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An oscilloscope, or “o-scope,” is a device to troubleshoot electronic equipment problems. They are commonly used in engineering, medicine, the sciences, and with special purpose o-scores for automobile ignition testing. When you need a device with more functionality than a multimeter, an oscilloscope is your best choice. This type of test equipment is used to determine frequency and amplitude of signal, identifying noise, determining the shape of a wave, and lastly differentiating phases’ signals.
Common types of oscilloscopes include: cathode-ray (CRO), dual-beam, analog storage, digital, and mixed-signal. There are a variety of handheld oscilloscope varieties that are great for on site, or fieldwork. Newer software allows users to run tests on computers. This requires an “acquisition board” that plugs into the USB or parallel port.
Know what general features you require.
Oscilloscopes are not made equal. Many times different types of oscilloscopes will have different features. When renting, determine your purpose for the device first. Examples of use include general testing (determining the cause of malfunctioning electronic equipment), running diagnostics on new circuitry, or automotive testing. Here are some general features of oscilloscopes to consider before renting:
Digital/Analog: If you need a “newer” model that has more features and a faster response, rent a digital oscilloscopes. Analog devices use an electron beam to map input voltage; Digital devices incorporate micro controllers.
Channel: If you need to read more than two channels at a time, it’s recommended you rent a scope with multiple channels. A mid-ranged oscilloscope will have at least 2 channels.
Bandwidth: Higher bandwidth will allow you to measure more waveforms. Your “Rise Time” will be closely related to your bandwidth. If you work at higher frequencies, the bandwidth of the vertical amplifiers needs to be high enough to fit your needs.
Sampling Rate: this feature only comes with digital oscilloscopes.
Maximum Input Voltage: One of the most important features on the oscilloscope, is the maximum input voltage. Know the input voltage you require before renting.
Input Impedance: Oscilloscopes will have impedances based on a circuit it is reading. When measuring high signals, input impedance is more apparent. If you choose to measure high signals, make sure the device you’re renting has mechanisms to compensate for input impedance.
Know what component specifications you require.
What information are you testing? Make sure the display of the oscillscope covers all your baseline testing requirements. Every display has horizontal (seconds) and vertical (voltage) lines called divisions. Oscilloscopes typically have around 9-10 vertical divisions, and 10-14 horizontal divisions.
Trigger System Requirements
The trigger tells the o-scope what parts of the signal and “trigger” and start measuring. This is an important feature, as a trigger system in disrepair will display erratic waveforms. The type of trigger system you choose will depend on the type of waveforms you need to measure. More basic triggers is called an “edge” trigger. If you need a trigger that measures video data (NTSC or PAL) specify this at time of rental.
List of trigger types:
Selecting the Right Probe
The better the probe, the more invisible it is. A probe shouldn’t effect your signal under test.
Knowing the type of probe you need is crucial to running the right test. The most common type of probe, the passive probe, is included in standards oscilloscopes. 10X attenuated probes are great to improve specificity of measuring your frequencies, especially at a high range. The lower the frequency the lower the type of attenuated probe you need. Measuring AC or DC current? Use an active probe. More advanced probes include a magnetic flux sensor which allows the user to view the low-frequency part of a current waveform.
Most oscilloscopes are fairly light-weight, but there are many options which are battery-powered. These are especially helpful when doing fieldwork. Older, analog oscilloscopes are typically bench top devices.
Common manufacturers of oscilloscopes include Philips, Laesent, Rigol, and Tektronics.