Print 38 comment(s) - last by Fritzr.. on Jul 27 at 2:36 PM

The MacBook Air 11.6-inch model may be diminutive, but it beats out its larger kin in SSD performance.   (Source: Apple)

Engadget confirmed that the Samsung SSD outperforms the Toshiba SSD Apple uses.  (Source: Engadget)

Apple security research Charlie Miller promises to overheat and possibly set MacBooks ablaze with this latest hack, to be revealed next month.
Problem isn't exactly new, but it could bother some Apple owners that they don't have the "best" SSD

Apple, Inc. (AAPL) recently unveiled its new MacBook Air models, the fourth major refresh of the product line, and the first refresh of the 11.6-inch MacBook Air, introduced in generation three.  Apple is now the third largest PC manufacturer by volume in the U.S.  The recent refresh was significant as it also marked the death of the "budget" MacBook laptop.

I. Slow SSDs?

Reports are emerging from multiple sources that some MacBook Airs -- namely the 13.3-inch models -- have a bit of a shortcoming when it comes to the speed of the installed solid state drive.

Comparing 128 GB SSD drives (stock on the 13.3-inch, an upgrade option on the 11.6-inch) on the refreshed models, gadget enthusiasts discovered the 13.3-inch 128 GB drive is manufactured by Toshiba Corp. (
TYO:6502), while the 11.6-inch has a hard drive by Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (SEO:005930).  While that difference may not sound like much, it turns out it actually makes a somewhat substantial difference in speed.

The Toshiba TS128C SSD in the video review show TLD Today was found [video] to post a write speed of 156 MB/s versus a much higher write speed of 246 MB/s with the Samsung SM128C SSD.  Similarly read speeds for the Toshiba were 208 MB/s and for the Samsung were 264 MB/s.

Engadget attempted to confirm these numbers with tests of its own.  Its Toshiba-equipped air posted write and read speeds of 184 MB/s and 203 MB/s, respectively.  The write numbers seem in pretty good agreement, but there's a fair amount of discrepancy between the writes speeds in the two tests.

Of course, this is hardly a "disaster" for MacBook owners -- the Toshiba drive is still faster than the 5400 rpm hard drives found in most laptops, which run up to 100 MB/s for the latest models.  And there's far bigger hardware headaches in the MacBook Air itself -- such as the anemic stock 2 GB of DRAM or the lack of a discrete graphics chip.

That said, MacBook Air buyers may wish to check hard drives on in-store models by on "About This Mac" in the menu bar and going to More Info -> System Report, and lastly, clicking on Serial ATA.  It is unknown what the distribution of drives for higher capacity is in terms of Samsung versus Toshiba.

The only noticeable difference from the faster SSD speeds will likely be small speedups in boot time and slightly faster file transfers, when copying large files or folders to or from the hard drive.

II. "Burning" Batteries?

Esteemed hacker Charlie Miller is perhaps the most distinguished hacker of Apple laptops in the business, so when he promises something big, the media naturally takes note.

Over the last couple weeks, reports have been surfacing that Mr. Miller is planning a big release for next month at the annual Black Hat conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Reportedly, Mr. Miller is preparing to unveil how to "hack" Mac batteries to set them on fire.

Apple has had its fair share of exploding/burning gadgets [1][2][3][4][5][6] over the years, so that claim caused much excitement and fear.  It also perhaps brings to mind Sony Corp.'s (TYO:6758mass battery recalls of a few years back, in lieu of reports of explosions.
At this point it's clear Mr. Miller is going to present something important, but the media appears focus on wanton speculation, rather than waiting for the facts.  For example some sources -- like Tal Be'ery, Web security research team leader at Imperva Security claims that the hack requires physical access.

He comments, "Why would hackers invest time and money in the R&D of a new too a new tool that would cost 130$ per deployment (the cost of a battery) and be only relevant for a very selected group (specific battery model of apple laptops) and require physical access when they can infect millions of machines using OS exploits and social engineering with a very low cost per infection - without even getting up from the couch?"

However, Business Insider reports that the hack is driven by a default password buried in the firmware, suggesting that the intrusion could be done remotely.

Aside from the specifics of the attack, the various sources do agree on the general premise.  A hacker could use firmware modification to tell the MacBook battery to continuously charge, causing it to grow hot, and potentially have its lithium chemicals combust.

Even if Mr. Miller can only show an attack with physical access as Mr. Be'ery suggests, it could still pose a terrorist threat, as malicious individuals could set Apple laptops up to combust at a given time in an airplane cabin or other sensitive location.

It's important, though, to remember here that any laptop could, in theory, be vulnerable to this kind of attack.  However, the attack sounds quite complex and would likely require obsessive focus like Mr. Miller's to discover.  Mr. Miller says hacking Macs is easier and more fun than hacking PCs.

Plus anyone who's ever used a recent generation Apple laptop knows those super tight metal laptop shells tend to trap heat much easier than bulkier PC laptops -- perfect conditions for combusting a battery.

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TSA concern?
By Boze on 7/26/2011 1:46:03 PM , Rating: 3
The overheating combustible battery is a terrorist's wet dream. The ability to use a hack to ignite a laptop onboard an airplane, regardless of whether its carry-on or checked, is exactly the kind of exploit that's going to require a recall of all affected laptops.

Unless of course we have to wait till someone actually causes a serious incident. Boy I can see Jobs' comment on that one right now... "YOU'RE NOT FLYING IT RIGHT!"

RE: TSA concern?
By Paulywogstew on 7/26/2011 2:12:15 PM , Rating: 4
TSA could ban all laptops that can't have their battery removed. That would be a sad day for apple sheep.

RE: TSA concern?
By fic2 on 7/26/2011 3:21:11 PM , Rating: 1
A hacker could use firmware modification to tell the MacBook battery to continuously charge, causing it to grow hot, and potentially have its lithium chemicals combust.
Well, since the speculation is that the battery could be caused to explode due to continuous charging the solution would just be to not allow charging on the airplane.

Also makes this
malicious individuals could set Apple laptops up to combust at a given time in an airplane cargo hold or other sensitive location
kind of fear mongering since laptops are not being charged while they are in the cargo hold.

RE: TSA concern?
By 225commander on 7/26/2011 3:32:00 PM , Rating: 2
I think you (we all) missed the important difference between 'constant charge' and 'constant discharge' which is what I feel to be the actual 'hack', thereby making the need to be on a charger null, while increasing effectiveness and utility of said 'hack', if true that is.

RE: TSA concern?
By MrTeal on 7/26/2011 3:50:44 PM , Rating: 2
Do you have any source for your feeling? It doesn't seem likely at all to me that it's a constant discharge. A LiPo can be discharged at a very high rate (10C+) without significant or dangerous heating, depending on battery specifics. For a 50Whr battery that would equate to being able to draw 500W from it safely. You would need to short circuit the battery in order for it to overheat during discharge. There's really no path to pull that kind of power, unless the firmware also controls the onboard switching power supply and can cause it to malfunction, which I'm sure is not the case.

On the other hand, it's very easy to overheat a LiPo by overcharging it. When you push current into it, you convert electrical to chemical energy. If they reach the full charge point, any extra power gets converted to heat. That's why if you go to any model airplane or car website that sells battery packs they also sell flame and explosion proof charging bags.

RE: TSA concern?
By Solandri on 7/26/2011 4:03:57 PM , Rating: 2
IIRC, once a Li-ion battery is discharged too much (voltage drops too low), it can explode if charged again. The charging firmware is designed to recognize this, and "kills" the battery if the voltage drops too low (prevents you from charging it ever again). So the hack would have to first over-drain the battery to put it into this dangerous state, then allow you to try to charge it normally.

RE: TSA concern?
By MrTeal on 7/26/2011 4:47:20 PM , Rating: 2
That still requires charging though. You can explode a lithium based battery in many ways by charging it, but short of connecting the leads together (pun intended) it's pretty tough to make them catch fire through normal discharge or even aggressive discharge. Either way, the laptop would have to be plugged in to make the batteries go boom.

RE: TSA concern?
By cfaalm on 7/26/2011 6:10:47 PM , Rating: 2
You leave your laptop on when it's in cargo?

RE: TSA concern?
By aliasfox on 7/26/2011 4:25:53 PM , Rating: 2
So... you're already no longer allowed to fly with a LiON battery that's *not* plugged in (or has its own case to prevent shorting), and now there's a scare that you shouldn't fly with the battery *in* the device either... they make it sound like you have to carry LiON batteries in a bomb-proof box...

RE: TSA concern?
By W00dmann on 7/26/2011 4:06:30 PM , Rating: 1
Even if Mr. Miller can only show an attack with physical access as Mr. Be'ery suggests, it could still pose a terrorist threat, as malicious individuals could set Apple laptops up to combust at a given time in an airplane cargo hold or other sensitive location.

I haven't read anywhere that the batteries can get so hot that they actually burst into flame and/or explode with enough force to bring an airliner down, nor have I read of any scenario where this might happen when they are unplugged (read: not being charged) and sitting in an airplane. Please provide a link to a factual document which backs up your inflammatory (pun intended) assertion. Failing that, you should apologize to your readers and Apple for posting misleading and strictly hypothetical information as fact.

I'm not disputing that the laptops have a vulnerability, just your interpretation of its severity and your offhanded association with Macbooks and terrorism.

RE: TSA concern?
By Bad-Karma on 7/27/2011 3:42:22 AM , Rating: 2
I haven't read anywhere that the batteries can get so hot that they actually burst into flame and/or explode with enough force to bring an airliner down

Any flames inside an aircraft have a high potential of spreading and doing serious damage both to the plane, passengers and crew. Your in a sealed pressurized environment with a higher than average amount of oxygen being fed into the cabin. It doesn't take much to get a fire raging in a setting like that.

You don't realize how much electrical wiring/sensors/fuel systems/hydraulics & flight control systems are in close proximity to where you are sitting. If fire gets into any of those systems it can be enough to bring down the plane.

RE: TSA concern?
By Fritzr on 7/27/2011 2:36:22 PM , Rating: 2
A Swissair plane was brought down over the Atlantic by a wiring fire. Many more aircraft have been forced to make emergency landings due to onboard smoke or fire. A cargo plane made a big hole in the Everglades due to an onboard fire. Yes onboard flame or sufficient hear to start a fire is dangerous to an aircraft.

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