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Choosing Your Next Value – Priced Oscilloscope
Digital oscilloscopes have come down significantly in price over the past few years, but can you get a good oscilloscope for around $1,000? Do you really need some of the oscilloscope’s more advanced features, such as math calculations or memory depth? Single shot, delayed sweep, pre-trigger acquisition, parametric measurements, waveform and data logging for later analysis, noise reduction, averaging, search, zooms and Math measurements give you useful troubleshooting and analysis tools, but these may be extras that you may not need.
Here are some suggestions to make your selection process easier and to avoid some common mistakes.
Ask yourself the following measurement questions about your needs:
• What signal amplitudes will I be measuring (max/min)?
• What is their highest frequency?
• Do I also need the frequency domain (spectrum analysis)?
• Do you need automatic measurements?
• Do you have a laptop (so you can use a USB PC oscilloscope adapter) or does this need to be a standalone solution?
Answering these questions and reviewing the topics below will help you in your selection process.
What kind of signals do you want to display? For example, a microprocessor-based system clock might be the highest frequency signal you want to display. Your oscilloscope must therefore have a bandwidth 3 to 4 times greater than this clock frequency, in order to correctly display the waveform. If, however, you want to see the rise time of the clock accurately, you will need about 10 times that rate as the sample rate.
Bandwidth is arguably the most important property of an oscilloscope, determining the range of signals that can be displayed. This also dictates the price range, as it is much harder and more expensive to manufacture very fast scope circuits. Bandwidth can be defined as the maximum signal frequency that can pass through front-end circuits (amplifiers, attenuators, ADCs, interconnects, relays), so your scope’s analog bandwidth should be greater than the maximum frequency you wish to measure . . Most oscilloscope manufacturers define bandwidth as the frequency at which a sine wave input signal is attenuated to 71% of its true amplitude (-3dB point) – the displayed trace amplitude will be 29% erroneous at this frequency! So try to buy an oscilloscope with a bandwidth five times greater than the maximum frequency of the signal you want to measure. Higher bandwidth scopes are increasingly expensive, so you may have to compromise here. On some oscilloscopes, the indicated bandwidth is not available on all voltage ranges, so check the data sheet carefully; and be aware that oscilloscopes usually have different sample rates depending on the number of channels used. Typically, the sample rate in single-channel mode is twice that of dual-channel mode.
The sample rate is usually specified in megasamples per second (MS/s) or gigasamples per second (GS/s). Nyquist’s criterion states that the sample rate should be at least twice the maximum frequency you wish to measure in order to display a particular frequency. But for an oscilloscope you really need at least 5 samples to accurately reconstruct a waveform.
Most oscilloscopes confusingly describe two different sampling rates: real-time sampling and equivalent-time sampling – often called repetitive sampling. This only works for stable and repetitive signals, since this mode constructs or reconstructs the waveform from several successive acquisitions. Because repetitive sampling digitizes the waveform over a number of cycles, it can only be used to measure stable signals like square wave clocks, but is not capable of recording single signals or really fast non-repetitive.
Resolution and Accuracy
In digital electronics, measuring a 1% signal change is usually correct, but in audio electronics, 0.1% distortion or noise can be a hindrance. Most modern DSOs are optimized for use with fast digital signals and only offer 8-bit resolution (8-bit ADC), so they can detect a signal change of around 0.4%. With 8-bit resolution, the voltage range is divided into 256 vertical steps. With a range of ±1 V selected, this corresponds to approximately 8 mV per step. This may be sufficient for viewing digital signals, but may be inadequate for viewing analog signals, especially when using a built-in FFT spectrum analyzer function. For applications such as audio, noise, vibration, and monitoring sensors (temperature, current, pressure), an 8-bit oscilloscope is often not suitable and you should consider 12 or 16-bit alternatives. However, most bench oscilloscopes are 8-bit devices.
The accuracy of a GRD is generally not considered too important. You can make measurements down to a few percent (8-bit DSOs often quote 3-5% DC accuracy), but for more accurate measurements you should use a multimeter. With a higher resolution oscilloscope (12 bits or more), more accurate measurements are possible (1% or better)
The oscilloscope’s A/D converter digitizes the input waveform and the resulting data is stored in high-speed memory. Memory depth specs can often be overlooked, but this can be one of the most important features to compare. Captured samples are stored in a digital buffer, so for a given sample rate the size of the buffer determines how long it can capture a signal before the memory is full. The relationship between sample rate and memory depth is important; an oscilloscope with a high sample rate but small memory will only be able to use its full sample rate on the first few timebases. For example, 100 µs of a signal captured with an oscilloscope with a 1 k buffer limits the sample rate to 10 MS/s (1 k /100 µs) even though the oscilloscope may be able to sample at 200MS/s.
When an oscilloscope acquisition memory is as large as 1M samples, complex signals can be zoomed in and analyzed or even found where they would otherwise be missed. Metrics and one-time issues can also be displayed.
Waveform update rate
The update rate of an oscilloscope is its ability to perform repetitive measurements with minimal dead intervals between samples. A fast update rate makes the display more responsive to rapidly changing signals. A major factor in the display quality of an oscilloscope is its update rate. Faster update rates improve the likelihood of infrequent events, such as issues, being captured.
Edge triggering is the most common form of signal capture for general purpose oscilloscope users, but additional trigger power in some applications. Advanced trigger options can save a lot of time in day-to-day debugging – line or video frame triggering for example. If you need to capture a narrow event, pulse triggering lets you trigger on a positive or negative pulse greater or less than a specified width.
The probe that often comes free with the oscilloscope is also important to evaluate because it can limit the total system bandwidth, which is limited by the combination of the two bandwidths. Consider, for example, a 100 MHz oscilloscope coupled to a 60 MHz passive probe. With this combination, you won’t be able to get the full bandwidth of the 100MHz oscilloscope, but instead will be limited to the 60MHz allowed by the probe. Some probes are clunky, and some lack the ability to remove the spring-loaded tip to reveal a tip, useful for probing surface mount devices.
Digital oscilloscopes typically offer a variety of connectivity capabilities. These may include RS-232, LAN and USB 2.0 interfaces for control or data download. USB sockets for memory sticks are also useful for transferring data to PCs for reports etc. Some oscilloscopes allow you to export waveform data as Excel files, while others only allow you to store screen captures as jpg images.
Both are useful for printing results or entering them into Word files. The ability to perform “hands-off” oscilloscope control via a PC may be vital to your needs, or irrelevant, but worth considering.
Automatic measurements, built-in pass/fail analysis with relay output, and math functions can save your time and make your life easier. Measurement statistics, storage of reference waveforms, and FFT (Fast Fourier transform) capabilities are available on many oscilloscopes, allowing you to view modified waveforms or frequency spectra. Averaging helps eliminate noise issues, numerical persistence lets you spot problems easily; math capabilities mean you can invert, add, subtract, multiply and divide channels, or sometimes even create your own functions.
Ease of use
Some oscilloscopes offer “one-touch” automatic setup, or a number of stored setup configurations, which increases the ease of use of an oscilloscope. Others include a built-in help system so you don’t have to constantly refer to the manual. Some oscilloscopes dispense with dedicated, user-friendly rotary knobs and replace them with cheaper knobs for often-used settings such as vertical sensitivity, timebase speed, trace position, and trigger level. Downloading the oscilloscope manual from the vendor’s website will give you an indication of how intuitive it is to use the oscilloscope while concentrating on your circuit under test. Finding an easy-to-use oscilloscope can save you a lot of frustration down the road. Also check if the oscilloscope software can be updated for free and easily via an internet connection. And finally, check the duration of the warranty. If your device breaks down while in use, will the vendor make the repair an easy process?
There are now budget oscilloscopes with capabilities that rival the big manufacturers at $1,000 or less. At Saelig Co. Inc., we’ve assembled the widest range of affordable scope solutions, from low-end 2 MHz USB scope adapters under $180, to sophisticated standalone scopes that rival the big names, to mixed-signal 2/4 high-end channels. adapters that cover 100 MHz signals and offer 8/16 channels of simultaneous remote logic analysis via Ethernet from anywhere in the world, and even up to the most popular 12 GHz sampling oscilloscope adapter fast in the world. Details at http://www.saelig.com/category/PS.htm
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