The design flaw behind MacBook Pro’s “stage light” effect


The Touch Bar generation of MacBook Pro always had its quirks, but the thin-at-all-cost design may finally be proving more trouble than it was ever worth. The latest issue to crop up—dubbed “flexgate” by one of our users, Alex—reveals that the compact design for the display’s flex cables is prone to fatigue and failure, leading to a host of display problems that can’t be easily (or cheaply) fixed.

A macro shot of the display cables in question, demonstrating the slack the cables have while the laptop is closed.

The display cables in question, loosely wrapped around the display controller board. The cables are pulled taut as the display is opened, causing them to tear over time.

Of course, any product produced at the scale of the MacBook Pro is bound to run into a few QC issues—that’s understandable, providing the company can own up to them and repair or replace the affected users’ machines. But for most of us, there’s a limit to how many unnecessary repairs we’ll put up with on an expensive “Pro” laptop. Problems like the keyboard (which has, thankfully, been at least slightly addressed by Apple), poor thermal performance, and questionable battery performance and lifespan point to a bigger picture: This MacBook Pro design is a bit too far on the form side of the line between function and form that Apple is known for walking so well. 

With that bigger picture in mind, let’s address the latest problem—which, to me, is the nail in the coffin for these laptops.

The issue is fairly simple: the current generation of MacBook Pro laptops (2016–present) uses flexible ribbon cables to connect the display to a display controller board beneath the Touch Bar. These cables wrap over the board, where they’re secured by a pair of spring-loaded covers—and they’re subjected to the stress of bending with every opening and closure of the laptop. Within a seemingly short time, those cables are starting to fatigue and tear. The backlight cable is generally the first to go, producing the infamous “stage light” symptoms, and eventually giving out entirely when the laptop is opened more than about 40°.

A 2016 MacBook Pro display, dissected to expose the delicate display cable setup.

The 2016 MacBook Pro’s delicate display cable setup, dissected.

When it first debuted, the design seemed fine. But as always, the devil is in the details. Apple opted for thin, fragile flex cables as opposed to the beefier wire cables used in previous designs that could be routed through the hinge instead of wrapped around it, helping mitigate the stress of repeated openings and closings. But the bigger problem is that, in an apparent effort to make the display as thin as possible, Apple designed the cables as part of the display, so they cannot be replaced. This means that when (not if) those cables start to fail, the entire display unit needs to be replaced, as opposed to one or two little cables—effectively turning a $6 problem into a $600 disaster. Our good friend Louis Rossmann captured the problem on video; can you sense his frustration?

This problem is frustrating on multiple levels. It certainly feels like this could have been avoided entirely if so many sacrifices weren’t made for the thin-and-light form factor, and it definitely could have been avoided if Apple had just made the cables modular (which may be another thin-and-light compromise in its own right). Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is Apple’s slowness to acknowledge the problem and make amends with customers. A few determined folks have managed to get their local Genius Bar to replace their screen on Apple’s dime, but for now it seems that for every person who succeeds, many more are rejected—or simply end up paying for a new screen out of pocket without realizing how widespread the issue is. There are also multiple people who claim to have started threads on Apple’s support site only to have them deleted.

For now, the issue is only affecting the Touch Bar generation of MacBook Pro. The new MacBook Air doesn’t use the exact same display cable design, but it looks to have a similar vulnerability—its cables wrap over their display board, and appear to be part of the display. We’ll have to wait to see if they exhibit the same cable failure, but color us “not-surprised” if they do.

Alex has started a petition in which he “kindly ask[s] Apple to launch an extended warranty program addressed to this issue as soon as possible.” The petition is currently hovering around 2,000 signatures. If you are affected by this issue, or if you (like us) have passionate feelings about repair and how long a $7,000 laptop should last, let us know in the comments, give Apple some feedback, and add your name to the petition