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How Apple Evaluates MacBook Damage for Warranty Coverage

By Norman Chan

The procedure Apple technicians will go through to assess whether damage is your fault or accidental.

Note: We've now uncovered the unreleased Apple iPhone 5 Visual/Mechanical Inspection Guide, with information about how Apple evaluates your iPhone 5 warranty. Surprising information here about liquid damage and cracked screens.

On last week's podcast, one of the topics that came up was Will's MacBook repair experience. His MacBook Air had died after plugging an Arduino into its USB port, and Will brought the laptop into an Apple store to see if the damage could be repaired under warranty. Long story short, Apple accepted the claim and replaced the MacBook without charging any out-of-warranty costs. The MacBook was covered with just the standard 1-year warranty and not under any additional AppleCare plan.

That lead us to discuss what the limits of Apple's standard warranty coverage, and how its technicians evaluate whether damage is caused by manufacturing defects, accidents, or user fault. Does playing dumb when you actually have a good idea of how your MacBook was damaged help or hurt your chances of getting it fixed for free?

A listener who is an Apple Certified Macintosh Technician reached out with some illuminating details about the damage evaluation process. Apple's ACMT program allows support technicians who work at Apple Authorized Service Centers to quality a product for warranty repair, receive official components from Apple, and get reimbursed for that repair service. Basically, it's where owners of Apple products can get warranty service if they don't live near an Apple store. There are also quite a few in metropolitan areas served by Apple stores, and it's a resource I don't think many people take advantage of when a Genius Bar is nearby.

This listener clued us to a tool that we had never seen before--something that didn't show up on a Google search either--Apple's Dent Inspection Tool. This little widget is used to check for any dents or bulges in a MacBook's surface and edges. Apparently, if any physical anomaly is detected, the MacBook is considered out of warranty because the dent could be considered a sign that external physical damage is the cause for internal damage (eg. warped casing causing hard drive or battery failure).

Here's how our ACMT friend explained the Dent Inspection Tool evaluation process to us:

The Dent Inspection Tool is designed to check three types of visual damage on any portable aluminum Mac:

1. Dents in the Lower and Upper casing (bottom plate/sides/keyboard). This is tested by using the side with the 1mm spike and placing the spike in the center of the dent. If any part of the rest of the tool is able to lay flat, a repair center will be able to deny the warranty and in apples view the warranty is voided.

2. Dents in the display clamshell casing. This is tested using the opposite side of the tool, which has a smaller spike that is not labeled (possibly 0.5mm or less). The same rule applies: when siting the spike in the center of a dent, if the tool sits flat the warranty is voided.

3. Dents on the corners of the device. This is tested as seen in the image below, with the tool lining it up along the sides of the Macbook. If it does not sit flat along the edges, the warranty is voided.

So basically, if an ACMT or Apple Genius can spot visual anomalies using the Dent Inspection Tool, they can fault the issue to that damage and not cover the repair under warranty. That sounds like an unfairly arbitrary rule, but our source said that he assesses damage on a case-by-case basis and doesn't rely on the Dent Inspection Tool as the sole determining factor as whether to permit or deny warranty service. Of course, your experience may vary from technician to technician, and we would expect Apple Genius Bar techs to adhere more strictly to the warranty evaluation guidelines.

If your damaged MacBook does pass the Dent Inspection Tool test, there are several other steps a technician will perform to continue with the damage evaluation. The most well-known procedure is the check for liquid damage, as determined by Liquid Contact Indicators (LCI) located both on the outside and inside of Apple products. On a 13-inch MacBook Pro, for example, the diagram below from a LCI test document shows the location of the contact points under the casing.

That document also explains how the indicators work and react to potential water damage, and Apple's policy for providing service to machines that have triggered LCIs:

The indicators trigger only with direct contact to a liquid. The indicators will not be triggered by temperature and humidity that is within the product's environmental requirements described by Apple. A triggered indicator will turn red or pink...indicating that the module(s) to which the indicator is attached has been exposed to liquid.

A Liquid Contact Indicator (LCI) triggers if the component to which it is attached has been in contact with liquid. Service for liquid damage is not eligible for labor or materials reimbursement under warranty service or extended coverage, such as the AppleCare Protection Plan. An AASP must contact the customer to requote service for repairing liquid damage as out­-of­warranty and process the repair according to accidental damage procedures. If a module is returned to Apple with a triggered LSI and was classified as eligible for warranty or extended service coverage, labor reimbursement will be forfeited and the stock price of all parts on the repair, along with shipping charges where applicable, will be charged to the AASP.

Photo credit: ifixit

Finally, if there are no detected dents or signs of liquid contact on the MacBook, the technician will run two pieces of software to check for hardware issues. What's interesting is that one piece of software is designed to be run in front of the user, performing relatively superficial diagnostics, while the more in-depth stress testing is done while the MacBook is being held for repair. Again, here's the ACMT describes the two programs:

AST (Apple Service Toolkit)--A server application which allows machines to boot a quick and dirty diagnostics image that checks if it can detect and communicate to each part of the machine. It is also able to provide reports of the battery capacity and let technicians know if it required to be replaced. The AST Is designed to be run in front of the customer to explain potential issues when booking in the machine and to show them that the issue has been resolved when it is collected after repair.

ASD (Apple Service Diagnostic)--This is the REAL testing software. It runs actual stress testing software on the hardware. As an example it checks RAM for errors, test read/write speeds on the hard drive, monitors fan speed and temperature sensors, and runs OpenGL graphics tests.

There is a very long list of tests that it runs through, and at the end there will either be a massive green rectangle that says pass or a massive red one that says fail.

Physical and water damage are just two things to keep in mind when bringing your MacBook in for service. The general rule of thumb, according to ACMTs that reached out to us, is that in order to refuse a warranty, Apple has to prove that the damage was due to accidental misuse or user error. In the case of Will's MacBook, there was no physical evidence that the USB port is what caused the motherboard to die, so the repair was covered. Playing dumb doesn't hurt, and you should consider taking your MacBook to an Authorized Service Center instead of an Apple store first to get multiple opinions.

(Ifixit photo via this teardown.)