Buying from China: Lost in translation

I’ve been buying stuff from China for a long time, and for a long time it was a pleasant experience. Sure, the items purchased might take a while to arrive, but they always arrived. I was never disappointed or surprised. But lately things seem to have changed.

(post updated 5 Feb 2017)

Case in point: I recently purchased an MSP430 development board from MiniInTheBox. Great price, had everything on it I was looking for, and I even managed to figure out that the pictures on their web page showed what it could be, but not what you were going to get. OK, so no display module, I can accept that. But then it arrived. Just a circuit board and a USB cable. Nothing else. Not even a link to some place where I could get more information. The board in question is shown below, and you can read about it here.


Several exchanges with their “customer service” did not end well. I managed to find the original source of the board in China, but that web site was entirely in Chinese (I don’t read Chinese, I just look at the pictures). It also showed the add-on accessories that MiniInTheBox was advertising but not providing. Apparently they also have a CD with source code and tools, which the people at MiniInTheBox claimed to know nothing about (and, to be fair, that might actually be true, but I rather doubt it).

But the frosting on the cake was when I was promised some technical information, and nothing showed up. I complained yet again, and lo and behold, they sent me a pirated copy of Chris Nagy’s book “Embedded Systems Design Using the TI MSP430 Series”, and they renamed it to “Instructions MSP430”. Come on, really? First off, I already own a legit copy of this book, and second, it is NOT the instructions for this particular board, it’s an illegal copy of someone else’s work. As an author I tend to take a dim view of that sort of thing.

Today I received some other items I’d ordered from China, in this case two kits for low-power stereo amplifiers. The package contained the circuit boards and a bag of components, but no assembly instructions. The posting on eBay also does not have any links to additional information. So I’ve sent a question to the seller, and I’ll see how that goes, but with the way things have been going over the past year I’m not going to be surprised if all I get is a shrug. To make things more annoying, I get emails asking me to give the vendor 5-star ratings. That’s going to start to be a challenge for some of these people.

The takeaway from all this is to not but anything from China that requires additional software, documentation, or technical support unless you know the vendor and have already established a business relationship. Odds are you won’t get much of anything in the way of help. Switches, knobs, LEDs and even Arduino clones are fine–it’s hard to screw those up. If you want a kit, a piece of test equipment, or a CNC tool then either find a seller in the US (or wherever you may happen to live), or just don’t spend more than you would be willing lose in a night out gambling, because that is what you could end up doing.

Maybe the situation will change, but it may take a while. If someone wants to play on the world business stage then they need to understand that success isn’t a matter of how cheap something is, or how quickly they ship it, but how well the customer likes it and how effectively they can use it. People in other countries are going to have a hard time accepting the situation when they can’t get the information they need in a language they can understand, or when something shows up with no information at all.

UPDATE: 5 Feb 2017

I received a response from the seller of the stereo amps on eBay. It is a clone of the Beyerdynamic A1, and the collection of stuff that you get looks like this:


And that’s it. No instructions. No link to any further information. And the seller responded to my query with just “No instructions” (and a bizarre email body that contained a lot of links in Chinese and my eBay ratings). You can look at the original posting on eBay here.

Setting Google loose with “A1 Headphone Amplifier DIY kit Chassis” as the search string does turn up a number of hits. This thing is apparently somewhat popular. So why is it so damned hard to supply some minimal instructions?

I’ve given the seller one more chance to catch the clue train and do the right thing. But I am getting weary of buying stuff that does not come with essential documentation or software, sold by people who really don’t understand what being a seller is all about. It looks like every little mom-and-pop shop in China is trying to sell the same stuff to make a quick buck, and they just copy each other. Images, wording, spelling mistakes and all.

But, I think the situation can be remedied. Ask questions before clicking on the “Buy Now” button, and do a little research on the web. Are data sheets available for parts not made in the US? In your language? Does a kit come with instructions? Has anyone else had experiences with the item you are considering? If there is a warranty issue, will you need to ship the whole thing back to China, or is there a local service depot near you? For items under $10 or so this might not be a big deal, but when it’s on the order of $50 or $500, then you really want to tread carefully. If enough people take their business elsewhere, then the problem sellers might get a clue. Or they might give up and go do something else.

When a seller responds to you, never reply directly to them. Always go though the eBay messaging system. This leaves a trail that can be followed later if need be. Unfortunately, there is no “trust evaluation” system on eBay, so there’s no way to let other people know in advance if a seller doesn’t seem trustworthy or competent. But, you can still tell your co-workers, friends, and associates, or publish it on a blog.

Caveat emptor!


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Little Buddy

An awesome little friend

Jordi the Sheltie passed away in 2008 at the ripe old age of 14. He was the most awesome dog I've ever known.

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