Allegations, denials of 'bad' Nvidia chips in MacBook Pros

A U.K. tech site says the latest Apple MacBook Pros have bad Nvidia chips. Nvidia says no way.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Bad bumps? A U.K. tech site is alleging that the latest Apple MacBook Pros contain Nvidia graphics chips with the same "bad bumps" problem that Nvidia addressed this summer and said was rectified.

Nvidia said in a phone interview on Tuesday that this is dead wrong.

First a little background. Nvidia issued a statement July 2 saying it would take a charge of up to $200 million to cover repairs due to a "weak die/packaging material set in certain versions of its previous generation GPU and MCP products used in notebook systems."

Both Hewlett-Packard and Dell have come out with statements addressing the issue in laptops. And both companies have programs that try to fix the issue.

U.K. tech site The Inquirer is saying that bad bumps--"tiny balls of solder that hold a chip to the green printed circuit board"--are still present in the GeForce 9600 graphics chips that ship in the newest MacBook Pros. An issue that The Inquirer claims is the root of the problem.

The Web site said it took a MacBook Pro off a store shelf, disassembled it, desoldered the chips, sawed them in half, encased them in Lucite, and ran them through a scanning electron microscope equipped with an X-ray microanalysis.

As a result, The Inquirer alleges that the MacBook Pros with the GeForce 9600 chips have the older, defective high-lead bumps, while the MacBook Air and MacBook have the newer eutectic solder (newer, low-lead bumps).

So, in essence, the MacBook and MacBook Air are fine, while the MacBook Pro is problematic.

Nvidia vehemently disagreed with the allegations, calling them completely untrue. The Inquirer's "initial analysis of problems with some of the older chips was already flawed," said Michael Hara, vice president, investor relations and communications at Nvidia.

The Inquirer reporter "believes high-lead bumps are bad. That's his underlying theory. It's not true," Hara said.

He continued: "When you build a device, it's the material properties and everything in combination that leads to the robustness of the design. What we call the 'material set.' It's a combination of the underfill (a kind of a glue that helps hold the chip down) and the bump together that creates that stability in that connection," he said.

Hara talked about how the original problem announced by Nvidia on July 2 was rectified. "A more robust underfill would have taken the stress off the bumps and kept that (original problem) from happening. What we did was, we just simply went to a more robust underfill. Stopped using that (previous) underfill, kept using high-lead bumps, but we changed the underfill. And now we don't see the problem."

"Intel has shipped hundreds of millions of chipsets that use the same material-set combo. We're using virtually the same materials that Intel uses in its chipsets," Hara said.

Hara also said Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) ships a "staggering" number of chips to many companies worldwide with high-lead bumps. TSMC is the world's largest contract chip manufacturer and makes chips for Nvidia, Advanced Micro Devices, and many other companies.

Nvidia also issued this written statement: "The GeForce 9600 GPU in the MacBook Pro does not have bad bumps. The material set (combination of underfill and bump) that is being used is similar to the material set that has been shipped in 100's of millions of chipsets by the world's largest semiconductor company (Intel)."