Apologies to the crew up in Redmond, but I usually associate “disasters after upgrading to a new version of an operating system” with Microsoft’s giant feature releases for Windows 10. However, it’s Apple’s turn to enjoy some embarrassment this week: According to numerous reports, upgrading to macOS Big Sur allegedly bricks late-2013 and early-2014 MacBook Pros.
Here’s where it gets strange, though. The problems aren’t exclusive to just these MacBooks. As one Reddit user wrote:
“I have a mid-2015 and it more or less did the same. Bricked at a black screen that does have my logon picture/name, a cyan-outlined black cursor (that one is weird) and a blinking text bar in the top left corner of the screen. Like I need to login with no way to do so.
Safe boot, verbose, single user, etc all do nothing. Eventually I got recovery boot to work and now, at the request of Apple support, am reinstalling Catalina again.”
This user was extremely lucky to find a resolution for the issues at hand. I’ve seen plenty of instances of those running 2013-2014 MacBooks who’ve ended up with bricked systems that no usual troubleshooting tricks seem to help, nor does Apple have good fix up its sleeve at the moment. As one owner wrote:
“My Macbook Pro Retina mid 2014 si dead after Big Sur update. After pressing the power button it remains on black screen. The Apple behind the display turns on, but Nottingham else happening.
I’ve already tried to reset PRAM or Booking in safe/recovery mode without result.
What can I do?”
“Same issue here. After an hour online with Apple, they are blaming this on a ‘hardware Problem’ on my laptop. They can do nothing. They will not give me a discount on a new computer and since the stores are closed, I am on my own. No way to even pull off the info on the computer.”
Hold off on installing macOS Big Sur
Before we get to troubleshooting, let me be clear: Don’t install macOS Big Sur on your older MacBook right now. If you simply can’t wait, make sure you’ve backed up your entire system before doing so—and I truly hope you’re not installing it on a system you need to use each day. Install it on your “fun” MacBook, not the one you need for your job or to communicate with the outside world.
And if you’ve found that you’ve bricked your older MacBook by installing macOS Big Sur, start by contacting Apple Support for assistance. Though honestly, the issue is so new at this point, you might want to give it a little time until Apple comes up with an official fix, by which point you might be able to get the issue addressed for free. Apple might even have a solid solution you can use at home to get your MacBook working again (unless it’s really dead in the water).
If disaster has already struck and you really need to get into your bricked laptop ASAP, you have a few options. (None of them are straightforward.)
How to fix an older MacBook bricked by Big Sur
As always, you can try the standard “reset the NVRAM and PRAM” techniques to see if they do anything for you. Otherwise, you can try booting into macOS Recovery and reinstalling your operating system from scratch. I’m assuming, however, that you’ve already attempted these steps and they haven’t helped.
Get your hands on another Mac—borrow one from a friend, if you have to—and connect your old Mac to this it via its FireWire or Thunderbolt ports. Turn on the other Mac and boot to its desktop. Then, boot up your old Mac while holding “T” to launch it into target disk mode. If you’re lucky, said disk should then appear on the borrowed Mac. Open up Disk Utility, erase the drive of your old Mac, and power it down. Disconnect the systems, power your old Mac up again, and hold Option+Command+R or Shift+Option+Command+R to launch macOS’ “Internet Recovery” feature. This should help. If not, you might be able to use normal Recovery Mode to revert back to an earlier version of macOS. Keep trying if it doesn’t work the first time (or first few times.)
If you have a newer MacBook, you can also try “reviving” the firmware of your Mac’s T2 Security Chip. There’s no guarantee this will work—and don’t erase it unless you want to lose all the data on your Mac’s drive, but it’s worth a shot.
Otherwise, if you’re handy, unplugging your MacBook’s I/O board should get you working again—obviously, with the loss of many of your connections. To do that, you’ll need to open up your MacBook, which rules out everyone but the truly desperate (who have pentalobe screwdrivers).
And… that’s it. I haven’t encountered other fixes that reliably address the issue, let alone other desperate shots-in-the-dark. My best advice is to simply not upgrade to macOS Big Sur. Or, if you must, try upgrading to macOS Catalina first, see how that goes, make a full backup your system if you don’t encounter any issues, and then go for macOS Big Sur.
Going forward, plant this in your mind: If your Mac is at the tail end of compatibility for a new OS—or, honestly, even if it’s not—maybe it’s best to wait a week or so before you upgrade, just in case Apple has a looming disaster on its hands. Don’t be the guinea pig. You definitely don’t want to have to hit up an Apple Genius Bar, especially during a pandemic.