I just bought a cheap spectrum analyzer from AliExpress. Even though it’s obvious to everyone that technology has made previously impossibly expensive things possible, there’s still a small joy in being able to purchase a spectrum analyzer for a few tens of dollars because I grew up in an era when they were an extremely expensive item with a built-in CRT display. My spectrum analyzer from AliExpress is a replica of a style that first appeared in a German amateur radio publication. At the time of my evaluation, I believed it to be worth the inexpensive investment even though its performance lagged below that of its more expensive competitors.
When A Bargain Relies On Somebody Else
As part of my investigation, I addressed the question of software and found that the NWT4 package it relied on was the work of one man, [Andreas Lindenau, DL4JAL] . He made it available for free-as-in-beer on his website, which was fine when servicing German radio amateurs but became a severe problem when he was expected to provide free personal tech support for thousands of buyers of a commercially mass-produced cheap instrument from China. I can’t blame him for taking it down under those circumstances, and neither should you.
This was a pattern I found repeated more recently when my periodic scan for new cheap stuff turned up an SDR board. It’s a USB peripheral with a range from 0 to 1000 MHz, and when it arrived it became obvious that it was a clone of a commercially produced SDR.
The Clone Wars
The SDRplay RSP1 is a high-quality receiver that in its latest revised version costs around $100. The cheap clone I bought has inexpensive filter components and a line of input sockets because it lacks the RF input switch chip for different bands. It bears no branding, but a further search will find examples with RSP1 branding that cross the line from “clone” to “fake”.
As you may have already guessed, the easiest way to get my SDR working would be to use SDRplay’s software and drivers for the RSP1. They’re easy enough to get hold of because they’re available for RSP1 owners, but they are unambiguously not free and are certainly not licensed for use with anything but a genuine SDRplay board.
It’s the same story as with [DL4JAL] ’s spectrum analyzer software; a commercially mass-produced clone board relies on software support from the originator who gets something of a headache and who loses sales of the project they put all the hard work into developing. Other examples such as the Sale logic analyzer clones make it a subject that bears further investigation, so I reached out to both SDRPlay and to [DL4JAL] for their experiences. Of the two, SDRplay responded, and I had a conversation with [Jon Hudson] , their marketing director.
On one hand, it’s understandable that SDRplay does not want to give publicity to the fakes and clones, which it’s evident have become something of a bugbear to them. The direct fakes are a clear breach of their trademarks, while the clones undermine the significant research and development investment that went into bringing genuine products to market. Use of the software drivers with a clone or fake is a clear breach of the license. I asked whether they would consider selling the driver as a product in its own right, and understandably the response was that they don’t want to endorse the closes and fakes in that way, neither do they wish to be embroiled in support for inferior hardware not of their manufacture.
Enjoy Your Cheap Stuff, Responsibly
We all like cheap instruments, whether they are logic analyzers, SDR, spectrum analyzers, or whatever. Sometimes the cheap products are based upon open source projects, such as the NanoVNA vector network analyzer we looked at a while back, but it’s important to be aware that just as often they are clones of commercial products that have had huge research and development applied to create them.
There may be some open-source enthusiasts who would respond that all such things should be open-source hardware anyway and that the devices have been somehow “set free” by the cloners. And we’d agree to the extent that Hackaday’s whole existence depends on open hardware and it would be a Utopian environment in which we could find any device of our choosing on GitHub and spin up our version for a modest outlay.
But despite the many wonderful open-source hardware projects out there, it’s imperative that promising commercial ones are not throttled, because without them we simply wouldn’t have so many of the devices we depend on. Ultimately, the choice is up to the producer of the device, right? And a cynic might ask why someone demanding a small producer open-source their device is not also pursuing a larger player for the same. Call me back when you’re standing outside Agilent Technologies with a placard demanding they open-source their ‘scopes!
Since we all like to see new products coming to market, it behooves us as customers to question the origin of cheap new devices, and consider buying the real thing instead if they are clones or fakes. Judging by my clone SDR which is plagued with spurious peaks, I’d suggest that the real thing will be a far better product anyway.
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