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Apple adds spill detection to new MacBooks

October 22, 2008 |  8:00 am

Apple MacBook Trips to an electronics-repair store sometimes turn into an exercise in debate. "No, I didn't void the warranty. Yes, I'm sure I didn't spill water on it!" Apple is looking to put those arguments to rest by using a technology that detects when a laptop has been exposed to liquid.

The new MacBook and MacBook Pro computers, introduced last week, include two Liquid Submersion Indicators, which are small sensors located under the keyboard and near the trackpad that change color when exposed to a liquid. This appears to be the first time a computer manufacturer has employed the mechanism on its entire line of notebook computers.

The technology has been a standard in cellphones for years, with indicators normally located underneath the battery. If you've ever brought a waterlogged phone to get repaired and wondered how the technician knew it was water-damaged, that's how.

Apple used the sensors on its own cellphone, implementing them inside the iPhone's headset port. To check the phone's sensor, an Apple technician shines a light into the port -- the light is similar to one a doctor might put into your ear during a checkup, said Norm Riker, director of business development for Los Angeles-based Computech, an Apple-authorized computer-repair store. The MacBook sensors are even harder to check, requiring the worker to disassemble the computer.

An Apple spokeswoman wouldn't confirm the inclusion of the technology in the new MacBooks but said the computer's instruction guide warns users to keep their hardware dry and shield it from "rain, snow and fog." The MacBook troubleshooting guide, a confidential document given only to Apple-authorized service providers, details how to read the sensors.

Water damage is a violation of the AppleCare warranty. Apple Store technicians are instructed to deny a customer warranty-covered service when they detect liquid exposure, said one service department head for a Hollywood-based Mac repair shop who asked to remain anonymous because of the confidentiality agreement. The technician, a former Apple Store repairman, said signs such as stained plastic would help technicians determine when liquid has seeped under the hood. The sensors make it a no-brainer.

Significant liquid submersion can cause major electronic problems, including corrosion and shorting, Riker said. But other repairmen say that sometimes those sensors can change color even if the damage isn't serious. If it's a small spill and the user immediately disconnects the battery and power charger, it might require minimal repair. So third-party technicians will often investigate on a case-by-case basis and still honor warranties even if the little dot under the keyboard is red.

"If it wasn't a part that had to go back to Apple, we would probably take some kind of pity on the person," the service department head said. "It's not any kind of shady business practice or anything. It is up to our discretion."

-- Mark Milian

Milian is an intern with latimes.com

Photo credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press

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