In the last few years, the popularity of Arduino based devices has exploded. Lots of other manufacturers have started slinging a lineup of ‘clones’ and counterfeit products. Meanwhile, the ‘official’ Arduino brand imploded. All this choice makes purchasing Arduino devices a minefield for newcomers.

You first have to overcome terminology, what the hell is a ‘clone’ anyway? It is such a strange backhanded phrase to use in the context of open hardware. Someone shared their ideas, while others borrowed from them and sprinkled in a couple of their own? The offshoot gets labeled a ‘clone’ and frowned upon? But isn’t that what was supposed to happen? People learning from your ideas? Remixing them? Extending them? Sharing them?

Here are a couple of Arduino ‘clones’. The one on the left uses cheaper manufacturing, while the other includes substantial hardware improvements:

Two Arduino compatible devices.

I think ‘compatible’ is a much better term for either of the above options.

Although at times, ‘forking’, a phrase from the open source software community also works. A fork explains what happened to the ‘official’ Arduino brand last year; when a trademark dispute erupted between core Arduino developers. It ended with a split, the original hardware manufacturer going one way, while the IDE and library developers went another. The project ‘forked’ and so now there are Genuino products as well.

I think we have reached the point where any hardware manufacturer should start using the phrase ‘100% Arduino compatible.’ That is to say, this board is programmable with the Arduino development environment (IDE).

This is different from counterfeit boards, they are a ‘bad thing’™. Someone spending time and effort to make their product look the same as another vendor? They should have saved that effort and just mentioned that their product is compatible. Trying to make a few extra bucks by printing someone else’s brand on your product is a jerk thing to do. It is a subtle difference, but an important one. To borrow an analogy found in your supermarket, imagine you are a drink company. You can’t just go around slapping ‘coke’ on your products, that is something that belongs to the Coca-Cola Company. You can still call your drink a ‘cola’, a descriptive term for a group of similar drinks. But you can’t use any of the imagery that clearly identifies a bottle of drink as coming from Coca-Cola.

A manufacturer using counterfeit components in their Arduino compatible devices is also a jerk move.

The semiconductor company, FTDI sells chips for converting serial transmissions to USB. They made the bit that made it easy for a computer to upload content to an Arduino over a USB cable. In 2014 FTDI got frustrated by others cloning and selling knock offs of their integrated circuits. FTDI fought back and released a software driver that would ‘brick’ or make counterfeit chips inoperable. The bricking could be undone, but not without additional legwork. This was also a bit of a jerk move on FTDI’s behalf, many people had no idea if their Arduino compatible boards contained a counterfeit FTDI chip or not.

A genuine FTDI serial to USB chip.

Confused yet? Yeah. I just want to get to making something cool too. But I also want to kick a little back into the community that created lots of this stuff. So here is a little buyers guide I use when buying Arduino compatible hardware:

Is it counterfeit?

If someone is clearly trying to pass off someone else’s brand as their own, I don’t buy it.

Does the manufacturer use counterfeit components?

This is impossible to tell from photos when placing an order online. But these days I go out of my way to avoid anything that has an onboard FTDI chip. I have a breakout board with a legit FTDI chip if I need to go down the FTDI road. But lots of the newer Arduino compatibles are USB native and don’t use FTDI at all to communicate with your computer.

Does the manufacturer share the designs of their own improvements?

I go out of my way to hunt down manufacturers who spend time and effort documenting their own changes and improvements. It follows along in the ethos of the original Arduino developers who shared their own ideas.

Does the manufacturer pay a royalty?

This isn’t a huge deciding factor for me. The big end of town like Intel pay licensing fees and are certified by Arduino. While the average manufacturer of Arduino compatible devices doesn’t. Like a generic cola company, these manufacturers pass on savings in branding costs to the consumers. It is not quite the same, but it is still cola. Same with an Arduino compatible device, not quite the same but for the most part it will do a similar job.

The problem here is that hardware sales and royalties have for a long time supported improvements to the Arduino development environment.

So if you are buying Arduino compatible boards and no royalties are getting back to the Arduino developers, then it is much harder for them to work full-time on improving the platform.

If you are buying Arduino compatible devices, there are a couple of other ways you can still contribute to the platform:

  • Donate. Those few bucks you saved buying an Arduino compatible device could be donated straight to the developers of the Arduino IDE.
  • If you are strapped for cash, you can always contribute your own time and ideas. Head over to github and get involved in the Arduino development effort. This could be everything from helping write documentation to coding bug fixes and enhancements.