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Pb-free lemons? don't be suckered; today's consumer electronics assemblers are competent in Pb-free soldering.

I purchased a new tablet PC the other day. I ordered it online for pickup at the local bricks and mortar store, and planned to retrieve it while running errands around town. I was sitting in a sandwich shop eating lunch and checking email when I noticed a woman next to me working on a tablet, so I asked her how she liked it. She absolutely loved the machine and interface, she said, but it had broken three times in the nearly two years she's owned it. She strongly recommended I get the warranty. Three times in fact, she reiterated, "Get the warranty; it's totally worth it."


Extended warranties are everywhere-and expensive. A two-year warranty extension on an entry-level $600 notebook computer costs up to $200; the same on an $80 printer was priced at $35, and the best one-the optional "protection package" on a $130 cellphone-was $70. These service plans are selling for 30 to 50% of the list product price! For up to 50% of the original cost, plus all the hassle of processing the claim, I'll take my chances. If a piece of gear fails after the manufacturer's one-year warranty period expires, I'll likely replace it with a new model that packs more features at a lower cost anyway.

My sandwich shop friend's PC was about two years old. That means it was probably manufactured just as Pb-free soldering was really starting to ramp. I couldn't help but wonder whether she got a Pb-free "lemon." You know what I mean; one of those assemblies that, despite the marginal wetting, the two rounds of rework on the BGA and a couple lifted pads, still meets workmanship standards and gets shipped. I'd bet quite a few Pb-free lemons are out there-more than we'll ever really know. (Perhaps that's why the warranty prices have skyrocketed?)

The only time I opted for an extended service plan was in 2003. The cost was roughly 15% of the purchase price and the coverage term was five years-an incredible bargain by today's standards. I was purchasing a high-definition TV that employed the first-generation of DLP technology for TVs. DLP projection was the perfect fit for my home theater application, but it was new and risky. My husband's Internet research raised some design concerns inherent to DLP systems, and my own manufacturing experience cautioned me to be suspicious of early production models. Considering all the potential design and manufacturing complications, we decided the extended warranty might not be such a bad idea. As it turned out, our caution was justified. Over the five-year course of the plan, we had three service calls, the last of which replaced the entire internal assembly: motherboard, power supply, light engine, optics-the works. When the service technician left, the only original equipment that remained on my television was the chassis, and I now had the latest model with all the bugs worked out. Score one for the consumer.

Although I think most extended warranty programs are huge ripoffs, I can't summarily dismiss all of them as such. In the case of new technologies or new designs, they can make sense. I benefited immensely by hedging on the high-def TV. So did the woman in the sandwich shop with her early version of the tablet PC, as she so emphatically stated. Perhaps the advice of a random stranger was a sign from somewhere that I should reconsider my thinking. The timing was truly uncanny- a little too portentous for me to ignore. So I spent another hour and a half sitting in that restaurant reviewing various sources of information on the web and rethinking my options. I figured if I wanted to follow this woman's advice and purchase the warranty, I could probably do so when I picked up my PC.

I was right. (Those retailers never miss an opportunity to up-sell you,) This plan was relatively cheap: 25% of the purchase price to extend two years for normal wear-and-tear, or 33% to protect it from myself (drops, spills, etc.). Nevertheless, I declined. Did I discount the advice of the woman in the sandwich shop? No, I gave it due consideration, much more than I normally would have had the timing not been so coincidental. But this is the third PC I've purchased from the same supplier in as many months; the first two fired right up and have performed faultlessly for me. So did this one, and I have every confidence it will continue to serve me well for the next couple years.

We are heading into holiday buying season. Many of us will purchase some type of electronics gear and just about everyone who does surely will be offered an extended warranty option at least once during the process. We've learned a lot in two years' time. Pretty much every high-volume assembler of consumer elec tronics that could make decent SnPb solder joints now boasts a relatively comparable proficiency with Pb-free solder as well. Many of the earlier Pb-free design les sons learned already have been incorporated. So when the sales clerk asks if I'd like that extra peace of mind, I'll opt for that extra piece of money instead.

Chrys Shea has 20 years' experience in electronics manufacturing and is founder of Shea Engineering;
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Title Annotation:Pb-Free Lessons Learned
Comment:Pb-free lemons? don't be suckered; today's consumer electronics assemblers are competent in Pb-free soldering.(Pb-Free Lessons Learned)
Publication:Circuits Assembly
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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