Bus Pirate Ultra 2.8 inch display and the danger of Taobao suppliers

We’ve been prototyping the Bus Pirate Ultra with a 240 x 320 pixel 2 inch LCD, but it’s just a bit small and hard to read from a distance. A 2.8 inch version is available that fits the full width of the Bus Pirate PCB, with the trade off of bigger pixels/lower pixel density. We bought a few displays from various “manufacturers” on Taobao and made up a daughterboard. It failed spectacularly because the datasheet was so wrong!

Anode and cathode pin locations in the “datasheet”
Anode and cathode position on the actual display

We don’t have to go beyond pin 1 to find a major and obvious error. The datasheet lists pin 1 as the LED backlight anode, and pins 2-5 as the cathode. The printing on the flex connector makes it clear that four cathodes (K1-4) join into a single trace to pin 1. A single anode (A) trace connects to four pads on the connector (pins 2-5). The backlight connections are backwards.

Coincidentally, datasheets for other similar displays (2.8 inch, 50 pin connector) match the corrected pinout. This datasheet just had it backwards. We reversed the backlight power and ground on the PCB by drilling out a trace and creating some strategic solder bridges. While the LEDs light, the display doesn’t respond to any commands so other connections could be wrong.

That’s not all. The flex cable is actually several millimeters shorter than listed in the datasheet, so it can’t reach the connector through the slot in the daughterboard.

We had similar issues with this supplier’s 2 inch display. The dimensions in the datasheet are a bit off, and their sample initialization code doesn’t work. We asked for an updated datasheet and received three different versions, none of which matched the actual display.

Their Taobao page has pictures of a factory and a nice section on after sales support. A charitable guess is that they manufacture runs of custom displays, and sell the excess on Taobao. That would explain all the different datasheets they so readily have available. We tried to get another grab-bag of PDFs for the 2.8 inch display, one of which might match the actual pinout, but at this point they got tired and ghosted us.

Will we stop buying prototyping samples on Taobao and 1688? Definitely not! It’s a great way to see what’s a cheap commodity product. This process plays out in the Shenzhen markets as well, people sell a lot of stuff without knowing exactly what it is. It’s kind of up to us to know what we’re buying, and sometimes it’s a crapshoot. When we find a sample we like, it’s time to send someone up to the factory to meet the boss, drink way too much tea, and ensure we’ll have a steady and consistent supply in the future.

Taobao breakout boards are a mess part 2

HMC5883L

Last week we struggled with mislabeled and faulty breakout boards from Taobao. Fortunately purchases from Shenzhen sellers usually arrive the next day, so we’ve already got a bunch of replacement boards to test.

HMC5883L/QMC5883 digital compass

Last week our HMC5883L breakout turned out to have a non-compatible QMC5883 chip. We need the genuine part to do a demo so we purchased four more from different suppliers. Each supplier confirmed that the breakout has an original HMC5883L, not the guochan (locally produced) QMC5883.

Of the four boards, only one has a genuine HMC5883L. The only seller with the original part actually offered the option of a guochan version for around 10RMB, or the original for around 40RMB. All the other breakouts came with a QMC5883 and cost around 10-15RMB. There are dozens of listings for this breakout on Taobao for around 10RMB, it’s safe to assume they’re all actually using a QMC5883.

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One of the sellers of the QMC5883 boards strenuously argued that the part was real and drew a helpful circle on our photo pointing out the model number. We countered with a photo of the chip markings compared to an original. At this point someone higher in the support chain, probably the boss, confirmed that “everyone” switched to the cheaper Chinese chip a year ago, and that buyers all know this. Now we know too.

SHT21 temperature and pressure sensor

SHT21

First, a correction from last week. We made a pretty basic mistake reading the SHT21 datasheet. The measurement resolution control of the configuration register is split into bits 7 and 0, not 7 and 6. After recognizing this the default value 0x3A is realistic.

Read correctly, bit 6 (0) correctly shows VDD > 2.25volts, the heater is disabled (bit 2=0), and OTP Reload is disabled (bit 1=1). Embarrassing, but an encouraging sign things are looking up.

SHT21

That leaves the issue of the impossibly high and definitely incorrect humidity measurement. We purchased a replacement SHT21 from Youxin, the original vendor, and samples from two other Taobao sellers.

All three breakouts work as expected, but on closer examination the board on the far right is actually an HTU21, not a Sensirion SHT21. HTU21 is a drop in replacement for the SHT21, but much cheaper. An Sensirion original is around 30RMB ($5), while the HTU21 is just 10RMB (~$1.50). The seller marked it as an SHT21 original and charged the market rate for an original (~35RMB). An extraordinarily low price consistently means non-original parts, but unfortunately a reasonable market price isn’t a reliable indicator of genuine parts.

It’s probably not a scam

The confusion probably starts with first line support reps that don’t know what they’re selling. If it says HMC5883, it must be HMC5883, right? Another part is being an informed consumer. If the original goes for 40RMB, the 12RMB version is going to be a substitute. This is obvious now, but the sheer volume of mislabeled listings makes it really hard to get a handle on a reasonable market price.

Taobao offers a huge selection of inexpensive parts, and next day delivery is usually around $1. That’s really amazing! However, getting multiples of everything to ensure at least one is genuine probably costs more than buying from a western-facing supplier like Seeed Studio, SparkFun or Adafruit.

Breakout boards from Taobao are a mess

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For the last few days I’ve been playing with breakout boards purchased from Taobao. So far it’s been a nightmare.

GY-271 is advertised as a Honeywell HMC5883L 3 axis digital compass. A Bus Pirate address search turned up 0x1A and 0x1B, instead of the HMC5883L’s 0x3C and 0x3D. The chip is actually a “Q”MC5883L, a Chinese-made digital compass with similar features that is not register compatible.

The datasheet for the QMC5883L shows the chip markings as “DA5833”. These markings are visible in nearly every Taobao listing claiming to be a HMC5883L breakout boards. Honeywell’s datasheet doesn’t include chip markings, shame on them.

GY-273 is another HMC5883L breakout board all over Taobao. About half of these are clearly the “Q” type chip. The other half show the Honeywell chip, at least in the photo. After talking with a quasi-trusted vendor I ordered what are supposed to be actual HMC5883L breakouts.

GY-213 is a breakout board sold with a variety of temperature and humidity sensors, including SI701, SHT21, etc. The same color/size/pinout/layout PCB is available from tons of Taobao shops. I ordered a SHT21 version from Youxin, a trusted supplier. The chip appears to be genuine, not the Chinese-made HTU21D, but it seems to be defective in at least two ways.

SHT21

Reading out the configuration register shows 0x3A=00111010, but the power up default should be 000xxx01. At power up the on-chip heater is enabled, which is used for testing and diagnosis. “OTP Reload” is enabled, which is specifically “not recommended for use” by the datasheet.

After setting the correct configuration it was time for further disappointment. Humidity measurement is always around 0xF66A. 114.3% humidity seems unrealistic, even for Shenzhen in the spring.