Apple wants its 3G MacBook prototype back

The prototype MacBook bought by a North Carolina man is unusual with its built-in wireless antenna on the lid and a SIM card slot below. But it's also taken an interesting journey.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
4 min read
The unusual Apple notebook.
The unusual Apple notebook. eBay seller abhw752579

Apple wants a North Carolina man to return a prototype notebook computer he purchased on Craigslist earlier this year, CNET has learned.

Three weeks ago, photos of the device emerged in an eBay listing by Carl Frega, a North Carolina resident who had purchased the machine from someone on Craigslist for parts to fuel his repair business. Upon opening it up, he discovered that the machine was unlike any Apple had ever released to the public.

Beneath the notebook's metal frame was a slot for a SIM card and on the lid was an external antenna, suggesting Apple was testing built-in cellular networking in its notebook computers right around the time the first iPhones were hitting store shelves.

The device, which is still in Frega's hands, was of big interest to CNET readers after cropping up on eBay for a little less than a day before being pulled down at the request of Apple, though not before bidding hit $70,000 from interested buyers. Apple pulled the plug on the sale (which had actually been listed by a friend of Frega's), citing infringement on copyrights, trademarks, or other intellectual property rights.

Frega said he was contacted by Apple this afternoon to have someone from the company pick it up.

Perhaps just as interesting as the machine itself is what happened to it before it ended up on eBay, a story that includes a trip to small claims court, a potential TV appearance, and a trip to an Apple Genius Bar where it was denied service after being identified as a Frankenstein-like machine containing third-party parts.

The machine matches up with a 2007 MacBook Pro, though differs with an unusual, magnetically-attached antenna on the top lid, along with a slot for a SIM card right where users would normally change out the battery. That design and functionality never made it into a device Apple has shipped, but matches up with a 2008 Apple patent application for a notebook computer that would be able to tap into 3G wireless networks, giving users connectivity on the go.

3G-equipped MacBook prototype on eBay (photos)

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The Mac's innards were a big tip-off that the machine was likely a prototype, due to the use of a red circuit board. Such boards were used in a prototype MacBook Air that ended up on eBay in 2008, and an unreleased Mac Pro posted on the auction site in 2009. By comparison, Apple typically uses green circuit boards in its final products. Other hints are the hand-soldered wires, which could be seen in those other listings, as well as a lack of any EMC number--the unique identifier for different Apple computer models.

Frega says he originally bought the machine off someone from Craigslist for spare parts, something he started doing in high school, and later college. "I'd make extra money by buying broken CRT monitors and other things at (North Carolina) State University and NC government surplus sales and then repair and resell them from my dorm room," Frega told CNET. After that, he branched out to start fixing servers, networking equipment, TVs, and laser printers. The hobby led to a part-time job at Best Buy, then eventually a full-time gig doing repairs and refurbishing.

As it turns out, this month's eBay listing wasn't the first time pictures of the mystery device were posted to the Web. Shortly after purchasing it for parts on Craigslist, Frega went to the forums of tech site Anandtech to show others the device and chronicle his attempts to get it working again. In the end, the device was glossed over.

"Few people were really interested, and the thread turned into a discussion about tethering rates and wireless carriers," Frega said. "(It's) part of why I figured the machine wasn't anything particularly special (except to a tech geek like me) and not worth the trouble of selling as a collector's piece."

As a result, Frega installed a new hard drive, and a copy of Mac OS X Snow Leopard on the machine, then re-sold it on Craigslist. That's when things got interesting once again.

Days after buying the machine, the new buyer ended up taking it to the Genius Bar at the Crabtree Valley Mall Apple Store in Raleigh, N.C., citing "random issues." The Genius Bar staff denied service of the machine, since the inside was deemed to be full of non-Apple parts.

A copy of the Genius Bar receipt.
A copy of the Genius Bar receipt. Click to enlarge. CNET

The official Genius Bar repair sheet, a copy of which was sent to CNET (see right), says:

"Opened machine to observe that nearly every internal part was third party; main logic board, optical drive, display, hard drive, top case, and others. Machine serial number (W8707003Y53) is also not recognized as a valid number."

As a result, the second buyer ended up taking Frega to small claims court, alleging that he had sold him fake, or otherwise counterfeit goods. Shortly after that summons, Frega got a letter from the producers of the afternoon syndicated court show Judge Mathis, saying the case might be a good fit for the TV show, which Frega ended up declining.

"I didn't think it was a good idea, despite my friends and housemates all saying I should," Frega said.

In the end, the judge who heard the case ruled in the second-buyer's favor, forcing Frega to pay $740. As part of that decision, he ended up getting the notebook back. Apple declined to comment on whether Frega would be compensated for what he originally paid for the device.

This is not the first time Apple has sought the return of a prototype device. The company requested the safe turn of the iPhone 4 prototype acquired by blog Gizmodo last year before that device was announced, confirming its legitimacy.