

But for SSD upgrades, customers were advised only to contact Apple for service. Users could still expand the Mac Pro’s storage via the plentiful onboard PCIe slots and external ports, but replacing or upgrading the custom SSD blades was hopeless without a platinum lifeline from Cupertino. Our teardown found that physically swapping the blades was downright easy, but without its native SSD, the machine simply wouldn’t boot

Like the iMac Pro before it, we had no reason to suspect the Mac Pro’s situation would improve. Apple’s new security model, with the T2 chip at its center, would seemingly never allow any DIY or third-party customization to the native drive. 

Or so we thought.

The Barrier Isn’t Apple’s Security Model—It’s Apple

Instructions and software tools for DIY Mac Pro repairs are available on Apple’s support site. Note how this Mac has been safely tranquilized and tipped over on its side.

With the release of Apple’s DIY-friendly SSD upgrade kits for the Mac Pro, we’ve learned two things. First, Apple is seemingly committed to following through on its promise that the new Mac Pro will be a more flexible, configurable, and upgradable platform for its customers. And we think that’s wonderful. Modular platforms are longer-lived, more amenable to repair, and produce less waste over time.

The second thing is that Apple can absolutely make products that are both secure and repairable—when it wants to. Apple knows how to create the software and release the tools to empower people to take control of their hardware outside the gleaming confines of the Genius Bar. There’s nothing special about Apple’s security model or its T2 chip that makes repair impossible; security is not a barrier to repair, and never was.

What, If Anything, This Means for Other Macs

For now, the Mac Pro remains an anomaly in the Apple hardware ecosystem. It stands in stark contrast to current MacBooks and iPads, which have precious few serviceable components and no upgradeable components at all. 

Will that ever change? We’ll venture way out on a limb and say: maybe. Apple’s Doug Brooks hinted last year that lessons learned from the Mac Pro could carry over into other pro-level products. And if we’ve learned anything from Microsoft’s recent dramatic turnabout with the repairability of its Surface Laptop, it’s that anything’s possible. Let’s hope Apple’s most repair-friendly move in ages won’t remain confined to its most expensive product.