Evaluating Oscilloscopes (Part 1)

Recently, I was in the market for a new oscilloscope. There’s a good selection of devices for sale, but which should you choose? It’s clear from the ads that the “scope bandwidth” and “sample rate” are two important parameters. But are there other things hidden in the specification sheet you should take a look at?

I’ve compiled notes from my own oscilloscope-selection experience and wanted to share them with you. I’ll be pulling in specifications and examples from a few different oscilloscopes. Personally, I ended up selecting a PicoScope device, so I will be featuring it more prominently in my comparisons. But that’s simply because I don’t have a lab full of oscilloscopes to photograph! I don’t work for Pico Technology or have any affiliation with it, and will be attempting to pull in other manufacturers for this online series to provide some balance.

This “mini-series” will consist of four posts over four weeks. I won’t be discussing bandwidth and sample rate until next week. In this first post, I’ll cover some physical characteristics: stand-alone vs PC-based probe types and digital inputs. Next week I’ll discuss the “core” specifications, in particular the bandwidth, sample rate, and analog-to-digital converter resolution. The  third week will look at the software running the oscilloscope, and details such as remote control, fast Fourier transform (FFT) features, digital decoding, and buffer types. The final week will consider a few remaining features such as the external trigger and clock synchronization, and will summarize all the material I’ve covered.

I hope you find it useful!

Topic 1: Do You Want a PC-Based or Stand-Alone Instrument?
There are two fundamentally different types of instruments, and you’ll have to decide for yourself which you prefer. Many people like a stand-alone instrument, which you can place on your bench and probe your circuits to your heart’s content. You don’t need to have your computer nearby, and you have something solely dedicated to probing.

Figure 1: PC-based oscilloscopes make it easier to mount on a crowded bench. This PicoScope 6000 unit is velcroed to my desk, you can see the computer monitor to the upper left.

Photo 1: PC-based oscilloscopes make mounting easier on a crowded bench. This PicoScope 6000 unit is velcroed to my desk. You can see the computer monitor to the upper left.

The other option is a PC-based instrument, which today generally means it plugs in via USB. I’ve always preferred this type for a few reasons. The first is the minimal desk space needed. I can place an oscilloscope vertically and lose little space (see Photo 1). The second is I find it easier to interact with a standard keyboard and mouse, especially if you’re using more advanced features. In addition, you can easily save screenshots or data from the scope without having to transfer them using a USB key or something similar.

There are a few downsides to USB-based instruments. The most common complaint is probably the lack of knobs, although that’s fixable. In Photo 2, you can see a USB-based “knob board” I built, which pretends to be a USB key. Each turn of the knob sends a keystroke and, as long as your PC-based oscilloscope software lets you set custom keyboard shortcuts, can trigger features such as changing the input range or timebase. Most of the time, I still just use the regular PC interface, as I find it easier than knobs. If you’re interested in the design, you can find it on my blog Electronics & More.

Photo: A simple USB-based knob board uses mechanical encoders to control the USB scope via a physical panel.

Photo 2: A simple USB-based knob board uses mechanical encoders to control the USB scope via a physical panel.

Having a PC-based oscilloscope also means you can have a massive screen. A high-end oscilloscope will advertise a “large 12.1″ screen,” but you can purchase a 22″ screen for your computer for $200 or less.  If your PC-based oscilloscope software supports multiple “viewports,” you can more easily set up complex displays such as that in Figure 1.
Again this comes down to personal preference—personally, I like having the oscilloscope display as a window on my computer. You may wish to have a dedicated display separate from your other work, in which case consider a stand-alone device!

Figure 1: PC-based oscilloscopes make it easier for setting up windows in specific positions, due to a combination of much larger screen space and standard mouse/keyboard interaction.

Figure 1: PC-based oscilloscopes make it easier for setting up windows in specific positions, due to a combination of much larger screen space and standard mouse/keyboard interaction.

Topic 2: Where’s the Ground?
One common complaint with the PC-based oscilloscope is that the probe ground connects to USB ground. Thus, you need to ensure there isn’t a voltage difference between the ground of your device under test and the computer.

This is, in fact, a general limitation of most oscilloscopes, be they stand-alone or PC-based. If you check with an ohmmeter, you’ll generally find that the ”probe ground”  in fact connects to system Earth on stand-alone oscilloscopes. Or at least it did on the different Agilent units I tested. Thus the complaint is somewhat unfairly leveled at PC-based devices.

You can get oscilloscopes that have either “differential” or “isolated” inputs, which are designed to eliminate the problem of grounds shorting out between different inputs. They may also give you more measurement flexibility. For example, if you are trying to measure the voltage across a “high-side shunt resistor,” you can do this measurement differentially. The TiePie engineering  HS4 DIFF is one example of a device with this capability. Of course, you can purchase differential probes for any oscilloscope, which accomplish the same goal! Most manufactures make these differential probes (Agilent, Tektronix, Pico Technology, Rigol, etc.).

Topic 3: Input Types
Almost every scope will have either DC-coupled or AC-coupled inputs. You’ll likely want to compare the minimum/maximum voltage ranges the scope has. Don’t be too distracted by either the upper or lower limits unless you have very specific requirements. At the upper end, remember you will mostly be using the 10:1 probe, which means an oscilloscope with ±20 V input range becomes ±200 V with the 10:1 probe.

At the lower end, the noise is going to kill you. If your oscilloscope has a 1 mV/div range, for example, you’ll have to be extremely careful with noise. To probe very small signals, you’ll probably end up needing an active probe with amplification right at the measurement point. This can be something you build yourself, using a differential amplifier chip, for example, if you are attempting to measure current across a shunt.

Besides the actual measurement range, you’ll be interested in the “offset” range too. With the DC-input, most oscilloscopes can subtract a fixed voltage from the input. Thus you can measure a 1.2-V input on a 1-V maximum input range, as the oscilloscope is able to first subtract say 1 V from the signal. This is handy if you have a smaller signal riding on top of some fixed voltage.

Another input type you will encounter is the 50-Ω input. Normally, this means the oscilloscope can switch between AC, DC, and DC 50 input types. The DC 50 means the input is “terminated” with a 50-Ω impedance. This feature is typically found on oscilloscopes with higher analog bandwidth. For example, this allows you to measure a clock signal that is output on a SMA connector expecting a 50-Ω termination. In addition, the 50-Ω input allows you to simplify connection of other lab equipment to your oscilloscope. Want to use a low noise amplifier (LNA) to measure a very small signal? Not a problem, since you can properly terminate the output of that LNA.

If you end up needing DC 50 termination, you can buy “feed-through” terminators for about $15, which operate at up to 1-GHz bandwidth. You simply add those to the front of your oscilloscope to get 50-Ω terminated inputs.

Any given manufacturer will often have a range of inputs for different bandwidths and models. For example, the PicoScope 5000-series, which has up to 200-MHz bandwidth, has DC/AC high-impedance inputs. The 6000-series has DC/AC/DC 50 inputs for 500-MHz bandwidth and below. The 6000 series in 1,000 MHz bandwidth only has 50-Ω input impedance. Other manufacturers seem to follow a similar formula: the highest bandwidth device is 50-Ω input only, medium-bandwidth devices are DC/AC/DC 50, and lower-bandwidth devices will be DC/AC.

Topic 4: Probe Quality and Type
In day-to-day use, nothing will impact you more than the quality of your oscilloscope probe. This is your hands-on interaction with the oscilloscope.

Figure 4: A smaller spring-loaded probe tip is on the left,  and  a standard oscilloscope probe is on the right. Both  probes have removable tips, so if you damage the probe it’s easy to fix them. Not all probes have removable tips, however, meaning if the tip is damaged you may have to throw out the probe.

Photo 3: A smaller spring-loaded probe tip is on the left, and a standard oscilloscope probe is on the right. Both probes have removable tips, so if you damage the probe it’s easy to fix them. Not all probes have removable tips, however, meaning if the tip is damaged you may have to throw out the probe.

Most “standard” oscilloscope probes are of the type pictured to the right in Photo 3. They are normally switchable from 1:1 to 10:1 attenuation, where the 10:1 mode results in a 1/10 scaling of input voltage. It’s important to note that almost every oscilloscope probe has very limited bandwidth in 1:1 mode—often under 10 MHz. Whereas in 10:1 mode it might be 300 MHz! In addition, the 10:1 mode will load the circuit considerably less. Higher bandwidth probes will often only come in 10:1 mode. I assume the physical switch is too much hassle at higher frequencies!

A first thing to check out is if the tip is removable. If you damage the tip, it can be useful to simply replace the tip rather than the entire probe. If you’re probing a PCB, it can be easy to catch a tip in a via, for example. Alternatively, certain probes might come with an adapter, which is designed for use in probing the PCB, rather than just the tip of the regular oscilloscope probe. The older Agilent 1160A probes come with such a tip.

One particular type of probe I really like has the spring-loaded tip shown to the left in Photo 3. This is a much smaller tip than “standard,” and the spring-loaded tip makes it much easier to get a good connection with solder joints. You can apply some pressure to break through the oxide layer, and the spring-loaded aspect keeps the tip right on the joint. In addition, you can even do things such as probe through the solder mask on a via. There are even plastic guard add-ons, which fit standard surface mount device (SMD) sizes (e.g., 1.27 mm, 1 mm, 0.8 mm, 0.5 mm) to probe TQFP/SOIC/TSSOP packages.

The particular probe I’m photographing comes with the PicoScope 6000 series, which is sold separately as part number TA150 (350-MHz bandwidth) or TA133 (500-MHz bandwidth). However, I’ve noticed that Agilent seems to also sell a probe that looks the same—under part number N287xA—right down to accessories. Similarly, Teledyne LeCroy also seems to sell this probe under the PP007 part number, and Rohde & Schwarz sells it under the RTM-ZP10 part number, also with the same accessories. Thus I suspect there is some upstream manufacturer! Depending on your supplier and options, prices range from $200-$400 for the probe if you want to pick it up separately.

Photo 5: The ground spring accessory can be used in a number of ways. If you're lucky, you can insert it into GND  vias on your PCB. If required, you can also solder a small section of wire to the spring.

Photo 4: The ground spring accessory can be used in a number of ways. If you’re lucky, you can insert it into GND vias on your PCB. If required, you can also solder a small section of wire to the spring.

Pomona Electronics sells a similar probe, part numbers 6491 through 6501 (the exact partnumber depending on bandwidth). The 150-MHz version (6493) is available for under $60 from Digi-Key, Mouser, and Newark element14, for example. This probe differs from the previous group of spring-loaded ones, but if you don’t need the higher bandwidth it may be a more reasonable purchase.

If you are dealing with a high-bandwidth probe, you may need to be concerned about the flatness of the frequency response. A probe may be sold with a 1G-Hz bandwidth, for example, which simply means the -3-dB point is at 1GHz. However, shoddy manufacturing may mean not having a very flat frequency response before that point, or not rolling off evenly after the -3-dB point.

When dealing with high bandwidth probes, the grounding will become a serious issue. The classic “alligator clip” probably won’t cut it anymore! The simplest accessory your probe is likely to come with is the spring adapter shown in Photo 4. There may be more advanced accessories available for grounding, too; check documentation for the probe itself. You can see an example of differences in grounding as part of my “probe review”  video.

Don’t be afraid to build your own accessories for the probe. Photo 5 shows a probe holder I built for a $15 adjustable arm. Details of the construction are here.

Here’s a simple 3-D probe holder you can build for $20 or less.

Photo 5: Here’s a simple 3-D probe holder you can build for $20 or less.

Topic 5: Digital Input?
The final item to consider is if you want digital inputs along with analog. This is, again, somewhat of a personal choice: You may wish to have a separate stand-alone digital analyzer, or you may wish to have it built into your oscilloscope.

I personally chose to have a stand-alone digital logic analyzer, which is a PC-based instrument. Digital logic analyzers are available at a fairly low cost from a variety of manufacturers (e.g., Saleae and Intronix). In my experience, the cost of purchasing a separate PC-based logic analyzer was considerably lower than the “incremental cost” of selecting an oscilloscope with logic analyzer capabilities compared to one without. When evaluating this yourself, be sure to look at features such as number of channels, maximum sample rate, buffer size, and what protocols can be decoded by the logic analyzer.

While integrated-device manufacturers claim you should buy a scope/analyzer in one unit to get perfect synchronization between digital and analog, remember many of these devices can output a trigger signal. So if your oscilloscope can output a trigger signal when it starts the analog capture, you can use this to capture the corresponding data on the digital logic analyzer (or vice versa).

Next Week: Core Specifications
This first week I covered physical details of the oscilloscope itself you might want to consider. Next week, I’ll look at the more ‘”core” specifications such as bandwidth, sample rate, and sample resolution.

Author’s note: Every reasonable effort has been made to ensure example specifications are accurate. There may, however, be errors or omissions in this article. Please confirm all referenced specifications with the device vendor.

 

4 thoughts on “Evaluating Oscilloscopes (Part 1)

  1. Thanks for the useful information and back to basics if I change my 30 year old scope for a new one.
    BR
    Frederic (France)

  2. Another argument in favour of PC-based scopes: standalone scopes already have a PC inside, which, like build-in GPS in cars may not be the latest
    technology ones. Oscilloscope software for PC based scopes are always updated to take advantages of the latest advances in computing : multi-threaded parallel computing, USB 3.0 SuperSpeed, multiple displays outputs ( I am using a laptop PC with a separate monitor as extension) and so on. At lower sampling rates, the software can handle continuous logging to provide almost infinite record memory.

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