ESP8266-based development boards have proliferated rapidly. One favorite, the WEMOS Mini-D1 is frequently imitated and sold without any branding. As these boards continue to ship to hobbyists and retailers around the world, we thought it might be interesting to conduct a little experiment.
There are a few ESP8266 development boards available, and the most popular seem to be the NodeMCU ‘Amica’ board. Of course, there are dozens of other alternatives including the WiFiMCU, Sparkfun’s ESP8266 Thing, and Adafruit’s HUZZAH ESP8266. Given that, why is this review limited to the Mini D1 boards? Because the Mini D1 is the cheapest. Or was, until it was cloned.
We took a look at some of these ‘clone’ boards to figure out the differences, find out if they work as intended, and perhaps most importantly, are these clone boards shipped out reliably. What are the results? Check that out below.
Like the NodeMCU, the Mini D1 is also ubiquitous and has already been picked up by cloners. The D1 is smaller and slightly cheaper. The pin headers are provided separately if you don’t want them attached. It’s practically the same dimensions as this motor controller, this type of battery, and this charging circuit for some really tiny swarm-ready robots. It also shines when you need many MQTT nodes, or to upgrade an RC car. In short, it’s tiny, it’s cheap, and it’s still a great board that we expect interesting projects to use for some time.
We tried two different import companies that manage orders from Taobao. The parts were split so that each company had to manage multiple suppliers, and the parts were shipped to a neighboring country for testing. This type of import company is common in some Asian countries and typically adds something like a 20% surcharge to manage your order.
Electrically, the clones reviewed were identical to the original WEMOS board. All components were the same across boards, and the soldering job was good. Some boards used SMT resistors with EIA-96 markings, others with the more familiar 3-digit code:
However, there are some very slight differences in board layout. Board 1 had square corners rather than rounded, slightly thicker traces in some places with a few routing differences, better pads overall, fewer soldered mounting points on the USB mini connector, large clear labels for all pins, and no exposed pads for the reset switch.
Board 2 had thinner traces, thinner pads around all vias, a properly secured USB mini connector, and exposed pads for the reset switch. The labeling for all pins was in a tiny font. Due to the thinner pads, soldering was slightly more challenging, and it was noted that when soldering at 480 °C (we’re all in a hurry sometimes) there was some superficial heat damage to the PCB – this was not observed on Board 1.
In summary, both boards are essentially identical, with perhaps a slight advantage to Board 1 for solderability, and to Board 2 for better access to the reset switch and a more securely fastened USB port.
Looking back to the actual WEMOS Mini D1 board, it has a properly secured USB port, and nice pads around all relevant vias. There seems to be an effort to revise and improve the board as time goes on. The clones are barely cheaper even in bulk. We’d say that an actual WEMOS board is likely the best value for money.
This brings us to another point: on their website, WEMOS provides a tool to verify if a product is genuine using the ESP8266 chipID. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work presently.
All imitation boards properly registered as serial devices in both Linux and Windows and worked correctly with both NodeMCU and Arduino firmware. All reset switches worked. This was actually a bit surprising – a failure rate of about 5% was expected based on previous orders of similar parts. We may have just gotten lucky.
The cloned WEMOS Mini D1 boards do what they’re supposed to do. While the build quality is quite tolerable, there are some minor flaws. Ordered from the manufacturer, cloned boards are not much cheaper than the original, on the order of $1 per board, and ordering them was not a very streamlined process.
We also ordered 40 NodeMCU ‘Amica’ boards from Taobao. Overall it was the same experience, except that two boards were dead on arrival. One was beyond recovery, and the other had a defective reset switch that was swiftly replaced.
The worst experience surrounding these boards was actually ordering them. Everything arrived — eventually. Some parts in a week, others in a month. There’s no order tracking. No one in either company knew where any of the parcels were. One person told us every day for a week they would arrive ‘tomorrow’. Basically, you pay in advance, then hope things arrive by your deadline. Still, for bulk orders with no deadline these shortcomings are arguably tolerable.
For most of our readers, we cannot recommend the experience, especially in a world with Adafruit, Sparkfun, and the Hackaday Store. If you live in or near mainland China though, Taobao often lives up to its name.
Have you used similar boards to good effect? Or did they go up in flames? Tell us your story in the comments.