I often hear expectations on what electronics “should” cost being set based on the cheapest price available on Ebay, Aliexpress et al. Everybody loves a bargain, but the old saying “you get what you pay for” is just as true as ever. What worries me is that by paying for junk, rather than quality, consumers are voting with their wallets for an inferior technological future.
Take a switchmode DC-DC converter as an example. These modules often use an LM2596 buck regulator, and can be bought for a buck each, shipped to your door. This is an impressive price since just buying the LM2596 IC on the wholesale market costs $1.20 to $1.50 in quantities of 1000 depending on the reseller. Yet a factory is sourcing and soldering the IC, an inductor, diode, two capacitors to a PCB, then shipping it to you for less than the price I can just buy the IC for.
If you actually test one of these specials, though, you will find things aren’t as they seem. LM2596 are supposed to have a switching frequency of 150kHz, but the specials have a different oscillator. There are a few posts like this one and this one that expose what is going on – factories in China are pumping out counterfeit chips. The chips are still marked as an LM2596 but plainly they are not. In addition to the oscillating frequency being wrong, many other parts of the spec are missed (ripple voltage will be much worse), and the worst part is there is often NO overcurrent protection. That means that your $1 special would rather catch fire than turn itself off!
Added to that, the devices are so cheap they regularly don’t even work in the first place. Typically the vendor will then offer you a partial refund, and since it’s not worth you shipping back to them you’ll take it. The insanity of this is that somebody has produced a faulty product, shipped it to you, and you paid a small amount of money for the privilege of throwing it in the bin. “Oh, but it only cost 5 bucks”. Well, if you’re happy to throw away money, send some my way!
While we’re on counterfeits, let’s talk USB to RS232 (serial) converters. Prolific are notorious for driver difficulties, because they poisoned their driver to stop working with counterfeit chips (and there are a lot of counterfeits out there). FTDI is unfortunately not blameless either, back in 2014 they permanently bricked counterfeits by resetting the USB PID (Product ID) to zero. In 2016 they have been caught again, this time making the counterfeit devices spew out “NON GENUINE DEVICE FOUND”. But really, can you blame them?
Think about it from the manufacturer’s point of view. They have invested a considerable sum in employing people, designing the silicon and writing drivers for it, and now some factory has made a shoddy imitation of their chip and is undercutting on price. They could try taking the counterfeiters to court (in China? Good luck with that!). They could do nothing, and just watch profits get whittled away when consumers bargain-shop. Or they can poison the drivers in an attempt to stop the counterfeits. This last tactic is the only one that has any chance of providing the company with a long term future. The downside is that most consumers don’t bother to understand the situation fully. Poisoning drivers is a scummy tactic in some respects but I side with the manufacturers on this one. If you buy counterfeit rubbish, you deserve for it to be broken. If you are not buying a genuine item you shouldn’t be surprised if you have problems – this is common sense!
Another example is the expensive price of Apple’s Lightning connector to Dock connector converters. People complain about the price of the genuine article, but as this teardown shows, there is actually a considerable amount of engineering going on inside them. These converters are translating between two quite different interfaces, and it’s not easy to get this right. What chance does a $5 generic special have of getting this right? Very little. It may work for some tasks but not others. Why waste your time with the generic one? It’s so unlikely to work that you are just setting yourself up for failure.
Buy shit, get shit, and you’ll suffer frustration and annoyance getting it to work. By purchasing garbage you are voting with your wallet and making the problem worse for everyone.
I would rather have fewer, good quality possessions than be drowning in crap. Pay a bit more, enjoy a quality product, and have a happy life.
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