FT232RL: Real Or Fake?

232

Above are two FTDI FT232RL chips, an extremely common chip used to add a USB serial port to projects, builds, and products. The one on the left is a genuine part, while the chip on the right was purchased from a shady supplier and won’t work with the current FTDI drivers. Can you tell the difference?

[Zeptobars], the folks behind those great die shots of various ICs took a look at both versions of the FT232 and the differences are staggering. Compared to the real chip, the fake chip has two types of SRAM etched in the silicon – evidence this chip was pieced together from different layouts.

The conclusion [Zeptobars] reached indicated the fake chip is really just a microcontroller made protocol compatable with the addition of a mask ROM. If you’re wondering if the FTDI chips in your part drawers are genuine, the real chips have laser engraved markings, while the clone markings are usually printed.

Comments

  1. pcf11 says:

    Sometimes a deal isn’t a deal after all. There is a lot of counterfeiting happening with electronics components.

  2. Mike Lu says:

    Would be interesting to do something similar with the apparently more common PL2303. My experience with them is that they’re hit or miss, with some acting very buggy and others working very well. Maybe the buggy ones are fakes?

    Also would be interesting to see if the fake FT232 works properly with Linux drivers.

    • Anonymous says:

      I just had a look then at the three PL2303 devices I own. One is “legitimate”, the other two are chinese products. One of the Chinese ones is a blob IC, the other two are packaged but look absolutely nothing like each other. There’s a big warning about fakes on the driver site, but none of them seem to be getting kicked off by their new drivers. Pretty sure the blob top wouldn’t be real though.

    • Nate B says:

      There’s an extensive thread here alleging exactly that — the bad pl2303’s are fake:
      http://www.avrfreaks.net/index.php?name=PNphpBB2&file=viewtopic&t=128935&start=all

      Except that the allegation is a bit more complex — apparently the fake ones work fine with the older drivers, and then Prolific is claimed to have altered their drivers to only work reliably with the genuine chips and crash a lot with the fakes.

      I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’ve lost *literally weeks* to problems that were eventually traced to a whole lab full of Prolific adapters. Replaced everything with name-brand FTDI and all is well.

    • tekkieneet says:

      If they instead make generic CDC class serial chips at the same cut throat prices as the fake one, they could easily corner the serial chip market. FTDI’s and Prolific’s propriety drivers for something as well defined as serial chip doesn’t really have any performance advantage at least for the average consumers.

  3. djdesign says:

    Aside from the negative implications (e.g. incompatibility with the drivers, ethical dimensions, etc), this is quite fascinating. These guys found it profitable to reverse engineer FTDI’s USB protocol and re-implement it using a mask-programmable off-the-shelf micro-controller. This is quite a hack. I wonder what the FTDI driver developers had to do to determine if the silicon they were talking to was “genuine-FTDI” or not. Probably the reverse engineer job did the bare minimum. More work and it may not be possible for FTDI to determine what silicon their drivers are talking too.

    • tekkieneet says:

      They don’t even need to reverse engineering the protocols. Those are mostly documented these days and can be lifted from the open source project and/or official sources. The drivers people might have some undocumented features for chip testing stuff they could use.

      As for reverse engineering other products in general, it is not like the companies that do the outsourcing not send them all the necessary design/CAD files, part lists, firmware to be burnt and even artwork designs for company logos etc to manufacture their stuff in China. All that cost saving without passing onto the consumers. “Free market economy” have a funny way to re-balance things when the other guys don’t take as much profits or have the same overheads (R&D, marketing, legal, and CEO packages).

    • Whatnot says:

      It’s like a virtual cold war

  4. problemchild says:

    Wasn’t the original FTDI stuff all based on a 8051/52 controller anyway?
    If they actually made a good go at emulating the specifics of their implementation I’m sure it would be VERY hard to tell one from the other!!

  5. DainBramage1991 says:

    Nobody (except IBM) seemed to mind it when Compaq did something similar back in 1982.
    Most people reading this are indirectly benefiting from their hack.

    That’s not to say that I endorse what these bogus chip makers are doing, I’m just saying that it’s a far more common practice than any of us would like to admit.

  6. tekkieneet says:

    FTDI chips comes in at a premium price and I am surprised that it took so long for the “fake” ones to show up. I saw some PL2303 chips 10 for $1 with free shipping. I don’t even understand where the margins are.

    The PL2303 chips might even be the real chips that sat in a warehouse or their chip mask got “found in the trash” when the newer rev. came out.

    Don’t forget chips dies get packaged into plastic packages in China too and certainly those cheap laser engraving machines are also helping mark fake chips which strangle enough wasn’t involved in these serial chips.

  7. Brandon Vincent says:

    I’ve read that it is quite common for components on salvaged electronics to be stripped, cleaned up, and resold as new.

    Counterfeiting is a massive issue globally and shows how fragile supply chains can be.
    http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1266976

  8. matt says:

    how many people really buy parts from ebay or alibaba instead of places like digikey or mouser?

    • Sven says:

      Lots and lots of hobbyists, especially outside the US since shipping from digikey is a bit steep for young people. Most other legitimate sellers won’t even ship to anything but a registered company.

    • Where i live it’s more or less the only way to get parts for my projects.

    • Max Siegieda says:

      Massive pile of yes here, looking to buy optical toslink receivers and transmitters, my options are £15 each from digikey or £0.50 each with £15 postage from alibaba for a part that’ll do the job, but won’t do all the fancy 7.1 channels of 384KHz stuff. Given I’m buying 10 or so it’s a no brainer, though working out why on earth they cost so much from official sources is definitely a brainer

    • henk says:

      I never bought anything from an official supplier to be honest, I’m a starving student and most of the time things work well enough for my hobby projects.

    • tekkieneet says:

      I won’t go directly to ebay or alibaba directly if DX or other reshipping companies are selling the parts I want as they are much better to deal with for shipping, quality issues or even refunds. The selection is very limited, but they are likely buying from the local sources that other made in China stuff are using.

      As for shipping charges *outside* of US, digikey have a high enough shipping charge which can be a large percentage when you are ordering only $20-$30 worth of parts.
      I have done electronics for a long time that I do have lots of parts especially the general stuff and passives, but just missing a few chips that I can’t get locally nor design without. (I don’t want to abuse the samplings from vendors.)

      If you are putting for weeks etc until you have a large enough list of parts to order, might as well wait for someone that have “free shipping” and not pay sale tax on purchases. I still have a list of stuff I yet to order from them for a couple of years, but DX & others filled my needs for some of the short term stuff I wanted.

      • imjosh says:

        I regularly buy from a handful of chinese ebay vendors. At least one of them will combine shipping on multiple items, so I can get a pile of stuff shipped for $2-3. Compared to dx, the prices are typically lower and the shipping faster; I’ve never had a problem with quality or needed to get a refund- YMMV. I do buy from DX occasionally as well.

    • MRE says:

      I use Aliexpress extensively. Sure there is some wacky on there, but if you are realistic about your expectations you can get quantity deals and a LOT of stuff you’ll never find in a digikey catalog.
      The best reason for me though is that being in Tokyo, I rarely have to pay shipping.

    • Mike Szczys says:

      Hackaday raises its hand.

      Brian’s working on a retro computer build and needed some chips which are no longer produced. eBay was the easiest source in this case.

    • Chris C. says:

      I go with Newark, Mouser, and such for the majority of passives, discretes, and bare ICs. All electrolytic caps get ordered here, no exceptions! Plus any LEDs for which I need high power, reliability, and/or a positively known manufacturer. And countless other items, as long as they’re reasonably competitive.

      But for some connectors, most electronic modules (power management, RF), and component assortments (ceramic caps, resistors) to quickly fill out a parts collection, ordering direct from the Orient is the way to go. Often you get the exact same parts domestic suppliers are reselling for hefty markups.

      I tried to stay loyal to domestic businesses, and shied away from the potential risk of ordering overseas, until I realized I’d been paying Sparkfun an 800% markup on connectors over what I could order direct from their supplier in small quantity. Sure they’re entitled to some profit, I would have found 100-200% reasonable, maybe even a bit more. But 800%? It reminds me of the brick-and-mortar stores that charge $30 for a short USB cable because they know you need that cable right away. If not downright unethical, it’s certainly offensive, and I won’t support such practices and businesses out of loyalty or charity.

    • Erik Johnson says:

      Throwing my hat into this one as well. Why pay $5.00 for a single rgb led from radio shack or adafruit when I can get 100 of them for the same price on Ali? Other parts, too. The failure rate has been extremely minimal.

  9. cantido says:

    I was I could get hold of stuff to do decapping at home. I have a few parts bought from Chinese suppliers that are just wrong. Like I have some parts with markings that are for a different pitch (the part number I ordered) than the chip. They all seem to work so I wonder if they just changed a few letters on the markings to make them match what I ordered. It bugs the hell out of me not knowing for sure.

  10. Eirinn says:

    Those die images are really something. My father used to work at an ATMEL factory in France and I get to tour the facility and see the wafers. I find them to be absolutely beautiful and intriguing at the same time. For many people, heck, even for me, at this level it almost looks like alien technology ;)

  11. Hah! Very interesting to read this. I had EXACTLY the same problem last year with my temperature controller (www.eyejayinstruments.com). It uses a FT232RL, and I found that a batch of controller from the board assembler wouldn’t work with an updated driver version. Sent a chip to FTDI, and they confirmed it was fake. Fortunately only a few of the controllers were actually sold, and I was able to swap the chips quickly.

    The assemblers, although I told them to use RS or Farnell parts, had seemingly got the chip from “their own sources” – probably meaning Joe’s Cheap Chips around the corner.

  12. all_repair says:

    Digikey a joke. They used to be able to charge me in USD at digikey us price. Just last night, they kept forcing the local currency pricing on my order and their exchange rate is too steep. So I wrote them an email about the problem, gave my order to mouser. And digikey came back and asked what part — still no clue what is not going on.

  13. Pete says:

    For similar reasons, I chose Mouser over Digikey now. As for Alibaba… I only see it as super “shady”, I’m not sure I would use it as a “last resort” even. I trust what I buy at Mouser to be legit and good quality,

  14. Fallen says:

    I stick to digikey, farnell, newark, and mouser. Ebay, DX, alibaba etc for assemblies, but never for raw components. And always with the expectation that the assemblies won’t work. Like a 3.3V-5V (usb) boost converter. Sure it works under light loads (although it outputs closer to 6V)… but with my cell phone attempting to charge the inductor saturates and the whole thing draws a ridiculous amount of current. Oh well.

  15. Paul says:

    I’m not surprised there are fakes out there. I had gotten one of the PL usb-serial adapters and it would only work with windows, even then not quite. fortunately the parts that made it up were worth more to me than I paid, so it wasn’t a loss. I have a FTDI FT232RL adapter I got from ebay for a few bucks shipped. It works fine, but I figured even if it didn’t work right (because of a counterfeit chip), I could still buy a legit chip and replace it on the board (I have a hot air station) and still have spent less than buying a board from other suppliers.

    Looking at the chip though, if the counterfeits really do only have printed labels and not laser etched, than mine is legit (it’s laser etched).

    I look at anything coming from ebay as at the least, a cheap source of premade boards. I’ll generally only buy it if I know that is where everyone else sources that same board/component, since the odds of it not working are pretty darn low in those cases. Otherwise I’ll source the module from where it is actually manufactured. Stuff like passive components, such as jumpers and headers and whatnot I’ll get from china as well.

    I don’t have the money to be spending on strictly US stuff (that generally is made in China anyway) for my hobbies. If we were talking about something I was making to sell, or if I had a lot more disposable income the story will likely be different. But that is my opinion. Not everything has to be or is better if it’s made in the USA. We make plenty of garbage here.

  16. Travis Cucore says:

    I used to work for a company called America2. They bought bulk components, sorted, vetted, and resold them on the secondary market. My job consisted of deciphering part numbers, date codes, lot #s, etc, as well as making sure our products were not counterfeit or tinned. We used to take a sample part from a lot we had bought and scrape the top of it to see if there was anything underneath. We would look for things like missing date codes/lot numbers or anything that didn’t follow the normal cryptic patterns we were used to seeing from a particular manufacturer. We had stacks and stacks of books with all this information.

  17. rasz says:

    No one in the comments said the most (for me) important thing yet. FTDI fakes WORK, and they work just fine. Use old driver and you are good to go at the fraction of a price.

  18. scorinth says:

    Okay, maybe it’s tinfoil-hat time, but if they’re sneaking microcontrollers in like this, what can they slip into all of our hardware?
    There’s already precedent for bad Chinese chips getting into military hardware: http://defensetech.org/2011/11/08/counterfeit-parts-found-on-new-p-8-posiedons/

    I wonder how far you could push it.

    • Erik Johnson says:

      Unless there’s a satellite transmitter built in or you are using Chinese drivers, nothing is happening with the comms data that a legit one doesn’t already do

      • Simon Ould says:

        A fake chip could subtly weaken an encryption key, thereby making it easier for a third party to decrypt comms.
        Eg, if RSA is used for key exchange, and a dynamically generated aes-256 key is used for encrypting the payload, then weakening the aes-256 key generation would plausibly go unnoticed.

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