Arduino Clones vs. the Real Thing: Advantages of Genuine Arduino Boards

If you could point to an innovation that's helped bring electronics experimentation to the masses, not many devices could compete with Arduino boards and their surrounding ecosystem. Currently available for under $20, the Arduino Uno is something of the standard in the dev board world, while the Arduino Nano packs nearly identical specs into a smaller form factor. A variety — an abundance, really — of other Arduino boards are also available for different purposes and applications.

Along with these Arduino products, you may also be familiar with Arduino clones and knockoffs. These devices are often available more cheaply than the genuine article and can work well in some scenarios — in fact, many companies make Arduino-compatible boards, building on the design to create something different and suited just for user's specific needs. Such is the beauty of open-source, and as of this 2013 blog post by Arduino founder Massimo Banzi, Arduino has "always systematically released any hardware design and the software needed to reproduce [their] products."

Arduino can point to its roots in the Wiring Project, processing, and countless contributors that have expanded its software and hardware ecosystem, helping make this amazing project possible. That being said, you should be aware of a few key differences between genuine Arduino products and clones.

Trademark Infringement

Open source does not include Arduino's trademarks and branding, which you'll see fraudulently — and often poorly — placed on counterfeit Arduino dev boards. This is an obvious act of trademark infringement, and even if enforcement agencies are willing to overlook it, a company that's going to try to get away with such shenanigans would also likely be willing to cut corners on quality. Anecdotal evidence from this forum discussion and in this interview with musical hacker Look Mum No Computer (relevant conversation begins at about 37 minutes), would indicate that about one out of ten knockoff Arduino clones are worthless duffs.

Here are a few reasons choosing a genuine Arduino product might be smarter than a clone:

1. Manufacturer background. The kind of quality you can expect will likely vary greatly depending on the company that makes the boards. Unfortunately, tracing a clone's manufacturer, production methods, and reputation can be nearly impossible. With Arduino, you know what you're getting.

2. Price. Better quality suppliers would also likely charge more, narrowing the gap between genuine Arduino boards and higher-quality non-infringing clones.

3. Experience level. Poor quality boards can be especially problematic for those just starting out with Arduino and programming. An inexperienced programmer would assume that any issues are due to their own mistakes, rather than an issue that's inherent to the board itself. Such failure could even short-circuit one's pursuit of electronics before it even gets charged up (pardon the puns).

4. Efficiency. If you're ordering the cheapest option, shipping times will often mean you'll be waiting for several weeks for your board to arrive (unlike from, say, Arrow.com, where you can choose overnight shipping on many products). If you have a project that you need to complete ASAP, waiting weeks for a clone of questionable quality may not be the best choice.

How to Tell if You Have a Fake Arduino

It can sometimes be tricky to figure out if the board in your hand is a real Arduino or a fake, and Arduino has a post on the subject here, mostly dealing with Uno boards. Here are a few of the most common ways you can spot a fake:

- Board color. While older genuine Uno boards are a teal color, as of late 2014, the company changed the board design to a mix of green and blue. Notably, some genuine boards appear to use the older teal color, including the newer Nano boards.

- Construction. Genuine Arduino silk screens tend to be very good, but clones have varying quality. Board traces and the way the components are soldered on can also be signs of poor quality in clones.

- Component color. Finally, there's a distinct gold color to the polyfuse component located next to the voltage regulator on an Uno, so it's a big giveaway if you spot something different.

If you're not sure, your best bet is to go with a reliable supplier.

Innovation and Closing the Gap

In addition to the potential issues we discussed, Arduino has and does put a huge amount of effort into their hardware and software ecosystem. Everyone benefits from this, but counterfeits (and legitimate clones) don't give back to the community.

After reading this article, you may still be able to justify using clones occasionally, especially if you're in the habit of stockpiling electronics. This has its own unseen cost (storage and upfront costs), and what you have on hand may not be exactly what you need when it comes time to build, which could mean unused boards and wasted money. That being said, the price gap between genuine Arduino boards and clones can be a tough hurdle to get over, but it appears that Arduino is working hard to create products at varying price points.

Consider the new family of Arduino Nano form-factor boards. Every Nano features a list price of just under $10, boasting a better processor and enhanced capabilities compared to its predecessor. The similar Nano 33 IoT adds Bluetooth connectivity for under $20. Given its small size and hardware that's already developed to take advantage of this form factor, the Nano 33 IoT could be very successful both from Arduino and the consumer's point of view. I should note that the Nano 33 IoT is only compatible with 3.3V systems, so it won't be a drop-in replacement in all situations.

We can probably expect clones of this new board to emerge soon, and perhaps they'll inspire new and unique derivatives, but this kind of innovation wouldn't be possible without Arduino as a company at the helm. We look forward to seeing even more exciting Arduino hardware in the future. And if it means paying a little bit more for high quality and reliability, not to mention supporting innovation and open source, you may find that choosing "the real thing" is a worthwhile investment.

Get started on your next Arduino project by checking out Arrow.com’s list of Arduino tutorials. 

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