It’s a situation everyone finds themselves in sooner or later: you had a project idea, you found a great online deal for the module you need, you wait weeks for delivery, receive the module, hook it up to your board, and … nothing happens.
The module you found online seemed like an exact match to the more expensive name-brand option. It had some good reviews, so you figured it was worth a try.
Your board works fine without the module connected, so now you need to figure out the issue on the module. Frustratingly, it could be a variety of things. Best case scenario, you find the problem quickly, know how to fix it, and get on with your project. Worst case scenario, you spend hours looking and never figure out the problem or realize the problem is impossible to fix with what you have on your workbench.
This isn’t always the case when you choose a cheaper alternative to a well-known component, module, or board. After all, if this was always the outcome there wouldn’t be a market for them! But it happens often enough that everyone seems to have a horror story.
For this reader question, let’s explore the minefield of off- and name-brand hardware!
The Age-old Debate of Time Vs. Money
Naturally, the most obvious benefit surrounding cheaper alternatives is the cost. Even if your project ideas are infinite, your funds aren’t! The thrill of the hunt and finding what you need for less never gets old. And there are some truly great no-name modules out there that have proven themselves.
Even if you do save money buying a cheaper alternative, how do you figure out the value of your time lost trouble-shooting when it comes to that? And if you do find yourself with an unfixable dud, you need to figure out if you want to reorder the same cheap alternative or if the name-brand version is necessary to get your project back on track.
If you open and connect the module only to find it doesn’t work, getting a refund could be impossible. Returning electronics modules and components has a history of being difficult, but how would you know whether your item works or not without opening and trying it out?
Many big hardware websites, such as Digi-Key, Mouser, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Banggood, and AliExpress, only offer refunds for unused, unopened merchandise — Arduino also deducts a 10% restocking fee from your refund. If you’re purchasing products from a site like Fulfilled By Amazon, you may get a return through the seller, but it would be a case-by-case basis.
So when it comes to returns, it seems neither option definitively comes out on top. However, suppliers and distributors only sell name-brand hardware they’ve tested, so there’s a much higher chance of getting a working version of what you need the first time around.
Datasheets and Forums
Datasheets are the roadmap to your hardware, but they come at varying levels of helpfulness. If you don’t have a reliable, easy to understand datasheet, that adds another layer of frustration. It’s not always the case, but better-known companies often provide more complete datasheets.
The same goes for forums. One of my favorite aspects of the maker community is all of the forums available for everything from specific components to specific projects. Troubleshooting, tips, tricks — you name it and chances are good others out there have tried it. But what if you purchase something from an unknown supplier halfway across the world and have questions or problems? You can find forums about what you were supposed to get, but can you find information about what you actually received?
Also, if the hardware is completely unusable, no forum in the world is going to help.
Faulty Parts are an Issue at Any Experience Level
This is a problem that affects everyone from beginning tinkerers to professional electrical engineers.
One of Maker Pro’s writers, Teodor Zafiroski, ran into a component problem when building his Arduino-based Theremin:
A while ago I needed some LM386 SMD ICs and only the DIP8 version was available for purchase in my country, so I ordered a couple from eBay — maybe 20 components. The price was relatively fair at $10, and I figured that was reasonable. I didn't want to order a different option advertising 50 for $10 ones because they seemed too suspicious to me.
So, they arrive a bit late, I was a bit busy, things happen. I plug one in, it doesn't work. I plug another in, it doesn't work either. Only three from a batch of 20 worked. I was pissed. Also pissed at myself because the time to file a complaint was long past, so I was stuck with 3 working components that blew at a fraction of the rated output power for $10.
My experience showed that this Chinese supplier shouldn't be trusted, and I heard that cheap eBay components are usually the ones that don't pass the QC. Some may work, some not, but if I get them from Mouser or Digi-Key, I know for sure that they will work. So for critical projects, I definitely stopped ordering from eBay or AliExpress.
In his article about sourcing cheap parts for a project, Mark Hughes shares his experience purchasing a cheap ultra-low-power inductive comparator circuit. His conclusion echos much of what Teodor said: further complicating electronics design with low-quality parts from unknown vendors isn’t worth it.
What Do You Think?
Let’s get a discussion going! What are your experiences with off-brand and name-brand hardware? Have you ever had such a horrible experience that you’ve sworn off a certain item? Do you find yourself commiserating with Teodor's experience? When buying off-brand hardware, which items do you have the best/worst luck with?
Let us know in the comments!