A Little Bit of iMac in My Life

After five or six months teaching from my living-room-turned-home-office-turned-makeshift-TV-studio, followed by another few months of hybrid in-person/online craziness—not to mention enough mortal anxiety, pivots, and communication meltdowns to last a lifetime—let’s just say that I approved the recent transition to summer vacation.

But with free time comes, well, free time—and the inexorable need to fill it. You’d think that after a year of staring at computer screens, hoping that someone out there in the void was still listening, I’d be sick of these infernal devices.

But then my fiancée discovered that some dude in a Facebook group she belongs to was giving away a “late 2009” iMac with a busted graphics card—in other words, a machine that was fairly useless in its current state—just in case someone out there in the void was indeed still listening and might find something to do with it.

And thus, Summer Tech Project #1 was born!

The Background

Despite frequent complaints of “planned obsolescence” among iPhone owners, Apple computers, at least, are known for their longevity. In fact, I still use another 2009-era hand-me-down, a MacBook Pro, when I have the rare need of a laptop and don’t want to use my work computer. (More often than not, an iPhone or iPad gets the job done for me when I’m on the go. And yes, I’m that bought into the Apple ecosystem…)

While longevity is a win for the environment and pocketbooks, a major downside of Apple’s engineering ethos is that their computers have become harder and harder over the years for ordinary users to upgrade and repair. For instance, you used to be able to pop the plastic back cover off an iMac, swap out a hard drive or memory module or even the processor, and call it a day. Meanwhile, with Apple’s newest machines, the processor, memory, and storage are all integrated into a single “system-on-a-chip” soldered more or less permanently to the motherboard.

In spite of this, and in many ways because there are still so many old-but-functional Macs floating around, there is an entire industry/subculture that revolves around upgrading and modding otherwise obsolete Apple hardware. Among the major players in this universe are Other World Computing and iFixit, who provide some of the necessary hardware and repair guides. And then there are the countless forums, YouTubers, and independent vendors contributing all manner of expertise and parts—some legit and some Frankensteined together.

Thanks to the trove of wisdom available on the Internet, I’ve performed numerous memory and hard drive upgrades on a variety of Apple machines. I’ve replaced laptop keyboards, swapped out a logic board once, and more.

This is all to say that when the 12-year-old iMac from Facebook showed up on the scene, I was fairly certain it was not a lost cause!

The Problem

The guy who was giving away the computer had listed it on Facebook as a 2009 iMac with a broken graphics card. When I plugged it in and attempted to turn it on, I noticed two things. The first was a series of loud clicks that emanated for a few seconds from the center of the machine. This, combined with the fact that the machine wouldn’t boot past the classic Apple logo, suggested that the computer might also have a busted hard drive.

The second thing I noticed was several vertical colored bands running across the screen, confirming the bad graphics card.

Some further poking and prodding at the software level revealed that the iMac did have a working hard drive—well, more specifically, a 250 GB solid state drive. This was not an option back in 2009, which meant the previous owner was a modder like myself.

A quick peek through the DVD slot on the side of the machine confirmed my suspicion; there was clearly something there that was not a DVD drive. This actually made sense because a common mod for old Mac hardware involves removing the DVD drive to replace it with an SSD, which is usually much faster at information retrieval than a traditional hard drive with its spinning data platter and other moving parts. (Because SSDs used to be very expensive, the idea was to install the operating system on a more affordable, low-capacity solid state drive while leaving the original, high-capacity hard drive in place for the bulk of the storage.)

The Objectives

My primary goal for this project was to get this non-booting, graphically challenged, previously modded iMac into a usable state while spending no more than it would cost in 2021 to buy a working version of that exact model. A secondary goal would be to actually improve the machine’s performance so that it might be somewhat more usable in 2021.

To get a sense of my budget, I did a quick scan of eBay listings for a Late 2009 27″ iMac with a 3.06 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 1 TB hard drive, 4 GB of RAM, and Radeon 4850 graphics card with 512 MB of VRAM. (All specs were taken directly from the box, which the owner had conveniently kept—along with the styrofoam padding—for 12 years.) The going rate seemed to be about $130 once you combined the list price and shipping charges.

The Solution

Software

Since the computer had one working storage drive and the display wasn’t so garbled as to be completely unusable, I decided to start by reinstalling the operating system. The computer appeared to have been running macOS High Sierra, which is the last version officially supported on this machine.

There was still an intact recovery partition for High Sierra on the SSD, but I couldn’t get the installer to work. I had to create a USB-based installer instead, which proved complicated because my own, much newer Mac refused to download this “incompatible” software from the App Store. I had to turn instead to a third-party program specifically designed for installing macOS High Sierra on incompatible machines. Thankfully, that app has a menu option that knows how to download the OS image directly from Apple’s servers (thus bypassing the compatibility checker).

Required Hardware/Tools

Once the OS was installed and properly booted, this gave me hope that the iMac was indeed salvageable. I even discovered that the previous owner had already added more RAM to the machine, so I could cross one potential upgrade off my list.

It was now time to find some parts. There were really only two things that I absolutely needed:

  • Graphics card + heat sink: Because of its all-in-one design, the iMac uses a custom-designed board that fits into what I think is a proprietary slot (rather than the traditional PCI Express slot used on most PC motherboards). This means I couldn’t just grab any old off-the-shelf part. I also learned that the iMac graphics cards from this era use a huge, ungainly heat sink that attaches to the card by way of an L-shaped bracket and two or more copper tubes. In other words, it’s an old, specialty part, which means that I’d have to look for it on eBay. Sadly, I couldn’t find an exact match with the full heat sink assembly at a good price, so I had to opt for a downgrade. I ended up getting a Radeon 4670 with only 256 GB of VRAM. (This was a lower-end option that Apple offered at the time alongside the Radeon 4850 that the machine came with.) The price after tax and shipping was $81.68.
  • Heavy-duty suction cups: These are used to pull off the iMac’s front glass panel, which is secured to the machine with a series of very strong magnets, without causing any damage. iFixit sells a pair for $14.99.

Extra Tools

I already had, for instance, the necessary Torx-style screwdrivers from previous repair jobs. However, I did also grab the following from iFixit: a $9.99 assortment of prying and opening tools, a $9.99 set of “precision” tweezers (for grabbing screws and wires and such), and this nifty tray ($4.99) for storing removed screws and other parts. None of these items were strictly necessary for repairing the iMac, but I saw them and figured they’d be useful for this and future projects. I was able to avoid shipping charges by picking up the tools and suction cups at a local computer store.

Taking It a Step Further

Finally, since my secondary goal was to squeeze a little bit more performance out of the machine, I also decided I’d try upgrading the processor. I had read online that the Intel Core 2 Duo E8600 was compatible with this machine. Even though its clock speed (3.33 GHz) is only moderately better than the iMac’s current processor, it offers some other spec improvements that looked worthwhile. Plus, I could snag one for only $14 on eBay, so why not? (This is the benefit of off-the-shelf parts.)

Since I planned on reusing the existing heat sink, I also opted for some thermal paste remover (for cleaning off the heat-transferring glue that holds the heat sink onto the processor) and fresh thermal paste (for attaching the heat sink to the new processor). After tax and shipping, this ran me about $25 at iFixit.

I might have been able to get a lot of the tools from somewhere other than iFixit and perhaps even spend a little less money, but I like this company and what they do. I figure they deserve my support.

Total Cost

If we don’t count the extra tools, which I’ll be able to use for other projects, the cost of repairing the iMac while also upgrading the processor would only be a few bucks more than the $130 budget I had originally set for myself. The extra tools tack on an additional $25, which does put me over budget when all is said and done, but as I mentioned earlier, they will almost certainly be used again. So I’m not entirely sure they count.

Repair Process

I’ll spare you all the gory details, suffice to say that to repair an iMac from 2009 (and later), you must yank off the front glass with suction cups and then unscrew the LCD monitor from the case. You also have to disconnect several wires and cables that connect it to different internal components. After all that, you can set the monitor aside and access all the stuff inside.

For those who are curious what this job actually entails, here are a couple repair guides that I consulted.

The Outcome

I am proud to report that I successfully replaced the graphics card. In the process, I was able to reattach the wire for one of the internal fans that the previous owner had apparently left disconnected. I also reattached a small ribbon cable related to the LCD display’s backlight that the previous owner had possibly forgotten to connect. This actually fixed a minor but annoying issue I had noticed involving a high-pitched wining sound that would have otherwise made the machine unusable for me, as I’m super sensitive to that sort of thing.

While the machine was open, I also pulled out the original hard drive and confirmed it was dead by attempting to plug it into another computer. For now, I’m not replacing it—unless I find an unused HDD lying around or decide that I actually need the storage.

I haven’t attempted the processor repair yet. (I’m actually still waiting for the parts to ship.) I’ll update this post with more info when I have a chance to get to it.

I can, however, say that aside from taking an unexpectedly long time to boot, the machine seems to work just fine. This was one of the more elaborate repairs I’ve attempted, and I look forward to trying some more in the future.

All in all, it was a great way to kick off summer break! Now if only I could figure out something productive to actually do with this now-functional machine. It’ll probably end up in my classroom, or if I can’t come up with anything, I can always try donating it to someone who needs a computer more than I do.

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