Evaluating Oscilloscopes (Part 4)

In this final installment of my four-part mini-series about selecting an oscilloscope, I’ll look at triggering, waveform generators, and clock synchronization, and I’ll wrap up with a series summary.

My previous posts have included Part 1, which discusses probes and physical characteristics of stand-alone vs. PC-based oscilloscopes; Part 2, which examines core specifications such as bandwidth, sample rate, and ADC resolution; and Part 3, which focuses on software. My posts are more a “collection of notes” based on my own research rather than a completely thorough guide. But I hope they are useful and cover some points you might not have otherwise considered before choosing an oscilloscope.

This is a screenshot from Colin O'Flynn's YouTube video "Using PicoScope AWG for Testing Serial Data Limits."

This is a screenshot from Colin O’Flynn’s YouTube video “Using PicoScope AWG for Testing Serial Data Limits.”

Topic 1: Triggering Methods
Triggering your oscilloscope properly can make a huge difference in being able to capture useful waveforms. The most basic triggering method is just a “rising” or “falling” edge, which almost everyone is (or should be) familiar with.

Whether you need a more advanced trigger method will depend greatly on your usage scenario and a bit on other details of your oscilloscope. If you have a very long buffer length or ability to rapid-fire record a number of waveforms, you might be able to live with a simple trigger since you can easily throw away data that isn’t what you are looking for. If your oscilloscope has a more limited buffer length, you’ll need to trigger on the exact moment of interest.

Before I detail some of the other methods, I want to mention that you can sometimes use external instruments for triggering. For example, you might have a logic analyzer with an extremely advanced triggering mechanism.  If that logic analyzer has a “trigger out,” you can trigger the oscilloscope from your logic analyzer.

On to the trigger methods! There are a number of them related to finding “odd” pulses: for example, finding glitches shorter or wider than some length or finding a pulse that is lower than the regular height (called a “runt pulse”). By knowing your scope triggers and having a bit of creativity, you can perform some more advanced troubleshooting. For example, when troubleshooting an embedded microcontroller, you can have it toggle an I/O pin when a task runs. Using a trigger to detect a “pulse dropout,” you can trigger your oscilloscope when the system crashes—thus trying to see if the problem is a power supply glitch, for example.

If you are dealing with digital systems, be on the lookout for triggers that can function on serial protocols. For example, the Rigol Technologies stand-alone units have this ability, although you’ll also need an add-on to decode the protocols! In fact, most of the serious stand-alone oscilloscopes seem to have this ability (e.g., those from Agilent, Tektronix, and Teledyne LeCroy); you may just need to pay extra to enable it.

Topic 2: External Trigger Input
Most oscilloscopes also have an “external trigger input.”  This external input doesn’t display on the screen but can be used for triggering. Specifically, this means your trigger channel doesn’t count against your “ADC channels.” So if you need the full sample rate on one channel but want to trigger on another, you can use the “ext in” as the trigger.
Oscilloscopes that include this feature on the front panel make it slightly easier to use; otherwise, you’re reaching around behind the instrument to find the trigger input.

Topic 3: Arbitrary Waveform Generator
This isn’t strictly an oscilloscope-related function, but since enough oscilloscopes include some sort of function generator it’s worth mentioning. This may be a standard “signal generator,” which can generate waveforms such as sine, square, triangle, etc. A more advanced feature, called an arbitrary waveform generator (AWG), enables you to generate any waveform you want.

I previously had a (now very old) TiePie engineering HS801 that included an AWG function. The control software made it easy to generate sine, square, triangle, and a few other waveforms. But the only method of generating an arbitrary waveform was to load a file you created in another application, which meant I almost never used the “arbitrary” portion of the AWG. The lesson here is that if you are going to invest in an AWG, make sure the software is reasonable to use.

The AWG may have a few different specifications; look for the maximum analog bandwidth along with the sample rate. Be careful of outlandish claims: a 200 MS/s digital to analog converter (DAC) could hypothetically have a 100-MHz analog bandwidth, but the signal would be almost useless. You could only generate some sort of sine wave at that frequency, which would probably be full of harmonics. Even if you generated a lower-frequency sine wave (e.g., 10 MHz), it would likely contain a fair amount of harmonics since the DAC’s output filter has a roll-off at such a high frequency.

Better systems will have a low-pass analog filter to reduce harmonics, with the DAC’s sample rate being several times higher than the output filter roll-off. The Pico Technology PicoScope 6403D oscilloscope I’m using can generate a 20-MHz signal but has a 200 MS/s sample rate on the DAC. Similarly, the TiePie engineering HS5-530 has a 30-MHz signal bandwidth, and similarly uses a 240 MS/s sample rate. A sample rate of around five to 10 times the analog bandwidth seems about standard.

Having the AWG integrated into the oscilloscope opens up a few useful features. When implementing a serial protocol decoder, you may want to know what happens if the baud rate is slightly off from the expected rate. You can quickly perform this test by recording a serial data packet on the oscilloscope, copying it to the AWG, and adjusting the AWG sample rate to slightly raise or lower the baud rate. I illustrate this in the following video.


Topic 4: Clock Synchronization

One final issue of interest: In certain applications, you may need to synchronize the sample rate to an external device. Oscilloscopes will often have two features for doing this. One will output a clock from the oscilloscope, the other will allow you to feed an external clock into the oscilloscope.

The obvious application is synchronizing a capture between multiple oscilloscopes. You can, however, use this for any application where you wish to use a synchronous capture methodology. For example, if you wish to use the oscilloscope as part of a software-defined radio (SDR), you may want to ensure the sampling happens synchronous to a recovered clock.

The input frequency of this clock is typically 10 MHz, although some devices enable you to select between several allowed frequencies. If the source of this clock is anything besides another instrument, you may have to do some clock conditioning to convert it into one of the valid clock source ranges.

Summary and Closing Comments
That’s it! Over the past four weeks I’ve tried to raise a number of issues to consider when selecting an oscilloscope. As previously mentioned, the examples were often PicoScope-heavy simply because it is the oscilloscope I own. But all the topics have been relevant to any other oscilloscope you may have.

You can check out my YouTube playlist dealing with oscilloscope selection and review.  Some topics might suggest further questions to ask.

I’ve probably overlooked a few issues, but I can’t cover every possible oscilloscope and option. When selecting a device, my final piece of advice is to download the user manual and study it carefully, especially for features you find most important. Although the datasheet may gloss over some details, the user manual will typically address the limitations you’ll run into, such as FFT length or the memory depths you can configure.

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.

CC280: Analog Communications and Calibration

Are you an analog aficionado? You’re in luck. Two articles, in particular, focus on the November issue’s analog techniques theme. (Look for the issue shortly after mid-October, when it will be available on our website.)

Block Diagram

Data from the base adapter is sent by level shifting the RS-232 or CMOS serial data between 9 and 12 V. A voltage comparator at the remote adapter slices the signal to generate a 0-to-5-V logic signal. The voltage on the signal wire never goes low enough for the 5-V regulator to go out of regulation.

These adapters use a combination of tricks. A single pair of wires carries full-duplex serial data and a small amount of power to a remote device for tasks (e.g., continuous remote data collection and control). The digital signals can be simple on/off signals or more complex signals (e.g., RS-232).

These adapters use a combination of tricks. A single pair of wires carries full-duplex serial data and a small amount of power to a remote device for tasks (e.g., continuous remote data collection and control). The digital signals can be simple on/off signals or more complex signals (e.g., RS-232).

Dick Cappels, a consultant who tinkers with analog and mixed-signal projects, presents a design using a pair of cable adapters and simple analog circuits to enable full-duplex, bidirectional communications and power over more than 100 m of paired wires. Why bother when Power Over Ethernet  (PoE), Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi approaches are available?

“In some applications, using Ethernet is a disadvantage because of the higher costs and greater interface complexity,” Cappels says. “You can use a microcontroller that costs less than a dollar and a few analog parts described in this article to perform remote data gathering and control.”

The base unit including the 5-to-15-V power supply is simple for its functionality. The two eight-pin DIP ICs are a voltage comparator and the switching regulator.

The base unit including the 5-to-15-V power supply is simple for its functionality. The two eight-pin DIP ICs are a voltage comparator and the switching regulator.

Cappels’s need for data channels to monitor his inground water tank inspired his design. Because his local municipality did not always keep the tank filled, he needed to know when it was dry so his pumps wouldn’t run without water and possibly become damaged.
“Besides the mundane application of monitoring a water tank, the system would be excellent for other communication uses,” Cappels says, including computer connection to a home weather station and intrusion-detection systems. Bit rates up to 250 kHz also enable the system to be used in two-way voice communication such as intercoms, he says.

Retired engineer David Cass Tyler became interested in writing his series about calibration while working on a consulting project. “I came to realize that some people don’t really know how to approach the issue of taking an analog-to-digital value to actual engineering units, nor how to correct calibration factors after the fact,” Tyler says

In Part 1 of his article series, Tyler notes: “Digital inputs and digital outputs are pretty simple. They are either on or off. However, for ADCs and DACs to be accurate, they must first be calibrated. This article addresses linear ADCs and DACs.” Part 2, appearing in the December issue, will discuss using polynomial curve fitting to convert nonlinear data to real-world engineering values.

In addition to its analog-themed articles, the November issue includes topics ranging from a DIY solar array tracker’s software to power-capped computer systems.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about Circuit Cellar contributors Dick Cappels and David Cass Tyler by reading their posts about their workspaces and favorite DIY tools.

Client Profile: Netburner, Inc

NetBurner, Inc.
5405 Morehouse Drive
San Diego, CA 92121

www.netburner.com

Contact: sales@netburner.com

Embedded Products/Services: The NetBurner solution provides hardware, software, and tools to network enable new and existing products. All components are integrated and fully functional, so you can immediately begin working on your application.

Product Categories:

  • Serial to Ethernet: Modules can be used out of the box with no programming, or you can use a development kit to create your own custom applications. Hardware ranges from a single chip to small modules with many features.
  • Core Modules: Typically used as the core processing module in a design, core modules include the processor, flash, RAM and on-board network capability. The processor pins are brought out to connectors and include functions such as SPI, I2C, address/data bus, ADC, DAC, UARTs, digital I/O, PWM, and CAN.
  • Development Kits: Development kits can be used to customize any of NetBurner’s Serial-to-Ethernet or Core Modules. Kits include the Eclipse IDE, a C/C++ compiler/linker, a debugger, a RTOS, a TCP/IP stack, and board support packages.

Product Information: The MOD54415 and the NANO54415 modules provide 250-MHz processor, up to 32 MB flash, 64 MB DDR, ADC, DAC, eight UARTs, four I2C, three SPI, 1-wire, microSD flash socket, five PWM, and up to 44 digital I/O.

Exclusive Offer: Receive 15% off on select development kits. Promo code: CIRCUITCELLAR


Circuit Cellar prides itself on presenting readers with information about innovative companies, organizations, products, and services relating to embedded technologies. This space is where Circuit Cellar enables clients to present readers useful information, special deals, and more.

Data Acquisition Instrument

The DI-145 USB data acquisition instrument features four ±100-V analog channels and two dedicated digital inputs. The included DATAQ WinDaq data acquisition software (DAS) enables you to display and record data to a PC hard drive in real time. Once recorded, data can be played back, analyzed, or exported to an array of data acquisition and spreadsheet formats.

DATAQ also provides access to the DI-145 data protocol, which enables access to the DI-145 on any Windows, Linux, or MAC OS. In addition, .NET control is available to Windows users who wish to use a third-party programming language (e.g., Microsoft’s Visual Basic or National Instruments’s LabVIEW) to interface with the DI-145.

The four ±10-V fixed differential channels are protected from transient spikes up to ±150 V peak (±75 V, continuous). A 10-bit ADC provides 19.5-mV resolution across the full-scale measurement range. Digital inputs are protected up to ±30 VDC/peak AC. The digital inputs enable you to use a switch closure or TTL signal to remotely insert event marks or record data to disk.

The DI-145 measures 1.53” × 2.625” × 5.5” (3.89 cm × 6.67 cm × 13.97 cm) and weighs 3.6 oz. The data acquisition instrument costs $29 and includes a mini screwdriver, a USB cable, WinDaq/Lite DAS, access to the data protocol, and .NET control.

DATAQ Instruments, Inc.
www.dataq.com

Client Profile: MicroDigital, Inc.

Micro Digital, Inc.
2900 Bristol Street, G 204,
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

www.smxrtos.com

Contact: David Moore

MDIEmbedded Products/Services: SMX® RTOS is a modular Real Time Operating System designed to meet the needs of small to medium-size embedded systems. It offers these modules: Preemptive multitasking kernel, TCP/IP dual IPv4/IPv6, 802.11a/b/g/i/n WiFi, USB Host/Device/OTG, flash file systems, GUI, security, IEEE 754 floating point, and more. Each is a strong product on its own, and all are tightly integrated to work well together. It offers good support for the latest ARM, Cortex, and ColdFire processors. See www.smxrtos.com/rtos and www.smxrtos.com/processors.

SMX® RTOS offers a broad selection of middleware modules, optional protocols, and drivers for the latest embedded processors. All are tightly integrated and work well together, so you can spend your time developing your product rather than gathering components from all over the Internet and integrating them. All are strong products on their own. SMX comes with full source code and simple, unambiguous, royalty-free licensing. You are free to modify our products in any way you wish and need not return changes to us.

 


Circuit Cellar prides itself on presenting readers with information about innovative companies, organizations, products, and services relating to embedded technologies. This space is where Circuit Cellar enables clients to present readers useful information, special deals, and more.