A $10,000 MacBook repair turns out to be a screen with the brightness set too low

Humza

TechSpot Staff
Staff member

Last month, a DJ's MacBook Pro caught fire and lately, photographer Greg Benz had an amusing experience with his laptop. The first time he noticed his MacBook Pro's screen had gone black, he reached out to Apple Support and got the machine's logic board replaced. When the same problem reared its head the second time, the logic board was changed again. The third time? A brand new MacBook replacement worth around $7,000.

Soon, the new laptop "failed" again, for the fourth time, and it wasn't like Apple Support didn't go to great lengths to work out a fix. The troubleshooting involved input from several Apple Geniuses, multiple diagnostic tests at the Apple Store, level 1 and 2 tech support from Apple Corporate and two diagnostic tests at Apple's repair facility in Texas. It wasn't until two weeks of time and effort later, that an Apple Genius found out the rather embarrassing cause for the black screen problem.

"what was the root issue?….. Ready for it?…. I’m not joking…. the screen brightness was turned all the way down (not merely dim, but off)."

What the Apple Genius did was, quite genius really. Instead of going for more complicated fixes and expensive replacements, he shone his phone's flashlight onto the laptop display and noticed the user's avatar on the login screen. It was after performing a blind login that the screen brightness increased to its minimum value.

"It turns out that the screen pixels are updated even when the backlight is off (at least if the clamshell is open). But even he spent a good 20+ minutes trying other things before he thought to do that."

It's worth mentioning here that Greg's workflow involves using an external monitor and since he's experienced glitches in the past with putting the laptop into clamshell mode, he keeps the lid slightly open to keep the laptop from going into sleep mode and turns down the brightness all the way down to avoid distraction. This, incidentally, also turns off the display's back light, making it pitch black and easily mistaken for a dead screen, which usually spells trouble.

Greg notes that the screen remains blacked out even after a restart and during recovery mode and that external monitors can't be used during boot and login because they're disabled for the said period. He's compiled a list of several design and support issues that might have mitigated this problem and sees them as an opportunity for Apple to take note of and fix this bug to potentially help in preventing other users from having the same awkward experience.

Update: Greg Benz has reached out to TechSpot and provided further clarification regarding his MacBook repair story. According to him, third-party software installed on his MacBook conflicts with OSX and is responsible for the black screen during the machine's boot up. A MacBook Pro running OSX, as it comes from Apple doesn't run into this issue.

The workaround he's suggested for anyone experiencing the same problem with the third-party software during boot up is this: Wait a few minutes after hitting the power until the machine is ready to login and then type the first letter of your user account, click , type your password and click again.

The TouchBar that appears off on Greg's machine during the login phase, preventing brightness adjustment, is assumed to be another software installed on his laptop. Contrary to his experience, two of his contacts tested their machines and results came up different: During login, the TouchBar was visible and the display came up with a minimal level of brightness.

All in all, the issue is quite specific to Greg's machine and his usual workflow that involves using the external monitor and a conflict with a third-party software responsible for the black screen.
"Best I can tell is that I have both the unusual situation of rebooting while screen is black (due to external monitor use and some unrelated kernel panics while leaving machine running overnight) AND some kind of conflict that keeps the black screen setting from being adjusted to some visible level. So very hard to diagnose on my specific machine, but I don’t believe this would be the typical experience if someone else darkened the screen and rebooted their MacBook Pro," he told me.

Although it took some time to figure the issue, Greg makes it worth mentioning that he loves his computer and its critical to his photography business. "I have been using Apple computer for years and I am glad that I can say that this is a machine I would highly recommend."

Image Credit: Tianyi Ma on Unsplash

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Cycloid Torus

Stone age computing - click on the rock below..
I remember replacing a 'dead' light bulb only to learn there was another inline switch. Of course that was lots easier - just a few cuss words about stupid design...
 
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Uncle Al

TS Evangelist
In the beginning, when WOZ was still an active member of Apple, they had some detailed trouble shooting guides for the users but that all changed with the introduction of the MAC Lisa. It continued to dwindle to next to nothing and unless they have very recently changed, all of those guides are on line ... unreachable for the person with one computer and access problems. Once again Apple puts profits ahead of people so they deserve every bit of negative press they receive .....
 

Puiu

TS Evangelist
Nope, that's silliness from the user's end as much as Apple's end. How could he not check the screen's brightness when he himself turns the brightness all the way down?
it's 100% Apple's fault here and their "it can't be fixed, just replace everything policy". they never actually check what is wrong.
 

stewi0001

TS Evangelist
Platinum
Nope, that's silliness from the user's end as much as Apple's end. How could he not check the screen's brightness when he himself turns the brightness all the way down?
Maybe he forgot, but my guess is that since the external monitors were disabled for the boot and login (and not knowing that it does that) it would be easy to conclude that there was a hardware problem.

Either way, I love it when the simple solutions are the solution. People tend to over complicate everything :)
 

PurpleYoda

TS Enthusiast
Honestly I don't know who wouldn't fall into this trap! Apple or no Apple, when the guy comes through a door, a professional photographer who uses his computer for work for God knows how long, one automatically assumes he's dealing with an intelligent person and the fault surely must be on the hardware side. Would any of you assumed you're dealing with a complete ***** who turned down the brightness and then 'accidently' forgot about it? You really have to be a very special kind of person and I mean the exact opposite to a genius to act like this and not once, not twice but three times in a row do THE EXACT SAME THING and each time run to Apple to effectively have them turn the brightness up for you! It's just pure luck that 3rd time he came across someone who, like asking if the plug is in the power socket, checked for the first logical cause. I missed where exactly this took place, in America perhaps? ;-) Well done to the last guy who decided not to rule out the most obvious solution!
 
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Hardware Geek

TS Addict
I worked as a computer repair tech for a few years. 90% of the problems were user error. I had more than one person come and ask why they didn't have internet access on their computer, and had just assumed that because the computer had "wireless internet" that meant free unlimited internet everywhere. So yeah, I can totally see someone doing this, but the "geniuses" should have caught it immediately.
 
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Kinemon

TS Rookie
When I used to do pc repair, bad screens on laptops was a large portion of the issues I saw. Usually they cracked it by slamming it closed on their keys or something.

Saw many backlights die and replaced them all the time. If the screen was black but the pc was running, the backlight is the first thing I'd check, though I could see how it can be easy to overlook if you've never encountered backlight issues.
 

treetops

TS Evangelist
The brightness level is probably a button on the keyboard. Yup.... looked it up. Some laptops even have a stupid on off wifi button. People used to press it all the time and call into dsl\fiber tech support. It wasn't on the flow sheets just something you had to figure out.

p.s. technically the customer was supposed to use a ethernet cord anyways during testing... "ok go ahead and press the radio tower looking button, ok is it working?" "click"
 
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m-tec

TS Booster
Honestly I don't know who wouldn't fall into this trap! Apple or no Apple, when the guy comes through a door, a professional photographer who uses his computer for work for God knows how long, one automatically assumes he's dealing with an intelligent person and the fault surely must be on the hardware side. Would any of you assumed you're dealing with a complete ***** who turned down the brightness and then 'accidently' forgot about it? You really have to be a very special kind of person and I mean the exact opposite to a genius to act like this and not once, not twice but three times in a row do THE EXACT SAME THING and each time run to Apple to effectively have them turn the brightness up for you! It's just pure luck that 3rd time he came across someone who, like asking if the plug is in the power socket, checked for the first logical cause. I missed where exactly this took place, in America perhaps? ;-) Well done to the last guy who decided not to rule out the most obvious solution!
I tell my new staff on day one "people are *****s, accept that and your job is easy!"
 
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Hardware Geek

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S
The brightness level is probably a button on the keyboard. Yup.... looked it up. Some laptops even have a stupid on off wifi button. People used to press it all the time and call into dsl\fiber tech support. It wasn't on the flow sheets just something you had to figure out.

p.s. technically the customer was supposed to use a ethernet cord anyways during testing... "ok go ahead and press the radio tower looking button, ok is it working?" "click"
Saw a lot of "broken wifi" problems that we're exactly that. Most of the issues I saw were pebkac errors.
 
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m4a4

TS Evangelist
Sounds like a software/firmware problem. Screen brightness shouldn't matter on boot up (or should at least set it to that minimum value) when it pertains to the "primary" monitor.
 

wiyosaya

TS Evangelist
Sounds about right for crApple.

Honestly I don't know who wouldn't fall into this trap! Apple or no Apple, when the guy comes through a door, a professional photographer who uses his computer for work for God knows how long, one automatically assumes he's dealing with an intelligent person and the fault surely must be on the hardware side. Would any of you assumed you're dealing with a complete ***** who turned down the brightness and then 'accidently' forgot about it? You really have to be a very special kind of person and I mean the exact opposite to a genius to act like this and not once, not twice but three times in a row do THE EXACT SAME THING and each time run to Apple to effectively have them turn the brightness up for you! It's just pure luck that 3rd time he came across someone who, like asking if the plug is in the power socket, checked for the first logical cause. I missed where exactly this took place, in America perhaps? ;-) Well done to the last guy who decided not to rule out the most obvious solution!
I always turn down the brightness on my laptop, so yes, I can say that I might have checked that as the very first thing.
 
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JordLevy

TS Enthusiast
it's 100% Apple's fault here and their "it can't be fixed, just replace everything policy". they never actually check what is wrong.
So you're saying that the user doesn't need to do any basic troubleshooting, like increase the brightness if they notice their screen is dimmed?