I recently heard of GD32F103 processors made by Giga Devices an Chinese company which make STM32 ‘compatible’ microcontrollers targeting their popular STM32F103 series.
Taobao sellers offer these starting from $1.25 up to $2.20 depend on the memory configuration.
Looking at the publishing specs GD32 also looks better than STM32, the only problem is that it’s not possible to know for sure if what the Chinese manufacturers write in their datasheet is tested and is real.
For instance they claim 108 Mhz operation for the chips, even some web blogs says they ran GD32F103 up to 120Mhz “without problem”, but these are amateur claims, probably made these tests at room temperature :), let me tell you secret original STM32 will also run at this frequency, but ST do not claim this in the datasheet as they have to guarantee the work in the whole operating temperature range and whole power supply range in the datasheets.
So if Giga Devices offer something better in specs in quite questionable, sure for amateur not crytical use apps like blinking LEDs in house, this will be perfect chip, and it’s main advantage is the lower cost compared to STM32.
I’ve even read speculations in the same web blog that Giga Devices “licensee” STM32 core from ST to produce lower cost versions for Chinese market.
I was very doubtful something like this is true for number of reasons. To produce STM32 chip itself as hardware cost not so much, the reason ST sell it at this price is that they have spent lot of resource to design and market these chips, also they pay small royalty fee to ARM for every chip they sell. So obviously they can achieve the same sale prices as Giga Devices if they were in same situation – zero development cost and just copy and paste someone else’s product. It’s very doubtful if Giga Devices pay royalties to ARM also, but this is just my speculation ;).
I wrote to contact in ST asking if they licensee the STM32 to China and got this answer:
Dear Tsvetan, Those GD32xxx devices are effectively a kind of clones of our STM32, but it's a pure piracy: no agreements of any kind between ST and Giga Device, no license... nothing. ST legal people are in charge of this problem.
So as I expected these are illegal clones. This creates one bigger problem and damage on ST business though.
For everyone is clear that purchasing of STM32 chip through normal USA or EU distribution channels is expensive if you want to make mass product. The EU distributors are too fat and lazy to offer you anything which will allow you to build competitive product if you have to compete with far east manufacturers.
So we at Olimex are forced to buy from Chinese distributors all ST and NXP chips for instance to may achieve better price for our final products. I guess many others do the same.
Now when there are clones of STM32 this becomes a problem as we will never know when we buy STM32 chips from China if these are original ST parts or Giga Devices clones which are re-marked as STM32 processors.
In my opinion on long terms this will have enormous impact on ST brand as many people may buy counterfeit devices believing they buy original ST chips, but these chips will be just clones marked as STM32 and blame ST for all problems they encounter with these chips. This way the major ST advantage they had vs NXP LPC series will vanish as they were know to be sourcable at lower cost than NXP in China.
I think the lawers would not help in this case. They may shut down Giga Devices legally, but illegally the cloned STM32 design can be produced at many places secretly and sold as STM32 original parts even after the GigaDevices closure!