Why Modern Electronics Fail

By: XModdz

Modern electronics have been failing at an alarming rate. Some examples of these failures include the absence of video, blank screen on laptops, Xbox 360 Game Consoles with the famous “Red Ring of Death” or RROD, the PS3 with its “Yellow Light of Death” or YLOD, and mobile phones failing to charge or not booting at all. However, this doesn’t end with consumer electronics as modern appliances now use PCB circuit boards instead of old fashioned mechanical parts. While the change from mechanical to electrical parts definitely makes the appliances energy efficient and intelligent, it also makes them susceptible to the same problems that video game consoles and laptops experience.

Not too long ago, I repaired a convection oven because the unit would display an “Err” on the LED display. I applied the same techniques used to repair PCs and game consoles to get the toaster to work. These failures or errors are directly related to flaws in the solder connections.

The flaws consist of cracks or voids in the solder connection which are referred to as cold solder joints. A cold solder joint will initially provide a suitable electrical bond; however, long term reliability is not guaranteed. With high performance devices, heat fluctuation drastically destroys the integrity of a cold solder joint. Conventional leaded solder has a melting point of 183C degrees, while lead free solders which contain tin and other metals have a melting point of 217C degrees. This drastic change caused manufacturers and technicians who have been working with a melting point of 183C for nearly 5 decades to adapt new soldering principles and new processing specifications for their equipment.

This changed how a quality stable solder joint was recognized. In the past, when leaded solders reached a shiny silver finish, that would signify a quality solder joint. However, with the use of lead-free solders they always appear dull and never reached the shiny silver state. This makes it harder to know when a quality solder joint is made. There is also the worry of over heating the component past 217C as this is approaching a damaging temperature for most PCB components.

As electronics are turned on and off there is quite a bit of heat fluctuation. Overtime this can cause the cold solder joint to degrade progressively. Eventually, there are just too many cracks causing the connections to become weak or even totally lost. Some laptops, specifically the HP DV 2000, 6000, and 9000 series, start to show signs that cold solder joints are worsening. Some of these signs include internal wireless cards starting to fail or not working at all, touch pad not functioning, lines or artifacts on the screen, etc. Eventually, these problems lead to the laptop appearing to be fully functional with all the lights on but with no output on the screen.

For the Xbox 360 and PS3 game systems these symptoms include error codes and error lights which are often referred to as the “red ring of death” or “yellow light of death.” There are several so called “fixes” circling the internet and YouTube. These fixes are aimed at resolving the cold solder joint’s IC chips and the PCB. Some of the extreme examples are baking the unit in toaster ovens while others suggest wrapping the system in towels and turning the unit on thus allowing it to overheat.

The intention is to trap all the hot air inside to hopefully heat up the solder to “re flow” itself. As mentioned earlier, solder tends to melt at 183C/217C, and without proper equipment these temperatures in that environment will never be achieved. These “fixes” are highly advised against. While they may provide a temporary fix, the issue has been exacerbated by causing more damage to a perfectly working PCB component.

Loss of video is more common among laptops as there are no direct error codes besides those found in the BIOS. Since the laptop boots up fine there are no BIOS errors. The GPU [graphics processing unit] is responsible for displaying the video signal to the monitor as well as processing 2d and 3d graphics and other elements. As a result, the GPU gets very hot and due to the lack of cooling it tend to overheat. This is especially found in cheaper, low end laptops. This overheating causes the solder to crack. This lack of connection results in a loss of video or picture on screen.

There are only 2 methods to fix this problem: 1) Replace the mainboard which is usually expensive and not worth it or 2) Repair the GPU which basically involves using industrial equipment and specialized skills. This is not something that all repair shops can do which is why they recommend replacing the mainboard. Reflow or reball is the technological term for repairing GPU related issues on game consoles and laptops or any other device with a BGA chip. Reball of a chip is performed usually when a reflow fails.

Best Buy and other retail stores actually prefer to give you a high price on a mainboard. This is due to the price of replacement boards being so costly and as result; they hope the customer resorts to buying a brand new laptop. Most consumers do not have the patience or know how so they end up doing just that. Had properly cooling been in place, the failure rates would have dropped considerably.

Cooling is a key component in keeping electronics alive. Another component is keeping them clean. No, I do not mean those stains on the keyboard or scratches on the monitor, I mean the dirt and dust trapped inside the unit. The dust travels into the computer and usually gets stuck in the fan and accumulates until it ends up blocking that hot air from exhausting itself. The hot air continues to flow around the components thus causing them to heat up much faster.This is a major issue among the dv series of HP laptops, a simple “dv6000 no video” Google search will show that. The reason is the heat sink for the GPU shares the same path as the CPU thus causing the heat sink to take longer too cool. This puts a lot of heat and stress on the surface-mounted connections.

Many manufacturers of low end laptops use all 99% plastic parts and cram everything inside the laptop to make things smaller and smaller. The more expensive units utilize a combination of plastic and metal alloys to create a more durable long lasting machine. To prove this comparison I took apart a $999 laptop by HP as well as a $3000 unit by Panasonic which are known as Toughbooks. There is an obvious price difference between the 2 units but that is because Toughbooks are designed for military and police use. They withstand almost anything such as harsh weather, 5 ft drops and more. Inside the Toughbook you can tell where your money went- into research and development.

The entire case is designed to be a giant heat sink to keep the internal components cool. Fan less cooling was incorporated into the Toughbook and, in my personal opinion, is ingenious and almost impossible. Heat is a killer. Most PCs, game systems and other electronics use fans to exhaust the hot air out of the unit. But Panasonic in there design to make the Toughbook as tough as possible removed the fan. While the fan is the most common cooling option, it has its faults. Dust can accumulate and block the fan from performing well. The fan is very fragile and a small drop would cause it to break.

So how did Panasonic manage to keep the high performance unit cool without a fan? After examining the entire case inside and out, I found that each and every component was strategically placed to create a unique airflow system. The magnesium case acts as a heat conductor in absorbing and expelling the heat.

I have included a document link for further reading on these topics:http://www.squaretrade.com/htm/pdf/SquareTrade_laptop_reliability_1109.pdf

So the next time there is a hefty discount on a low end sub $400 laptop think about how long it will actually last in the long term. If you decide to purchase it anyways, I highly recommend an extended warranty. If you can, purchase your warranty from Squaretrade as they are much cheaper and they offer protection for accidents such as spills and drops.

After a customer’s laptop is repaired by any technician at XModdz, we always recommend them for future purchases of Laptops to ONLY consider Asus and Toshiba brands, as the overall build quality and cooling systems are improved over the other manufacturers. These brands still have issues but they are a lot more reliable. Sony, Lenovo, and of course IBM are on the recommended list as well, but they are much more expensive so we usually leave them out as an affordable option.

Source: Intel, Mancorp, XModdz