I’ve seen extensive electronics kits based on the Arduino and other processors on Amazon for essentially the cost of a bare Arduino. Are these kits — presumably made in China — any good, or is it a “You get what you pay for” type situation?
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It's a crapshoot. I worked on 3 Chinese sets in a row that were junk, then came to one that was excellent. Other techs report similar experiences.
Bear in mind that the Arduinos in those kits are clones at best, and counterfeit’s at worst. What’s the difference? Well, a clone is one that could be identical in every way to a real Arduino, but is branded differently “SunDuino,” with that brand’s own logos, styling, etc. A counterfeit, on the other hand, seeks to make its product look as close to the official Arduino (i.e. color, branding, logos, screen printing, color of parts on board, etc) as possible — to confuse the buyer and make their product seem more legit.
That said, whichever you choose is between you and your conscience. Honestly, the quality is going to be nearly identical between that of a clone or otherwise; usually — not always. Pay attention to reviews and such is my best advice. SainSmart, DFRobot, and SeeedStudio are all good sellers of clones.
Something else to keep in mind about these Arduinos: they typically use the CH340 USB chipset for the virtual serial link. This is a well supported chipset, but its something to consider.
An official Arduino uses a secondary ATMega16U2 microcontroller for USB communications. Prior to that, they used the FTDI chipset for USB serial comms. Chinese clones continued to use the FTDI chipset even after the Arduino switched to the 16U2, likely because it was cheaper. FTDI then released a driver update (or something like that) that bricked unlicensed versions of the chip, and caused a lot of grief. That basically is what caused the Chinese clones to switch to the CH340 chipset (plus, it was much cheaper).
As far as everything else in the kits, quality varies, but for the most part, its fairly consistent — again, check reviews.
The biggest problem with these kits will typically be a lack of any kind of instructions, project ideas, or any kind of datasheets on the components. Most of the time, these kits are meant for those who are very self-sufficient in hardware and software. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a CD or a URL of PDFs and software, but I would caution against doing anything with it, particularly if you are using a Windows box, as such CDs and software have been known to be vectors for malware.
Finally, as you have probably noticed, there are sellers out there offering some seemingly “weird” kits or microcontrollers, which you may wonder what the use of them is for.
Most of the time, these controllers are meant to serve as platforms either for hacking, cloning, or counterfeiting well known tools based upon the same controllers (either current or older versions). For instance, there are plenty of clones and “bare” development boards which can be configured to act as a Saleae logic analyzer. Others are meant for other similar products, and some are meant just for experimentation (there’s an interesting set of microcontrollers out there based around a hopped-up 80C51 clone). Oh, and some are meant for experimentation creating flight controllers for quad-copters, too.
Lastly, you may have noticed some of the “rival” ARM-based SOC boards rivaling the Raspberry Pi (such ase the Orange Pi and the Banana Pi, among others). These can be extremely cheap and very powerful alternatives to the Raspberry Pi or Beagle, but keep in mind that they tend to be very community supported in that while they are alternatives, they are typically more popular with hardware hackers in China, so the english-speaking community is likely smaller, and support isn’t as good; plus drivers and such for the boards can be hit-or-miss.
Basically, what I’m saying here is that if you want something closer to plug-n-play, stick with the official Raspberry Pi. But if you want to go out on a limb, these alternatives can offer an interesting reprieve — if you’re willing to dedicate more time.
I’ve only built one kit from China: an AM/FM receiver kit for a small pocket radio. The directions left much to be desired, I had to guess at how to put some parts in. I’m still not sure I put the tuner section in correctly, since the FM section starts well below 88 MHz and ends at around 88.5 MHz. I still need to look over the schematic again to see if it was a misinterpretation of one of the parts installations or not.
I don’t like the quality of the case either but it does sort of work and did so the first time I turned it on.
Now, I have dealt with a number of Chinese companies and had some very interesting experiences. I’ve had returned parts returned back to me along with a full refund. After three months of daily email, I simply gave up and kept the parts as well as my refund, since I couldn’t get them to understand that I’d received a refund and didn’t need the parts.
The bottom line is, as long as you pay using PayPal you are safe and can get your money back as long as you keep good email records and supply PayPal with a full explanation of the problem, such as the item does not work as advertised or it doesn’t meet the seller’s own published specifications. I capture an image of the site’s own specifications on the item just to be safe.
You asked an either/or question. The answer is YES. There are problems with many of these kits. See question 1171 for an example. They also usually have terrible or non-existent documentation. But they do have the material in them to support a great many projects and demonstrations for an incredibly low price. So if you are on a tight budget they are well worth the problems.
A lot of the products from China are cheap clones, some are of good quality and some are not. I buy different type of modules for the Arduino Uno to try, I am working on a TEA5676 FM receiver.
I also support a lot of American electronic parts stores in the USA. I like ADAfruit, as they have a lot of tutorials on the products they sell. This helps greatly with the learning curve on the newer electronics.