What To Know When Buying Chips That Haven’t Been Made For Three Decades

Those of us who have worked with vintage sound generator chips such as the Yamaha FM synthesizers in recent years have likely run into our own fair share of “fake” or “remarked” chips, sometimes relabeled to appear as a chip different than the die inside the packaging entirely. [David Viens] from Plogue has finally released his findings on the matter after 3 years of research. (Video, embedded below.)

The first thing to determine is in what way are these chips “fake”? Clearly no new YM2612’s were manufactured by Yamaha in 2015, but that doesn’t mean that these are simply unlicensed clones put out by another die factory. [David] explains how these chips are often original specimens sourced from recycled electronic waste from mostly environmentally unsafe operations in China, which are then reconditioned and remarked to be passed as “new” by resellers. Thankfully, as of 2017, he explains that most of these operations are now being shut down and moved into an industrial park where the work can be done in a less polluting manner.

The next thing that [David] dives into is how these remarked chips can be spotted. He explains how to use telltale signs in the IC packaging to identify which chip plant produced them, and visible indications of a chip that has been de-soldered from a board and reconditioned. There are different ways in which the remarking can be done, and sometimes it’s possible to undo the black-top, as it’s called, and reveal the original markings underneath with the simple application of acetone with a cotton swab.

We’ve talked about fake chips and how they can lead to hardware failure here before, but in the case of chips like these which aren’t manufactured anymore, we’re not left with much choice other than FPGA or software reimplementations. Check out [David]’s 40-minute look into these chips after the break.

[Thanks Greg Kennedy for the tip!]

29 thoughts on “What To Know When Buying Chips That Haven’t Been Made For Three Decades

  1. “[David] explains how these chips are often original specimens sourced from recycled electronic waste from mostly environmentally unsafe operations in China, which are then reconditioned and remarked to be passed as “new” by resellers. Thankfully, as of 2017, he explains that most of these operations are now being shut down and moved into an industrial park where the work can be done in a less polluting manner.”

    Oh great, the Chinese are moving the counterfeiters to a more “environmentally friendly” workspace. THEY”RE STILL COUNTERFIT PARTS!!!!!! HELLO PEOPLE!! Why are we supporting this? Honest buyers are still being taken by these operations, why is there no outcry to eliminate them from existence? How much trouble do these parts need to cause before we shut these efforts down completely?

    1. “Often original specimens” means that, while they may be marked up as new and have deceitful marketing, they’re not counterfeit. If the only way to get an original chip is to remove it from old devices, and we’ve determined that we’d rather reuse them instead of recycle them for metals, which is better than running through all the industrial processes to make a new one. FPGAs are arguably better though, since they can be reused for a different application.

      But yes, they should be selling them as “Vintage, refurbished”, not “New, Factory certified” (If that’s what they’re doing)

      1. It seems to imply those sellers moved to the industrial area was two fold, to put them in an area where the resultant pollution wouldn’t affect residents as much (usually the best that can be expected from zoning laws)
        But also bring them into the legal fold to properly describe their products, not labeling them as new in this case.

        IMHO for the product description, I think they will discover higher sales this way, at least for the non-manufactured items.
        If I know I’m hunting a used part not made anymore, “used” in the description isn’t going to turn me away.
        But lacking “used” may omit them from my search results, and me seeing “new” *will* turn me away on the assumption the part number is a lie or mistake as well, aka this clearly isn’t the thing I’m looking for.

    2. It is no better than the NOC machines full of unlicensed ROMs. China really only cares about money. Pretty pathetic but it fits with most of the people I meet these days that would rather pay 35 cents for something made in Mordor by tiny hands than coughing up the extra dollar for a responsible manufacturer. Somewhere along the way everyone lost their scruples to have cheap garbage to throw away. I have even tried reporting these kind of things to the IP holders and they giveth zero shits. It would be too expensive to extradite and another Mordor shop would pop up in 20 seconds anyway. So what do we do? Report everything as non functioning or undelivered and get refunds for every single purchase so that it is free. If there is no money there, then they will quit at some point but there is an oversized population that needs to eat and people are desperate and just do not care. It is a crap world we have all created. Sometimes I wish the Ents would march or that Earth would transform like Unicron and just punch itself in the gut and smash us like ants. They steal and steal and steal some more, produce fake research papers and fake journals for fake degrees, and poison us all while doing it.

      1. China isn’t totally at fault. If we weren’t buying them they would not be recycling them. And China doesn’t do anything extra, which means the blacktopping and remarking are both market driven too.

        There is a percentage that is passed off as legitimate new product. These are the real crooks.

      1. Yeah, but the legit part has a sizeable chance of working.

        Maybe if you bought 100 of the counterfeit parts you might get one that meets specifications… if you were willing to waste the time.

        Perhaps if you are willing to upspec you could use a counterfeit, but by how much do you have to upspec to get a part that won’t smoke when you look sideways at it? 10%? 100%? 500%?

        1. In the case of synth chips there’s generally just the one spec anyway. Those air force astronauts will just have to take their chances if they wanna hear “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” played on 36 different synthesised voices at a time.

          The problem with up-speccing counterfeit parts is, by definition, the 500% overspecced parts are probably the same shit as the 10% overspecced ones. Because the specs are counterfeit! The point of counterfeit is they don’t tell you it’s counterfeit to start with, if you buy fake parts on purpose you deserve what you get.

  2. Why do you disguise a youtube link as something else? Reading HAD these days is bad enough for those of us who are unable to view videos much due to inadequate rural broadband or inappropriate location (office, public transport etc.)

    1. That’s Twitter’s URL shortening service, which means they probably just copied from [David]’s Twitter feed not realizing it had the redirection.

      I don’t watch 40min videos on a whim, so I didn’t watch it either–but I still enjoyed reading the article.

      1. Thank you for the explanation – I shall be on the lookout for that in future. No doubt Twitter takes the opportunity to drop a tracking cookie or two when you follow such a link!

  3. When traveling: eat at places that the locals eat.
    When buying chips from China, use parts that their products are using. Chances are that the high volume parts won’t be fake as that won’t meet the production volumes. If it is a locally made part, they are at least some what functional and likely a lot cheaper.

    1. “When traveling: eat at places that the locals eat.”

      In Europe, sure, I would do that.

      In Korea or Japan I would do that.

      In China or SE Asia I would not do that. The locals have resistance to the local bugs that in their view supersedes sanitary concerns.

  4. If I am buying a chip that I know hasn’t been manufactured in 30 years and the ad doesn’t specifically say “new old stock” I wouldn’t feel cheated at all to find that it was recycled. Where would one expect such a thing to come from?

    If I had to pick between two parts, one that is recycled but the seller claims to have tested it and the other still sealed in it’s blister pack where it’s been for the last 3 decades I might chose the recycled part.

    Of course I know that the kind of “recycling” operation being discussed here is unlikely to involve any testing so the claim is a lie. I’d only accept that from a source that I had reason to trust.

    1. I’ve been buying chips for my retro projects from Chinese suppliers on eBay and Aliexpress. My general experience is quite good. Almost every chip I’ve bought works fine. I only have few observations.
      1. Sometimes they tend to sand off original markings and laser engrave new ones. This is most likely done go gave a chip NOS look. I never encountered situation, when chip turned out to be something entirely else. Well… Except once, when…
      2. I’ve bought few R65C02 CPUs that turned out to be standard NMOS version, instead CMOS.
      3. Of course if there are new markings, there is no guarantee that declared manufacturer is the real one. I could be just as well an equivalent from different factory. I am fine with it as long the chip works properly.
      4. Sometimes they simply sell dirty, scratched desoldered chips, with excess solder still on leads. In my opinion this is the best scenario – you simply know what you are buying. :)

  5. Components, including chips (mostly LSI) always purchased 20x what I needed. Should go for a good $$$ someday. But doubt I’ll get much for the 10,000 NIB 1N914A’s that my employer sold when no longer needed. Also proved the wife was right when she said I’d never use them.

    1. It’s kind of like betting on horses or the stock market; you have to know what you’re doing. Buying 20 Yamaha YM2612’s 30 years ago would have been a “winner”, but the 1N914 would be a “loser” — it’s still manufactured today and sells for $0.01.

      On the other hand, you can still use the 1N914 in lots of projects today. :-)

  6. I was buying a goodly sized bench stock in support of my hobby. None of it was considered as a potential monetary investment. The investment has been in my hobby growth for the long cold winters, and the investment did perform a return of tens if not hundreds of times beyond the $$$, and still does when I get a whim.

    The trick was to have a hobby of “small things that do a lot” so I didn’t have to buy/rent garages for big hobby things like cars.

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