PSA - Not All NVRAM Is The Same Quality

Just wanted to post a public service announcement to customers of nvram products that likely 50% or more of the "new" vendors that have popped up in the last few years for nvram products are using parts that are ultimately refurbished used nvram chips.

This was already happening prior to supply chain issues from the pandemic, but it was exacerbated by these parts becoming nearly impossible to find for several years. We are in a bit better shape now with chip availability, but these parts from authorized component suppliers are now double or triple the cost that they were 5 years ago. So, it's still obviously tempting for new vendors wanting to price lower to purchase from unauthorized vendors that are often selling used refurbished parts and calling them "new".

We'd like potential customers to just be aware of what's out there and how to identify quality of what you're purchasing..

The Problem

We've recently seen a few forum posts on Pinside where people have talked about failures of nvram modules from some vendors. They hear that it's normal for these parts to fail prematurely.

Well, no -- it's not. It's actually rare to have bad "new" IC when you buy a factory reel or brand new tubes of ICs (unless they weren't in-fact new parts). The issue is with the quality of the product. Either used or refurbished chips were used, or the solder flux wasn't cleaned up, or the solder joints weren't that great. Good NVRAM parts on a well-built nvram module should last a long time.

Not all NVRAM modules are being built with the same customer-focus or quality in-mind unfortunately.

Examples Of Bad Parts

An example of a bad remarked part below. It's likely a used pull that was "refurbished" (ie. had its top layer sanded down, pins re-tinned and a new marking stamped on the top of the IC). A big tell-tale is the inconsistent print that fades in and out.� These are sold as "new" parts and clearly there's something wrong with the quality -- even if they do pass some memory tests.

Even though the above photo is a larger DIP part, the same thing applies to surface mount parts, which are also salvaged & refurbished in large quantities.

Another example of some used parts below. Tell-tale here is the indents almost sanded completely off the chip on the right (arrow pointing to what's left of the indent). The markings are also a bit inconsistent. Sometimes the logo / font used isn't correct when compared to chips purchased from authorized distributors.

Salvaging Is Big Business

What some people may not be aware of is this salvaging / refurbishing of used parts & selling as new is big business in China/HK. In addition to salvage, there's the typical counterfeiting / cloning as well, where sometimes the chips could work and be similar quality to the real-deal, but have been produced without the same quality control and may not last as long. Other times, internally the chip is using a different chip die or there's nothing at all inside. Obviously if customers bought chips that didn't work at all, the counterfeiter wouldn't be in business for too long -- so salvaging parts and refurbishing to sell them as-new and cloning parts without strict quality standards is the way to go.

The problem is really that these parts end up being sold as new parts on Chinese marketplaces. They're shipped in new ic tubes, or packaged on new tape-and-reel type packaging sealed in a large anti-static bag, with reproduction factory labels. So someone that hasn't yet had major issues might think they're buying genuine brand new parts / reels for a cheap price, when closer inspection would reveal they're refurbished parts.

If you're doing alternative sourcing from overseas, you really have to be aware of what's out there and what to look out for, so you don't get hosed.

Identifying Refurbished Parts

This is just the tip of the ice berg, but some common tell-tale signs of refurbished parts are bent pins on "new" chips, scratches/scuffs on the plastic body of the IC, markings that look faded or inconsistent, different country markings on the chip, different markings on the bottom, signs of sanding/blacktopping when held up at an angle in the light.

How can we tell that these parts are being used quite a bit? First clue is most nvram vendors are using "RAMTRON" branded parts, when RAMTRON parts haven't been available for 6+ years from authorized distributors. CYPRESS bought them out. And most of what's available on Chinese marketplaces in terms of used/refurbished parts are "RAMTRON" branded chips.

But let's give the benefit of doubt and forget the branding. Looking at the pictures of some of these products, you'll often see scratches/scuffs on the plastic body of the IC. Or faded / inconsistent markings for the chip number / logo. Or possibly chips out of the corner or edge of the plastic body of the IC because it was sanded/resurfaced. We've seen a handful of nvram modules being sold exhibit these tell-tale signs.

Example Of Bad Surface-Mount Parts

Below is an example of some bad surface mount nvram chips. These are actually "CYPRESS" branded, believe it or not. Markings were affected by isopropyl alcohol / flux cleaner. As the markings were rubbed further, they could be fully removed.

This should not happen with authentic parts.

It should take *a lot* of work to get those markings off or you'd need sandpaper to do the same job, but remarked ICs don't hold up the same way to flux cleaner or isopropyl.

Some of the reason you'll see weird, faded, half-wiped off markings on chips on "new" products is as a flux remover or isopropyl is used to clean the boards up, markings on refurbished parts will be easily affected.

So if product pictures show markings that are partially wiped off or faded, or if you're seeing big scrapes/scuffs or chips in the plastic of the IC -- the vendor is probably sourcing refurbished parts. Again, not to forget that we're talking newer nvram vendors (last few years) that popped up and are selling nvram modules with "RAMTRON" branded parts, when RAMTRON branded parts have not been available for 6+ years (since CYPRESS bought them out).

It's ultimately everyone's choice to do business with who they want, but it's a disservice to these products when people think failures are typical or that all of these products are the same. We believe customers should at least have knowledge of what is out in the market being sold as new.

Spotting Quality NVRAM Modules

Okay, enough with the bad. So how do you spot a quality nvram module? Well, if it uses "Cypress" brand parts (that have a tree logo) then the vendor is probably using decent parts. We say probably because there are bad Cypress parts out there too. It's just that "RAMTRON" branded parts are more common in terms of used/reburbished parts. In any case, you can put odds in your favor by looking for Cypress branded parts (tree logo) and at a later date when supply chain issues calm down, you'll likely start seeing "Infineon" chips being used.

Beyond that, look at the quality of the rest of the product being sold. The solder work should look clean (solder joints shiny, well-flowed, no solder blobs, etc). The flux should have been cleaned off the solder joints & board should look new. The ICs used should look new (ie. no major scuffs/scratches visible on the top of the IC and markings on the ICs should not look faded). Basically the product should look aesthetically pleasing like other professional circuit boards.

If the product pictures are blurry and you're not able to determine the quality of the solder work or if the nvram chip used looks new, then it might be wise to go with another vendor. Messy boards that show bad solder work or flux that wasn't cleaned up tend to have more issues than clean looking boards.

In Conclusion (Current State Of NVRAM)

Supply chain issues don't appear to be going away any time soon and with recent geopolitical tensions and the continuing issues with COVID (ie. China is having a new variant affect them in March 2022) it may cause even further delays with some of these parts. Unfortunately that means that more people will source parts from wherever they can, and that also means more refurbished parts will make their way into products being sold like new.

Refurbished parts bring considerable risk. Not only in the initial purchase of these "cheaper" parts if they aren't what they were sold as, but in actually using the parts in products & risking reputation if the parts fail prematurely.

Regardless, we think customers should at least be aware of what's out there and how to determine if what someone is selling is quality. Stay safe!

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