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I performed open heart surgery on my Mac mini, and it was horrifying

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Hell hath no fury like a TR6 security screw

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Last weekend, I performed an invasive and meticulous operation on one of my more valuable gadgets: a late 2014 Mac mini. You see, it was slow and hampered by its components, and in desperate need of a speed boost. So I decided to replace its spinning hard disk drive with a solid state one. Yet because the product is made by Apple, a seemingly simple procedure turns out to be a day-long adventure into the deepest, darkest parts of the DIY computer repair community.

Now, Macs are notoriously hard to upgrade, and that’s by design. This I know well from simple cases like RAM upgrades. But I was not at all prepared for the massive undertaking the late 2014-era Mac mini requires of users. And simply to reach one of maybe only two parts an average computer owner may ever want to upgrade on their own. It involved painstakingly dismantling the entire machine piece by piece, using janky tools in place of the specialized ones I didn’t have. It was yet another much-needed reminder that Apple goes out of its way to make tinkering a herculean task.

Macs are notoriously hard to upgrade, and that's by design

I should preface this by saying I bought the Mac mini fully knowing it was not a very powerful machine. I wanted a desktop computer, mostly because I could save some cash and felt I didn’t need a laptop if I would be using a work machine for 90 percent of my daily tasks. A Mac mini would let me keep my workflow, files, and apps intact from my dying MacBook Pro without having to spend upwards of $1,000.

About a year after purchase, the mini just wasn’t cutting it. It would stall, stop, and choke up on even the easiest of tasks. I knew the RAM was soldered to the logic board on this particular model, leaving a SSD replacement as the only true option. And that seemed fine. As someone who’s been enjoying the speediness of flash storage on a workplace MacBook Air, I felt the upgrade on my home machine was long overdue. Life is too short for slow computers, as The Verge’s Nilay Patel put it back in April.

So I bought a 480GB SSD, an external hard drive docking station, and a torx screwdriver set off Amazon. From my experience with the pre-2014 Mac minis, this would be a relatively painless process. Just a few parts needed removing and this new set would cover all the bases. Or so I thought.

As soon as I got to step four of iFixit’s guide, I realized the new Mac mini is different than its predecessor. Not only was this new guide 35 steps long, but just getting inside the Mac mini involved removing three TR6 Torx security screws. The screws have a small pillar in the middle, requiring an even more specialized screwdriver to take it out. Neither of the two hardware stores within walking distance of my apartment had the appropriate tool. Luckily, a computer repair store did. (In an uneventful twist, the maintenance guy just jammed a regular Torx tool into the screw head, as his security one didn’t even fit.)

I assumed it would be relatively straightforward from there. About 45 minutes later, I’m watching someone on YouTube use pliers to mold a metal coat-hanger into a specialized tool, just to release the logic board. Where did it all go wrong?

Apparently, iFixit sells a special Mac mini logic board removal tool, which is a U-shaped rod you use to press into two special holes in the bottom of the machine to free the logic board assembly from the frame. Instead of waiting to order the tool, I used two extra-large paper clips — another online suggestion — to perform the task with some careful help from my roommate. All the while, I felt close to irreparably destroying the component.

In the process of figuring out that hellish makeshift strategy, I had inadvertently opened iFixit’s logic board replacement guide to find the paper clip tip. I was quite delirious with rage at that point, and began blindly following the next steps. I realized, a few moments later, what I was doing had absolutely nothing to do with the SSD replacement at hand. (Taking screws out of a heat sink can be quite meditative at this stage of mental anguish.) Twenty minutes later, I had the logic board reassembled and off to the side.

My last and maybe most onerous task was removing four extra-large screws from the drive tray, once I had eventually freed it up from its elaborate prison behind the power supply. About 30 minutes later, we managed to finally remove the final screw, stripped to its bones, using a rubber band as a screwdriver grip. This wouldn’t have been necessary had the screw not been positioning directly next to a protruding arm of the drive tray, making removal exceedingly difficult.

Upgrading to a SSD is worth the blood, sweat, and tears

Putting the machine back together was an easier process, and I managed to boot it up without any issue. The copy of my old hard drive was intact, and everything has been fast and pleasant in the week since it was installed. So I can say it’s been worth the blood, sweat, and tears, but I learned quite a few lessons. For one, always read iFixit’s recommended tool list. That’s a must for any amateur computer teardown or part replacement.

More important advice: don’t buy a Mac without the components you think you’ll be comfortable with for at least two or three years. At least do so only with the understanding that any repairs or upgrades you decide to perform may be more than you originally bargained for. If there’s anything Apple is great at, it’s making consumer electronics that are as much painful brain teasers as they are objects of desire.