Ask Hackaday: Are Unlockable Features Good For The User?

There are numerous examples of hardware which has latent features waiting to be unlocked by software. Most recently, we saw a Casio calculator which has the same features as its bigger sibling hidden within the firmware, only to be exposed by a buffer overflow bug (or the lead from a pencil if you prefer a hardware hack).

More famously, oscilloscopes have been notorious for having crippled features. The Rigol DS1052E was hugely popular on hacker benches because of it’s very approachable price tag. The model shipped with 50 MHz bandwidth but it was discovered that a simple hack turned it into the DS1102E 100 MHz scope. Tektronix has gotten in on this action as well, shipping modules like I2C, CAN, and LIN analyzation on the scope but requiring a hardware key to unlock (these were discovered to have a horribly insecure unlock method). Similar feature barriers are found on Rigol’s new reigning entry-level scope, the DS1054Z, which ships with protocol analyzation modules (among others) that are enabled only for the first 70 hours of scope operation, requiring an additional payment to unlock them. Most scope manufacturers are in on the game, and of course this is not limited to our tools. WiFi routers are another great example of hardware hosting firmware-unlockable features.

So, the question on my mind which I’d like to ask all of the Hackaday community is this: are unlockable features good for us, the people who use these tools? Let’s take a look at some of the background of these practices and then jump into a discussion in the comments.

First off, I think we can all agree on this: it is reasonable to reuse parts of a hardware design in many models. If you want to ship five models but only roll one circuit board it makes everything easier, from sourcing that board to stuffing and testing each unit since you have a universal spec for jigs and other processes. This happens all the time and often a PCB will have components populated for some models and not for others. I’ll come back to this in the coming sections.

Let’s walk through a few of the reasons a company might ship a product under multiple model numbers yet hosting similar features.

Bottom Line and Getting Hardware to Those Who Need It

I’m going to call this the altruistic reason for this practice. Companies look for the biggest margin, and that is going to be high-end equipment where they can differentiate themselves from competitors and where businesses with purchasing power are the customer. The harware is recognized by those in industry as something they want to use. This hardware appears only on professional benches since the new hotness has a price tag that means you need a reason to have this scope before you’ll bite the bullet and buy one. But once you have those probes on your test board you’re glad to have it. For companies and contractors alike, purchasing a high-end scope makes sense. Better equipment that helps an engineer work faster or catch problems more easily pays for itself in billable hours and when it comes to manufacturing.

But look, there are a limited number of these customers. It’s wise to look beyond just the high end for several reasons, and so companies look to mid and low-tier models in the same family of products. So someone has the great idea to remove some options, silk screen a different number onto the front of the case, and market it as an entry level model of the gold standard scope.

The Effect of an Entry Level Model

The price point made the DS1052E the first scope for a generation of hackers. [via Unboxing Video]
The price point made the DS1052E the first scope for a generation of hackers. [via Unboxing Video]
There are several benefits to a lower-priced, entry-level model. Now, students, hobbyists, and the curious are able to get their hands on the hardware. From the company’s point of view this builds brand loyalty; the product works well and they like it. When these users get a larger budget (like getting hired as a hardware engineer) and want to upgrade they will think of this company first. The company also continues to sell the pro model at a higher price and make great margins while the companies still benefit from having great tools.

From the user point of view this unlocks faster prototyping, development, and troubleshooting. Doing and learning more in less time is a similar personal value as I mentioned before with the professional engineers.

Everyone wins, right?

It’s Like an App Store

If you are feeling slighted by having hardware that needs a software purchase to unlock its utility, I direct your attention to smartphones. You purchase the hardware (let’s sidestep the unrelated issue of carrier-subsidized phones) and it comes with basic functions even though it’s capable of much more. You extend the capability by purchasing apps which do more with the same hardware.

The smartphone comparison still holds when you think of price. Simple features on an oscilloscope (for instance, protocol decoding) cost a lot more than an app on your phone. But when was the last time your oscilloscope software crashed? I hope the answer is never.

These devices are being used to design and test electronics in industry. Failure in a scope could ripple through the consumer market causing all kinds of mayhem and so oscilloscope manufacturers keep their walled garden immaculate. This type of rock-solid dependability costs more than an app that drains your battery due to a dodgy memory leak. And of course the market for smartphones is much larger than that for oscilloscopes which greatly affects pricing.

The Marketing Department Made Us Do It

One thing should be abundantly clear: hardware developers don’t want to follow several parallel designs through to production. But the marketing department will insist on having several options in the line. It’s part of a concept called market segmentation which seeks to tailor products to carefully selected groupings of customers. I touched on the logic behind this earlier: engineers designing professionally need top-of-the-line tools and features and can afford to pay for them, hobbyists don’t have the same needs or the same pocketbook.

Whenever I turn on my scope it tells me how much time I have left before these functions are crippled.

So, marketing wants to have a product that is like candy for any given segment, but as I said, the hardware development team won’t want to design wholly different hardware for each segment. The easiest thing to do is to design with all the bells and whistles and throw some of them overboard for the mid- and low-tier offerings. This is fairly painless to do with software. The Rigol DS1052E had all of the hardware to be a 100MHz scope but the firmware shipped with it was sampling the ADC at half speed for an artificial limitation of 50MHz. They could have redesigned a slower analog frontend, but that comes at a huge cost when changing the sample rate in firmware costs almost nothing (just a bit of software engineering time and testing).

How We Feel About the Upsell

Where Rigol learned their lesson was with the DS1054Z, which ships with everything turned on for about 70 hours (55 for some of the functions) and then cripples those features when the timer runs out. This opens the door to upsell your entry level customers. The DS1032E never had a “purchase” option to enable the latent features… only a “hacking” option for that.

What’s interesting is the way I feel about this countdown timer. I’ve never actually used any of those functions in the last two years. But I feel like it’s a bit shady that they’re going to be taken away from me at some point. I equate it to buying a car you can drive to the mall for the first 70 hours of use. After that you can drive it anywhere you want as long as it’s not the mall. It’s still capable of going there but the software won’t let you do it without an upsell. If the scope had come with those already locked, my attitude would be that this is what I get for buying the entry-level model. Instead I feel like something’s being taken away. Human nature I guess.

I’m Fence Sitting

And now I’d like to hear your opinion. I can’t figure out exactly how I feel about this. In my use case I don’t have a big need for the features that have been locked out. And I certainly wouldn’t have afforded a more expensive model; this one was a stretch for me (and it is my first scope).

Back when the LinkSys WRT54G was new and DD-WRT came out, I flashed the firmware which unlocked some features and I did actually use them. In that case I don’t feel like I slighted the company — after all I paid for the hardware in the first place and used an Open Source firmware to get more out of it.

What have your experiences been with hardware shipped with crippled or unlockable features? Is it good for the user by getting more hardware in the hands of the masses, or are we missing out with hardware that’s far more capable than it’s allowed to be?

136 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Are Unlockable Features Good For The User?

    1. BS. This is a market. And a very free one at that, since you can buy directly from a Chinese manufacturer online. If it was economical to build a high end scope for bargain prices, someone would be doing it, word would get around and you would buy one. No-one is building high-end scopes at bargain prices, from which we conclude that it costs more than that to do it.

    2. Kevin, I cannot tell if you are joking, but if you are not let me ask you a few question. If you built the best oscilloscope and it cost you $10,000 in parts, 100’s of hours of your time and as soon as everything is done and ready to sell the government comes along and says, “You can only charge $1,000 because that is what other oscilloscopes on the market cost.” Even though you system is orders of magnitude better you can only sell it for a fraction of what it cost to make. So let me ask you, how long will you be in business and better yet how many more test fixtures will you develop in the future? What if instead someone came along and held a gun to your head and said, “Build me a 10GHz scope for $1000 in 1 month”. Since your life depends on it I am sure you will cut every corner and sacrifice at every turn of the design process. If by chance you manage to actually produce something that works, the quality is going to show that you built it like your life depended on it, because it in fact did. Bottom line is that companies take the risk and put the time in. Some features cost more to develop, but are cheap to produce which is why the market is segmented. Economics 101. If you are the only game in town and people have a need for your product then you can charge as much as the market can bear. On the flip side in a truly capitalistic society there is always someone around the corner waiting to pick up shares of the market if they can produce a better product for cheaper. This is where true innovation comes from. When I say “truly capitalistic” I mean equal rules for everyone. I don’t mean reduced regulation and destroying planet earth which is the conclusion that so many like to jump to when some says capitalism.

      Believe it or not, I have spent many hours of free time trying to come up with a design for high speed and high precision test equipment for the hobbyist because I think there is a tremendous market for it. However, even scopes in the 1GHz range would cost thousands of dollars in parts and that does not include labor and non recurring cost like test equipment. Full disclosure, I never seriously sat down to design any test equipment, but I did spend a lot of time researching parts and putting together bills of material. It usually ended there when I realized the cost of parts alone.

      1. ..the government comes along and says, “You can only charge $1,000 because that is what other oscilloscopes on the market cost.”

        Alright, so you are actually joking. Anything other than capitalism must be a gun on your head, sure.

    3. Respectfully the only contradiction is the context in which you use the term “capitalism” it is confusing. In simple and primary terms capitalism is where the means of production is owned by those in the private sector Here in the USA in using socialism in it’s simplest primary term begins within the US Constitution. The Constitution does not mandate any economic mode or theory. That’s why we finds mix of element of capitalism, communism, socialism within the USA, again I always use those terms in their primary definition. That’s why you are free to try to introduce technology by the people for the people. However good luck with that because the Makerbot debacle in “hacker” segment of the DIY communityare pretty rigid how they expect for those who use open source in the manufacture of goods for profit.

        1. It’s like that funny passage from Red Mars by K. S. Robinson:

          Slowly people were drifting through the air toward the conversation, to hear better what was being said. Rya Jiminez said, “I’m not interested in politics,” and Mary Dunkel agreed from the other end of the room:
          “That’s one of the things I’m here to get away from!”
          Several Russians replied at once. “That itself is a political position!” and the like. Alex exclaimed, “You Americans would like to end politics and history, so you can stay in a world you dominate!”

          1. There are more than enough places on the web where one can engage in whatever flavor of political debate and demagoguery suits one’s taste. All I am saying is that maybe we should keep a few corners like this one free of such.

          2. While there is room for remarks in cases where indeed politics and technology intersect, there is not for broad general debates on ideological matters like capitalism and fascism the beginnings of which in this thread prompted my remark if we don’t want this place to become a sewer.

    4. I agree 100%. This isn’t just planned obsolescence, it’s selling the same product as different models depending on how much you damage it before it gets to the customer. The author never questions why a company would not simply sell one model and not damage it at all. You never see engineers or programmers pushing for making shitty, broken or intended to break products. It’s always management and marketers. We should transfer control away from them and to the people who actually make and use the products. How can anyone possibly believe that going out of your way, adding extra steps to the manufacturing process, just to sell customers broken products is a good thing? This is what Stallman meant when he said defective by design.

      For anyone wondering what the alternative to all this would look like, check out what Albert Einstein had to say on the matter:

      1. DRM is a great idea.. but it’s exercised as DHA (digital hostage acquisition) it really SHOULD work in a way where the onus is on the creator to prove they still want/are able to enforce their rights and if not it falls into the public domain. I mean, if a ton of things are made with a specific bolt, that you can only get the proper parts for from the manufacturer.. then that manufacturer goes belly up.. we see the market correct by then allowing the proper tools to be made by the people that can still make a profit from it. if only there was a proper way to do that with media. maybe someday.

      2. The Current state of PC games and DRM they make a game bad but people only find out after purchase then they hold your money hostage when you want a justifiable refund those that sell DRM to games publishers are the same as those that make money from the terminally ill people creating false hope in fiction and those creators should suffer the same fate of the terminally ill.

          1. I laughed so hard I had to get out of my chair and walk it off.

            My mental image is him on the floor, and me asking you what happened to him.

            To which you reply “He overdosed on conjunctions”.

    1. Absolutely. As long as I am not profiting off of someone else’s work, then what I do to/with hardware (or even software) that I purchased, then that is my business and companies have no business telling end-users what they can and cannot do with the item that they just laid out hard earned money to purchase. When I sell (or give) something to a friend, sometimes they’ll ask if they can give it to so-and so… my answer is always the same – “I gave it to you. It’s yours. You can do with it whatever you want.” That is how it should be. DMR to protect a design is ok so long as that is ALL it does. What that DMR prevents the end-user for using their device however they see fit, then the DMR needs to go. Sadly, consumers have slowly been led to accept this kind of control to the point where most sheeple don’t even think twice about it, much less argue.

      As for the question presented here… what does it matter? If you buy a piece of hardware KNOWING that the function is limited, and you are paying a function-limited price, does it matter that the hardware is capable of doing more? I wouldn’t care. If I had the ability, I might tackle hacking it – after the warranty was up. If not, I’d accept it knowing that I got exactly what I paid for. Now, I might be upset about the time-limited features. That’s OK for software, but not for hardware.

        1. That’s the plan. Everything phones home, hardware is cheap. You pay monthly for it to work and they turn it off or break it at will requiring you to upgrade. You never actually own anything useful.
          Plenty of people are quite content with this model and are already buying into it with IoT devices in a big way.

  1. I suppose it depends on the class of user. Commercial entities running shops with several benches simply may not care one way or the other about these locked-out capabilities, if they not going to use them and benefit from the reduced price. Individuals may not be so sanguine, and of course they are right in the face of any hard-core hacker. For this class they are only good if they can be unlocked by ‘auxiliary’ means.

  2. I also wonder if some of this is related to “binning”.
    The manufacturer finds excellent boards as the come off the line and puts them in the upper price model.
    Ones that don’t have the required bandwidth go into the lower end model.
    Or, do any mfgrs put 1% tolerance parts in the top model and 10% tolerance in the cheaper model?

    1. Most people seem to misunderstand binning. The volume of the lower end products tend to have higher volume than the more expensive model. There can never be enough “defective” or subpar units to fill the lower end demands. If the yields were really that bad, they have done a pretty bad job of engineering and manufacturing.

      They might do additional testings, adjustments, calibrations etc to qualify the same units as the higher end model. That does increase the cost a bit, but usually not to the extend of what they charge for these “extra” features.

      Locking down the extra features is done mainly for profits and artificially divide up the market. They also save the inventory and production cost because the two models share the same assembly line and similar parts for most of the production steps. The lower end price point is where they can already make enough profits.

      1. With CPUs there’s pretty much always been binning by die quality, at least at first with each new design. With the 8088 and 8087, when there was only one speed the bins would have been good and garbage. I bet that once Intel (and the cloners) started clocking them faster they tested them all at 10Mhz and any that failed got tested at the slower original speed. Three bins, Turbo, Standard and fail.

        The 80486 SX came about as a way for Intel to use up CPU dies with defective math coprocessors. Take the dies and laser cut the connections to it then package. Then the SX became so popular as a lower cost CPU, Intel had to deliberately make them by making a small change to the masks to “short out” the co processor part. There were some people who figured out how to very carefully drill an extremely precise hole to cut that and unlock the CPU to a full version.

        That didn’t last long before Intel created new masks to make 486SX CPUs without the unused co-processor, making them cost even less by putting more of the smaller dies on a wafer. That also led to the “487” which was merely a full 486 with a slightly different pin layout, which disabled the PQFP 486SX soldered to the motherboard. ISTR at least one board with sockets for both 486SX and 487 and thinking “Why? Just plug a DX in place of the SX!” Take functionality away with one hand, sell it back to you with the other, at a cost higher than buying it all to start with.

        Multi-core CPUs from 2 up have always been defect or reliability binned when new designs, followed by disabling perfectly good cores for market reasons as the bugs get shaken out of the new design. Some of AMDs multi core CPUs can be unlocked to use all the cores they actually have, some have had the cores ‘cut loose’ or otherwise permanently disabled and some have been done like the 486SX, progressing to the same core technology but with only the number of cores listed on the tin actually inside. In some cases you could have three AMD CPUs with the same core design and speed, one with unlockable cores, one with extra cores that cannot be enabled and one that has no extra cores in it.

        There are one or two where the entire production run of a certain design and speed had extra cores permanently disabled, and forget trying to drill holes in those. Apparently they sold well, but not well enough to justify creating new masks to make the CPU without the unused cores, or the particular model always had poor reliability and disabling of bad cores was ‘done on the fly’.

        1. “Take functionality away with one hand, sell it back to you with the other, at a cost higher than buying it all to start with.”

          My F-i-L told me of a real estate developer that scraped the topsoil off of the lots they sold, and offered buyers if they wanted to buy soil for their yards…

  3. From a manufacturer viewpoint , It doesn’t matter if you sell upgrade “keys” or your sell more of your product because people are doing an easy hack. As a consumer , I think it is great to have a (hackable) option.

    1. I think that manufacturers ‘look the other way’ on hacks that unlock features. If you’re using the tool professionally you are unlikely to use a hack to unlock an oscilloscope feature — you need to make sure the tool you’re using is working perfectly, why take the risk? Users who are using the hack to unlock a feature are less likely to buy it; aggressively pursuing those people risks souring their view of your brand and could leak to large user dissatisfaction.

      I thought about this topic when writing the article and I figure the only time Rigol would have gone after people for the DS1052E hack is for people selling “unlocked” hardware (and of course issuing C&D or takedown requests for sources of key generators, etc. but that has been the norm for those things for decades).

      1. Microsoft doesn’t give a flying duck if some individual is using pirated copy of Windows. Not really. They are happy when people use Windows, even illegal copies. But if company starts to use pirated copy, Microsoft will use all tools provided by law to sue then to the death. Microsoft didn’t care because they want people to get used to their OS and other software. So later those people would require fully licensed copies in their workplace. Rigol and others do the same thing: DS1052E was an “entry drug” of oscilloscopes because it’s easy to hack. But in your workplace you need to have unhacked version, as unlocking software features without payment is form of piracy. Besides, trying to prosecute every individual with pirated software in some countries would mean prosecuting 20-50% of citizens. Companies are better targets, and fines for them are much higher than for individuals…

          1. It is piracy. Software is software, regardless of if its shipped on a CD for use in a computer, or if its flashed into a PIC circuit for use in electronics. However, if the disablement is not something related to software, imagine a solder-jumper or “regular” jumper to enable the feature, then its legal to bypass.

          2. Unlocking features without payment is not piracy. If you legally purchased the item, the software was shipped with the item purchased, but placed into a “locked” state. There is no copying and thus no software piracy.

            Unlocking without purchase would be a DMCA violation since it would bypass some form of DRM.

      2. The topic is interesting not just because it happens, but if it became a problem, how manufacturers would react. For example parts omission with the difference being a part that’s the cost difference between the two designs. Any “hack” is essentially buying up.

        1. If a manufacturer is going to make a thing in two or more feature levels, without any intention of post-sale upgrade, I’d much rather they leave components out. It costs little, if anything, to have separate programs for the robots to *not* install certain components on a circuit board – and it saves the manufacturer money on parts that would never in the vast majority of cases ever be used on the cheaper models if they were making them post-sale upgradeable.

          One example, the Dell Optiplex GX520 and GX620. They both used the same Matrix “Smith” case, same ports on the back, same front panel power/USB/LED board. The motherboard was also identical, they even use the same BIOS. What’s the difference? The GX520 has two SATA ports, two DIMM slots and the PCIe x16 slot unpopulated, along with a few associated components left off. There must also be something tagged in part of the BIOS that doesn’t get over written when updating, to say it is a GX520 or a GX620 so the BIOS updater will modify the code as it’s programmed so the GX520 setup doesn’t show things it doesn’t have, and doesn’t support all the CPUs the GX620 does. (A BIOS hacked to make a GX520 support all the CPUs the GX620 does would be nice to have.)

          By leaving off a bunch of pieces, Dell saved a lot of money. The BIOS tricks were a one and done cost to implement.

          This same thing has been done many times with PCs for a long time, often with more than two models built on the same board, with various collections of parts left off – but usually with unique BIOS updates for each variant.

          But what if instead of leaving parts off, Dell had decided that the “different” models would both have 100% the same hardware, but to enable all 4 SATA ports, all 4 DIMM slots and the PCIe x16 slot you had to login to a special website, give them your credit card number and the Service Tag from your GX520 to get a GX620 upgrade BIOS that would only work on that one GX520? Oh, and when those models go EOL you’re SOL on ever being able to upgrade one because Dell will no longer sell you the upgrade BIOS, not for any amount of money, not even if you want to pay to play on 500 of them.

          So you buy a used Dell and discover that for only $29.95 you can unlock all its hardware, go to the Dell site to find the EOL date was *yesterday*.

          That did happen to me on something that I picked up used, went to download software for it and found that I’d missed its EOL by *one day* and the manufacturer had deleted the software from their website, it wasn’t available *anywhere* and they’d always had a robots.txt on their site so the Web Archive never saved a copy. Could I pretty please have a copy of the software? It only went EOL yesterday. Reply was essentially “Piss off. Buy our latest product.”. Nope! And I damn well *will not ever* buy anything you make ever again

          Simply leaving software you are *giving away* on your website *costs nothing* and generates goodwill and warm fuzzies about your company – which tends to lead to future sales.

          That piece of missed it by that much useless hardware went in the trash. At least they didn’t deny the thing existed or that they’d ever made the thing. I’ve had that happen too. “It has your company name, logo, phone number and current address printed right on it.” “We never made that, no such product. Go away.”

      3. Reminds me of the legend that says that Sony actually designed the first Play Station to make its copy protection easily hackable.
        Of course that’s a different story, Sony could never have sold that as an upgraded feature or mentioned that in advertisement. But word got around, and I remember most kids chose the PS over the N64 because of that “feature”. Back then it was really easy to burn CDs from torrents but copying a cartridge required a decent hacker’s workshop and a lot of knowledge.
        Regardless of the actual intentions of Sony, they clearly benefited from that situation.

  4. @MoJo, You said: “Manufacturers can do what they like. I can do what I like with my hardware, including flipping the bit that enables all the pro features.”

    Wrong, Today there are Government Regulations (e.g., DMCA etc.) that make “Flipping a Bit” that you were not supposed to flip (never-ending impossible to understand EULA’s lock you in) – a Criminal Act.

    You did get something (almost) right however: Allow me to excerpt your post and rephrase it:

    Manufacturers can do what they like. I can do what I like with my MONEY, including NOT BUYING their products.

    When Manufacturers do things that prevent certain potential buyers from actually buying their products, something good (often) happens: Competitors offer what the buyers want as an alternative. It’s called Capitalism. The problem we face today is corrupt BIG GOVERNMENT where the special interests pay money to protect themselves, and some of that money is ultimately kicked back to Lawmakers to BUY VOTES. And then there are the BIG Government Gatekeepers – like the incompetent/corrupt U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO).

    1. I understand that shipping the full Monty then censoring parts not paid for makes whole production chain simpler and product cheaper to manufacture, but I get that uneasy feeling that I should be paying proportionally to the trouble manufacturer had while making the goods.

      If their margin allows them to make product which contains all the bells and whistles and passes all (automated) tests for full functionality (but locked down … wait, that additional step is even incurring *additional* costs to them), and then to sell it at the entry level price, well … then they are simply ripping their best paying customers off.

      That is not nice at all.

      And to add insult to injury, they also make it the law that even though I apparently paid all their expenses and yet some on top, they still effectively own my stuff and can forbid me from doing whatever I please with it. Basically, their dishonesty to their customers turns into customers’ liability.

      1. I agree with your point that if you own the hardware you should be able to do what you want with it.

        On the point about the hardware passing the full tests for functionality you might be mistaken. For instance, if all the oscilloscope boards come off the same line, there could be some that exhibit errors above 75MHz but test solid for anything below that. These make sense to funnel into the entry-line of tools that only measure up to 50MHz. I don’t know if this is the case, but this seems plausible to me.

        1. I found that hard to believe.

          When you buy parts (e.g. ADC, opamp etc.), chances are that they are better than the specs (distribution curve). Even on a bad day, they should still pass their minimum specs on their datasheet within their operation range. Most of the time, a design would be on a smaller operating range than the parts are designed for(e.g. power +/- 2% instead of +/-5%), so there are even more padding.

          You would design within the published specs from the datasheet and account for component tolerances. (i.e. design with higher margins, add trim circuits etc) So at the end of the day, they should be within your design specs had you done a proper design not pushing parts beyond of their envelope.

          Some of the higher end product might need to be trimmed and/or actual use higher grade or better tolerance version in the BOM.

      2. The cost to manufacture a product isn’t just the parts plus the labor to produce the physical object. It also includes the amortized research and development costs, and more significantly, support costs. When you buy an instrument but don’t buy the additional features, you’re still paying for the physical object, but you’re not paying for the additional development and support costs for those features. I’m all for hacking to get more use out of a product, but I’m certainly not going to do a hack to get my oscilloscope to do spectrum analyzer functions, and then complain to the manufacturer if I have a problem with those functions. I also would be in no position to object if a software/firmware upgrade to the instrument both undid and disabled the hack I did to get the extra features.

        There’s also another way of looking at this: if a manufacturer has an instrument they can build two versions of, it may not be cost-effective for them to make the cheaper one as a separately-developed product, so the option of making a “dumbed-down” version can make the cheaper product viable.

    2. Drone sez: “Wrong, Today there are Government Regulations (e.g., DMCA etc.) that make “Flipping a Bit” that you were not supposed to flip (never-ending impossible to understand EULA’s lock you in) – a Criminal Act.”

      The World Is A Very Big Place

      Thankfully not everyone lives in countries with such silly laws.

      1. Exactly, here, when I own something, I really own it, for real.

        I could open any of my devices and modify the heck out of them, as long as I am not breaking any other law (making illegal transmitters from stuff is OK, but not using them, and so on)

    3. Well the landowners and merchants started the American Revolution, and formed the United States of America. So we have a government of the merchant by the merchants for the merchants. The business and government elite love it when they see the success in getting citizens to toss around perfectly good words like capitalism, when what they should be discussing is the free market. You’re correct the aforementioned elite do suppress the free market, but using an appropriate broad brush in anger is not a effective way address issues.

  5. As people that own the hardware we should be able to write and distribute our own add on tools. This for me is more important. As a consequence, it should limit the amount that can be practically charged for the manufacturers own add on features.

  6. This is nothing new. In the mid 1970’s I worked on the test floor of a large mainframe computer company. You could buy the base line CPU for something like $1M. The one with the extended instruction set cost an extra $300K or something like that. We tested the full version then wire wrapped a single wire to disable the extended instructions for base line model orders.

    1. For that amount a company could have had a pair of solid gold wire cutters made, clipped the wire then tossed the cutters in the ocean and still saved money VS paying for a worker to *not* install the wire. :)

  7. I have a rigol scope, and also regularly lay out and manufacture pcbs for a living. While it doesn’t feel great knowing that hardware you’ve purchased is artificially limited, that is likely the most cost efficient way for the manufacturer to produce their products. Also, there is inherent value in the decoding features for instance, and those engineers and programmers who created them have in fact created some value and should see some reward.

    On the other hand, when features such as increased bandwidth are artificially limited, that represents a significant crippling of more capable and expensive hardware. It still may be the cheapest way for rigol to support all their products, but I think it mostly signals inefficiencies in the marketplace and an opportunity for more competition which could bring down prices. In an ideal world, that would happen and surely if everyone who owned a smartphone bought a scope, it would. I guess in the real world, the electronics test equipment industry is smaller than others, and so the knowledge and testing and debugging that goes into them commands a premium price. And that’s the real rub – oscopes just aren’t yet commodity hardware, and in our society knowledge isn’t completely free.

    I suppose I’m on the fence as well. While I understand the reasoning for the pricing model, I would prefer to not have to pay or hack my hardware. Perhaps the best solution is to get more people interested in the tools and price will come down to match. Maybe the more interesting question is: does our society appropriately value knowledge/expertise/creativity?

  8. It’d be easy for us to think Rigol (or anyone else) could sell us the advanced features at the lower price point. But often times, that’s not the case, because at the lower price point, they may not get a return on their firmware engineering hours used to develop those advanced features. This strategy is a mechanism to pay for the firmware engineering hours put into those features while limiting the expense of hardware engineering hours. That just seems like a smart business decision to me where everyone wins.

  9. It is frequently a good thing. The manufacturer has less configurations to build, I can buy just the features I want, and maybe even get some freebies.

    Right up until they require always-on internet to use it. I spent a few months in a building last year that not only didn’t have internet, it was a Faraday cage: no phone, no wifi, not even acoustic coupled modems. When your software stops working because it can’t phone home, it gets real annoying. Every two weeks, dragging my desktop down some stairs and out into the parking lot didn’t seem that bad until it started snowing.

    1. Sounds like this CNC machining calculator software that’s free for working with up to 1HP spindle power but it you want to use it to figure things out for higher power machinery, you not only have to pay, it has to ‘phone home’ periodically or it reverts to the functionality level of the free version. Not only that, you get to keep paying every year for whatever updates the company may release, and you get the updates whether or not you want them.

  10. I can see the question from those points of view. I see the software locking of features providing 2 great values for customers.

    1. Quality entry level products – If a product is built identical to a high end reliable product, I can expect to have the same reliability as the high end product. It hasn’t always been this way. When the less expensive products are made separately they come with that sinking feeling that I might get half the life and half the functionality. In essence I might get a quarter of the tool for more than half the price.

    2. The ability to grow with a product – If I am starting out, I would like to keep my overhead as low as possible. If I take a few gigs that I know I can work with the entry level product, I can then look at the value of getting better paying gigs with the better scope product.

    I also see a couple of huge drawbacks.

    1. Is this a step towards hardware as a service? Software as a service is this wonderful world for vendors who can tightly control the configuration of software, and theoretically reduce the requirements of companies to know what they are doing when they buy products. It is attractive until you have done it, then you begin to realize that it is not without cost, and the support required is in spec and contract writing.

    1.5 I think it is likely that in the future we will see licenses that end after the planned obsolescence period. We may have hardware that we purchase that dies on a specific date.

    2. It is currently illegal to exceed authorized access on computers. Even if the manufacturer protects some functionality with a password of 1234 it is illegal for you to unlock those features without their consent. It is also illegal to tell anyone how to unlock those features. The scopes in question are not outside of this law because of the way they are unlocked with software.

    I think that most customers of lower end products benefit from the practice, but I also think that in the end, the manufacturers will leverage this control to squeeze more money from these expensive products than they already are. Customers win in the short game and loose in the long game.

    1. “If a product is built identical to a high end reliable product, I can expect to have the same reliability as the high end product.”

      This is a really great point that should have included in the article. In thinking of my own bench tools, I bought a bench supply from a manufacturer I hadn’t ever heard of before. I figured I could scope the output as soon as I got it to verify it functions adequately and return it immediately if otherwise. It’s much harder to spec out a a scope, DMM, logic analyzer, etc. Being able to rely in a manufacturer’s and product line’s reputation is important in these cases.

    2. “It is currently illegal to exceed authorized access on computers.”

      This is a meaningless statement. If you’re going to make statements like “X is illegal”, you need to qualify it – in what jurisdiction?

    3. No, it isn’t illegal to bypass protections on a computer you own, UNLESS the protection is used to protect a copyright.

      However, its illegal to access a computer you don’t own, without the owner’s consent, or do something on someone elses computer, without the owner’s consent. But that law, applies REGARDLESS of technological measures. Ergo, if you don’t have my permission to visit my website, and you visit it, its illegal, even if its not password protected.

      Of course, publishing a website often means implicit permission for anyone to visit it, but if you are clear with your intents, for example a doorway page saying that the website may only be visited by members of the club X, or obvious things like administration panels at /admin and such, then it is illegal to visit.

      Also guessing URLs to unpublished pages, is also illegal.

        1. And that is specifically the problem with these laws.

          When perfectly normal people do perfectly normal things that are otherwise innocuous but are a criminal act by definition then you oppression by definition.

  11. I think crippling features in software is a perfectly acceptable business practice. I also think it’s fantastic when people figure out how to upgrade a crippled product. What I don’t think is wise is for the manufacturer to pursue people who choose to hack their equipment. Discourage it, make it hard to do, but don’t bite the hand that feeds you. It’s bad PR within the small, tight-knit community where they draw their entire clientele from.
    The MPAA and RIAA have long treated every illegally downloaded product as a lost sale. They’re not. Many (perhaps most) of the people downloading media wouldn’t have bought the product if they could have. And those downloaders are their most loyal customers and the biggest fans of their product. The same goes with this type of product. For Rigol/Tektronix/whomever to assume that every cheap model that’s been hacked is a lost sale of their higher-end model is simply wrong. In fact, for the enthusiast that would make the effort to do these hacks, they likely chose their scope explicitly because it could be hacked. And unlike an MP3, even the cheap scopes still generate revenue for the manufacturer. Plus, if I use one brand at home, that’s probably the brand I’d recommend if I need one at work too.
    It’s a balancing act between maximizing profits, building and keeping a client base loyal to your brand, and the optimal amount of effort to prevent and stop piracy.
    That said, if you’re building a commercial product, you owe it to those that make your tools to comply with their licenses and copyrights. Don’t build a commercial product using a hacked scope.

    1. On the illegal downloading issue, if the companies would offer a try-it-before-you-buy-it option, more people would purchase the media they like. I have Netflix (which does not offer every movie ever made) and I know that when I watch something that just totally sucks, I just take it out and move on. Now if I had had to lay out money for that drivel, I’d be pi$$ed as he!!. Everyone should be paid for their work, but no one should have to pay for something that they don’t like. If I buy a multimeter and I don’t like it, for whatever reason, I can return it for a refund. You can’t do that with movies or music. Sure, people might watch a movie and then return it even if they did like it, but those people are going to download it it anyway. That same logic applies to the people that buy big screen TVs the week before the Superbowl and then return the the day after. You don’t see store banning TV returns. I agree with your claim that most people wouldn’t buy the media in the first place so that is not a lost sale. No company ever went bankrupt due to piracy back when people would record music off the radio or rent/borrow and copy VHS tapes. Hollywood is not in danger of losing any money, sadly…

      1. Long time ago, that is in 90s and 00s software and game developers offered trial, demo or shareware versions of their products, so people could test them and consider buying. Now especially game developers avoid this for the simple reason: many games, especially AAA titles, suck like industrial vacuum cleaner. In the future those companies won’t provide review copies to journalists before release date just to avoid bad press.

        One supermarket chain tried this “if you don’t like it, return it” policy in Poland. They agreed to return money for consumables even if clients returned empty packages. People stormed their stores, bought foods and household chemicals, put them in alternative packages, bags, small freezers, and then returned with empty boxes to get their refunds. Some did that few times a day for 5-6 days, until policy was cancelled…

        1. It’s a little different spending 50 cents to a couple of dollars to find out you don’t like a particular brand of baked beans than it is to pay twenty dollars or more to find out that you don’t like a movie. If I like the beans, I’ll buy more. If I don’t like them, I won’t buy any more. In the case of the movie, though, either way – whether I like the movie or not – I’m not going to buy it again. And either way – whether I like the movie or not – the company has the money that I otherwise would not have paid for something I did not enjoy.

          I understand that companies cannot offer “honor system” watch-it-and-pay-us-if-you-like it movies. Most people wouldn’t pay. But the companies are not LOSING money because people download their crap. I have seen movies and listened to music that friends have pirated that I NEVER would have purchased on my own. But after seeing/hearing these works, I enjoyed them so much that I DID go out and buy the PHYSICAL media – I will never BUY digital media since you do not OWN anything tangible. Had I not seen this media for free, I never would have gone out and bought it on my own simply because I do not like to gamble.

          I don’t know… it’s a fine line. I think Galane did a good job explaining it here earlier.

      2. What’s the difference between borrowing a movie from a library, watching and returning it and downloading a torrent, then deleting it after you watch it?

        Neither person is paying anyone for it. In neither case does the action make it unavailable to someone else. Someone did buy the original disc for the library, but that’s only a one time thing.

        What if you invite a dozen people over to your house to watch a Blu-Ray, or take the disc to another person’s house where several people will watch?

        Are all those people who didn’t pay to watch it “lost sales”?

        Many people who find some way to watch a show or listen to a song or read a book without paying for it *never would pay for it*. If they can’t find a way to get it, they’ll simply do without.

        But a significant portion of those people will buy it *after* they’ve gotten it for free. Baen Books knows that very well. Since shortly after they began publishing ebooks (all DRM free, in several formats, no restrictions on conversions) they started giving away some of them for free. Baen even included a series of CD-ROMs in hardcover editions, with wording on them that all but demanded people make copies of the CDs and give them away.

        What happened was people *paid for* copies of the free books and bought more books by those authors. Bought them as ebooks and ‘dead tree’ books. They get it that people who aren’t going to pay *are not going to pay*. It’s not worth bothering about because the paying customers greatly outnumber the people who won’t.

        The less one complains about ‘piracy’ of your infinitely duplicable digital content that never runs out, the happier people are to give you money in exchange for it. If it’s worth your asking price, enough people will pay to make it worth what you put into producing copy #1. As for the rest, they don’t really matter.

        John C. Dvorak wrote in his column for PC Mag some years ago “I don’t care if this software cost you $50,000 to produce. The second copy cost you $2. Now convince me it’s worth the price you’re asking.” (That’s close as I can remember it from going on 20 years ago.)

        Do you go to a theater on opening day and pay full price for the move, or do you wait for a Tuesday matinee for $6? Or perhaps wait for it to hit a $2 last run theater or wait for it to hit Redbox and use a free rental code? Are free rental codes “lost sales”?

        1. Few years ago one of the bigger, more famous bands offered their newest album for download with price chosen by customer. If one wanted, one could type 0 dollars, and get it for free. Turned out that they earned more money that way than by having a fixed price.
          Media distributors and producers have this belief that if a pirate had no choice but to buy their products (music, movies, games, ebooks), he would buy them. But it’s the opposite: if he had no choice, he wouldn’t buy it at all. Spore was the most pirated game of the 2008 not because it was a great game (personally I think it’s really boring), but because it had restrictive DRM system, and that annoyed people, especially paying customers. And the best part is that DRM was removed by crackers in matter of hours, so pirates had better game than paying customers, who were treated like thieves.

          1. This. DRM only ever really punished legitimate users. Back when I was still buying physical copies of games, the first place I would go after installing a game was GameCopyWorld and download a ‘no CD’ patch. Sometimes I wouldn’t even bother installing it, but download a ‘Reloaded’ torrent of the game and use that. Almost exclusively, I now only buy games on Steam, because its DRM is the most stable and unobtrusive that I’ve ever come across, or HumbleBundle, both for the non-DRM titles and the price.

        2. It is different, because the library that borrows out the movie, has to pay royalty for each time they borrow out. At least it works so for the libraries here in sweden. They have to show off to the media companies exactly how many times movie X has been borrowed, and for how long, and then they have to pay.
          Same with books. They have to declare to the book makers. It was even a case of a book maker borrowing his own books to increase the royalty, but that got prosecuted in court as fraud, because the library caught suspicion when a few very unpopular books were borrowed by a few persons in a rotating scheme. They checked who owns the library cards, and found out it was the founders of the book company, which made the fraud involved, very clear.

          So when you borrow a movie on the library, the makers get paid. The makers have authorized the library to borrow out the movies and books. When you download a movie on piratebay and watch it, and delete it, then the makers isn’t paid for that watch. Its like entering the theathre without a ticket.

  12. I think that ideally manufacturers should get to do this but they should not get to pursue owners who hack the limitations. It’s a principle of ownership. At the time of manufacture the manufacturer owns the product. They can put whatever software on it they want. Later the user owns it. Now it’s their turn to do whatever they want to it.

    Would that be a fair and practical law? Yes! Why wouldn’t it? The kind of professional shops that can afford the fully non-handicapped version of the tool would never use a hacked tool. Would you want to explain to the boss if anything went wrong because of it? The non-professionals may not even have a use for those features. Most will probably never do the hack. Those that do… they were not going to buy the high priced version anyway. Nor are they stealing anything. They are just using their own hardware the way they want to. Maybe they even chose that particular model over another one made by a different manufacturer because they could do the hack.

    Unfortunately our voters keep voting in incompetent and corrupt politicians who gift industry with bs like the DMCA. We just can’t have nice things.

    Oh.. and about that cellphone analogy… Sure, I might pay to add soft-features to the phone. But then again.. if I am so inclined I could also just write my own software and not pay anyone another dime! It’s my right to do so! (unless I am an idiot and bought an iPhone)

  13. “The Rigol DS1052E had all of the hardware to be a 100MHz scope but the firmware shipped with it was sampling the ADC at half speed for an artificial limitation of 50MHz. They could have redesigned a slower analog frontend, but that comes at a huge cost when changing the sample rate in firmware costs almost nothing (just a bit of software engineering time and testing).”

    Actually, the sample rate is still 1Gsps. It is the analog bandwidth that is limited by a switchable lowpass filter. Of course, the firmware hack also upgrades a few features other than just BW, too.

  14. I think there are two very distinct situations –
    1) extra software functionality
    2) Deliberate crippling of hardware ( memory, bandwidth, resolution)
    Case 1 isn’t really different for any software, whether bought and installed later or there from the start and activated later.
    2 is simply ripping off consumers and absolutely fair game for hacking. As it isn’t anything to do with copying or copyright, it’s hard to see how DMCA could cover it.

  15. I can see trying to recoup software development costs through features for pay in a model not unlike apps on your phone. Intentionally crippling a physical object that has already had been manufactured, and those costs already sunk, to artificially create a lower price point starts to seem shady. I know of upgrades to Honeywell computers that only involved removing parts. Upgrades to IBM mainframe software which were simply removing delay loops. The Intel 486SX2 processor was just an 486DX2 with the math coprocessor disabled. I personally witnessed a turnkey system that had large space wasting files on the hard drive. The vendor could sell and install a disk upgrade over a dial up telephone line. When the customer finds out about things like this, it fosters ill will toward the vendor. It doesn’t feel like open and honest dealing.

    1. Back in the early 1980s, I worked for a manufacturer of dedicated word processors who did this sort of thing. Their larger systems were based on a central hub with an 8086 processor, and user stations with 6800 processors. The central hubs all had the same basic hardware, but there were upgrades for faster processor speed and larger hard disks.

      Speed upgrades were handled by removing cards that inserted wait states on the bus, and hard drive space was increased (to a point) by a tech using a configuration utility that told the software how much of the hard drive it could allocate.

      1. And in many cases, how would you ever know? If there’s a 1 TB disk drive on the shelf right next to a 2 TB drive from the same manufacturer, how do you know they’re not both 2 TB, with one just firmware-limited? Of course, disk drive manufacturers don’t sell size upgrades on line, because they know that if people knew they could be hacked, they would be. I’m not saying they’re doing this, only that they could.

  16. No.

    When I discover a product that is intentionally crippled by the manufacturer, this actually discourages me from buying from them ever again. Especially if features are omitted which have been considered a de-facto-standard before.

    Example: After finding out that a number of the rather expensive HP/Agilent/Keysight tabletop data loggers not even include a simple configurable moving average filter exept when buying an expensive “pro” version PC software, this was it for me and I installed a Beagle Bone Black with ADS1256 ADC addon instead. Problem solved, for me, that is.

  17. *Antifeatures*

    The technical term for this is “antifeatures”, and the comparison to smartphone apps is a bit incomplete, since the app is developed independently of the smartphone’s hardware.

    This has a very long tradition: the first time I saw it must have been late eighties: a customer of us had bought a minicomputer (remember those fridge-sized thingies?) with a 20MB (!) hard disk. My boss discovered that the hardware beneath was a 30MB thing and we found a way to convince the OS to use the rest…

    The hardware sales people were not amused, but ashamed enough that they couldn’t do anything (this is what changed since then).

    1. Agree, some hardware companies of the late ’80’s and early ’90’s had software and hardware limitations on their computers. (Alliant, Ardent, and others) But the Internet was around and a lot of Computer Departments had EEE’s on staff who figured out workarounds and shared them with their buddies around the world. I seem to recall a company that only offered a 250Mb hard drive at 2-3 times the open market rate. Someone figured out the company had switched a couple of lines on the data bus and told others. then it was only a line or two in the kernel that had to be changed and an open market 600Mb hard drive would work with it…

  18. this argument is like telling me that I can’t legally install snow tires or chains on my vehicle when conditions warrant because they didn’t come with the vehicle and are not authorized replacements.

    I bought it, didn’t sign a EULA to physically get it, so AFAIK, I can do what the Heck I want with it. Can they find me to do whatever? Good luck with that. piss me off and I’ll go buy exclusively chinese stuff. Try and enforce that

  19. I think it’s a psychological issue we have –

    If the device could be upgraded by purchasing a USB stick with with different software that we plugged in and upgraded that would feel different to purchasing a key to enable the enhanced functions.

    I purchased the 100Mhz model over the 70 and look longing at the list of features I can use- but only for a few more hours before they are gone I till either I pay for the key or hack the device.

    I firmly believe people ( even companies) should be paid for the product/ services they provide.

    I certainly like to be paid for the work I do.

    My wife would not be very happy if I wasn’t ;-)

    1. This. I find I have a very different gut reaction to upcharges for software destined features if I know the software was already there when I bought it and just needs to be “unlocked”, vs. being uploaded after purchase, even though I know it makes no difference in practice. Worse so for the countdown feature described, this reminds me of some kind of ransom note.

      Of the possible approaches, the one that strikes me as shadiest is when the low-end model shipped with the more expensive, high-end parts, which are then locked out in software. This happened on one of the products I developed at a company, the higher end model of a gadget shipped with an additional sensor for a couple hundred bucks upcharge. As luck would have it, it worked out cheaper to stuff the part on all units and not have to maintain separate inventory, design file variants, QA setups, etc. So the low end model has the part still on-board and contributing to the BOM cost (you still “paid for it”) but disabled by a software flag. The PM justified the upcharge as recovering the NRE of supporting the multiple sensors in software, which is not entirely ridiculous (it’s a very niche product), but I couldn’t help thinking how customers, mostly engineers, would react if they cracked it open and discovered this.

      All of these pale in comparison to the designed-in failure timer though! (Google ” whac-a-mole logic bomb” for an atypically overt example that actually got someone in trouble for it…)

  20. My dad used to be a salesman at Sears. They sold tractors and lawnmowers. He used to tell me that they had certain models that had the same sized (horseppower) engines that were just labeled differently. It was more economical for the company to mass produce one engine and sell it as both a (let’s say) 22hp and 17hp engine that it was to mass produce both. Obviously the people paying less for the 17hp engine weren’t going to complain if they found out that instead they actually had a 22hp engine.

    1. They did the same in Sweden with outbord engines, there was a tax on engines 10hp and bigger, so they rebranded whatever they had close to 10hp to 9.9hp to avoid the tax.

      The biggest one I think was a rebranded 20hp with a trottle limiter that anyone could take away.

      They still sold the 20hp model, but it was way more expensive since they had to pay the tax.

      1. 2007 and later Ford Explorers, Ranger pickups and Mercury Mountaineers all use the same steering column with a tiltable wheel. The Eddie Bauer editions also have a telescoping capability.

        On any of them that don’t have the telescoping function you can get it by replacing a metal block with one from a junkyard Eddie Bauer edition, or cut away the parts of the block that prevent it from telescoping. All the rest of the column is the same.

    2. But you dad was talking about Sears Horsepower, which, shall we say, was a bit optimistic?
      Seriously, on some appliance/tools with electric motors, they were marketed with a Hp label that could only be realized under higher current/voltages than are supplied at wall outlets.

      1. few years ago, there was a class action lawsuit for lawnmower engines that were being overrated HP wise. Most marketing is sketchy at best and down right unethical is some cases.

  21. This is a deliberate marketing ploy by Rigol. By turning a blind eye to hobbyists illegally enabling features the company cultivates brand respect and recognition. The hobbyists are then more likely to influence companies they work for to purchase equipment they are familiar with. The company purchased versions are far more likely to pay the premium price for legally obtained options.

  22. One thing that people are missing is this has been happening in electronics for years. It’s called overclock and unlock core. Overclocking is tweaking the hardware to get it to do something else. For example, CPU 950 3.0GHz or 955 3.2GHz, so buy the 950, and clock it 3.2GHz. Or buy the tri-core CPU and unlock the 4th core. So on and so on. Hardware lockout is one thing. I know in CPUs, RAM etc it’s sometimes because the die doesn’t pass higher tests, other times it’s because they have a market of buyers in a certain range and need to ship. Is it shady? So long as I know about it, and can change it, sure, voiding warranty etc, then no. Let them do as they wish. 80% of people if not more will never attempt or do anything to change it, and content their purchase.

    However, upgrades in software makes no sense. There is zero legitimate reasons other than greed. Pay to play is this model. Windows OS, a lot of DLC. There’s just some limiter in the code. So what are they saving in money or delivering for? It’s the same binary both ways. Imagine buying a car and it’s identical in specs, features, everything to the highest model, but when you buy it, it’s 1/5 the car. Very odd, considering the same material goes into each one. Software as a paid model though I think will always have this limitation because it’s ultimately vapor. It has almost no physical reality. Just stored bits. Therefore no true tangible value other than the resource of time from the devs. However, no matter what, they coded it, so therefore the same amount of paid time remains the same for each binary. Out of greed though, people charge more. So if a person pirates the key let’s say, did they steal? No. None of the devs have less of anything because of it. Stealing requires physical loss. What the company lost is possible gain. Keyword possible. IE greed is the motivator, and the reason, and the driver for lawsuits, etc.

  23. Mike. How about spend ten minutes calling engineers like me who design these types of products? It would have been a much better article. I’ve spoken to you in person and you have my contact info so it’s not like we’re hard to get a hold of.

  24. I definitely get the sense that the engineers who build the cripple feature could have made it harder to defeat on those scopes, but didn’t knowing that pretty much by definition buyers of low end scopes will be students and hobbyist users and those engineers can probably all remember being a student or hobbyist before joining the workforce (and many will still be garage tinkerers when off the clock). I think they did the minimum to make marketing happy and throw a bone to their fellow tinkerers operating on a budget for their hobby projects.

    When a company buys test gear for product development they can point to a savings in labor cost when the test gear helps their engineer fix a bug or perform an experiment more efficiently. That’s why you can expect a corporate buyer to fork over to unlock more features.

    For a hobbyist working on a project for entertainment or a way to unwind it is harder to quantify value provided the customer, so this segmentation is really more about protecting the high end market’s margins than about finding the right price point for the low end, or so it seems.

    I have worked places that do the license upgrade to unlock latent hardware capabilities. Sometimes it is legit (new FPGA firmware = more dev time invested, so the cost is not all sunk once the board is populated and tested). On the other hand, wait states and clock locks are treading on iffy territory by my gut feeling.

  25. I don’t mind paying for software, but if there isn’t a difference other then a switchable filter for the bandwidth of a scope, then I rather want to see it used as a feature, rather then a way to cripple the scope.

    Though, this whole discussion about limited features in a product that has the hardware shipped for the function, that is one thing, but what about the software limit on PCB design packages? Why would I want to pay X amount more to only increase the value of a variable that isn’t going to use any additional code? I understand paying for a circuit simulator, or similar, but increasing software limits?!

    At the very same time, I do live in a small country with probably the best laws for these kinds of situations:
    As in Sweden, if a company sells you a product, with extra features that are deactivated for one reason or another, then you are by law allowed to hack the product to activate those features, without voiding your warranty. As long as you do not destroy the actual hardware or disclose/reuse the software for another product. (aka copy the code for your own commercial project. (Non commercial stuff that only you or your company (Unless you have signed a contract) is going to use is okay.))

    One could sign a contract with the company that makes the product, stating that one isn’t allowed to use this law to one’s advantage. Though, then you need to buy the product as a company, otherwise they are not allowed by law to take away the right for you to use the previous law.

    In short, Do you live in Sweden? If so, hack away! And if the product dies for factory reasons, then your warranty is still there to help.

  26. They charge a high enough price that all the R&D, and parts, are 100% recouped with a decent profit margin, even on the lowest specification buyers. And the highest specification buyers are all gravy on top of the icing on the cake. Shipping with this model is a means to pay less getting hardware into some physical locations around the world. I’m not saying that government duties are not paid, I’m saying that they are delayed to some future date and that initial accountant evaluations of hardware are effectively twisted to show a lower TCO (total cost of ownership) in the short term for companies.

  27. What makes this example OK is that you know exactly what your getting before you buy so you can make an informed decision as no-one is deceiving you.

    Another example would be the SanDisk Wi-Fi SD card. The software was written with a server dependency even if you didn’t
    use any web based features. A small number of years later they switched off the server so all those cards will no longer work. Effectively forcing their customer to go and buy a replacement. This was outright deceitful.

    No to many the above two cases will seem completely different but they’re not as different as you may expect.

    These things don’t just happen. They come from marketing people and the truth of both of these situations is that marketing people now have much more control of companies. Another truth is that large companies loose all ethics in pursuit of the dollar.

    So when you see these things they are just a sign of things to come and you can bet your last dollar that this will become a race to the bottom of the barrel.

    We have seen what has happened in the software industry. Things are migrating to a Software as a Service (SaaS) model where you have to keep paying for the software to be able to keep using it. Windows is also moving to this model.

    So will you wait until you have to pay to keep using your scope (or whatever) before you use the mighty power of your dollar to protest? It will be too late then.

    As for DRM, I will never install it. It’s marketed as though it is to help the artists. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a means by which middle companies can screw artists down to there bottom dollar (a complete ripoff) and at the same time horrendously inflating prices – screwing the customer base for everything they can get so they can sit on their fat asses doing nothing useful. Label marketing has always been like this. It’s the cancer of the entertainment industry and DRM is no different.

  28. The mind just BOGGLES with the possibilities! DRM locking of feature$. Sounds kinda like just getting the hi-performance tires and A/C in your new car for a few extra bucks. Bet it’ll all be fine…

    A thermostat that is set to 65F, PERIOD, unless unlocked. (Summer 88F).
    The toaster that won’t adjust to DARK unle$$. But really you could just hack it…
    The can-opener requires an authorization code again!
    Wait!? Will hacking these things be made illegal?

    Of course, it will all be just innocent things. Right? And gradual…
    12 cup coffeemaker locked to 8 till you pay… requires $2 renewal code every month.
    A car that REQUIRES Proprietary Authorized Factory Dealership Service every 1500 miles else…
    You own the tv… but it won’t pay attention to the remote and blanks out half the channels without a $ecurity Key purchased and entered annually.
    The fridge charges your credit card wirelessly every time you open it.
    How do you like toll roads? Toll bridges? Yes, not much of a problem… there’s not too many of them.
    Well now there’s going to me many many many many of them.

    Sure! It will be convenient. Convenient to the extreme! You pay for it. They’ll make that convenient. Don’t fret. Easy too! With IOT and IPV6 this stuff is gonna spread to potentially every appliance and vehicle. Makes those hippies setting up mountain communes back in the 60’s sound like a lot smarter than the rest of us. I find the Amish no longer confusing in the slightest.

    Consider the future potential once the precedence is more deeply set and becomes common practice and most efficiently exploited. Corporate heartlessness has long been discussed and resisted universally worldwide. Historically our kind exploits everything… the land, water, air, but mostly one another…

    You perhaps felt a twinge of resentment at just a scope feature being restricted? Well, think of the entire potential scope of the issue.

    It’s not likely to be all that bad…. but let your mind wander the subject a bit… it’ll be bad enough. How do YOU think they will really use it? We’re only seeing the beginning. There was a day we had only radio, then TV came along, then color…. everything progresses… and we’re all collectively responsible.

  29. I think you got the subliminal advertising side of things spot on in the header image.

    Also having unlockables is good for the end user who knows what they are doing and can find a work around to unlock the extras.

    Heck, My multimedia laptop had a space for a subwoofer and the circuits were disabled.
    The ALC mono out only worked in Windows where as in linux it wasn’t functional.
    But the headphones and speakers are indipendently controllable in linux, so I hooked an amplifier and lowpass up to the headphones via two unity gain opamps for stereo to mono seperation into an amp module.
    The #Shutdown was hooked up to the 5v-hpdetect signal so the amp shuts off when a headphone is inserted

    1. Oh and forgot to mention, the subwoofer only works in linux as the headphones amp is software auto-disabled when the headphones are not plugged in. Whereas in linux both the speakers and the headphones are on different control channels

  30. I’m ok with almost-identical products assembled from largely identical hardware differentiated by _effectively missing_ the expensive parts that justify the price difference. However, I’m absolutely against artificially crippling a device that actually does have all the required hardware to perform better – but if I told you what I really think of the lowest dirtiest scum of the Earth that does this sort of thing as a marketing strategy I would Godwin this thread instantly. Yes, really.

    Oh, and about time-limited “trial” features: give me the feature-less free version or you can flat out go to hell, I’ll just find something else…

  31. Are we sure there is a line to draw between software and hardware? Andy Hertzfeld famously quotes Alan Kay as saying “Remember, it’s all software, it just depends on when you crystallize it.”

    If we draw the line at the software activation key, then it will be “crystallized” into a jumper, or written into the firmware, or coded into an FPGA. I think I have changed my position after mulling on it for a day. It is good for makers of fine equipment to sell the equipment under different price points with disabled but still physically existing functionality. I appreciate the laws of Sweden that allow intelligent people to get more from hardware they own. I also appreciate the opportunity to buy quality equipment from reputable companies at hobby level prices.

    What I would like to see from companies is the social responsibility to ensure that their engineers still have jobs for the next release, and balance their need for profits with some sort of published policy that they will not litigate the tinkerers and hobbyists for unlocking the full potential of the devices. I think it is merely in poor taste to run a countdown timer on features you could have if only you had more money. I would prefer that companies not tease me with reminders that I have not prioritized their locked equipment features in my family budget.

    When companies act in bad faith they incur a backlash. They not only risk alienating their market, they actively push them away. The marketing people will undoubtedly run analysis to find where the line is between up selling and bad faith. In fact, I suspect that they will intentionally walk a line just below annoying the bulk of their market.

    1. Quote: [Jon] “What I would like to see from companies is the social responsibility”

      I have never heard the term corporate social responsibility.

      I have however heard the term corporate psychopathy!

      Corporations are travelling down a road and social responsibility is at the end of the road where they left from.

  32. I’ve got no problem with locked out features, but I do mind the way its presented. If the locked out features are advertised on the device every time you switch it on, I’d rather sell it. I can take notice once, which is enough for me. Once I decide I will take action.

    Intellectual property is what you pay for. Your pc is capable of so much more and you can run trial software with limited functionality or time period. The difference is you install it on it yourself. It’s not constantly in your face except maybe software that run on startup like free antivirus. But you’re in control, you can uninstall and switchbo alternatives.

    Devices like scopes are completely closed. So you can only control which company receives your money. Maybe in a distant future devices will be more open, with an appstore and maybe the ability for open source soft or firmware like routers.

    1. “But you’re in control, you can uninstall and switchbo alternatives.”

      That was the way before windows10, and lenovo… But we moved on to a new bright world where freedom doesn’t bother you with its pesky choices.

  33. Coming soon: You-Scope!
    Take all of the measurements you could ever want. All you need to do is watch this short, captive infomercial about our power supplies, multi-meters, and Real time analyzers between measurements. For premium subscribers you can customize the ads to show you the most relevant adverts to your lifestyle. Our premium plus subscribers get all of that plus the ability to skip the advert after the first 5 minutes.

    Customers who bought this, hook line and sinker, also fell for: You-RTA! Network delayed analyzing with frequency specific advertisements.

  34. Price discrimination is what this is called. It is ‘easier’ to do in relation to electronics. However, you can see it in action at your local grocery store. For example the store brand cake icing. More than likely your store does not make icing and put it in a small plastic tub. Someone else does. More than likely that same company has their name brand right next to the store brand. Price discrimination comes up because of the way people buy things. For example lets say you have 3 people. Person A is willing to buy something at 3 dollars. Person B at 2 dollars and Person C at 1 dollar. Now if I price things at 2 dollars I can get 2 sales. But if I price it at 1 AND 3 dollars for a special version I may be able to make 3 sales. As maybe person B is willing to bump up the price paid for a ‘extra feature’. Also person A will never pay more than 1 dollar (ever). I still made a sale by selling them the same thing but just locked out. They think they are getting a good deal compared to the feature bloated version. So long as MR >= MC you are golden.

    1. An exception to this can be in various products such as vegetables… Green Giant (for example) exercises the option at the canning/freezing facility to can/freeze only vegetables that are at peak flavor/ripeness, the store brands get what is left.

      1. You quite correctly described the top end brand name canning factories running at the peak of the season for the best flavor possible.


        The bulk of canneries are not brand owned. They do a run of corn for a period of time and all the cans are unlabelled. Chains purchase lots and put their own brand label on themselves or more commonly have part of a run labelled for them. Most are sold to chains unlabelled and these are also available to walk-in individuals at a ridiculous discount and unlimited quantity. If you know when to go and buy you get that same quality of flavor as the top line brands for deep discount (cause it’s what field it came from and which week that counts.). Cashing in on these is an excellent weekend hobby and it’s my second-favorite use for sharpies! Most are just common canned food at deep discount… but some runs have incredible flavor quality like vintage wines that will last for many years of wonderful T-day and Xmas dinners if you’ve marked your cans carefully and reserved the best.

        Now apply the above to Green Beans. Peas. Etc, etc. OMG if you’ve got GOOD cans veggies it’s all the flavor of fresh!

  35. What annoys me more is locked out features that are locked out to no profit (or no significant profit) and no benefit to the manufacturer.
    It happens more often than you think. It’s just laziness or something, or incompetence, or a conviction of management that consumers don’t want it, without ever checking.

  36. I just discovered “hidden” storage capacity in two of the three WYSE S30 thin clients I was given. One was made in 2008, one in 2009 and one in 2011.

    The 2011 one booted to Desktop mode, Windows CE 6.0. System control panel showed 128 meg storage. The other two booted to Connections Manager. 2008 with CE 5.0, 2009 with CE 6.0. In both, System showed a tiny 32 meg storage. Must have extremely pared to the bone systems, especially the CE 6.0 one, right?

    Upgrade to the latest CE 6.0 is a free download, but Dell/WYSE doesn’t offer the older USB flash creator tool required to *upgrade* WinCE. The ones they have can only pull a copy from one device and push it to another. There is another… website with the older versions, an update from December 2016 about the latest ThinOS, but for some reason the forum hasn’t seen a lot of activity recently.

    After much struggle with various USB sticks that sometimes will boot, sometimes won’t, never work right when they do boot – I find a “magic” 1 gig in my stuff and it works perfectly.

    I update the 2011 S30 to the latest CE 6.0 and What. The. Frell?! The storage is decreased from 128 meg to 64 meg!

    After a lot more searching, and a visit to I have the info on how to reset the older ones to break out of Connections Manager. Hold down G then hit the power button. The CE 6.0 one boots to Desktop with everything the newest one has. That all can’t fit into 32 meg. I check their storage size, What? They now show 64 meg?! That’s enough to flash the latest Win CE 6.0 onto, which is good because the Win CE 5.0 one has *nothing* available on its Desktop and Start menu except the two links to connection manager profiles.

    Tonight I get more curious and plug the Apacer IDE flash disk module part numbers into Google. The 2011 model comes up with 128 meg. Ah ha! The update did shrink the partition size!

    The older two have a different part number, both the same. It is… 512 meg! Either WYSE shipped them artificially limited to 32 meg storage, or the IT department that set them up and locked them to Connections Manager somehow did that, or they ordered them with “32 meg” and WYSE happily complied.

    Perhaps WYSE got an extreme deal from Apacer for buying all 512 meg flash disks instead of a bunch of different sizes, or they decided that plugging them all with 512 meg flash was easier. Just grab any one from the warehouse, pop in the real size of SODIMM the customer wants, then flash with an image rigged to set the storage partition to 32, 64, 128 or 512 meg.

    WYSE used to sell an Sx0 to S90 upgrade with Windows XP Embedded, a 512 meg flash disk and a 512 meg SODIMM. For the S10, no problem, that model’s Thin OS resided in an extra capacity BIOS chip, no flash disk, plug in the one from the XPe kit. But for the S30 and S50, I wonder how many 512 meg flash disks went in the trash being swapped for “larger” ones from the XPe upgrade kit?

    Those Apacer modules use the 2.5″ laptop drive IDE interface, but they have a female connector. To use them with a laptop or desktop IDE port they need an adapter to put pins on, or a cable made with a male connector on the drive end. Best thing is they’re cheap on eBay, and you’ll want to check the part numbers in the photos. The sellers may not know what they actually have, especially if they’re going by what the OS reported in the thin client the drives were pulled from.

  37. I haven’t yet seen it on hardware (scopes and the like), but I’ve seen it on software… your ‘activation’ only lasts a year, and then unless you cough up, you can’t use the product anymore – it simply stops working. Should we take that idea further, and say that once your car passes the warranty period, unless you fork over some more cash, your car just won’t start the next day?!
    Yes, for some software you can fiddle the clock into the past, but who wants filetimes that are wrong, and most software these days is smart enough to cotton onto that one anyway.
    I can understand charging for extra functions (eg: you pay extra for your scope to do FFT, even if it is just a code and not even a ‘dongle’)… but allowing total disablement of the hardware is just plain wrong, and should NEVER be allowed.

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