iMac Hard Drives: Why Did Apple Make Them Hard to Replace?

If you buy a new 2011 iMac and decide to replace its internal hard drive with a higher-capacity third-party drive, be prepared for troubleAs detailed by Other World Computing (makers of third-party drive upgrades), what had already been difficult to do is now near impossible:

“Since late 2009, there’s been a well-documented issue with the iMac line. If you upgrade the hard drive, the fans can start spinning like crazy. The fans at high speed are loud, mainly unnecessary, and have caused a lot of headaches for DIYers everywhere.” 

Eventually, OWC found a way to work around this obstacle. Until now. The 2011 iMac has a new custom SATA power connector as well as proprietary firmware on the drive itself. As a result, OWC found that: 

“Every workaround we’ve tried…resulted in spinning fans and an Apple Hardware Test failure.”

This also spells trouble for those seeking to replace a broken drive with an identically-sized non-Apple-supplied alternative. In such cases, your primary (perhaps your only) option is to have Apple (or an Apple Authorized Service Provider) do the repair.


The big questions 

Exactly why did Apple make this design change? What was Apple’s goal in creating the redesigned hardware? Who was the intended primary beneficiary of the change?

From years of previous experience, I am certain that Apple is not about to provide answers to these questions. While I haven’t called them up to confirm my expectation, I haven’t seen any comment from Apple anywhere on the web.

In other words, we are left to read the tea leaves and attempt to answer these questions ourselves. As for me, I can imagine three possible explanations. They are not mutually exclusive. The final truth may represent a combination of these possibilities.

Apple conspiracy

The first theory is the one that has received the most play on the web. Indeed, OWC itself initially suggested it:

“Is this planned obsolescence at work, or is the freedom promised in 1984 being revoked?”

The idea is that Apple deliberately set out to make it as difficult as possible to replace an internal hard drive. Why? Two reasons.

First, it means more money for Apple. The design forces users with a problem drive to come to Apple for a replacement or (even better for Apple) buy an new iMac altogether.

Second, it is consistent with Apple’s supposed desire to maintain ultra-tight control over its hardware and software. Apple doesn’t offer hard drive replacements as a user-installable option on these iMacs. This means Apple doesn’t want users (or any unauthorized third-parties) attempting a “do-it-yourself” solution. Extending this reasoning, Apple may decide to do whatever it can to prevent you (or a third-party such as OWC) from making such an attempt.

This alarmist theory is perhaps best exemplified in this quote from ExtremeTech:

“What we’re seeing here is the beginning of forced obsolescence. Rest assured that proprietary SATA cables and hard drives are just the beginning. Next there’ll be tamper-proof screws that self-destruct if you turn them with the wrong amount of force. And bear traps — there’ll be bear traps that cut your fingers in half, if you try to fiddle with your hardware — and eventually, there’ll just be a kill switch that disables your computer when the new model is released.”

Is this really what’s behind these changes? I doubt it. It just doesn’t make sense when you scrutinize it closely enough. For starters, very very few iMac owners will ever avail themselves of a non-Apple hard drive replacement. It seems odd for Apple to spend much, if any, time worrying about this possibility. Further, if Apple truly wanted to block third-party upgrades, you’d think they could find a more direct way of doing so — other than modifying how the fan is affected by the temperature sensing mechanism. Why not instead require Apple-supplied drives to include proprietary firmware that is detected by the iMac? Any drive without this firmware would not work in the iMac.

Even OWC backpedaled in a follow-up to their initial blog entry (possibly to head-off a hostile reaction from Apple):

“I want to be very clear that I think these are absolutely the best iMacs ever. These machines up the game considerably and provide performance that can even match up with the Mac Pro for a lot of applications.”

The article went on to offer a couple of partial work-arounds that would allow you to install OWC hard drives without triggering the fan problem.

All of that said, I do not totally dismiss the conspiracy theory. It would certainly not be the first instance of such behavior from Apple. For example, back in January, iFixit reported on “Apple’s Diabolical Plan to Screw Your iPhone” — by switching to custom screws that made it almost impossible for anyone but Apple to remove the back cover of the phone. The same article cites Apple installing similar screws on MacBooks “to prevent you from replacing the battery.” And, of course, Apple makes it as difficult as possible for users to directly access the iOS system software.

Apple indifference

This scenario begins with the fact, as I already noted, that the internal drive is a not a user-serviceable part. Only Apple authorized providers are supposed to even touch it. By this logic, Apple need not be concerned as to whether or not any design change affects the ease with which “non-authorized” upgrades can be done. As far as Apple is concerned, non-authorized upgrades don’t exist. As such, whatever reason (trivial or serious) Apple had for making the change, how the change affected third-party upgrades never came up for discussion. It is possible that the folks at Apple weren’t even aware of the consequences of what they did until OWC pointed it out. Even if they did know, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where that would be their primary motivation.

Apple necessity

The third possibility is that there is a valid technical rationale for making the change, one that is important enough that it overrides any consideration regarding third-party upgrades. I can only speculate what this might be. Perhaps Apple found that temperature sensing is significantly more accurate or more reliable with the new design. Perhaps the new design avoids some symptom that Apple had discovered in its testing. It might even be that the new design is less costly to manufacture.

The final variation on this possibility, one that you often see put forward in discussions of Apple’s motives, is that Apple is trying to protect us — from the possible damage that might occur if you mess around with things that you are not supposed to mess around with.

This theory is the opposing slant to the conspiracy theory. This is the “Apple is being good rather than evil” explanation.

Personally, I remain skeptical of these explanations. I doubt that cost-saving was a factor. Otherwise, Apple might have more simply gone for the industry-standard S.M.A.R.T. reporting for temperature. I reject the “protect the end-user” idea as too unlikely: end-users almost never try such upgrades themselves and OWC has a reputation for doing an excellent job in assisting users. [Follow-up added: If Apple truly wanted to protect us from trouble, one could argue they should make such upgrades easier to do, not more likely to fail. The best one can say is that such design changes make it less likely you will try an upgrade. That’s an indirect form of protection. Still, this assumption only works if potential upgraders are aware of the implications of the design change. Yet Apple has made zero effort to make this information public.]

As to addressing a design flaw, this is possible. However, I find it unlikely that there was a temperature/fan problem with the previous generation of iMacs that was never noticed by users and never reported on the Web. If no one ever noticed it, how significant could the problem be? More likely is that the design shift is in response to some related change introduced in the new models.

Bottom line

On balance, Apple indifference seems the most likely explanation. Sure, Apple might have been aware of the implications of the new design. They might even view inhibiting third-party upgrades as a positive bonus of the change. And sure, there must be some technical reason that Apple views the new design as an improvement. Otherwise, why bother making the change at all? So all three reasons may have played a role. Still, I believe the primary factor is that Apple simply doesn’t care about the consequences here. It doesn’t care whether or not a change affects the ability for companies such as OWC to service a part that is not intended to be serviceable by unauthorized third-parties. Apple does what it feels is best, independent of such considerations. It’s a simple as that.