Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Bootleg Electronics: The Good, Bad, & the Ugly

This Article was inevitable

Bootleg Capacitors from China
I have had it with people buying Cheap (Bootleg) Chinese (Hobby) Electronics! From counterfeit parts to illegal RF transmitters, I have to write about this! Ever since I started Hong's Electronics, one of my first posts was about fake and dangerous electrolytic capacitors from China. The disturbing part about all of this is that it is not a relatively new problem, and it is only getting exponentially worse.

Update (4/29/2017): 
IEEE Spectrum: Invasion of the Hardware Snatchers: Cloned Electronics Pollute the Market


The Good

Example of a Genuine vs Fake Arduino
Yes, it is a valid argument to say that not all cheap and bootleg electronics are bad. Sometimes it is a necessary and temporary evil to get your project working. I try to buy as any genuine development boards as I can, but sometimes it is hard to resist the bootleg $5 Arduino Uno boards, especially when you want to test a circuit that you suspect might burn out a few pins or destroy the microcontroller. It is a completely valid point to say that bootleg Chinese electronics have lowered the barrier for entry and there is no better time than ever to learn electronics or become a hobbyist. Also, do not ever say that "a microcontroller is basically rip-off Arduino" that is simply not true and there are many examples of development boards that pre-date the Arduino Uno that we take for granted. 

The Bad

Image result for fake hard drives
And this is why I buy genuine hard drives
From the very beginning I have had my misfortunes with bootleg electronics. Why do I own a $400 Fluke 87 V? Because I know that it will not blow up in my hand, like my misfortunes with a $5, and sometimes free with purchase, Cen-Tech 7 function multimeter. Then there are the many various bootleg Arduino Uno R3 boards that died on me doing simple programs. Red LEDs that not only went bad, but actually exploded (Epoxy Shrapnel!). Hmmm... Why do I buy genuine hard drives? Perhaps because I've personally seen bootleg hard drives that have flash drives in them instead of a disk or genuine solid state memory as advertised.  

The Ugly

In my professional experiences with working in defense and aerospace, even parts from safe and reputable distributors were not immune from their supply chain getting tainted. This problem is well documented as seen in the IEEE spectrum article: The Hidden Dangers of Chop-Shop Electronics

Good luck trying to debug silicon

I like to believe that I am not paranoid when it comes to ordering components and boards, but I have learned in the last 6 years of working with electronics that there is a point where you need to realize that when you buy bootleg electronics, it is probably going to be a lot more trouble than it is worth. If you use bootleg components in your project and it fails, and you proceed to use this method in another project, you learn the same lesson over and over again. My argument is that it is not worth it, you are lucky if it is a passive component, such as a resistor, inductor, or capacitor, but when it is anything that is programmable or silicon, good lucky trying to debug the exact cause! The simple truth is that using bootleg electronics will impede or stop your learning of electronics. 

Sourcing Genuine components

The unfortunate reality today is that even reputable distributors like Digi-Key, Mouser, and Arrow can fall victim to having counterfeit components leak into their supply chain. Digi-key has highlighted this issue in an article back in 2011. The key to sourcing genuine components is not only to buy them from reputable distributors, but from distributors that have counterfeit parts policies (SAE AS5553 and AS6496 compliant). Most of the reputable distributors have return policies in place that will ensure that you get the genuine component you need and may even compensate you for the inconvenience caused. Ebay, alibaba, aliexpress, banggood, Amazon, and even some hobby distributors have very minimal anti-counterfeiting policies or none at all (especially Ebay and some Chinese vendors). Although most notability Adafruit, and Sparkfun do not seem to have these policies in place, they do have a very good return policy and support that can ensure that you get a working part/component. This is the major reason why I insist on people buying from the major distributors, along with Adafruit and Sparkfun. 

Examples of policies:

Arrow points out in their assurance policy that they are factory direct, which is a very effective measure at removing the risk of counterfeit parts.

Some component and parts manufacturers require you to buy their parts directly from them, Mini Circuits most notably. Microchip/Atmel gives you the option to buy their chips and components direct from them. I have personally done this, since I have found that the Atmel 328p evaluation board direct from the factory is a lot cheaper than a Genuine Arduino board and is still compatible with the standard Arduino shields.


Whether it is work or play, I would rather fork over the extra cash to buy genuine hardware and spend less time, blood, sweat, and tears trying to find intermittent problems that are due to counterfeit silicon, and that could have been easily fixed if I had spent a little more money on. 

This is why #HardwareMatters to me, it is not only about top tier electronics, but most importantly GENUINE ELECTRONICS.

How to Spot Fake Electronic Devices

Sunday, April 24, 2016

PiBench (Raspberry Pi 3 + Digilent EE Board)

Less than 2 years ago, I wrote a review on the amazing capabilities and portability of the Digilent Electronics Explorer Board (EE Board). The EE Board features a 4-channel oscilloscope, 2-channel arbitrary waveform generator, 4-channel voltmeter, 2 voltage references, triple output power supply (+/- 9 v & 3.3/5 v), and 32-channel logic pattern generator/logic analyzer. Other functions using the oscilloscope inputs include a network analyzer, and spectrum analyzer.

"Used with WaveForms, the EE board has all of the functionality as the stack of equipment pictured and more!"

     The EE Board has become an integral part of my hardware arsenal. Most of my projects, that I build from scratch, are tested on the EE Board. Since it takes up very little space in my tool box, it has been an amazing tool for hackathons. Even at my current job, I have been using the EE Board to quickly design and test circuits (Digital and Analog) around the Teensy 3.2 and Arduino.

     Interestingly enough, at a hackathon, I came up with the idea for PiBench. As I was building a circuit up and writing code on my computer for the Arduino, I was wishing that I could run the EE Board independently. It was about 2 AM in the morning and I distinctly remembered that there was some Linux support for the EE Board... That got me thinking about the Raspberry Pi... Oh boy, The Pi can run Linux, so this means that the Digilent Waveforms software has a good possibility of running on the Pi. I did not know that Digilent actually released a newer version of the software. I was still running a 2013/2014 version of the software. Researching the new software (Waveforms 2015), I found that there was actually a version that they made for ARM processors, which the Raspberry Pi has!!! 
This was very promising and so I installed the software on the Pi and it ran without any problems. I used the official Raspberry Pi 7" touchscreen in this project. I put everything in the $17 MCM weatherproof enclosure.

And there you have it... 
PiBench. A standalone portable electronics lab bench!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

RF/Laser PCBs

I purchased these nice PCBs from Midwest Surplus Electronics in Fairborn, Ohio. All of them seem to be designed by General Atomics. There are many great examples of RF PCB layout and different PCB shapes. Many of the boards are multi-layer stackups.
I may use these as examples in some RF tutorials in the future, but for now enjoy these images:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

RGB Shades review & my modifications.

I was featured in the PennApps wrap up video.
I bought the RGB shades off of Hackaday after seeing them listed in their online store. Since I have been into Disc Jockeying and electronic dance music, I thought this was my opportunity to get into wearable technology. 

The shades are pre-programmed with mesmerizing and bright patterns. Out of the box they do not have an integrated battery, and sensors. So, if you are looking to buy them and take them to a party, the shades lose their appeal quickly. 

Fortunately, the creator of the shades, Macetech, was kind enough to design these glasses with an Atmel microcontroller and support for the Arduino IDE. There are also inputs for sensors and custom circuitry. 

Also, included in the V2 kit is a spare "hacker" board for interfacing the shades with any custom circuitry and controller of your choosing and design. I plan on using the trinket pro with these glasses so that I can run FFT and spectrograph patterns on the shades, because at the moment the ATmega328 doesn't look like it will be able to handle such functions efficiently.

Picture of the shades in action at PennApps
Ever since the first Hackathon of the fall semester (PennApps), I have been trying to develop these into the ultimate practical party shades. My goals are to not only to implement FFT and spectrograph patterns, but also develop smartphone & smartwatch app for controlling and sending more patterns.

For the price of $120, these shades are definitely a novelty and luxury for the typical raver and party goer. I highly recommend them to hardware hackers, because the high price has barred the average hardware hacker from buying them and right now if you can development of these shades is in the early stages.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The last 7 months.

The last 7 months have been quite extraordinary. I got a new job (That I really can't discuss much detail about), and school have kept me very busy. So busy, that it is pretty hard to find time to update the Hong's Electronics website on a regular basis. I think the easiest way to describe the last 7 months is through pictures:
Being CEO isn't easy...
School and Work has become a bigger priority than working on new content for Hong's Electronics.
Cool EE courses such as Introduction to Electronic Warfare have been keeping me quite busy.
I went to MHacks V, in January.
For most of the Spring Semester, in addition to my part time job, I was working with Wright State's EE department as a consultant in building a Wi-Fi Jammer demonstration project for prospective students and the Air Force. I am hoping that this is the start of Wright State offering more Electronic Warfare courses!
Despite my schedule, I was still able to pickup a Raspberry Pi 2 from MCM electronics in Dayton. They had sold out by the end of the release day.
Got a copy of the New Art of Electronics for free since I have been working with Wright State.
I went to a few IEEE Student events and Conferences during the Spring Semester. This was at the 2015 IEEE R2 Student Activities Conference (SAC)
Then there was the 2015 Dayton Hamvention...
I may post an update concerning the RTL-SDR USB stick and Surface Pro 3.
Despite the full schedule, life has been enjoyable and fun for the last 7 months, and I will try to put more of an effort in posting content regularly. I don't plan to quite running Hong's Electronics.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review


      When the first Microsoft Surface Tablet came out to the market in 2012, I was quite unimpressed and thought Microsoft was trying to keep up with Apple and Google in the tablet market. Surface 2 and Pro 2 didn't capture my attention either. The Surface Pro 3 however caught my eye, because unlike the Pro 2 it used the new 4th gen Intel core processors  (Haswell) and I knew that the time had come for Microsoft tablets to shine. 
When I got my laptop last year, that was a purchase I had planned 4 months in advance. At the time I knew that Intel was coming out with new processors and they would not only be more powerful, but be cooler and more efficient than the 3rd gen processors (Ivy Bridge). My HP Envy, with the Intel i7 4900MQ processor, has served me well and I still use it to run heavy processing operations like games, Mathematica, MATLAB, Multisim, EagleCAD, and AutoCAD. My main reasons for buying the Surface Pro 3 was for the note taking capability, E-textbooks, and to replace my 2012 Nexus 7.

For the Engineer and Engineering Student...

For an engineer the Surface Pro 3 cannot replace a laptop. However for any student, in any discipline, it is the best note-taking device that is available. I don't even have to carry a backpack around anymore, because all of my textbooks are on it and even my TI-89 Calculator is on it. I also like watching Netflix on it between classes and it's great for last minute assignments (When you need to get that homework paper that is due in a few minutes, just type on the keyboard, save it on a flash drive and print at a printing station.) For any engineer it is great for drawing initial sketches and schematics.

For an engineer the Surface Pro 3 cannot replace a laptop. However for any student, in any discipline, it is the best note-taking device that is available. I don't even have to carry a backpack around anymore, because all of my textbooks are on it and even my TI-89 Calculator is on it. I also like watching Netflix on it between classes and it's great for last minute assignments (When you need to get that homework paper that is due in a few minutes, just type on the keyboard, save it on a flash drive and print at a printing station.) For any engineer it is great for drawing initial sketches and schematics.

Microsoft Office's One Note handles like a dream on the Surface Pro 3. Not only can you write handwritten notes and homework on it. You can insert vector graphics (Power Point shapes and figures). When writing on paper, I often find myself in the situation of writing notes in a bad format or I use valuable space for a drawing or figure. With one note you can select text and move it around to your liking and draw or insert a picture as desired. Also, If your professor writes notes and makes a mistake, you can easily erase what you wrote and just make changes and place the text in a better format. 

     You can also run a TI-89 Emulator, so you don't even need to bring your calculator to lecture! Of course you can use it on a test, but you can use it while doing examples in class and still learn the keystrokes necessary to operate a TI-89/TI-89 Titanium calculator.

Runs Windows 8.1 Professional

     The Microsoft Surface Pro runs Full Windows 8.1 Professional. This means it can run any program that runs on Windows 8 (Don't run heavy operations, the performance of games, simulation, and CAD software are abysmal on the Surface Pro 3). On my HP notebook, I also run 8.1 and I really don't like the interface, but on my Surface it is the best interface for a touch screen and it will run any program that I can run on my HP notebook. I don't use my surface for heavy operations such as CAD, Simulation Software, MATLAB, Programming, and Games, but I do use it to write ideas down or draw an initial sketch.

Surface Pro 3 vs IPad and Conclusion

     I think comparing the Surface Pro 3 to the IPad is a completely unfair, because the IPad is not meant to be used as a computer/laptop. In the commercials Microsoft puts the Surface Pro 3 against the Macbook Air. This is a fair comparison, because both run full computer operating systems. It should also not be compared to Android tablets either, because of the differences in application and purpose. Really if you want both a tablet and computer all in one, this is the best option that exists at the moment. If you are looking for a device to take notes, run Microsoft Office, and use for on the go entertainment, the Surface Pro 3 is the best choice.

     Since black Friday is coming soon, this is a device you should definitely be on the lookout for. This is also a device to strongly consider to give as a gift.

    As for options if you want a tablet, go with the i3 variant. If you are student looking for a note-taking device the i5 variants are your best option (I have the i5 with 256 GB of Storage and  8 GB of RAM). If you are looking for a new laptop and tablet, the i7 variant will not disappoint you.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

I'm at MHacks IV!

Fellow hardware hackers, If you are at MHacks IV, please stop by the Steve Wozniak Hack Space in the DOW Building. Either stop by, or try to find the guy with the Hong's Electronics shirt (there is only one :P).