Fake National Instruments GPIB-USB-HS converter (and NI not caring about it) (WHL #87)
Niche hardware again for today, a USB to GPIB/IEEE-488 converter from National Instruments. Or at least what the Chinese have deemed necessary for a functional copy…but first things first.
This adapter was bought at work for connecting an ancient beast of a scope (a LeCroy LC334 – 4 channel, 500MHz/2GSa/s, 400W, 20kg spread across 50 liters of chassis volume, 9″ 640×480 color CRT) to a modern computer. While that sounds crazy (well, it is), that old hulk was purchased with a current probe, which is actually very useful for a current (ha!) task. Plus it just sits there and hardly anybody uses it (or even moves it away), so I can just leave it there for a week when I’m busy otherwise, and start again anytime. Other scopes around do not have current probes or are in more frequent use.
The LeCroy does have several connection options, including a 3.5″ floppy drive (which is unfortunately broken, I’ve checked), a PCMCIA type I/II/III slot (which might accept CompactFlash cards – or network adapters? Dunno, good luck sourcing them), a serial port/RS-232 (which is terribly slow), and also the GPIB/HPIB/IEEE-488 port (for which nobody had an USB adapter for, only PCI ones). Both serial and GPIB are actually supported by a (free! FREE!!) LeCroy scope software from, uh, ten, fifteen years ago, which still runs under Windows 10 with minor issues like a fixed 115.2kbit/s setting for RS232. Alternatives include a serial port monitor and dumping a screenprint, which, after some careful investigation, turns out to be almost PCL 5 (released March 1990) and can be converted into PostScript, which can be converted into PDF. But that’s just the pixels on the screen in 4x resolution – raw data can only be captured via the LeCroy software, which runs best with GPIB.
So I bought one. After careful consideration, since eBay and others are full of fakes and current NI drivers throw errors when detecting them, we used “Amazon US” via Amazon Germany. Apparently, Amazon ships products from US sellers to Europe – and if those sellers offer counterfeit goods, well, so be it. Literally nobody cares.
Problem with buying directly from any of the four manufacturers of general use, full-spec GPIB converters is pricing: Neither NI, Keysight, LeCroy nor Keithley will give it away for under 1000€, which is ridiculously overpriced for the amount of silicon included. Sure, anyone affording an instrument in the price range of luxury cars (including Rolls and Bentleys) can clearly throw in another grand for the adapter – but that hardware was bought 20 years ago. It’s no longer a question of how to connect old gear – that formerly extremely expensive stuff is now in harsh competition with new units. Today’s entry-class scope at 400 bucks can do USB and LAN – and while those aren’t exactly 500 MHz, a suitable Micsig CP2100B is another 400 bucks and the complete package is clearly more useful than the old scope in basically every aspect. 2Gsa/s scopes start at 1100€, btw – just true 500MHz scopes are still a bit pricey at 5k+. And LeCroy products of course, e.g. the CP030-3M current probe is a 6100€ part…best used with a Wavesurfer 4054HD-MS-DV, a 500MHz 4-channel 150W 12″ scope with a 37000€ MSRP. God I hate those vendors that are a) secretive about their price, so you need to politely ask for a quote, and b) have a factor of 2-3 between their MSRP and real-world street prices – said Wavesurfer retails at 15000€.
So, here’s what turned up from Amazon: Everything is looking perfectly genuine (yeah, I know, spoiler…), but check out the spelling on the bottom left:
Yup – that “Baord” gave it away. I was aware of all the fakes so I immediately checked, but without that, I would have never caught it. The adapter is the old version (there’s a GPIB-USB-HS+ as well), so the old NI logo and box are fitting, date is plausible, and serial number matches everywhere, from box to documents to the device sticker and firmware itself. There’s a driver CD that is also period-correct (although Windows 10 came out in 2015, so slightly too new?) and has a genuine look, of course it’s a pressed version so no CD-R from a backyard shop.
Next, a bit of paperwork – also having a very genuine look, no complaints here as well. This could be original material, maybe surplus production or from a ghost shift.
Then there’s the original ESD bubble wrap. Again, serial numbers match, which according to many sources (including the EEVblog forums) isn’t always the case with fakes.
And that’s the adapter. Color as expected, clean print and properly aligned sticker, nice knurled screws, even the USB cable has some markings on it.
There’s a tiny bit of mold flash on the USB connector, but judging from the device alone, this is the thing that is most suspicious. Everything else would pass 100%, maybe even with a genuine unit next to it. Really impressive.
Of course it doesn’t look very genuine on the inside. I’d expect at least one NI/National Instruments logo in there, ideally on a big-ass branded ASIC. But this is all you get…
Original products apparently have copper flash on the entire inside of the case for EMI reasons, which (according to the forums) not a single fake yet has to offer. So a blank, blue case still is a perfect indicator for a counterfeit product – you don’t even have to notice the single “H08Z95 1222” chip that does all the work, compared to the huge complexity especially earlier GPIB converters had. But NI optimized the GPIB-USB-HS along the way as well and didn’t put a new number on it, so who knows what’s the latest and most boiled-down hardware revision of that unit before they moved to the GPIB-USB-HS+…
This really simple design is also why I refuse to shell out a thousand bucks for the real deal: Even if all that is carefully designed by a super experienced team of NI engineers and then hand crafted by nude virgins only during the second full moon each spring – good fucking Lord, how’s that 1000€? Even if your ASIC is expensive (which it is not, since it’s still in production and used in many products, so no one-off excuse here) – why can the Chinese emulate it in some run-of-the-mill microcontroller, put it in a superb case, sell it for 100€, and still make a decent income after half of their customers claimed a refund for counterfeit goods?
Some more info on my unit: NI has implemented some fake detection in their drivers, as mentioned. While that apparently flags some very old genuine hardware (great job!), mine isn’t affected:
Linux dmesg output is simple and clean:
usb 1-4: new high-speed USB device number 38 using xhci_hcd usb 1-4: New USB device found, idVendor=3923, idProduct=709b, bcdDevice= 1.01 usb 1-4: New USB device strings: Mfr=1, Product=2, SerialNumber=3 usb 1-4: Product: GPIB-USB-HS usb 1-4: Manufacturer: National Instruments usb 1-4: SerialNumber: 01C8E233
NI even removed older GPIB drivers from their website to really annoy people (and even confirmed this was a deliberate decision in a FAQ post) – but then fails to actually hunt down counterfeit products. eBay is still full of them, and apparently Amazon is also only selling fakes. On the contrary, this very driver checked my unit on installation, and then asked me nicely to register my genuine™ product with NI. So I did.
“registration pending, for ensuring high quality bla bla BS this might take longer as it’s a manual process”. The PXIe-7862 type that my unit shows up on the website clearly isn’t anything GPIB – so it’s immediately obvious an could be addressed right away. Nobody has contacted me ever since about this. Better still, the NI website actively discourages me to get in contact with NI about this. I cannot file a software bug (of the driver) because my product serial number isn’t recognized – and I cannot raise a repair or customer service report because we have no ongoing maintenance contract with NI. Besides some login issues on top of that, I finally managed to raise a GDPR issue pointing to my login issues pointing to my original issue of contacting NI, and got an answer weeks later. After immediately replying with photos and screenshots, it took several more weeks to get a reply. Dora (good on ya, Dora!) told me this:
Thank you for your detailled response. I can confirm after consultation with our Quality, that your purchased product was not produced by NI.
And that was it. No questions of where I got it, or to send it in, or to run some beta software to improve the driver, no nothing. NI just told me I got a fully functional fake and they’re apparently okay with it.
Well, National, I tried.