Why Is Pinball NVRAM Better Than A Remote Battery Holder?

Electronic pinball machines and arcade machines often used batteries to retain settings and high scores when powered off. Unfortunately these batteries can and do leak, potentially causing damage to circuit boards costing hundreds of dollars to replace.

So how do you get those batteries off the board? There are two options -- install a remote battery holder located further away from the boards or install a pinball NVRAM module. There's sometimes merit to choosing a remote battery holder, but a pinball nvram module is often the better choice to get rid of batteries once and for all!

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Advantages of Remote Battery Holders

  • Cheap option if you make your own remote battery holders (roughly $3-5)
  • Does the job of getting batteries off the circuit board
  • Soldering may not be necessary with plug-and-play type remote battery holders
  • If batteries do leak, there's less of a chance of damage to expensive circuit boards
  • AA batteries or Coin Cell batteries are relatively inexpensive
  • Preserves real-time clock functionality on a handful of Williams WPC games that use the real-time clock for different modes
  • For games with their RAM chip soldered to the board, soldering two wires is easier than desoldering the RAM chip

Disadvantages of Remote Battery Holders

  • Batteries can still leak without you knowing about it
  • Damage can still occur since the leakage can wick up into the remote battery holder wires and back to circuit boards over time
  • In some cases, vapors from leaking batteries that are mounted remotely can still affect circuit boards nearby
  • It's not always easy finding a place to mount the remote battery holder so it's out the way
  • Soldering may still be required depending on the type of remote battery holder
Remote battery holders aren't a bad idea, but they are far from "perfect".

Batteries Can Still Leak
The issue with remote battery holders is that the batteries can still leak and it's not a 100% guarantee they don't affect the circuit boards. There are many cases where the battery leaked in a remote battery holder mounted within a foot of the circuit boards and the leakage wicked up with wire and back to the board, still causing some damage. The corrosive vapors from batteries leaking can also affect nearby circuit boards.

Unfortunately there's a bit of a "false sense" of security using remote battery holders, in that people are more likely to wait longer to change out batteries feeling the remote battery pack is far enough away from boards. In effect, that makes it more likely they will leak at some point and you're then either replacing a remote battery pack again or worst-case dealing with cleaning up any mess its made.

The Only Option For WPC Games That Use The Real-Time Clock For Modes
One huge win for remote battery holders, at least in regard to Williams WPC games, is if you're someone that cares about Midnight Madness Mode and other special modes going off at the correct time on the handful of WPC games that have that functionality (Twilight Zone being one of the more important ones since it literally has a clock playfield toy) then the real-time clock will function correctly.

You see, when the game is powered off, the real-time clock circuit of the WPC MPU doesn't function without batteries. So since NVRAM doesn't use batteries, the clock will stop ticking when the game is powered off (and resume when the game is turned back on). Some people don't give a hoot, but some people are dead-set against the idea of the clock in the game not being correct and the modes going off at random times.

Moving Games Around? Secure That Remote Battery Pack!
While most people aren't moving games frequently, there is a chance if/when it's moved that the battery holder could come loose or knock into things the next time it's moved or while working on the machine. That may cause the batteries to fall out or something under the playfield or in the backbox to get damaged. In that case, it's very important to secure the remote battery holder in the game with either double-sided 3M tape on a flat surface or by screwing the remote battery holder into the inside of the cabinet to be sure it's secure.

So now let's take a look at NVRAM and how it can solve the same problem..

Advantages of NVRAM

  • High Scores and game settings are preserved for many years without the use of batteries
  • NVRAM is actually cheaper in the long-run since you aren't replacing batteries each year
  • Easily pays for itself in 3-5 years compared to what batteries would cost & the peace-of-mind pays for itself immediately!
  • It's plug-and-play for some manufacturers (Data East, Classic Bally/Stern, Bally 6803, Sega/Stern Whitestar games)
  • Once installed, you can forget ever worrying about batteries

Disadvantages of NVRAM

  • NVRAM is a bit more expensive than a remote battery holder
  • Not all machines are plug-and-play (Williams, Gottlieb require soldering experience)
  • Desoldering and installing an IC socket requires the right tools and experience
  • If soldering is required, you may damage the circuit board during installation if you don't have the right tools or experience
  • For Williams WPC games that use the real-time clock for different modes, the clock time will not advance while the game is powered off

There's a reason pinball NVRAM modules are the favored choice by many when upgrading their games. It's once-and-done, and it offers peace-of mind. No more worrying about checking batteries that you can't see, or the hassle of changing out the batteries each year. No more having batteries die prematurely and losing your high scores and game settings.

The Main Disadvantage: Some Games *REQUIRE* Soldering
One of the biggest disadvantages of NVRAM is it's not plug-and-play with, well, quite a few pinball machines. Unfortunately no Williams games produced had an IC socket for the RAM chip installed from the factory. Gottlieb games also unfortunately also have their RAM chip soldered to the board. This means unless someone has already installed an IC socket in these games, in order to upgrade to NVRAM you'd have to desolder the old chip and solder in a new IC socket.

If you don't have the tools or experience, upgrading can be a daunting task and is not for the faint of heart! Some of these circuit boards are old and fragile, or have thin traces (looking at you, WPC!). Even with the right equipment they can still be a challenge to upgrade. Beginners can quickly get themselves in over their head attempting to upgrade a board, botching it, and then having a game that doesn't boot at all that they also can't troubleshoot.

Word of Advice: Leave it to the professionals if you're unsure if you can complete the task. While we (Pinitech LLC) don't perform these upgrades, we have recommended Chris Hibler @ ChrisHiblerPinball.com over the years for this task. Just be prepared for a bit of a wait as he often has a back-log of several months due to being really good at board repairs and upgrades.

A No-Brainer For Games That Are Plug-And-Play NVRAM is absolutely one of the best bang-for-the-buck mods you can do to a pinball machine and it's really a no-brainer if your game already has an IC socket installed (Data East, Stern/Sega Whitestar, Classic Bally/Stern, Bally 6803 are a few systems that had an IC socket installed from the factory). So if you own a game where it's an easy plug-and-play type of upgrade (remove the existing RAM from the socket & install the NVRAM module), then just do it! You'll be glad you did with the peace-of-mind it offers to not have to worry about batteries leaking.

On that note, it's definitely worth checking your Williams or Gottlieb game to see if someone's already installed an IC socket. Be forewarned that's not often the cases & Williams / Gottlieb typically require desoldering of the original RAM chip and installation of an IC socket.

In Summary

NVRAM is a great upgrade and compared to the cost of some pre-assembled remote battery holders ($15-25) it's pretty comparable and only slightly more expensive. Yet the advantages are numerous and the cost savings after a few years really add up. For the plug-and-play manufacturers/boards it's a no-brainer. For WPC games, if you have a game that has special modes going off at certain times and want the game to maintain the correct time in its real-time clock circuit, then a remote battery holder may be the better option.

The only real downside of using NVRAM? Some games require desoldering of a chip and installation of an IC socket, so proper solder tools and experience is needed -- or you'd need a pinball buddy or someone that services pinball boards to perform the upgrade for you. A remote battery pack that is plug-and-play is still a solid choice for someone that can't perform the nvram upgrade themselves or doesn't want to incur the costs of sending boards out to be fitted with nvram.

It sure would have been nice if Williams, Gottlieb and a few of those other manufacturers that soldered RAM directly to the board would have just installed an IC socket from the start! But alas, these machines were only meant to be put on-route for a few years and then changed out for newer, better games. Here we are, 30-45 years later, with most of the manufacturers long gone. It's actually amazing the games are still so fun to play even in the 2020's -- and that will still likely be the case in another 30 years!

Check out our selection of NVRAM modules for pinball / arcade machines!

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