Mac User Showcase

Apple Power Adapter Tips

- 2010.03.31 - Tip Jar

Let's face it. Most of us have had at least one bad experience with an Apple power adapter. From the "yo-yo" adapters with their barrel jacks to the white brick MagSafe, they've had their fair share of pitfalls.

For those who seldom remove your 'Book from your desk, you probably haven't experienced any problems. Aside from a very rare complete failure, they're solid in this department.

Road warrior laptops tend to accumulate a fair amount of damage and wear. Eventually, this will cause the breakdown of your adapter, it's wires, and your DC receptacle. Here are some tips and tricks to avoid some unnecessary early repairs.

In it's lifetime, Apple has produced several different types of power adapters.

  • PowerBook 1xx Series have a 'normal sized' barrel jack.
  • PowerBook 5xx Series have a '4 prong dual voltage' barrel jack.
  • PowerBook 5300 and 190 use an 'ultra-tiny' barrel jack.
  • Apple yo-yo power adapterAny PowerBook and iBook after the 190 and 5300 but before the 15" Titanium PowerBook uses an 'oversized barrel jack.' (The standard for the yo-yo.)
  • Introduced with the 15" Titanium was the 'smaller barrel jack' with Charge State Indication LED Ring.
  • Finally, MagSafe for the Intel 'Books.

My main gripe with all of the Apple standard power adapters is the wires.

The wires are incredibly thin and fragile. While this was an aesthetic decision, and the wires are within rating for the current they are delivering, they're way too small. I could tear the wire of the yo-yo adapters without much effort.

Apple also uses a two-wire ground shielded wire. This is great for thinness but little else. The center wire frays it's insulation and shorts out on the ground shield after a much shorter time than a setup with two separate parallel wires would. This causes the infamous "burn marks" that you'll see on doomed AC adapters - it's the wire shorting out, causing heat and sparks.

You Can Fix It

Don't be mistaken. If an adapter's wires go bad, it is completely repairable. There are plenty of guides on the Internet. There are only two wires, positive and negative. Just remember to exercise caution - and if you're questioning yourself, you probably shouldn't be doing it yourself. Get some help from an expert.

The fix: Apple, please. Use two parallel wires. The power cord would be a bit thicker, but we'll thank you when our power adapters last many years and survive a lot more beating.

Here are some useful repair guides. Some electronics knowledge is required, but not too much. Don't be afraid to cut that thing open and save yourself some money. That said, Low End Mac and I take no responsibility if you set yourself, your house, or your laptop on fire. Follow the guides carefully, and don't be afraid to ask for help,

Prevention

The wires are the weakest link, and if you travel with your laptop, they're going to break eventually. The two most common failure points are the charging end and the connection to the base. Why? Because they're bent harshly - a lot.

Don't wrap your wire tightly around your adapter when you pack it. Let it hang loose a bit. Seriously, it's unnecessary stress on the wires that contributes to early failure. Make sure that it's not sharply bent where it's inserted into your computer. Keep the wire loose and straight. Don't jam it into a corner, and don't crease it. If you sit with your laptop on your lap, don't crush the wire.

They're fragile. Trust me, it's worth repeating a hundred times.

The Barrel Connector

With any barrel-type connector, there are things you should never do and things you should always do.

Don't let them get stepped on. This is a very common reason for failure. When you crush the outer metal ring or snap the golden pin in the middle, it's toast. They're not that strong and bend really easily.

Don't let the computer lean on the connector. This is a big one for those who use it on their lap. Take care not to put pressure or support the weight of the computer on the connector. This bends the pins - and that can also ruin the DC board inside your 'Book pretty easily. Same thing when working on a desk. It's a connector, not an extra foot.

Give them a nice cleaning once in a while. Unplug your adapter. Go back and reread that. That's pretty important. Once in a while, it's good to take a Q-tip and run it along the inner contact edges of the adapter. This doesn't apply to the 'ultra-tiny', 'normal', or '4 prong' adapters, since they're too small for Q-tips. But if you're having connection problems (even with the MagSafe), try giving it a gentle cleaning. Emphasis on gentle - and absolutely no water!

The LEDs

No light: Just because the LED ring isn't lit, that doesn't mean it's not charging. I used to get this question a lot when I did repairs. The LED on the connector will sporadically light up; unfortunately it's normal. As the contacts within the DC jack start to wear down, the LED contacts won't always make a good connection. This can cause a dim LED or it not lighting up at all. If this is happens, try cleaning the connector. If it still happens, use the power monitor on your toolbar to determine your charge state. Just because the LED isn't on doesn't mean it's not charging.

Red: When the LED turns red, my computer does not charge. Red is bad. That is the connector's way of telling you it's shorting out or your adapter is failing. Dropped it recently? Is it plugged in all the way? Did somebody step on it? This can also happen if you have a bad DC board. Try another adapter if you've got one available. Isolate whether it's the connector or jack and stop using as soon as possible.

Noise

Buzzing connector: My connector/DC jack makes a buzzing noise. Buzzing, huh? Sounds like you've got a case of the bees (kidding). In all seriousness, buzzing is usually a sign of a faulty DC board. Take the connector out, clean it, and give it another go. It's not necessarily harmful, but it is a sign of impending failure.

Buzzing adapter: My adapter makes a buzzing noise. Cheap aftermarket adapters tend to buzz because they use cheap components. Again, it's not necessarily harmful as long as it's faint. If it's loud, stop using it immediately and request a replacement. That could be a sign of a short, or bad wiring. If it's a stock Apple adapter, same rule applies. If it's low, it should be fine. If it's loud, it's possible it's shorting out or failing internally.

Aftermarket Adapters

I've experienced the aftermarket adapters for all generations except the PowerBook 5xx Series (4-prong). Generally, they're fine. However, some things to know about them: If your machine is mission critical, do not rely solely on an aftermarket adapter. They're made cheaply, and their build quality is nowhere near that of a genuine Apple adapter.

A good way to have things set up is to keep your Apple adapter at your desk. Carry your aftermarket adapter with you in the field. If it breaks, it's easily and cheaply replaced. Same if it gets lost or stolen.

The wires in third-party adapters seem thicker, but they are just as fragile as the original Apple ones.

Micro Accessories 65W travel adapterEditor's note: Both Charles Moore and myself have been very happy with the rugged 65W Micro Accessories "travel" adapters sold by Amazon.com, FastMac, iFixit, MacWizards, Newer Tech, Operator Headgap, and Other World Computing, Small Dog, and others (sometimes under their own brand). It's available in black for pre-G4 PowerBooks and clamshell iBooks, white for more recent PowerBooks and iBooks. dk

Other Tips

When your computer is charging, your adapter will get hot. This is normal, so it should be somewhere where it can cool off easily. Don't wrap it in anything or stuff it in a small enclosure with other heat producing adapters. Let it breathe.

In the same vein, don't leave your adapter somewhere that can build up excessive heat. Radiators, near your Mac Pro's power supply (ask me how I know about that one), or even other power bricks are all bad.

The enclosures for the AC adapters are not in the least waterproof. Moisture in the air, sitting in damp areas, liquid spills - all are bad. If you spill something on the power adapter, unplug it immediately. Give it at least two days to dry out. When you want to give it a try, don't do it. Wait some more. Patience is going to save you money on a new adapter.

Did your power adapter come with a modular end (G3/4 and MagSafes) and an extension cable? Save the little end with the plug on it. That part is easily worth $10, and when either one of them fails, having a backup is very nice. LEM

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