We can thank the EU for this one

Unwrapped a new laptop, updated the software and transferred documents. Three years seems to be the lifespan of these machines – not that they necessarily become outdated, so much as fall apart.

Pure tin solder grows whiskers.

No, really.

Enough of those will short a circuit somewhere and fry the machine.

The solution to tin whiskers is lead in the solder. Lead in solder is illegal at the insistence of the EU.

The EU now has a program to insist that electronic items must be made to last longer.

Kill them all.

45 thoughts on “We can thank the EU for this one”

  1. I stocked up on half a dozen reels, which should last me as a home user until I keel over.

    The other thing is that pure tin solder doesn’t mix with proper solder, so it’s useless for repairing existing kit. I know somebody who does retrocomputing repairs, and he gets a supply through some sort of exemption.

  2. Had no idea about this. Does this happen where there’s no heat in the device – I’m thinking about electric guitar wiring? If it is a general problem can you still get the original?

  3. I doubt tin whiskers explains the poor quality of modern computers. There are plenty of other problems. Electrolytic capacitors with poor seals that don’t survive soldering, and spill their corrosive guts to rot minuscule PCB traces. Film capacitors that blow holes in the metal film whenever there’s a transient overvoltage, so losing capacitance over time and letting in noise to introduce errors. Tantalum capacitors shaved down to the minimum amount of (expensive) tantalum so they eventually fail with a bang or a short, killing whatever’s upstream of them. Ultra-dense ICs running at stupidly high temperatures, so junctions eventually fail to dopant migration or whatever.

    Then there’s cheap and nasty mechanical design. You can still get keyboards that work well enough for a couple of years, but what notebook ever came with a decent keyboard?

    Lead-free solder does make ugly joints of suspect quality, and I think it’s banned in equipment that actually has to work (e.g. in medicine, spacecraft). I don’t touch the stuff if I can avoid it.

  4. BlokeInTejasInNormandy

    … and there are differences in quality of manufacture. My 2011 MacBook Pro is still used daily, as has been typical of my Mac computers (both laptops and the laptop-like Mac Minis)

    But they cost more than the el-cheapo kit.

  5. Cheap plastic notebooks stress the multilayer main board every time they’re opened and closed until a trace cracks. That’s why the expensive ones have a metal frame.

  6. The EU also insists that lead-free solder is used in satellites.
    The MoD had to redesign some missiles to comply. At great expense.

  7. @BraveFart:

    Temperature or heat flow doesn’t seem relevant. All you need is a metal surface and no airflow or mechanical wiping to knock off the whiskers. It’s seen inside things like tin-plated transistor cans from the 1960s, or plated potentiometer cases. I’ve seen it a few times on the chassis and internal plated assemblies of 50+-year-old electronic gear where all the solder is the proper stuff, not lead-free.

    Don’t worry about your electric guitar. You’re much more likely to see problems with corrosion, and cleaning that up will blow away any whiskers. Plus, there’s no real power available to cause damage to other things: worst that can happen is your guitar goes crackly or silent, and you’ll get the screwdriver out then, I imagine.


  8. Good point, BraveFart. But I’ve never heard of anyone soldering pods to a vintage stratocaster complaining about the solder material.

  9. Roue,

    “Cheap plastic notebooks stress the multilayer main board every time they’re opened and closed until a trace cracks. That’s why the expensive ones have a metal frame.”

    My advice to people is to buy reconditioned, high-end Thinkpads. They come off lease, so the processors are 3 years out of date, but that doesn’t really matter nowadays. They’re solid, well-made machines that are also easy to repair.

  10. BoM4
    Good to know. My experience, having owned several of both, is phones/tablets two to three years, notebooks about five. Luckily I don’t need a notebook these days and PCs last forever. I’ve got a drawer full of tablets with buggered touch screens though…

  11. BoM4, and a good place to buy those thinkpads is http://www.pcrenewed.co.uk. Many youtube videos explaining why reconditioned thinkpads is the way to go for someone who is not into gaming but does mostly internet browsing and some spreadsheets.

  12. “That’s why the expensive ones have a metal frame.”

    I spend about £1,800/unit (Dell), but, like most things in life, they don’t make ’em like they used to.

  13. I’ll second the ThinkPad suggestion. We have 3 T440s laptops and one X1 Carbon – sturdy and bulletproof.

  14. Dennis, A Wog Or Not A Wog... That Is The Question

    Wow. A dozen comments in and no pro-EU/anti-Brexit stupidity from Newmania… and no Ecks calling someone (anyone) Marxist shite scum.

    Slow day across the pond, evidently.

  15. I hate the chiclet keyboards on all modern laptops. They are impossible for touch-typists to use.

  16. Bloke in North Dorset

    I always liked Thinkpad’s. I’m not sure what made me buy a Viao 8 years ago but TBF it’s still going strong although I now only use it for web browsing and some navigation software, with an old version of Office for emails and occasional spreadsheet stuff. It’s running W10 ok but it does have an SSD drive, which made a huge difference.

  17. @Theophrastus

    Upgrade your wife’s Dell, if possible. Annoyingly, Dells have an arbitrary, built in limit to memory and other upgrades, so you may be out of luck. I always use Crucial.co.uk* as the parts are guaranteed to fit the machine and they have an easy tool that chooses the correct parts for you. It knows about limits too, so you won’t end up buying stuff you can’t use.

    I have a 2010 Inspiron which was vastly improved with a 4 to 8gb memory upgrade and a new SSD to replace the hard disk. Time from power on to being ready to use (“cold start”) is about 20 seconds (Windows 7).

    If you get an SSD, make sure you add a kit (about £10) if you don’t already have one. This consists of a USB connector for the new drive and a licence for (Acronis?) software to clone the existing drive. On an Inspiron swapping in the new drive will take about 10 minutes after you’ve cloned it (requires small cross head screwdriver).

    [I have no idea how technical you are, but hopefully this post will help those who aren’t]

    * No connection with the company, other than as an occasional customer. I know I could save a few ££ buying elsewhere, but the hassle isn’t worth it.

  18. BlokeInTejasInNormandy said:
    “there are differences in quality of manufacture. My 2011 MacBook Pro is still used daily, as has been typical of my Mac computers”

    Not just Macs, but yes, it’s about the build quality.

    I’m typing this on my 2011 Thinkpad. But it cost the best part of £2,000 when new, so it was well made.

    Not that I paid that; I got it used for about £100. Same as cars (I drive Mercs that I buy for around 5% of their original price); get good quality, but let someone else suffer the initial depreciation.

  19. Justin said:
    “If you get an SSD, make sure you add a kit (about £10) if you don’t already have one. This consists of a USB connector for the new drive and a licence for (Acronis?) software to clone the existing drive. On an Inspiron swapping in the new drive will take about 10 minutes after you’ve cloned it (requires small cross head screwdriver). ”

    That’s useful, thank you. I had thought of getting an SSD for my Thinkpad, but hadn’t known how to put the operating system and suchlike onto it. I’d suspected it would be complicated so hadn’t bothered looking it up, but that sounds like it’s relatively easy, thank you.

  20. RichardT, same here, never bought a brand new car. Never bought a brand new house (newbuild).

    Good tips here as regards to thinkpad specs, will copy paste the SSD info for future reference.

    There you see, under extremis, the whole society, even a micro cosmos like this here, pulling together, solving problems together.

  21. In equipment destined for the US military, any parts with lead free solder have to be sent out to be retinned with a lead based solder. There are a number of specialized companies that do this. At least our military realizes that weapon reliability trumps ecofreakery.

  22. Still using my 35 year old HP11C calculator, with the infamous RPN system. Love watching people asking to borrow it then trying to find the ’=‘ key.

  23. El Draque— funny enough talking about solder in missiles dahn the pub last week. A guy whose a solderer. He said they had used leaded and unleaded solder. I tried to find out the reasoning / chemistry but he didn’t know and didn’t mention eu regs. but my guess is they just get a pass for anything as important as defence equipment. Don’t EU regs often have type exemptions.

  24. Bloke near Worcester

    Mr Womby, I second that – my H-P 32 is by my side as i type. If someone offers me a ‘conventional’ calculator I have to to think twice about what I am doing

  25. Mr Womby, I would assume those HP financial calculators are still the financial standard. I myself had the 19BII or whatever version and never used the reverse polish notation, I hated it. You could enter any trading floor in the world and people would be using their HP’s, propably still are.

  26. Hmm, here on my desk I have an HP 35s, an HP 16C, and an HP 12C. In my other office there’s an HP 32SII and another HP 12C. RPN forever!

  27. As a wrinkle; when I change my lappy I put a Linux distro on the old one which makes it fast and a useful backup machine. They have all being old Thinkpads, never bought from new.

  28. Dennis, Odin's Tax Collector

    Still using my 35 year old HP11C calculator, with the infamous RPN system.

    Ah, the accountant’s best friend (besides materiality, that is). The 12C on my desk will be 36 in September. The one in my briefcase is a mere pup at 10 years (replacing a 15 year old model that was lost).

    I hear Richard Murphy is saving up to buy himself a 12C. Someone probably told him it had a tax gap function key.

  29. BlokeInTejasInNormandy


    I don’t change the laptop very often. Bought bottom end o the range MacBook Pro last year because I was obviously just about to leap into a consulting job and I needed one, having left the perfectly competent 2011 model thousands of miles away in France. Now She uses the old one over here in Normandy.

    My software development is done using XCode, so I don’t really get to change. But MacOS is (sorta) Linux anyways. And since I have Parallels I can run Ubuntu on the old machine without it stopping being a Mac, so I never wipe-and-install.

    Thing runs perfectly fine as is, but with maxed out DRAM and an SSD. Them’s wot makes the difference…

  30. Ah yes… HP calculators and RPN. I dearly wanted an HP 55 back in the day, but I only had the budget for an HP 21 as an undergrad. That suffered from a leaky battery after some time in storage, and I can’t remember whatever happened to my 37E, but after 39 years my 12C is still going strong. It’s easier to document and save work in Excel, so it doesn’t get much used for the fancy calculations any more. The 12C suffered through a full cup of coffee being dumped on it in my auditing days – a couple of days to dry out, and it was back in the game.
    Four or five years ago I found an emulator for Android devices (a bit cheesy – not by HP), and then a couple of years back HP started selling one (they had previously published one for iPhones IIRC), so for $10 or $15 I have one on my phone, too (and blazing fast). HP also publishes android emulators for the 15C and 11C – maybe worth it for the few times I need trig functions and can’t be arsed to open Excel or GeoGebra.

  31. Definitely depends what you buy in my experience – had two Acers that each lasted only 2 years. Current Samsung has been running since 2011

  32. Bloke in North Dorset


    Do the SSD upgrade, touille think you’ve bought a new machine and when I did it about 5 years ago it was easy then. Can’t see it’s got harder.

  33. The only reason I replace my Android tablet is because I keep dropping them.

    My PC is a home-brew monstrosity, in more generous times I would continually upgrade it, but the last bit of kit added was 4 years ago when it switched to water cooling, the CPU and motherboard have been happy for 7 years without need for more power. I could say this one has lasted since the early 1990s but that’s a bit like “Trigger’s Broom” (a.k.a. Ship of Theseus).

    Saying that, I have reverted to a 6 year old laptop for day to day use as well, and I have a stock of even older laptops that I use to teach kids programming. When you move on to Linux then any old bit of kit would do, the oldest I have is an IBM Thinkpad 40e.

  34. Only the EU could insist that weapons of mass destruction must have lead free solder to protect the environment.

  35. Richard T,

    I’ve done 3 machines with the Crucial + Kit set up.

    The job is roughly:-

    1) download Acronis True Image (Crucial tell you where to get it)
    2) plug the new SSD drive into the USB/SATA connector. Plug the other end into your PC.
    3) run Acronis True image and pretty much just follow the wizard.
    4) unplug the old drive and put the new SSD in its place.

    I’m also a fan of Crucial for their System Scanner. Run it on your PC and it tells you what your machine can take.

    To echo Bloke in North Dorset, when I’ve done this upgrade, the response from people is frequently “wow” when they see much faster boot and application load times.

  36. Pure tin solder grows whiskers

    Which is why we don’t use pure tin. It is alloyed with stuff like silver, copper and indium.

    An ex El-Reg journo and metals dealer should know this, Shirley?

  37. Just refurbished my TI 1750-II.

    That is, changed the batteries, cleaned out the old battery corrosion. Still works after 40 years.

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