The moment people started to get their hands on the M2 MacBook Air, overheating and thermal throttling were big topics of discussion. While the performance of the M2 Air is more than enough for most people using the laptop for general work, the existing cooling system can be augmented with a simple $13 change that will improve the MacBook’s performance during heavy and sustained workloads.
The actual modification itself is easy, and it just involves putting a cheap thermal pad inside the laptop. This provides thermal conduction between the M2 chip and the metal bottom of the laptop, keeping the chip cooler for longer and allowing it to perform better. But while the mod itself is simple, you should consider the associated risks before doing so yourself.
Improve your M2 MacBook Air’s performance [Video]
Adding the thermal pad
Actually modifying the MacBook Air to get the improvements is fairly straight forward and just involves four screws, but before you attempt this read the safety section. With your device turned off and unplugged, on the bottom of the M2 MacBook Air, there are four P5 Pentalobe screws holding on the bottom of the chassis. A compatible screwdriver can be picked up fairly cheaply or as part of a larger electronics repair kit. With all the screws out, you’ll want to lift up the panel at the front, left, and right sides to disconnect internal clips, and then pull the panel toward the front to remove it from the hooks at the rear of the device.
I personally used a 1mm thick thermal pad during my testing and saw decent improvements in performance, but others have used a 1.5mm thermal pad to get even better thermal transfer; that thicker thermal pad makes it a bit more challenging to reattach the bottom panel. Cut the thermal pad to size and apply it, carefully, underneath the ribbon cable.
To reattach the bottom panel, you will need to slide the four hooks toward the rear of the chassis into place. This takes care and a bit of force, so be careful and ensure that all four hooks go underneath the screw heads. Once the bottom panel is slid back into place, push down along the sides to reattach the clips before replacing the four screws.
As you go to put the screws back in, make note of the threading. The two screws with shorter threading go at the back of the laptop nearer the hinge, while the screws with more thread go near the front of the laptop.
Even with the relatively low-quality and thinner thermal pads I used, the M2 MacBook Air with the thermal pads performed dramatically better than the M2 MacBook Air without thermal pads. While both laptops reached high enough temperatures to thermal throttle, the modified M2 Air still performed significantly better while throttling than the unmodified M2 Air.
After running these tests and seeing the improvements, I wanted to see if a 1.5mm thermal pad would provide even better contact and performance. While it took a bit more effort to reattach the bottom panel, with that thicker thermal pad the M2 MacBook Air received an initial Cinebench score of 8535. That’s 930 points better than an unmodded M2 MacBook Air and almost 500 points higher than the M2 Air modified with the 1mm thermal pad.
While many of us always want to get the most out of our hardware, there are some issues that can result from the mod.
It will lead to the bottom of the laptop getting hotter than is recommended. This can make it uncomfortable to use on your lap when running at full power – there’s a reason Apple didn’t design the M2 MacBook Air to do this. Additionally, while just taking apart an electronic device like this may not void your warranty, any damage you cause by taking it apart and making changes will likely not be covered.
There is also the risk of fire should you damage the battery. None of the installation of the thermal pad requires you to mess about with the battery, but as you have the laptop open, be sure not to apply excessive pressure to or puncture the battery cells. This could cause a lithium fire – which is extremely difficult to put out. As Apple explains in their own repair manuals, in the event of a battery fire, you need a bucket of sand nearby to smother it. Read up on, and be familiar with, proper battery safety procedures.
I have also seen several people worried about degradation to the SSD and battery that could result from the extra heat transfer of the thermal mod. In my testing, the computer’s SSD and battery sensors didn’t seem to show excessive heat as a result of the modification – but that’s not to say it couldn’t be the case. Apple likely throttles the chip to slow it down and reduce heat if other components – not just the CPU – are getting too hot. So while it’s important to be aware of this potential, I don’t think it will truly become a problem.
Should YOU mod your MacBook Air?
For 95% of people, doing this would be a complete waste. If you’re just doing general web browsing, document editing, and media consumption, you won’t need or use that extra power. The other 5%? Well, most of those people should probably go with a more powerful laptop or desktop with active cooling instead – something like the 14-inch M1 Pro MacBook Pro.
If you really want to experiment and play around with your own hardware to get the best performance from it, by all means, do so at your own risk. I plan to keep the thermal pads in my daily-driver M2 Air, but just consider it carefully (and don’t blame me if you break something while opening it up).
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