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The Chequered History of MagSafe

MagSafe has certainly been a welcome addition to the portable Mac lineup ever since it was introduced with the original MacBook Pro back in 2006, but it’s not been without incident.

Before it was introduced, Apple had been using a typical barrel connector for their portable power adapters. Whilst this is used by some manufacturers even today, it’s a horrendously bad design for a portable computer. If you trip over or snag the cable then prepare to watch either your laptop hurl through the air or the DC cable separate from the connector – with the connector still attached to your laptop.

The original DC connector - the horrendously bad barrel connector

Unfortunately, this kind of accident happened all too often. I worked on the Genius Bar for many years going right back to the during the days of the iBook and PowerBook when it was all too common to speak to customers who had tripped over their power adapters, breaking it and leaving the connector stuck inside the Mac1.

Apple, rather surprisingly, did something about this when they launched the MacBook Pro. Although the casing was very similar to the PowerBook’s already popular aluminium design, the typical DC port was replaced with something else – MagSafe. During the Keynote, Steve even joked that it would not only save the customer’s time with repairs but it’d save Apple’s time with having to repair broken connectors.

The MagSafe port was unobtrusive and, unlike a barrel connector, not a female connector. Instead, a small row of gold dots sit slightly recessed whilst the connector on the DC cable had pins that could retract to create a secure connection.

The MagSafe connector on the DC cable was a plastic construct that had a built-in charging light, amber for charging and green for charged. It was a T-shape, meaning the DC cable (the cable that ran from the power adapter to the MagSafe connector) ran perpendicular to it. There were some pins surrounded by a magnetic material so that it would snap onto the Mac provided it was close enough so you didn’t even need to be exact when attempting to plug it in – it was all rather ingenious.

MagSafe was widely praised and worked exactly as described, but that’s when the trouble started…

Mag(un)Safe

From March 2006 onwards, several incidents were reported upon of MagSafe connectors supposedly catching fire and/or burning out, usually accompanied with a puff of smoke. There were many more incidents reported on Apple’s discussion boards as well as many other Apple related forums online. All of these incidents had one thing in common: the burning out was always around the joint where the MagSafe connector of the PSU met the cable.

Damaged MagSafe

So what caused these problems? The issue appeared to be the cable’s lack of strain relief. There’s a small piece of plastic mould next to the MagSafe connector that covers the cabling which is supposed to protect the cable from strain. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t strong enough. Most people disconnect the MagSafe by pulling the cord away from the Mac but, in actual fact, it should be detached by pinching the MagSafe connector and snapping it away – the same way that you’d disconnect any other cable from your Mac. In some other cases, the DC cable would be badly bent and twisted due to incorrect use (in some instances it was borderline abuse) and eventually wear out completely, resulting in the MagSafe connector falling off like a frostbitten toe.

There’s an Apple support article that details how to reduce cable strain and damage on your MagSafe power adapter but that’s about it, it’s not even in the getting started booklet that’s in the box with the Mac (at least it hasn’t been on any Mac I’ve owned). Unless you decided to one day research the best methods for keeping your adapter free of cable damage then you’d never really know. Ironically, this was the exact same problem Apple’s smaller profile 30-pin dock connector cables were experiencing since they shrank it and removed the need to pinch the sides – customers would just yank the cable.

Thanks to the initial Keynote demo and it’s advertised feature that yanking the cable away will simply detach it from the Mac, the cable strained over time because the force required to overcome the magnetic attraction between the MagSafe cable and the Mac was more than the cable’s strain relief could handle, meaning that over time the cable started to separate from the MagSafe connector. Subsequently, the exposed cable started to fray which would expose the wiring underneath and in some rare (but often reported on) instances the exposed wiring shorted out, resulting in a spit of sparks and melted plastic.

It wasn’t until late 20082 that Apple began acknowledging an issue and instituted a replacement program for damaged power adapters. The replacement adapters had a slight design revision, the plastic moulding designed for strain relief was longer and covered more of the cable that attached to the MagSafe connector.

Acknowledging and addressing the problem wasn’t enough and in 2009 a class-action lawsuit was filed against Apple alleging that the MagSafe power adapters were too prone to cable damage and fraying. In 2011, Apple settled the lawsuit and issued settlements to affected customers.

Changing Shape

Even though it wasn’t until 2008 that Apple began to address these issues, it appeared that Apple may have already been working on alternatives to the T-shaped connector, starting with some designs for the original MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air was first introduced in 2008 and with it came a new style of MagSafe adapter and whilst the interface was still the same size, the connector changed from a T-shaped model that had been in use since 2006 to a newer L-shaped version that was (at the time) unique for the MacBook Air.

In addition to the new MagSafe shape the connector for the MacBook Air variant was aluminium instead of the white plastic used for the connectors that were used with the MacBook and MacBook Pro range. The cable relief was also dramatically bigger and was larger than the connector itself.

The MacBook Air connector was the first to be L-shaped

The L-shape was born out of necessity. The tapered edges of the MacBook Air meant the (sparse) ports on it were at a very weird angle and the USB, audio and video ports even had to be in a small assembly that folded up and down when required (one of the ugliest design features I’d ever seen on a portable Mac). Since using a standard MagSafe connector would protrude too far from the casing, causing it to be raised on one side, the L-shape meant the cable would run rearwards from the Mac, avoiding the problem. However, whether coincidence or by design, this new MagSafe connector wouldn’t fray as the MacBook’s – it was immune.

The idea was carried over in 2010 when Apple introduced a new style of MagSafe connector that borrowed the idea from the MacBook Air and using an L-shaped connector for the 85-watt power adapters that shipped with the MacBook Pro range. The 60-watt adapters that shipped with the MacBook and MacBook Pro 13-Inch (as well as some entry level models of the MacBook Pro 15-Inch) remained as the traditional T-shaped connectors for a little while longer.

Apple subsequently moved to L-shaped connectors until MagSafe 2

You can definitely see the resemblance to the MacBook Air adapter and, although the strain relief looks smaller, the actual aluminium design of the connector shields a large part of the cable. This seemingly resolved the issue of strained cables fraying and becoming damaged since you can’t just yank the cable directly away from the Mac, it has to be levered with the MagSafe connector acting as a pivot which meant far less strain on the cable. Perfect.

Well, no. Switching to the new L-shaped connector came with what could only be described as an unforeseen drawback – it compromised what was MagSafe’s whole purpose, the accidental disconnect.

With the previous T-shaped connector, pull the cable in any direction and it’ll detach. With the L-shaped connector, pull the cable in most directions and it’ll detach. The one direction it won’t detach is if it’s pulled back away from the rear of the Mac (or the rear-right of the Mac), the cable can’t detach since the MagSafe port is recessed. All it needs is a sharp tug of the cable backwards and it’s enough to cause the exact problem MagSafe tried to avoid – a flying Mac.

MagSafe 2

I wrote about this back in July 2012, about how MagSafe 2 was a necessary change since there were some criticisms about Apple’s choice in using a new connector that meant the old power adapters would need an adapter to work. I won’t repeat the entire article but the change was necessary simply because it seemed the only fix to MagSafe’s woes was the connector itself. By reducing the height and increasing the width of MagSafe, Apple could move back to the more versatile T-shaped connector that all new MacBook Pro/Airs ship with. The magnet is still pretty strong (in fact I think it’s still a little too strong) but the cable’s strain relief appears to be better and my cable has been in constant use for the better part of 8 months and it looks just as good as it did out of the box.

MagSafe 2 goes back to the T-shaped connector

Lessons Learnt####

MagSafe has had a chequered history since it’s introduction back in 2006 and there are plenty of arguments that explain how MagSafe just wasn’t as well designed as it could’ve been. I believe the biggest mistake during the whole saga wasn’t product design or poor manufacturing – it was communication.

Apple assumed that switching to MagSafe would be easy and people would disconnect the cable in the same way that they’d disconnected the older barrel connector but since they focused so much on how easy it was for the cable to disconnect just by pulling it (due to an accident) then, somehow, customers started to take that on board as the normal way to do it. No-one (in their right mind at least) disconnects a USB, Thunderbolt or audio cable by yanking the cable – we grip the connector, yet because of the very nature of MagSafe it somehow became an exception.

Since there was no education or explanation for the user that it should be disconnected like any other cable (save for a single Apple support article that isn’t linked from any part of the main Apple site or in any documentation) then the problem spiralled out of control. I’d say on an average week when I worked on the Genius Bar I’d swap at least 20-30 during the worst of it.

A lot of lessons about communication as well as manufacturing were learnt with the problems surrounding MagSafe and you can see with MagSafe 2 that Apple isn’t taking any chances with potential cable strain. The strain relief is thicker and longer and the MagSafe connector is shorter and wider, all design choices made to try and eliminate any possible human elements from causing damage. In addition, the MagSafe connector is now much larger, large enough that it looks more like it should be held when disconnected. It’s still possible to bend the DC cable into ridiculous angles but no more so than any other connector. And if you’re doing that then you’ll only have yourself to blame this time around.

PowerBook G4 image by Jaysin Trevino.Frayed MagSafe image by Jeff Golden.Power connectors image by Marcin Wichary.MacBook Air image by Prem Sichanugrist.All photos used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

This article has since been republished on The Tech Block.

  1. If you’ve ever had to repair the DC board on a PowerBook 12-Inch then there are a few support groups I can recommend. 

  2. This program ran into 2011, long after the original, problematic, MagSafe ceased being manufactured. The program was available to all affected adapters, regardless of warranty, provided it (or the Mac it shipped with) was purchased within 3 years.