Two Portable Oscilloscopes: Shootout

Last time I introduced you to two relatively inexpensive and somewhat portable scopes: the EM125, which is a cross between a digital voltmeter and an oscilloscope, and the Wave Rambler, which is a scope probe with a USB connector attached. Both of the devices cost about $100, and both have their plusses and minuses.

This time, though, I wanted actually to look at some real-world signals. To make that easy, I grabbed yet another scope-like thing I had handy: an Embedded Artists Labtool. This is an interesting board in its own right. It is an LPC-Link programmer attached to an LPC ARM board that has several high-speed A/D channels. However, I’m not using any of that capability for now. The board also has a cheap ARM processor (an LPC812) on it that serves only to generate test signals. The idea is you can use the Labtool in a classroom with no additional equipment.

The Labtool’s demo CPU generates a lot of different signals, but with only one channel on the test scopes, it didn’t make sense to look at, for example, I2C data. So I stuck with two different test signals: a varying pulse width modulation signals and a serial UART transmitter.

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A Tale of Two (Sub $100) Oscilloscopes

Hi, I’m Al, and I’m an oscilloscope-holic. Just looking around my office, I can count six oscilloscope or oscilloscope-like devices. There are more in my garage. If you count the number of scopes I’ve owned (starting with an old RCA scope with a round tube and a single vertical scale), it would be embarrassing.

On the other hand, if you are trying to corral electrons into doing useful things, a scope is a necessity. You can’t visualize what’s happening in a circuit any better than using an oscilloscope. Historically, the devices were expensive and bulky. I’ve had many Tektronix and HP scopes that stayed in one place, and you brought what you were working on to them (sometimes called a “boat anchor”). It wasn’t that long ago that one of my vintage Tek scopes had its own dedicated cart so I could wheel it to where it was needed.

These days, scopes are relatively cheap, depending on what you have in mind for performance. They are also highly portable, which is nice. In fact, it is an indication of how spoiled I’ve become that my main bench scope–a Rigol DS1104Z–weighs seven pounds, yet I still look for something smaller for quick jobs.

That’s how I came into possession of two cheap scopes I wanted to talk about. They are similar in ways but different in others. Neither are going to replace a real bench scope, but if you want something portable, or you are budget-limited, they might be worth a look.

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Repair and Calibration of Valhalla Programmable Precision Standard

Precision standards are the pinnacle of test and measuring instrumentation. Well engineered, sure, but also beautifully built and a feast to look at, no matter how old they are. [Shahriar] at “The Signal Path” often gives us the skinny on such equipment. In the latest episode, we get a look inside a Valhalla 2701C Programmable Precision DC Voltage Standard.

Even by 1990 standards, it is a fairly basic instrument, capable of producing just DC Voltages from 100nV up to 1200V. But it is a reference standard, so the output is highly stable, accurate and precise.  He snagged it from eBay on the cheap but transport seemed to have caused some damage. It would switch on and relays would click when he pressed buttons, but the 7-segment LED display was blank. Luckily, opening the top cover fixes that problem – just a loose connection between the front display and the main board. Examination also shows that adding a 120mA DC current range would require adding additional components on the main board so his hope of doing a quick firmware upgrade is short lived.

[Shahriar] takes the opportunity to walk us through the various sections of the well built unit. It’s apparently seen some repairs during it’s life. A few capacitors look changed, and a relay housing has seen damage from a soldering iron. The digital section is mainly the 6800 micro controller, an EPROM and a NVRAM, and it generates the PWM signals needed for producing the output voltages. A highly precise reference signal is essential for such equipment, and this one uses the LM299 with a “custom” suffix meaning it was specially screened and binned. He does a quick calibration run, but it’s obviously rushed and doesn’t produce stable results. But that could also be due to the low quality cables he used, or a number of other factors. Calibrating such equipment is a job demanding both time and patience.

While this may not knock your socks off. For that, check out this post where [Shahriar] does a tear down of the one million dollar Labmaster 10-100zi Oscilloscope, or this other one where he plays around with a half a million dollar oscilloscope you’ll probably never use, much less own.

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Let’s Play…Wheel of Solder!

Solder is solder right? Just spin the wheel and whatever comes up will work fine. Well, not so fast. If you’re new to electronics, or are looking at getting started, there is a bit to learn first. [Mr Carlson] has the info you need with this youtube video you can watch after the break.

He begins with a discussion of solder diameter. For most through hole work, something around 0.03 inch is pretty universal. When your ready to step up to SMD work, we find 0.02″ inch to be a much better match to the smaller pad sizes. [Mr Carlson] goes on to talk about the types of flux used inside the solder. Rosin(R), Rosin-Midly-Activated(RMA) and Rosin Activated(RA) in order of least to most aggressive.

He rounds out the video with information and a warning about using “organic” core solder. If you’re new to the world of solder, this video is a good jumping off point. TLDR; If you’re just starting out, a 0.03″ RMA solder would be a good place to start – but if you want to learn a bit more, the 20 minute video is worth the watch for those of you just getting your feet iron tip wet. It’ll serve you well at least until solderless metal glue becomes affordable.

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Link Trucker is a Tiny Networking Giant

If you’re a networking professional, there are professional tools for verifying that everything’s as it should be on the business end of an Ethernet cable. These professional tools often come along with a professional pricetag. If you’re just trying to wire up a single office, the pro gear can be overkill. Unless you make it yourself on the cheap! And now you can.

[Kristopher Marciniak] designed and built an inexpensive device that verifies the basics:

  • Is the link up? Is this cable connected?
  • Can it get a DHCP address?
  • Can it perform a DNS lookup?
  • Can it open a webpage?

What’s going on under the hood? A Raspberry Pi, you’d think. A BeagleBoard? Our hearts were warmed to see a throwback to a more civilized age: an ENC28J60 breakout board and an Arduino Uno. That’s right, [Kristopher] replicated a couple-hundred dollar network tester for the price of a few lattes. And by using a pre-made housing, [Kristopher]’s version looks great too. Watch it work in the video just below the break.

Building an embedded network device used to be a lot more work, but it could be done. One of our favorites is still [Ian Lesnet’s] webserver on a business card from way back in 2008 which also used the ENC28J60 Ethernet chip.
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Solderless Breadboard Parasitics

Solderless breadboards are extremely handy. You always hear, of course, that you need to be careful with them at high frequencies and that they can add unwanted capacitance and crosstalk to a circuit. That stands to reason since you have relatively long pieces of metal spaced close together — the very definition of a capacitor.

[Ryan Jensen] did more than just listen to that advice. He built a circuit and used a scope to investigate just how much coupling he could expect with a simple digital circuit. Better still, he also made a video of it (see below). The test setup shows a single gate of a hex Schmitt trigger inverter with a sine wave input. The output transitions ring and also couple back into the input.

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What’s in a tool? A case for Made in USA.

A lot of people make the argument that you can’t go wrong buying a tool made in USA, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, etc. They swear that any Chinese tool will be garbage and it’s not worth purchasing them. Now, any discerning mind will say, “Wait a minute, why? China has a huge economy, experienced people, and the ability to use all the scary chemicals that make the best steel. Why would their tools be any better or worse than ours?” It’s a very valid argument. There are lots of Chinese tools that are the best in the world. Most of what we see in our stores are not. So what is the difference. Why does a country who can make the best tools not make the best tools? Surely it isn’t purely cost cutting. Is it cultural? The opinion I wish to put forth is that it’s a matter of design intent communication.

I’ve worked as an engineer in industry. The one common thread between a quality product and a bad product has always been this, ”Is the person who designed the product involved in making the product?” If the person or peoples who imbued the design intent into the original product are actively involved in and working towards the execution of that product, that product has a vastly greater chance of being good. Or in other words: outsourcing doesn’t produce a bad product because the new people making the product don’t care. It makes a bad product because the people who understand the intent behind the product are separated from its execution.

As you can see the export made crescent wrench is not made to the same tolerances as the previous wrench.
As you can see the export made crescent wrench is not made to the same tolerances as the previous wrench.

Let’s take the Crescent wrench as an example. Crescent wrenches used to be made in USA. In the past few years they have begun to make them in China. We can spot many visual differences right away. The new Crescent wrench has a different shape, the logo has changed and the stamping for the logo is dodgy, and worse, the tool just doesn’t operate as well as it used to. The jaws aren’t as hard and they wiggle more. What happened? How could Crescent mess up their flagship so badly. Surely they intended just to cut costs, not to reduce quality. This isn’t shameful in itself

What happened to the Crescent wrench is easily explained by anyone who has seen a product from design to execution before. A factory in the USA set out to make a good adjustable wrench. Hundreds of engineers and employees worked in a building to make a good wrench. When their machines didn’t work, they came up with solutions. When their quality was lacking, they implemented better processes. They had a list of trusted suppliers. They could guarantee that the materials that came in would be imbued with their vision and intent when the product came out. The intent and will of all those people built up in one place over time.

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