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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32C3: Vector Video Games

There are a few classic video games that rely on vector graphics and special monitors. Asteroids is incomplete if you’re not playing it in its original arcade format. The same goes with Tempest, Lunar Lander, and the 1983 Star Wars arcade game. Emulation of these games is possible, even with MAME, but the display – like every display you can buy today – is still rasterized. The solution to this problem is to create a vector display output for MAME that works in conjunction with adapter boards and DACs connected to a monitor.

For this year’s Chaos Computer Congress, that’s exactly what [Trammell Hudson] and [Adelle Lin] did. They’ve created an open source vector gaming system that connects MAME to XY monitors and oscilloscopes.

The build uses a custom board equipped with a Teensy 3.1 microcontroller and a 12-bit DAC to convert XY coordinates sent by MAME to vectors that can be displayed on any XY monitor. This, of course, requires a patch to MAME, which the maintainers rejected as being an, “unacceptably hacky way to achieve the intended result.” It does achieve the intended result, though: allowing dozens of vector games playable on whatever monitor supports vector graphics.

So far, [Trammell] and [Adelle] have gotten their system working on Vectrex consoles, analog oscilloscopes set to XY mode, and vectorscopes that litter every broadcast station and surplus shop. Check out [Trammell] and [Adelle]’s talk, and if you want to build the vector display driver, the board is available from OSHPark.

No Spectrum Analyser? No Problem!

In the Bad Old Days, a spectrum analyser was a big piece of expensive machinery that you’d have on your bench next to your oscilloscope. And while good ones still cost a ton of money, [rheslip] shows you how to turn your VISA-compatible scope into a decent spectrum analyser for the low, low price of nothing. Watch it in action in the video below the break.

pyvisa-shot0002_tnIf your scope is relatively recent, like this side of the late 1990s, it might support National Instrument’s VISA: virtual instrument software architecture. [rheslip]’s Rigol scope does, and he uses PyVisa, a Python wrapper for the NI-VISA libraries to download the raw samples from the ‘scope and then crunches the FFTs out on his laptop.

There are definitely drawbacks to this method. The sampling depth of the scope is eight bits, which limits his maximum signal-to-noise ratio, and the number-crunching and data transfer are slow, resulting in a 2 Hz refresh rate. But once the data has made it across to his laptop, [rheslip] can run the FFTs at whatever sample length he wants, resulting in very high frequency resolution.

Indeed, we’re thinking that there’s all sorts of custom filters and analysis that one could do with raw access to the oscilloscope’s data. Why haven’t we been doing this all along? Any of you out there have cool VISA tricks that you’d like to share?

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GNU Radio Drives Oscilloscope

These days we are spoiled with a lot of cheap test equipment. However, you can do a lot of measurements with nothing more than an oscilloscope. Add something like a signal generator and you can do even more. One classic technique for frequency measurement, for example, is using a scope to display a Lissajous pattern. [Franz Schaefer] has a video showing how to generate these useful curves with GNU Radio.

As we pointed out earlier, GNU Radio doesn’t have to be about radio–it is really just a Python-based signal processing laboratory. [Franz] uses GNU Radio Companion to create blocks which in turn create the patterns on an old analog scope.

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Flashed the wrong firmware? Swap out the LCD to match!

We always joke about the hardware guys saying that they’ll fix it in firmware, and vice-versa, but this is ridiculous. When [Igor] tried to update his oscilloscope and flashed the wrong firmware version in by mistake, he didn’t fix it in firmware. Instead, he upgraded the LCD display to match the firmware.

See, Siglent doesn’t make [Igor]’s DSO any more; they stopped using the 4:3 aspect ratio screens and replaced them with wider versions. Of course, this is an improvement for anyone buying a new scope, but not if you’ve got the small screen in yours and can’t see anything anymore. After playing around with flashing other company’s firmware (for a similar scope) and failing to get it done over the JTAG, he gave up on the firmware and started looking for a hardware solution.

It turns out that a few SMT resistors set the output screen resolution. After desoldering the appropriate resistors, [Igor] bought a new 7″ LCD screen online only to find out that it has a high-voltage backlight and that he’d need to build an inverter (and hide the noisy circuit inside his oscilloscope). Not daunted, he went digging through his junk box until he found a backlight panel of the right size from another display.

Yet more small soldering, and he had frankensteined a new backlight into place. Of course, the larger LCD won’t fit the case without some cutting, double-sided tape, and a healthy dose of black tape all around insulates the loose electricals. Et voilá!

We have to hand it to [Igor], he’s got moxie. It’s an ugly hack, but it’s a definite screen upgrade, and a lesser hacker would have stopped after flashing the wrong firmware and thrown the thing in the trash. We’d be proud to have that scope sitting on our desk; it’s a definite conversation starter, and a badge of courage to boot.

Phone Scope Build Uses Old Optical Drive

It is hardly news that you can use your smart phone as a really crummy oscilloscope. You can even use it as an audio frequency signal generator. There are also plenty of projects that allow you to buffer signals going in and out of your phone to make these apps more useful and protect your phone’s circuitry to some degree. What caught our eye with [loboat’s] phone oscilloscope project was its construction.

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