What would you think if you saw a bootleg of a product you design, manufacture, and sell pop up on eBay? For those of us who don’t make our livelihood this way, we might secretly hope our blinkenlight project ends up being so awesome that clones on AliExpress or TaoBao end up selling in the thousands . But of course anyone selling electronics as their business is going to be upset and wonder how this happened? It’s easy to fall into the trap of automatically assigning blame; if the legit boards were made in China would you assume that’s where the design was snagged to produce the bootlegs? There’s a saying about assumptions that applies to this tale.
Dave Curran from Tynemouth Software had one of his products cloned, and since he has been good enough to share all the details with us we’ve been able to take a look at the evidence. Dave’s detective work is top notch. What he found was surprising, his overseas manufacturer was blameless, and the bootleg board came from an entirely different source.
A clone of a clone!, we hear you groan.
The product in question is the Minstrel ZX80, a recreation of the Sinclair ZX80 home computer on a PCB in the same form factor as the later ZX81. It’s a project we covered back in 2017 upon its launch, and it seems that Dave has been quietly selling kits ever since. A reproduction of a particularly obscure 1980s home computer is hardly a high-volume product, so it was with considerable surprise then that he recently discovered an eBay listing complete with text lifted from his Tindie page offering it in a non-existent “Version 2.6” that he’d never released himself. Had that Shenzhen board house knocked out an extra run to satisfy the huge world market for bootleg clones of clones of 1980s computers? It seemed not, because though the boards were identical enough that they could be overlaid with nearly all components lining up it appeared from minor routing differences and a pair of surface-mount regulators in place of the original through-hole part that the bootleg item had been created afresh rather than simply produced as another run from the same Gerbers.
It’s all in the little differences.
Examining the images closely revealed some fascinating details. In the comparative image of a small section which we’ve placed on this page they can easily be seen. The silkscreen layer reveals a completely different set of footprints between the two boards, for example the decoupling capacitors and the reset button. There are also text differences, not just the missing BASIC commands and the orientation of text relative to components but in the text itself. “NTSC” versus “NTCS” next to the jumper, for example.
In most cases aside from the already-mentioned voltage regulators the components are identically placed and the tracks follow very similar paths. In some parts of the board there are extra tracks on the bootleg version that do not appear on the original, but the circuit derived from the original ZX80 with a few small modifications remains the same. The autofill copper however has significant differences that can be readily seen all over the board, it becomes clear that a different autofill algorithm is being employed working to its own tolerances.
It seems likely then that the bootleg had been created by hand in a CAD package, with the original serving as some kind of template. There remains a possibility that the Gerbers could somehow have been intercepted and imported into a package, but following some detective work on the part of Dave and others a different story emerged.
The path to the bootlegger
In April last year a customer who had bought a Tynemouth Minstrel ZX80 posted about it (Google Translate) on the Russian-language ZX-PK Sinclair enthusiasts forum. They put up a link to a high-resolution scan they had made of the board, and it was this scan that was used by another forum member who decided to make their own version (Google Translate). The translation isn’t exactly on-point, but it seems that he did indeed create it by hand in his CAD package before producing his first batch of boards.
What is clear from this tale is that the copy had nothing to do with any of [Dave]’s supply chain, so the popular theory that Gerbers sent abroad are sure to be bootlegged does not hold water in this case. We’re not saying it doesn’t happen, merely that it didn’t happen here. That an enthusiast with an eye to a quick buck would go so far as to directly clone the Minstrel from scratch is something of a surprise, as the task would require significant talent and expertise to achieve. We’d expect someone capable of that work to have no problem creating a product in their own right, perhaps a far more obvious target in this space would be a direct clone of the ZX80 itself with its PCB backing for the membrane keyboard. Either way it has been an interesting case to examine, and should you desire a ZX80 clone of your own we suggest you look at the real thing rather than a bootleg.