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An original, first generation GA-P35-DS3 shipped to vendors in June, 2007.  (Source: toukatu.blogzine.jp)

In the chart above, the red line represents the field strength limit against frequency. On a six frequency sample, this particular motherboard demonstrated a field almost 7dBuV above the EU directive.  (Source: Taiwan Eletronics Testing Center)
Motherboard manufacturers will do anything to save a buck, and they'll do it at the expense of your electronics

Ever wonder what that big FCC logo on your computer means? Most people would tell you the U.S. Federal Communications Commission operates like an all-seeing, all-knowing electronic shield; protecting America from harmful radiation and interference.

The reality, of course, is quite different.  To better illustrate this, we've traveled the history of one motherboard.  This motherboard, while rather unimportant in the scope of all things silicon, became rather important when a few engineers started asking the right question.

EMI, or electromagnetic interference, is a broad term that encompasses any type of interference that can disrupt, obstruct or simply degrade electronic transmissions.  Some forms of propagated radiation are intentional, such as radios; in other cases propagated radiation is completely unintentional. When unwanted electromagnetic radiation is received by an electronic device that doesn't have sufficient shielding, electromagnetic fields can disrupt the intended fields. 

The Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3 started just like almost any other motherboard.  A reference design was sent from Intel to Gigabyte's design center in Taiwan.  The test boards were wave-soldered outside of Taipei and production boards were shipped to channels as soon as physically possible to snag some of those "first-to-market" sales.

Even though the motherboard boldly wears CE and FCC markings, this device became one more component that slipped through the cracks.  It was later discovered that not only did this motherboard fail European and U.S. electromagnetic interference regulations, but that tens of thousands of the motherboards shipped months ago.

A Taiwanese motherboard engineer, who wished to remain anonymous, claims the world of EMI certification runs more lax than consumers would believe.  "If we claim to pass FCC and in actuality we do not, it's just a conscience problem." 

The engineer continues, "Some manufacturers put the FCC logo on their product even though they don't send in to any lab.  If they are lucky, they go by. If they are unlucky, they get fined by the government or in some serious case, issue a product recall." 

Conversations with other representatives reveal even in the instances of serious violation, vendors receive little official recourse. 

The most expensive Taipei-based testing facility costs approximately 2,000 USD for full electromagnetic compliance testing. 

The European Union dictates the acceptable EMI levels for products distributed in Europe.  Manufacturers that pass the European Union's EMI directive may brand the CE marking on their products. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has a separate set of EMI standards that devices must pass in order to brand the FCC logo.

In the U.S., the Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) mandates the FCC EMI limits. Title 47, Part 15 of the Code of Federal Regulations details the acceptable EMI limits for electronic devices in the United States as follows:

30~88MHz     30dBuV
88~216MHz    33.5dBuV
216~960MHz   36dBuV
>960MHz      44dBuV  
The European counterpart directive follows slightly different limit ranges:
125~175MHz  30dBuV
250~625MHz  37dBuV
For example, all electronic devices sold in the U.S. cannot produce an electrical field with strength of more than 33.5 dB microvolts per meter at 90 MHz.  Since fields are measured in decibel units, an increase of 3 dB means the field strength has approximately doubled.

Even after sitting on store shelves the better part of three months, someone eventually noticed the Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3 acted a tad noisy -- electronically.  The FCC reserves the right to test devices at the expense of the vendor, though it rarely independently tests devices unless a complaint has been filed.

Unfortunately for the GA-P35-DS3, several complaints were filed.  The Electronics Testing Center, Taiwan, began an electromagnetic compliance test; three Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3 motherboards were hand-submitted to the lab.  Three out of three test results failed to stay "in bounds" for Taiwanese and EU regulation (PDF); two out of three failed to stay within U.S. FCC regulation.

That apparently has not enticed the Taiwanese government to order a recall or reparations.  One engineer close to the product's development states, "At least the board was tested."

So what's special about the GA-P35-DS3?  Nothing, it would seem, other than the fact that it carries markings from both the FCC and European Union claiming it does pass regulation.  Some would argue even this particular trait does not lend itself to individuality.

Gigabyte spokesperson Colin Brix denies all claims that the GA-P35-DS3 fails to meet EMC standards.  "The tests conducted at ETC are not complete," he states.  As proof, Brix shared the results of similar EMC testing conducted by QuieTek (PDF), another Taiwan-based laboratory.  All motherboard tests in this round of testing were done with the motherboard in a chasis.

Ransom Cheng, a former employee at a large motherboard vendor, explains, "The testing in Taiwan is very poor.  Only a few sample ranges are taken and the benefit of [the] doubt is always given to the vendor."  Cheng concludes, "It's not good for anyone to waste boards."

At one time, the GA-P35-DS3 was available at U.S. and European merchants, but today is no longer available in North America.  Gigabyte public relations manager Angela Lan claims the GA-P35-DS3 was removed from American markets due to its lack of RAID functionality.


Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

Meh.
By CryptoQuick on 9/26/2007 5:19:34 AM , Rating: 2
I've heard worse things about DHMO.




RE: Meh.
By Samus on 9/26/2007 5:58:35 AM , Rating: 2
A great example of how a product you have with excessive EMI (or RFI) would be if you have a wireless keyboard, mouse, or network card. You will notice shorter range between these devices, and in some cases, less reliability (particularely with wireless networks.)

Unfortunately, as consumers, these is little we can do about this, because in a utopian free market, we could purchase boards made in Germany, Canada, the United States, Japan, Mexico, Korea, etc.

However, as far as I know, very, very few computer components are manufactured outside of China, Taiwan, the Philly's, etc, and when you consider the cost's for these companies to submit products for testing/compliance, then consider that they can get away with them not being tested, do you honestly think its a smart 'business' decision to have them test their products?

As I said, sucks for consumers. But we can't really do shit.


RE: Meh.
By The0ne on 9/26/2007 6:25:07 AM , Rating: 2
I won't argue about the fact that we really can't do "shit" once we find out. On the other hand, if you're like me and have a product that requires FCC/EMI than it becomes a moral issue. Everyone one of use at the office (small company) agrees that we HAVE to pass FCC. Sure we can do what Gigabyte has done. We can become buddies with some of the testers even and/or bride them to pass the product to get the certification. But I have to believe that as a person you either make the sound choice or release a product that may harm things or other people.

It's not easy and it is costly but if a small company with limited budget like us can make the right decision to invest in the certification why can't a bigger company like Gigabyte do so? It's business but behind that are people making those decisions. I wouldn't trust those type of people, like the engineer in the article, with my penny. I'm not sure how others can live with themselves and with families by making these types of decisions. Money drives people, sad but true.

At one of my last workplace, we build actuators (motors) that control the canopy of jets and flaps on planes. Well, we ran into issues with the motor stalling but what did the Manager(s) decide? You guess it, ship it and forget about it. We're talking about planes here people. If this doesn't work the guy ejecting from the jet is going to get his head crush because the canopy won't open!!! Then there's the sister company that had produced faulty secure brackets for helicopters. These are the bracket and assemblies that helicopter rescuer's use to lower themselves down and save people. Well hell, if the bracket can't hold what the hell is going to happen to the guy?!

I didn't last long at both of those companies and made the decision to leave due to those and many other decisions they've made. There's no way in hell I can live with myself knowing that these parts can fail and people could die. And sadly there's no amount of argue-ing or protest that can change the decisions once higher up managers give the go-ahead. I'm also an engineer, I worked on these. I know the consequences. What I don't understand is why can't managers see them? O.o


RE: Meh.
By SandmanWN on 9/26/2007 9:41:11 AM , Rating: 4
quote:
I didn't last long at both of those companies and made the decision to leave due to those and many other decisions they've made. There's no way in hell I can live with myself knowing that these parts can fail and people could die.

I sure hope you did more than just "walk out". If you believe this is a real issue then you should be telling someone outside of the organization. Otherwise if someone dies from this faulty equipment you are still just as guilty for doing nothing about something you know is wrong and allowing it to happen than those that are continuing to produce faulty equipment. You should be telling someone at a news organization, writing the FCC, and warning the companies these parts were shipped to.


RE: Meh.
By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 9/26/2007 1:52:56 PM , Rating: 2
Mr. Nader is relatively approachable and he made a career out of exposing stuff like this. You should seriously consider contacting him.


RE: Meh.
By The0ne on 9/26/2007 11:30:56 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, I did walk out. What do you want me to do, take them to court on my underpay salary? Trust that my Director will report the problem after telling him? Do it myself and risk everything? I did my part, I argue against design and production. The call, as I recorded on email purposely, was up to management. This was my traceability and my stand.

Having said that there are numerous, numerous issues that people let go. I don't want to have to hear from someone else preaching to me what I should have done without knowing what has been done. Worse, you might not be even following your own words (assumption for argument sake of course). I'm not perfect but I sure as hell won't stand to have crappy products made and ship. Hell, I just stop production on our PoS (point of sale) terminal today for crappy plastic gearboxes. Screws popping out, shorting with the PCBs and soon enough you have the whole Macy store burned down :)

I agree with you that people need to make better judgement calls. But I also understand why I can stand for certain things and why others can't. First and foremost is family. I'm single, I don't have as much to lose...rather support. Most of my friends and co-wokers are married and they'll soon enough die than risk loosing their job and not being able to support the family. Understandable but that doesn't make it right. Who am I to argue with them on the "right" thing for them to do when I don't even have a family to fully understand their situation. Some things are much easier said than done.


RE: Meh.
By frobizzle on 9/26/2007 8:43:42 AM , Rating: 2
I work for a company that makes printers. We do a lot of EMI testing and generally there is a lot of redesign after early testing because the devices fail the testing. This could be a cost saving idea...the hell with the EMI testing just mark it as certified! Wow! I could be shooting up that corporate ladder very quickly soon!
[/sarcasm]


RE: Meh.
By johnsonx on 9/26/2007 12:11:38 PM , Rating: 2
what is it with you and Dihydro-monoxide?


RE: Meh.
By stonemetal on 9/27/2007 7:41:56 AM , Rating: 2
You do what every good little american does, you sue. After a couple mil per incident of poorly designed illegal boards, they will see it is cheaper to test than to fake it.


"I'd be pissed too, but you didn't have to go all Minority Report on his ass!" -- Jon Stewart on police raiding Gizmodo editor Jason Chen's home

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