Lead-free graphics cards: a problem?

Over the last few years, Apple has had several problems with the graphics cards which it has installed in various models of Mac. The most prominent was probably that in 2011 MacBook Pro models, but several other MacBook Pros, iMacs, and others have been affected. My own recently deceased iMac 27″ Mid 2011 (iMac12,2) looks like it has suffered failure in its Radeon HS 6970M graphics card, which now appears to have been another model which has had a warranty extension because of this issue. Sadly for me, that extension only covered the first four years of use, a period which expired a few months ago.

Apple is not the only computer manufacturer to have such problems. Various models, mainly of laptops, from Windows PC manufacturers including Asus, Lenovo, and HP, have had similar high failure rates in their graphics cards.

The last such blight to strike the computer industry – that of bad capacitors, or ‘capacitor plague’ – was the result of counterfeit components. Although it remains possible that some of these issues with graphics cards are the result of GPU failure, the single common cause which accounts for (almost) all is the use of lead-free solder.

Modern high-performance graphics cards run hot, because they are doing a lot in a small volume, particularly in compact systems such as laptops and all-in-one desktop models. Laptops have very high thermal stresses, because they are often left cold for quite long periods, then run and become hot enough to warm bare thighs, if you still use them according to their name. Components – especially the GPU itself – may cycle between cold and hot several times a day.

The problems have been most prominent in higher-end graphics cards, which tend to ship in more expensive computers, which would ordinarly be expected to have longer working lives.

In common with all computer manufacturers, Apple does not publish expected or actual failure rates, nor does it appear to conduct market research to measure the longevity of its hardware. However Macs are known anecdotally for their long lives, something recognised by Apple: it aims to provide supplies of spares for five years after a product has been discontinued, and only ceases support after seven. Even now there are many PowerPC-based Macs in daily use.

On 1 July 2006, the EU banned the use of significant quantities of lead in most consumer electronics products, including computers and their accessories. Although this had the beneficial side-effect of reducing occupational exposure to lead fumes in those manufacturing and repairing electronic circuit boards, the drive for this came instead from the growing concerns over lead in electronic waste.

The most immediate impact of that ban was the withdrawal from sale of Apple’s iSight camera, which could not be made using lead-free solder. Since then, substitute lead-free solders have become universally-adopted in consumer electronics manufacture, but non-consumer products usually still employ traditional lead-based solders. This is because, despite sustained efforts to develop lead-free solders which perform as well, in practice many products manufactured using them are more prone to failure, and have shorter working lives.

Lead-free solders contain tin, copper, silver, bismuth, indium, antimony, and much smaller quantities of other similarly toxic metals. Although the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directives should have reduced the amount of lead contained in net electronic waste, it will almost certainly have increased the amount of other toxic metals in consumer electronic waste.

Furthermore, because of the shortened lifespan of some consumer products manufactured using lead-free solder, the directives may well have significantly increased the amount of electronic waste.

Next year (2016) will mark the tenth anniversary of the EU ban. It is high time that a broad and thorough reassessment of its impact is performed. Otherwise the measures which were intended to reduce toxic land-fill and pollution may quietly be making the problems worse.