How An Oscilloscope Probe Works, And Other Stories

The oscilloscope is probably the most versatile piece of test equipment you can have on your electronics bench, offering a multitude of possibilities for measuring timing, frequency and voltage as well as subtleties in your circuits revealed by the shape of the waveforms they produce.

On the front of a modern ‘scope is a BNC socket, into which you can feed your signal to be investigated. If however you simply hook up a co-axial BNC lead between source and ‘scope, you’ll immediately notice some problems. Your waveforms will be distorted. In the simplest terms your square waves will no longer be square.

Why is this? Crucial to the operation of an oscilloscope is a very high input impedance, to minimise current draw on the circuit it is investigating. Thus the first thing that you will find behind that BNC socket is a 1 megohm resistor to ground, or at least if not a physical resistor then other circuitry that presents its equivalent. This high resistance does its job of presenting a high impedance to the outside world, but comes with a penalty. Because of its high value, the effects of even a small external capacitance can be enough to create a surprisingly effective low or high pass filter, which in turn can distort the waveform you expect on the screen.

The answer to this problem is to be found in your oscilloscope probe. It might seem that the probe is simply a plug with a bit of wire to a rigid point with an earth clip, but in reality it contains a simple yet clever mitigation of the capacitance problem.

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Smartphone Bench Instrument Apps: Disappointment or Delight?

If you are interested in electronics or engineering, you’ll have noticed a host of useful-sounding apps to help you in your design and build work. There are calculators, design aids, and somewhat intriguingly, apps that claim to offer an entire instrument on your phone. A few of them are produced to support external third-party USB instrument peripherals, but most of them claim to offer the functionality using just the hardware within the phone. Why buy an expensive oscilloscope, spectrum analyzer, or signal generator, when you can simply download one for free?

Those who celebrate Christmas somewhere with a British tradition are familiar with Christmas crackers and the oft-disappointing novelties they contain. Non-Brits are no doubt lost at this point… the crackers in question are a cardboard tube wrapped in shiny paper drawn tight over each end of it. The idea is that two people pull on the ends of the paper, and when it comes apart out drops a toy or novelty. It’s something like the prize in a Cracker Jack Box.

Engineering-oriented apps follow this cycle of hope and disappointment. But there are occasional exceptions. Let’s tour some of the good and the bad together, shall we?

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Analog to Digital Converter (ADC): A True Understanding

Back in the day where the microprocessor was our standard building block, we tended to concentrate on computation and processing of data and not so much on I/O. Simply put there were a lot of things we had to get working just so we could then read the state of an I/O port or a counter.

Nowadays the microcontroller has taken care of most of the system level needs with the luxury of built in RAM memory and the ability to upload our code. That leaves us able to concentrate on the major role of a microcontroller: to interpret something about the environment, make decisions, and often output the result to energize a motor, LED, or some other twiddly bits.

Often the usefulness of a small microcontroller project depends on being able to interpret external signals in the form of voltage or less often, current. For example the output of a photocell, or a temperature sensor may use an analog voltage to indicate brightness or the temperature. Enter the Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) with the ability to convert an external signal to a processor readable value.

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