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A review of 3 electronics bazaars in China

Ken YapKen Yap wrote 11/18/2019 at 13:36 • 12 min read • Like

Revisions

2019-12-06: Added a placeholder section for Banggood.

2019-12-04: Aliexpress/Shipping: Aliexpress uses a single number for orders combining > 1 seller.

2019-12-01: LCSC/Specifications: Symbols and footprints for Kicad can be obtained from the LCSC product pages. Explain how to extract information.

Introduction

First of all let me define the topic of review. By electronics I mean things that makers use, for example active components like chips, as well as passive components like resistors, electromechanical and optical devices, as well preconstructed modules like MCU platforms. But I exclude consumer electronics like phones. I also include materials and tools for working with electronics, like heat shrink tubing, soldering stations, multimeters, and so forth. Services like PCB manufacturing and assembly are also found in these bazaars. For these sites if you search under electronics, you end up seeing phones and that sort of thing. Usually it's the industrial category you want.

Next, the caveats:

The three sites I review are eBay, Aliexpress and LCSC. The first two are seller platforms that host many shops while the third is a major component supplier to the trade and makers.

eBay

Usually this is the first place people head for as it's well known. Chinese sellers are well-represented here. They are usually based in Shenzhen, Shanghai and other coastal cities. Some have operations in Hong Kong. A few are found inland. But it really doesn't matter, for more than the obvious reasons.

Choice: You will be spoilt for choice. Competition is cutthroat and prices often differ by a few cents. Besides price I also look at how many stars the shop has acquired, and the rating. I also tend to prefer shops that specialise in the kind of stuff I'm looking for. To some extent this is self-adjusting; you are less likely to see a home lighting shop sell Arduino workalikes, but they may sell bulk bags of LEDs. However the caveat is choice is good only for items in demand. The sellers here don't like holding inventory that doesn't move quickly. If you want that specialised chip you will need to go to a well-equipped stockist.

Specifications: One problem with listings is that it's often difficult to work out exactly what you are getting. Does that WiFi dongle have a Linux driver? You may have to look through several similar listings before you see mention of the chip used which you can then go check for compatibility. This sort of research is time-consuming, sometimes a little enjoyable, but it comes with the territory.

Price: eBay allows you to sort by price+postage lowest first. However many shops counter with the trick of advertising several items in one listing, and it turns out the cheapest price is for some related item. For example an Arduino board listed for $1 may turn out to be the price of an USB A-B cable, and you see that the Arduino costs a few $ in the dropdown. It's annoying to find $1 and up listings cluttering the first 20 pages of the results. You could filter by min price if you have an idea what it is.

Many items are sold with free shipping and heavier or bulkier items will cost shipping. But there is no free lunch, er shipping, really, it's all factored into the final price.

I've discovered one benefit of putting the items you lust after in your watchlist. Once in a while a seller might notice that and make you and other watchers an offer, some small discount like 5%. Then you can decide if you want to pull the trigger.

Payment: Paypal is pretty much the only way to pay for most of the listings. eBay will collect 10% GST (VAT) for the Australian government.

Provenance: Do many of the listings for modules look similar? No surprise, they are mass produced by factories and these shops are selling exactly the same thing with a little variation in price. They even come prepacked in small antistatic bags like candy snacks. For sure the factory packed it, not the seller. There is another reason many listings are similar or identical. It's the same shop with more than one account. You realise this when you pay with Paypal and you see a payment address you've seen before.

Delivery: Shipping is never fast enough. That's the downside of cheap supplies. So have many irons in the fire so that you can work on another project while waiting for parts for one. For Australia I've found delivery time is around 3-4 weeks. It also comes in untracked packets so there is always a chance of loss. This only happened to me once in about 30 purchases and I got my money back from the shop, then it turned up quite late so I resent the money to the shop. Another time a small LCD screen came cracked from poor packing. The shop gave me a partial refund, but I was still out of pocket as I had to buy a complete kit again, from a different shop. I once bought over $30 from one shop and for that they provided tracked parcel shipping which arrived in about 10 days. So consider bundling purchases from one good vendor.

The first time you buy from a shop you will a message asking: please note that shipping is slow, after at least X days have passed, please contact us for resolution, and please don't neg us. This is in case you don't know that shipping is slow!

BTW when the shop messages you saying that a packet is going to be very very late and offer you the option of cancelling and getting a refund, this is coded talk for sorry we are out of stock of this item so please buy it somewhere else.

Warranty: eBay has protection but it will take a long time to claim. You should first contact the shop if a packet is very late. Chances are they will refund or reship to avoid a negative review. Or you could write it off, you're still ahead at those prices.

Shipping: Drop shipping! This is the magic by which they send all those maker toys for so cheap. I think this is what happens: Many of the shops join a conglomerate which sets up warehouses in other countries like Thailand, Malaysia, etc. with cheap postage. I have a game of collecting various countries. I once got Fiji. Someone on a forum reported Seychelles. Perhaps they pick countries for faster transit or to help the recipient get lower or no duty, who knows. Orders are relayed there, the goods are packed and the label is slapped on. So really it doesn't matter much which shop you buy from.

Quality: Counterfeits and DOA goods. People talk about this risk but honestly I doubt if the shops will get rich pulling such a scam for pennies at a time. It is possible they might be selling bad stock or seconds without realising. The only order I'm a bit suspicious of were a few GALs which I could program one of and later couldn't. Maybe it was the firmware update of my burner. Haven't got around to investigating this. All the same you might want to purchase high value items from an official distributor, or a local seller where you can invoke consumer protection law.

Vintage: Some items are definitely old, like stocks of old microprocessor peripheral chips. Maybe they bought remaindered stock. There will also be private sellers of antique chips which will cost a lot more and be less capable than modern chips. I find it impossible to justify to myself buying an expensive old chip for a retro project. But the non-purity of emulating old chips with FPGAs, CPLDs, MCUs, etc. also irks me.

Aliexpress

Choice: Aliexpress is simllar to eBay, but it looks like stores there are bigger, if you believe the pictures of offices and warehouses. Also I see chips with model numbers unfamiliar to me, because they are used in commercial or industrial electronics. There are more shops that specialise in certain areas, for example everything to do with soldering: irons, wire, paste, flux, even stations. Some sellers on eBay felt like a few people (maybe one person?) handling orders in a small shop.

Some manufacturers have official stores on Aliexpress, e.g. Hantek, a digital scope manufacturer. Elecrow and PCBWay also have stores where you might be able to get cheaper shipping of your 10 PCBs in return for slower delivery.

Specifications: You think eBay is bad for getting specifications? Aliexpress is even more scant with information. All you have to go on is the model number. Fortunately there are search engines and datasheet sites.

Price: Aliexpress only allows you to sort by price, no shipping included. The same seller trick of including a lower price item also happens here. An unscientific survey shows that more items cost shipping than don't. It's not even consistent for a single store, some items will be free shipping and some not. Anyway it's the final price you should look at, but it may take some calculation to work out. Don't be disheartened if you see $0.32 shipping for something costing $0.16. Chances are the shipping will stay constant for quantities up to the next price break, probably around 10 or 20, depending on the weight of the item. Obviously the number they can fit into a small packet.

You will be spammedemailed offers from Aliexpress every few days. Especially if you have items in your wishlist. You can unsubscribe but at the moment for me it's kind of fun to watch. Just make sure the discount isn't from an inflated base. It helps if you have an idea of the normal price so that you can snap up a bargain when it pops up. When you start getting packets which you barely remember ordering then you are overshopping, hahaha. So far not yet for me.

Payment: Aliexpress supports far more payment methods: Paypal, credit cards, etc. Best if you have a credit card that gives you international purchases with no transaction fee. As with eBay, they will collect 10% GST (VAT) in Australia.

Provenance: As with eBay some stores have multiple accounts and you see the same photos of the building, warehouse, etc. Not that it matters. Some seem to specialise in buying up remaindered stock, which is why that batch of 20 MHz CMOS Z80 CPUs feels a bit out of place in listings full of transistors.

Delivery: Delivery is just as slow as eBay. But for higher value items, e.g. a soldering station or digital scope they may offer faster methods like courier, with tracking. You may even find two listings, one with free shipping and the other with paid shipping. Not surprisingly, the price+shipping works out to be roughly the same.

Warranty: Aliexpress is a bit ahead of eBay here as the buyer protection is centralised at Aliexpress, rather than going first to the seller with the backup of the eBay money-back guarantee.

Shipping: Shops offer basic and premium shipping, up to couriers for expensive items. Aliexpress has services called Yanwen shipping and Cainaio shipping. The former seems to be a logistics company which organises drop shipping while the latter is part of the Alibaba group. They compete with China Post. All three are slow so adjust your expectations and schedules. One thing, be careful filling in the shipping address at Aliexpress. They ask for apartment number, but this is often printed after Address 1 and 2, contrary to many countries' conventions, and confusing your post office. Best if you stick to Address 1 and Address 2, and put the apartment number there.

One annoying thing is that Aliexpress uses a single order number for an order combining many sellers. So when you get notification that your order has shipped, you have to go to your Order page if you want to know which suborder and seller it was.

Quality: Same potential issues as with eBay but Aliexpress seems to be a bit more enforcing. I haven't had any quality issues so far.

Vintage: Vintage at Alibaba tends to mean remaindered lines rather than collectors items. But you should check both platforms if the IC you seek is rare.

Banggood

Banggood is known as a supplier of gadgets. Its offerings to makers are mostly in modules, such as MCU modules, shields, displays and so forth, not in components. A cursory glance at some listings show that prices can be higher than eBay or Aliexpress. For example the ubiquitous TM1637 4 digit LED display is more expensive.

I'll expand this section if I do any shopping from them.

LCSC

LCSC is not really a bazaar, it's one company that stocks a wide range of electronics parts and supplies the trade and individual buyers. It has sister operations: JCLPCB, PCB manufacture and assembly, and EasyEDA, online EDA software. Nice synergy. Well, I'm not LCSC's publicist so let's move on.

Choice: If you look at the manufacturers that LCSC distribute you will see a large range of companies, many well known brands and also a lot of China brands you have never heard of. Those chips are seldom seen by users outside China except for the ones that intrepid hobbyists have translated the datasheets for and got working. For example I was interested in some 1T 8051 derivatives made by Sinomicon. Never heard of them? Neither had I before. But the datasheet was in Chinese. The translation was reasonable, but I still didn't know what the firmware programming support (ICP dongle needed?) involved. In the end I decided to go with the STM8 and STM32 lines which are better architectures anyway, copiously documented, and even cheaper.

As their stock is large, they are more likely to have parts that smaller shops don't stock because of low turnover. Looking for that 5MHz crystal? You will find it here at normal cost whereas it's rare to see it on eBay or Aliexpress because it's not a commonly requested frequency.

There are modules for sale, but they tend not to be hobbyist modules like Arduino shields, more like industrial modules.

Specifications: Their part page has links to the datasheet, ECAD model, and EasyEDA libraries. But some datasheets are only in Chinese and you need a translator to make sense of it. Quality depends on the manufacturer. I once looked at a couple of comparable LED displays from two manufacturers. One had the pinout and a little more, while the other one had parameters as well.

For Kicad symbols and footprints, you can obtain them from the ECAD data provided you sign up with SamacSys (for free). You can then download a zip file containing ECAD data for various EDA software, Kicad being one. In the Kicad subdirectory you can find .dcm, .lib, and .kicad_mod files for the part which you can import into your own library with the Symbol Editor or the Footprint Editor.

I’ve found that they were a bit lazy with the symbol files. For example all the pins were of type unspecified, but this was easy to correct. Also the pins were not assigned sequentially going around the perimeter but in two rows. I know that pins on a symbol are usually arranged/grouped by function, not by position, but for my components (a LED display and a driver chip respectively) along the perimeter is as good as any and less confusing. This was also easy to correct in the editor. 

Price: Prices are good though you can sometimes find the same part cheaper in eBay or Aliexpress. The caveat is that prices only get good in quantity. There are minimum order quantities for each part, and price breaks at various counts. Also if your order doesn't meet a minimum (currently 15USD) there will be a surcharge.

Payment: LCSC accepts a wide variety of payment methods. They do not collect 10% GST (VAT) for Australia. In principle this means customs (not the PO, they don't want to do this) is liable to collect from you when the goods enter the country. However they didn't bother me for the small amount ($2) of GST I was liable for. If I had been buying hundreds of dollars of goods I might have had to pay duty.

Provenance: You can be assured that the parts come from the manufacturers, they are authorised stockists and a big operation.

Delivery: Delivery can be very fast via courier, see below.

Warranty: They provide warranties for the stuff they sell.

Shipping: You won't find packet delivery methods on LCSC. The cheapest methods involve parcel post methods like EMS, going up to couriers. This means that you will get your toysgoods relatively quickly, but it also means shipping becomes a significant proportion of the cost of a purchase, meaning you have to buy more to make it worthwhile.

Quality: The stuff is new from the manufacturers, but not equally well documented across the range.

Vintage: You might find some rare chips here because some manufacturer still makes it or is selling until stock runs out.

Other remarks

Aliexpress and LCSC have enticements for newbies: starter credit, discounts, and that sort of thing. So you can nibble their offerings the first time for little outlay.

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