Buying Cheaper Electronics And Not Saving Money

As an engineer at Spectrum Design in Minneapolis, [Carl] works with clients to get their product out to the masses. When designing a new USB-powered device, one client thought it would be a great idea to include a USB car charger with the device. The client promptly ordered a few thousand car chargers from China and everything was going swimmingly.

Everything was fine, of course, until [Carl] decided to test the Chinese car chargers with the client’s device. The USB PHY burnt out in short order, and the likely culprit was a shorted 12 volt regulator. This demanded a closer inspection, so after cracking open the charger [Carl] was amazed at what he found.

Yes, what you see on that circuit board is accurate. The manufacturer of these car chargers never even populated the switched mode regulator for this car USB charger.  Amazing, considering a single 10 cent 7805 DC regulator would have almost worked for this application.

If there was ever an example of being careful when purchasing the cheapest possible product to increase profit margins, this would be it.

Ever the engineer, [Carl] sent this into the tip line as a Word document. That’s available here, along with a slide show of the pictures [Carl] snapped.


125 thoughts on “Buying Cheaper Electronics And Not Saving Money

  1. This is freaking madness. I’ve had a similar experience with speakers. That moment of dispair when you crack something open and you’re like “Oh… was I supposed to buy the components and assemble the board? Or did someone just send me a middle finger in a box?”

      1. I really feel like more people should be better educated.
        In no way is it ok to try and charge an iPad or newer idevice with a straight up 12v connection, they are not FireWire enabled so just accept it people.
        Don’t base all of your knowledge on what dumbass people on forums and the like say, same thing goes for instructables. If you can’t do the math required to figure out whatever it is you’re trying to do, then go read a fucking book and learn it…
        At the very least I love the hackaday crew since they actually ask questions as to why and how something is done, and they seem to always make sure they aren’t just spreading dumbass kipkay style crap that will eventually get someone killed.

      2. I have no idea why it posted to Eirinn’s comment it was meant to be a statement at the bottom, not directed towards any specific person or anything… Sorry about that

      3. I didn’t know “Kipkay-style” was such a popular adjective. I thought it was just me who’d noticed what a load of crap the guy pushes. One is “instructions” for “how to steal electricity from the phone line”. He can power an entire single-LED-based miniature desk lamp!

        The guy doesn’t seem to like it when you call him on his shit on Youtube. I think he really is as stupid as he seems, not a clever conman. He seems to be genuinely pleased with the crap he comes up with.

  2. I have a sneaking suspicion as to why they were unpopulated.

    Apple’s newer devices prefer (or in the case of the iPad, require) 12vdc over the USB cable to charge. Give how wide-spread Apple’s products are, a lot of cheap Chinabay stuff is made with the assumption that it will be used with Apple products. Clearly that’s stupid and untrue, but it’s likely a good explanation of this.

    1. “Apple’s newer devices prefer (or in the case of the iPad, require) 12vdc over the USB cable to charge.”

      I can’t figure out if you’re trolling or confused, but that’s simply untrue. Providing 12v through USB will destroy pretty much any device, including Apple’s.

      iPad’s do like to sip more Amperes than standard USB (0.5A), up to 2.1A, but it’s still delivered at 5 volts. Maybe you’re confusing Watts (10.5) with Volts?

      1. The latest USB charging standard includes negotiation of the Vbus up to 24V if both sides agree. Just because you can’t see 5V probing a bare latest-gen i* adapter doesn’t mean it won’t jump to 12V once something asks for it.

        That being said, shorting USB power to a car’s lighter socket is *exceedingly* dangerous since the battery voltage on a car can spike above 70V in extreme cases.

      2. I do believe you’re incorrect. IIRC USB spec says that anything delivering power needs to be 5v to match spec, but anything recieving power needs to be able to handle 20+v without damage.

        These specs must be met in order to use the USB trident logo

      3. Simple Math and Understanding that the iadapters are voltage regulated.

        Watts = Volts * Current

        The ipad charger is a 10 watt charger and (by the way) it says on the charger it’s output is 5.1v at 2.1 amps.
        5*2=10 watts

        Now let’s dissect this a little further.
        If by some magic this was to output at 12 volts let’s see how much current it can deliver at 10watts.
        10 = 12 * X
        10/12 = X
        .83amps = X

        This can deliver 12v at .83amps

        Why deliver a device that says 5volts out at 2amps when you are expecting it to spike to 12 and only deliver .83amps. It makes no engineering sense. You would just deliver a 12v charger at 1amp like all the other tablet mfgs do.

        The adapter says 10 watts. 5.1v out at 2.1 amps.

        End of story.

      4. Well, paul has me convinced

        Also when you use power straight from the car battery should it not also have some current limiting, you know – just in case. And assuming the fuse on the ‘lighter’ connector is the right value is also a bit of a wild move, so I’d say this was a simple con.

        And the lesson is: never order thousands of items without first opening one. And knowing who you deal with so you can get back to them also helps.

    2. WTF! are you talking about!

      iPad do NOT charge with 12V they charge with 5V like every other USB product. Apple uses a not standard voltage on the the data lines to identify that a charger is capable of providing the 2.1A @ 5V +/- 5% that the iPad requires

      iPads will also charge at 1A (500ma if the screen is off) iPhone4 and 4S will also rapid charge if conencted to a 10W charger that idnetifies with apples resistor values.

    3. Apple’s newer devices prefer (or in the case of the iPad, require) 12vdc over the USB cable to charge.
      Do you have a source for that? I strongly doubt that’s true. They use higher currents than the USB spec, like 1A or 2.1A, but not higher voltage.

      1. 1Amp is in the USB spec if configured as a USB DCP. in a DCP the data pins are shorted together through no less than 200 ohms. In this configuration a device may draw up to 1A.

        All of those chargers that come with Android phones are DCPs

    4. Citation? Not so much because I don’t believe you, but because I’m interested in how this is handled in hardware/software. I tried googling a bit but didn’t find anything…


      2. Totally, but the Arduino Pi is way better. I use it all the time when I’m writing Java applets into my Python kernels so I can figure out how to get my mice to stop laying eggs in my all natural, polypropylene based breakfast cereal. Oh, and to avoid any possible confusion, when I say mice I am referring to the plural form for the word moose, not mouse. Everybody knows a mouse can’t lay eggs, that would be silly.

    5. FaultyWarrior assumption is probably correct in some ways. However it might not be true that the iPad actually negotiates/requests 12V. For those that are skeptical about USB being able to deliver above 5V, I would strongly recommend that you download the latest USB 2.0 standard (specifically the document: USB Power Delivery Specification Revision 1.0 as of July 5, 2012) and read it! ( It seems like both voltage and current can be negotiated over USB.

      Regarding the article itself I think its sad that they actually purchased thousands of units before ordering a smaller batch to test. That is just pure condensed stupidity in a jar. It really does not matter what business your in or where you buy from. If your not smart enough to sample the goods first and continually re-sample the goods when ordering later on. Well then your just dumb and need a lesson in life (like they got).

    1. The irony is when you consider the “almost free’ labor rates, then they have to “cheat” by removing components, is almost funny.

      You would think with their labor rate advantage, they would build the most robust products possible. Yet their stuff is crap unless you have one of your own engineers living in their plant.

      1. They? Oh, I get it, ALL Chinese people. Racism at it’s best.

        While such stories may be common (what isn’t amongst 1.3bn people?), it doesn’t mean it always is, or can only be dealt with the way you suggest.

      2. It’s not racism.

        It’s culturalism. The chinese are adapting as fast as they can, but they’re still at the copycat stage. There’s no shame in this.

        From about 1700 on, the USA was the biggest copycat and violator of IP rights in the world until we got the inventor/manufacturer/sales thing down pat and WW2/Cold War set us up to get picky about who owned what.

        There are talented and bright engineers in China, just as there are (or were) in the USA – and they are just as hampered by PHBs and Bean Counters as we are.

        Actually, replace PHB with “manager who has a senior party member in his family/CEO is the son of a general/etc.” and Bean Counter with “They won’t notice if I shift things around a little, like 15% of gross revenue to my uncle’s company” and you’re pretty close.

        But race actually has nothing to do with it, other than being short hand for a statement of statistical likelihood of certain events occurring. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of stereotypes… 99.9% of a given population may be decent folk, but just 0.1 % of them can easily spoil the reputation of everyone else.

        Every culture goes through this – and when the engineers drive, the products are excellent until the company goes broke. When the Accountants drive, the products are mediocre to poor, but everyone makes money. When the crooks drive, all bets are off – and crooks REALLY like to drive.

        If you’re chinese, you can blame the west for this and claim it’s racism, but in fact, it’s simply how an actual free and unregulated market operates. We need more of this, especially in Health Care!

        Caveat Emptor, and remember: It’s certainly not the fault of the Middle Kingdom if you had no experience in the world of banking, brokerage, insurance and itinerant trading partners.

        It was a cheap lesson in Naivete… and culture.

  3. Perhaps the detail wasn’t reported… but did these guys order samples from the vendor for testing before placing a large order? Did they do any vendor vetting prior to the order?

    I have seen this before with suppliers that are trading companies (not manufacturers) – they have this product and are several layers removed from the mfr process. They might not even know its defective.

    If you’re ordering monthly medium to high volume, a factory is less likely to screw you over and is potentially willing to work with you (for quality and process control). A trade company is less likely to care.

    Of course, people can lie and misrepresent themselves. Visiting vendors is an important part of getting and maintaining quality (there are tons of logistics companies that will do this for you if you don’t want/can’t travel).

    1. In this situation, the customer did order/test samples before buying a few thousand units. In the process I think they learned quite a bit about verifying the product quality of overseas manufacturing before purchasing larger quantities.

  4. A simple 7805 wouldn’t do the job. Given the maximum 500 mA load of USB 2.0 a linear regulator like the 7805 would dissipate 4.5W of power (assuming 14V input voltage while driving). This power dissipation requires a significant heatsink (so a switch-mode converter would probably be cheaper in mass-production).

      1. I agree with you there Brian, but since many newer cars have “Aux” “Power Ports” that are not spec’d to handle the heat of a cig. lighter, that would be risky. (i.e. Melting plastic and other such unpleasantry)

  5. I am working on a similar problem with AC/DC adapters, but the BOM cost of power supplies manufactured domestically is just absurd. Does anyone know of a reputable overseas source or a cost effective domestic source for power supplies in relatively small quantities (1k to 5k)? I am looking for 5V at 1 and 2 Amps.

    1. The reason that the price is absurd is because you are using the correct components and not second or third party parts. You probably also followed safety rules. Cut all that unnecessary stuff out and you too can make Chinese quality electronics in the USA.

      1. My guess is Carl used Word to meet the requirements of his *paying* clients.Beyond that like it or not those who provide content, content we otherwise not see for free, get to decide the format. While inconvenient there may not be a format we can’t view for free. Besides Brian deconstructed the word file and place it in his post, we all seen what there is to see without extra effort.

      2. I don’t get it. Why is it wrong? Especially, why is it wrong in comparison with any other format?

        It is free to view and edit word documents (open office) so what’s the problem?

    1. I think it’s just a jab at many engineers’ tendency to overcomplicate things without a particularly good reason. Three jpegs and some text could be sent just fine as an email + attachments, but stick them all into a Word document and it’s only one file! No assembly required! Much more efficient! Right?

      1. I took it as a dig at engineers, nothing. Probably an unfair one, because they have to use the format those who sign the paychecks require. In the event any engineers read the comment here is how I imagine future shop conversations to going; “you are no engineer” ” F’ you I am so, I can use Word”

  6. Wow, better crack open the cheapo one of these I bought from China for 75 cents including shipping. No way will I hook up any USB device to something like this. What’s the point printing out a pcb if you are not even going to use the traces!

    1. The very first thing I do with power adapters made in china is pull out the meter and start measuring between the output and input, output and ground,etc looking to see if isolation is in place, most times it isn’t. The next thing I do is look at the rating and place a properly sized resistor on the output and run the adapter to see if it fails and how far off it sags from the design spec.

    1. S’true, you hear so much about the Chinese having abominable business ethics, and making products of such low quality as to be fraudulent. Cutting important corners and not being certified. They’re also not great on copyright.

      Apparently the Chinese are lovely as human beings, but what’s with their business? Is it just a few bad apples? I suppose tough competition on price, and the ridiculously low prices people are expecting to pay, must drive down quality.

      Is the problem unscrupulous shysters, or lack of regulation? Or is it the West expecting miracles for pennies? If we were willing to pay extra would we get better stuff?

      Maybe it’s what happens when a totalitarian nation with an agricultural economy, gets dragged into the 21st century and unregulated free markets, with nobody seemingly in charge.

      1. “unregulated free markets” sums it all up.

        If you wont/can’t get caught, you can do a lot of things.

        If middle man X buys from known crooked company Y, he can always says he dropped company Y but keep selling it’s products under a new name.

        It wont fail for everyone and they only have take action if the product is particularly egregious.

      2. Nothing is wrong with them as people. They are giving the world, especially the US exactly what they want. Cheap low quality goods while at the same time allowing us to keep our smugness about producing better. They are just fulfilling what the market desires.

    2. Half-truth. The real issue is that a Chinese will not say “no” to you, no matter what you ask: That is something which is not done. You can ask for an unicorn and they still won’t say “no” or “can’t deliver”.

      So if you define the product and the price, they’ll cut corners from the product unti the price is met. Or you can define the product and ask what would be the price for those specs and _then_ you’ll get what you asked for: Most sellers are honest in that way.

      Here in West we say “no, we can’t do it with that price”, which is the total opposite of what is done in East.

      Except crooks say OK and deliver what they feel, that part is the same. Double that if there are middlemen in the transaction.

    1. It is. I don’t suppose finding out who were responsible for manufacturing and selling this, and who knew about it, would be easy to do. A long trail of traders, and companies that might pop up then disappear. In a foreign country whose language and government you don’t understand.

      If some independent agency were to be created, who’d ensure quality, would buyers be willing to pay for that? Or would sellers pay for certification? Industry bodies can work, but do we understand Chinese business enough to work out how to do it?

  7. These things could have been meant for some kind of USB coffee warmer or some other gimic that’s 12v tolerant. There’s a similar white model on ebay, but no black one:

    Search “White USB Mini Micro Auto Car Charger Adapter for Apple iPod iPhone 3G 3GS 4G 4S”

  8. I strongly suspect that even if they purchased 1,000 parts from a US based seller, that seller in turn would have acquired them from China in the first place. This is indicative of a deeper and more fundamental problem but I don’t want to go into an unwanted diatribe.

    1. Yes, this is true, but it’s much easier to take a locally-based supplier company to court. And if you badmouth them on the Internet, they have a reputation they value, and a name that people recognise. So customer service has to be more important to them.

  9. one annoying thing on these car chargers is the “super-bright” led (also found on cheap dvd-players or teufel decoder-station 3).
    The fake-charger-led is driven by approx 7mA. I dont bother if the led is too dim to see it in direct sunlight, but requiring the user to put tape over the led to be able to see something else than the reflection of him/herself in the windows if driving at night isnt exactly user-friendly.

  10. Wow! That’s the first time I have seen a Chinese distributor being quite that reckless.

    The worst I have directly experienced (apart from mains adapters which barely isolate you from from the mains) are USB hubs populated with precisely zero active components, just a PCB with some pretty patterns and a blob of black epoxy to fake an IC. All four sockets were just wired in parallel. With only one device, it works as expected. Two or more devices and they all fail to work.

  11. I bought a batch of universal laptop adapters from china once that had neutral and 120vac shorted together by a trace on the circuit board. Ofcourse after that trace vaporized the boards worked fine but that’s some fine QA right there.

  12. I ruined an expensive LCD display due to a usb cable being wired with red for ground and black for positive.

    Also be careful of those usb hubs from china. They connect external power directly to the power supplied by the host, no diode, oh and no capacitors anywhere either, even though they have places to install them .

    Power adapters are some of the worst offenders, switching designs with zero isolation.
    Don’t trust the UL listing either because most of them are fake stickers or labels.

    1. I’ve done ok with a couple of USB hubs from the pound shop (“dollar store”). All 4 ports work together, with an activity LED each, and some epoxy blob in there being the brains. I think it’s only USB 1.1, which would help explain the price, that, and no opportunity to add a power supply. But for my mouse / joysticks / etc it does fine.

      That said I’ve had bad luck with SF card readers from all sorts of sources. No way of knowing if it’s gonna work with this SD card, on this day, short of trying it out.

    2. Ahh shit, I’ve just seen the essential difference… You mean USB hubs that take an external PSU, and connect it straight to +5v from the computer? MAN that’s unsafe! Hopefully the external PSU would be the thing to give up the ghost and burn out first.

    1. The casing and PCB is meant for “the real deal” i have some of those, using a MC34063A switcher with all the bell and whistles, nothing wrong with that design. I think mine is about 15 years old, so it’s not a new design

  13. Unfortunately as long as maximum profit for share holders by any means is seen as the most important point in the equilateral business triangle nothing is going to change. In trying to get a competitive advantage Carl’s client,attempted to provide value added. Without judging, it’s reasonable to assume the client wanted to do that at the lowest cost possible, and got burnt by someone going for maximum profit by any means. Regardless of the procedure used these days the chance of being scammed seems to be high these days.

  14. I guess you get what you pay for, pay nothing, get nothing. The shame is that even high end electronics are going this route as well, and people who don’t know about electronics will just keep getting screwed again and again.

  15. Just came up against this myself, I was adding usb charging ports to my car, so wanted a 12->5v regulator, and had to try 3 different converters i had lying around, that claimed to output 5v, but in fact outputted around 10-11.

  16. looks like what they did was connect a current limiting resistor in series with a usb port and the + of the lighter.

    they could have at least used a salvaged 7805 from some junked electronics sent to china from the usa.

    or ordered a bunch of lm317t and configured them for each voltage needed.

    1. If you take a look at the board pictures you can follow the traces and correlate the solder points to the empty through holes on the flip side.

      Tracing things out you’ll see they employ a pair of jumper wires to bring 12v directly to the +5 pin of the USB socket. The resister is present in parallel to drop voltage for the LED.

  17. that is just blatant disregard for peoples stuff.

    sure.. “some” devices “may” accept 12v input on the 5v charging port/usb

    but may 1000ths of peoples Tablets, phones…
    go Pfzzzzht

    seriously at the very minimum give us a
    voltage divider!!! Ugh…

    Somebody needs to be punched in the face!


  18. What I’ve heard (don’t quote me on this) is that it’s a pretty common practice on low-cost mass-produced stuff like this for the manufacturer to simply remove components from the board until it stops working, then go back a step. Seems like a likely scenario here — USB devices will work for at least a short while on 12V before they fail.

  19. This is why you have incoming stock QA.

    What? I thought every company did that. Pick a bunch of random samples from each delivery and test them. Even a simple test is better than assuming everything’s all right.

  20. It can be disturbing to find stuff like this.
    Here in Australia we use 240V mains power – quite often we get cheap stuff that was designed for 110V with a couple of tracks cut and a couple of diodes (half wave rectifier)… so it’s about 10% out of spec immediately.

  21. I’ve seen lots of those cigarette lighter power supplies containing just a chain of 1A silicon diodes to bring the voltage down, instead of a regulator.

    May work, if the car’s voltage doesn’t go too
    high, but very risky.

  22. There are a lot of gadgets out there now that charge over USB (no comms at all) – I designed one recently. Li-Ion charging ICs are often thus buck or linear regulators themselves (to regulate to the 3.7 – 4.1v charging voltages of the Li-Ion). Hence these can usually take 12v input. This is still very much bad practice, but it is possible this batch was custom done to be used with one product only (kind of “use specified charger only” remarks…)

  23. I have a lot of USB charging device. I am thinking of building something to test them quickly. Anyone has already done that?

    By the way, I would have made this charger smaller!

  24. Wow, gotta love the USA’s racism directed against the chinese.
    Seriously, guys? You appall me.


    PS. In addition, the US chucks out as much crap manufacturing as China, the price is just higher.

    1. UK here, I agree with Europe.

      It’s not the fact that they’re Chinese that makes them provide this crap, it’s the fact that their target markets usually rate suppliers in terms of cost. Cheapest = best.

      The only stereotype I’ve found to be true in engineering is that German engineers are truly awesome. If I wanted a machine/device built to last and designed with servicing in mind, I’d be straight on the phone to the fatherland.

    2. What I find funny is that the Apples, Sonys and Microsoft products that many of the users are willing to defend the quality of (and rightfully so) also are “Made in China”.

      The truth is that China produces products of all qualities and it is up to the buyer to survey the quality.

      Racism (as we can see in a few of the comments above) is not very aesthetically pleasing.

  25. can we get a pdf version of the word doc? not all of us have word…

    (plus, we’ve been ingrained for years not to open doc files off the internet due to the bugs in ms office…)

  26. The part of the story I don’t get is “The client promptly ordered a few thousand car chargers” without first ordering a sample batch to check for compatibility and interoperability.

    Another thought, based on my experience: Anyone ever have the “fun” of exporting electronics to China? I had to once send some NICs there and literally had to have a guy come from the Consulate in San Francisco visit, take photographs, help me fill out a 20-page document, and ultimately certify the equipment and shipment box. But sending the stuff back to me involved sticking international postage stamps on a bunch of boxes and dropping them in the mail.

  27. Why is it only called ‘bigotry’ when directed toward Africans and/or Jews, but ‘patriotism’ when directed toward Chinese?

    British/American/French/Canadian/etc companies do this stuff when they can get away with it. Cutting corners is a natural HUMAN tendency (see greed), NO more common in the Chinese culture than yours.

    The ONLY reason it’s more common when YOU buy stuff from Chinese sources, is because you do not live in China. The accountability veil works both ways. Ask a Chinese assembly factory how often they are f’d this way from US, Japanese and German component suppliers who know they can send a pallet of defective parts with no fear of retribution or followup.

    1. Ignorance and wishing they are member of group.

      In Russia we deal with this from Germany sources. We order 50% of quantity from three sources. At least one will arrive bad or incorrect or fake part. We can only fight if we order through a Moscow independence delivery company.

  28. Hmm….
    Did they specify what kind of car this adapter was designed for? An old VW bug is 6v (as is many other cars made before 1965).

    I’m still going with the “meant for a USB coffee warmer” theory, but this is also possible.

  29. This is so obviously fake that it’s almost painful. A cheap attempt to bash chinese products.
    Just take one look at the circuit board. Why are there solder blobs on all pads where no parts are? Especially – why are there crude uneven solder blobs? If the device was meant to be a cheap rip-off product, the trace pads would simply be blank. Or, if it was machine-soldered, the solder blobs would be more or less even and shiny. It’s totally obvious that this board was manually de-soldered, and rather crudely at that.
    I can imagine only two reasons for that: a) Someone at the manufacturer was pulling a malicious prank on “Carl”, probably a retaliation for unpaid bills, or b) “Carl” was trying to fake material for a China bashing, and HackADay took the bait, hook, line and sinker, and the commenters are blindly following.
    (I happen to own just the same charger, and the board is fully populated and puts out 5V as expected.)

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