Monday, January 25, 2010

iMac G5 capacitor repairs - via Macintouch

I recently reworked our home network, and our almost- 5 yo G5 iMac is doing quite a nice job as the (yech) Parental Controlled homework/learning workstation. The transition has been educational for me as well, my kids taught me that educational videos will play quite well if one is careful to close CPU-sucking pages running (ugh) Flash animations.

During the transition I had to reset the SMU to deal with one of many causes of the G5 non-stop fan problem (CPU sure was cool though - 60 C). I also popped the case to blow massive amount of dust off the fan and vent. I love the user-serviceable plastic case design; it was a high point of Apple customer-friendliness.

When I popped the case I checked the capacitors. In one of the many sordid bits of Apple hardware history they shipped a bazillion iMacs with flawed capacitors. Many of those failed under warranty, but Macintouch tells us they continue to die over time. A lot of iMac buyers lost some loot there. (I wonder if the iMac's original fan/heat problems contributed to this.)

I just checked mine and I didn't see any bulging, but it's worth noting that there's now a small G5 iMac capacitor repair/replacement industry ...
Macintouch - iMac G5

... Late last year one of the other guys at work started repairing iMacs on the side, replacing the swollen caps. He gave me a full set (since I had given him the idea in the first place when mine failed, I think) and said "give it a try" with a few pointers. I replaced all the caps over a weekend and now I have a fully functional iMac G5 in my workshop to replace the 8500 and 7300 that were there... Check around locally for smaller tech shops. In South East Wisconsin, MacCetera does the repair for a flat rate of $200 + tax, including parts.

... My iMac G5 suffered a swollen-capacitor death two years ago. Once they were replaced it has been running smoothly 24/7 as a database/Web server and Skype phone.
... The owner of performs motherboard capacitor replacements on G5s. It'll run you less than $75 for a premium capacitor rework.It's worth checking out the site if you're considering getting a 3rd party to perform this repair. They also have a knowledgeable tech forum that has discussed many G5 hardware issues.
See also*:
* When I do these reviews of old posts, it strikes me that before the wonders of Google Custom Search I tended to discover and forget things -- and I was younger then!

Update 12/18/2011: "Cordwainer" (Karen Cotton) has written an extensive comment on the story of the capacitor failure. Worth a read. I still use that G5, and the capacitors still work.


HSCW Editor said...

Though your article was written some time ago, you really should edit it to be fair.

The bad capacitors used in iMac G5s affected the whole PC industry, not just Apple. None of the computer manufacturers were to blame.

The capacitors were all part of manufacturing runs by certain Taiwanese companies. Though no one was able to identify the individual, all the capacitors used an electrolyte formula believed stolen from a Japanese competitor by a former employee, a classic case of industrial espionage. Unfortunately, the formula was missing several ingredients necessary for electrolyte stability.

Average lifespan would normally be 15 years. Capacitors made with the stolen formula begain failing in the first two years, peaking disastrously in 2005-2006. The problem continues as remaining capacitors go on failing, despite the computer industry's best efforts to repair or replace affected computers.

Dell spent $300 million on diagnosis and repair of defective PCs. HP was forced to purge an entire product line. Apple instituted a 3-year extended repair program covering all potentially affected iMacs. Acer, Asus, etc., there is a long list. It was a hideously expensive catastrophe for the whole industry.

Many computers were repaired multiple times, as in the beginning no one knew which companies were involved. Once the "capacitor plague" was known to be confined to Taiwanese companies, things began to improve.

But miillions of owners ignored or didn't read the notices, or had never registered their computer, etc. Despite news stories and pervasive online coverage they never heard about the recalls.

It's rather unfair to claim Apple is to blame for a problem that cost the entire computer industry billions of dollars. Nor did overheating necessarily make any difference, as the failure rate was the same across the board.

LIke you, I'm well aware of the overheating issues. But there were so many causes, it's hard to sort out whether design or other factors were to blame. Dried/excessive thermal paste, dust-blocked airflows, corrupted system software not controlling fans properly, hard drives with too little free space...and, yes, even bad capacitors...were identified as culprits. When a power supply or logic board begins to experience random capacitor failure, fans can slow, chips twitch and glitch, and individual components overheat thanks to under- or over-amperage or voltage.

Owing to the capacitor issue, It's a chicken-or-egg question that can't be completely resolved.

Certainly Apple's design or manufacturing was at fault in a minority of cases. In the majority there are too many variables to say. Just as certainly, Apple was vilified for overheating caused by other issues. A great many reports and most of the Apple-bashing came from owners with no understanding of the technical issues involved, or even aware it mattered to keep the OS updated, their machines clear of dust, etc.

Technicians reported varied experiences. There was never a clear consensus of the evidence. Some felt the machine design would rarely have caused overheating if the capacitors had not been failing early. Since no one was psychic and measured amperage/voltage for fluctuation BEFORE capacitors showed any visible defect, we'll never know for sure.

I believe journalistic integrity requires you revise your article to include the facts, and make clear not only the extent of the capacitor problem, but the culpability of the Taiwanese manufacturers in using a stolen and faulty electrolyte formula.

(Industrial espionage in this case ironically resulted in punishment that fit the crime far better than any judicial prosecution. By the time they were done with refunds and lawsuits, I don't think any of the manufacturers survived, at least not in their original form.)

All best,
Karen Cotton

JGF said...

Nice summary Karen. I added a comment to the post referencing your summary.

I recall some of these details, but it's a good reminder of what a disaster that bit of espionage was. I suspect many other instances were more profitable.

The G5s were undeniably hot though -- that was the main reason Apple went Intel.