When you need to replace your MacBook charger, there are plenty of options other than an $85 official one. But is buying a third-party adapter a good idea? They’re definitely cheaper, but are they safe? I did some research to find out and the answer, as you might expect, is a little complicated.
Why MacBook Chargers Are So Expensive
Ken Shirriff did a fascinating teardown of the MagSafe 85w adapter for his blog and made some surprising discoveries (surprising, at least, for the average user like me). First of all, Apple puts a lot more tech in there than you might expect. Adapters even include a 16-bit microprocessor. For comparison, an Arduino Uno has an 8-bit processor.
That microprocessor monitors the voltage and current running through the adapter, and shuts it down if anything is going wrong. This is a very handy safety feature that prevents dangerous overheating or other problems.
Similarly, there’s a chip in the MagSafe head that communicates the charger’s serial number, type, and power to the MacBook. This chip tells your computer if it’s plugged into the right type of adapter.
The inside of the adapter is absolutely packed with other components, including capacitors, transistors, and inductors. All of these work together to ensure the safety of you and your devices. Apple isn’t afraid to charge a lot for their tech, but they’re also committed to good design. Their MacBook adapters are a testament to that philosophy.
Of course, these components aren’t worth $85. Shirriff estimated that the components were worth between $25 and $30, with the rest of the cost going to profit margin. The charger is very advanced and has a lot of safety features. But not $80 worth.
What About Cheaper Alternatives?
So what about a cheaper charger? Shirriff also took one of those apart, and his findings probably won’t surprise you. There wasn’t nearly as much tech within the housing. And the particular charger used for the blog had a rather worrying construction error that significantly increased the risk of shock.
That said, the adapter wasn’t devoid of safety features. It just didn’t have nearly as many as the Apple charger. If there’s a problem with your third-party power source, there’s a good chance it won’t shut itself down like the official one would.
Interestingly, where the adapter was manufactured and sold may determine how safe it is. There have been a number of high-profile stories of Chinese-made adapters going up in flames or delivering potentially lethal shocks. Safety regulations for companies in other parts of the world — especially the U.S. and the U.K. — are quite a bit higher.
Unfortunately, there’s almost no way to know if the necessary safety features are in any adapter. This is made worse by the fact that Apple doesn’t license their tech to third parties. That means any charger that you buy hasn’t been approved by Apple, and it very likely didn’t pass the requisite safety checks. Apple wants you to use first party power adapters with your MacBook, and despite the hefty profit margin, the reasons why are fairly obvious.
Are Knock-Off Chargers Dangerous?
So knock-off MacBook adapters don’t pack the same safety features as Apple-produced ones. Is it that big of a deal? It certainly can be. Even Apple adapters melt down or flare up on occasion. And that’s with all of that safety tech included. No MacBook charger is immune to failure, including genuine Apple ones.
So if a 16-bit microcontroller monitoring the adapter for your safety isn’t foolproof, how safe do you think a charger without one is? As I mentioned, it might depend on where the charger was manufactured and sold. But because Apple is aggressive in enforcing its patents, there’s little guarantee that a third-party charger has undergone any safety checks.
There are lots of reports of third-party chargers having serious failures. Sometimes they spark and start fires. Sometimes they short out and deliver serious shocks. Some of them have exploded, causing serious injury. Faulty chargers have caused house fires, nasty shocks, and even fatalities. That’s serious business. Even a very minor spark can set a room — or an entire house — ablaze.
As with anything else, whether or not it’s a good idea to buy a cheap MacBook charger comes down to your priorities. Are you willing to risk getting a serious shock or starting a fire to save $50 or $60 on a less-expensive charger? If yes, then by all means, go for it. Just remember that while the chances of disaster might be relatively low, they’re still notably higher and the fallout could be worse.
Unfortunately, we can’t know how much riskier a third-party charger is. I haven’t been able to find any statistics on Apple or third-party charger failures, so I can’t say exactly how much more likely a shock or spark is. But even Apple chargers fail, so buying one that doesn’t include the same number of safety features will definitely increase your risk.
It’s also worth noting that using a third party charge instead of one that Apple has made will technically void your warranty, including AppleCare. And yes, chargers are covered by this same warranty — so if something goes wrong, your best bet is to call Apple for a replacement.
I can’t tell you flat-out to not buy a cheaper adapter. Having a huge amount of student loan debt, I really understand the desire to save money. Especially on expensive Apple products. But, as fellow writer James Bruce told me in a conversation on this topic, “Meh, a house fire is a lot more expensive.”
Have you bought a cheap Apple charger? Is the risk worth it to you? Let us know what you think in the comments.