Pocket Multimeter Review


Reader [Mikey Sklar] told us about a review he wrote covering 3 different models of pocket multimeters. We’re sure that you’ve had the same experiences we have being the go-to-guy or got-to-gal  for all things electrical. For our sort, having a multimeter on hand at all times has become an expectation.

[Mikey] looks at a model from ebay, Harbor Freight, and Radio Shack. Not surprisingly, the ebay offering doesn’t rate too well but does get the job done. We were surprised to read that he picked up the Cen-Tech model for about $10 at Harbor Freight. Although it may no longer be sold there (we haven’t checked) [Mikey] seems pretty happy with it so we’ll be on the lookout during our next tool-buying trip. We’re unfamiliar with the tiny Radio Shack 22-820 but we’ve always been happy with our larger 22-811. The 22-820 allows the probes to be folded up inside of the case cover for a truly pocketable package.

You can never have too many meters at your disposal and we’ll have to keep this article in mind the next time we’re shopping for another. Never used a multimeter before? Take a look at the tutorial [Mikey] linked to over at ladyada.

33 thoughts on “Pocket Multimeter Review

  1. Cen-Tech makes an even cheaper multimeter with no CT model number, but it’s Harbor Freight item ITEM 90899; it’s currently listed at $4.99 and I’ve seen it at $2.99 in the local store. This is a fine little meter and while I also own a Fluke, this is the one I grab when it might get dropped in a puddle of muddy water (I own three of them for this reason). It measures current up to 10A, voltage to 1000VDC or 750VAC, resistance to 2 megohms, has diode and transistor check, and tests batteries under load. It doesn’t have the cool lead wrap feature, though.

  2. This “review” is useless without testing the accuracy. I once used a cheap multimeter that read 150-160V when I measured the wall voltage, and 15V when I measures a working 12V power supply. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until I changed the battery and everything was fine.

    For things like batteries, even smaller errors in voltage can make a huge difference. A few tenths of a volt or less could be the difference be the difference between a good battery and a bad one. I wouldn’t expect any of these multimeters to be as accurate as a more expensive one, but it would help to know if they are at least close.

  3. Another thing to bear in mind… cheap meters generally do *not* read rms voltages… rather, they assume a sine wave. while this is fine for the occasional test of a wall outlet, if you use such an instrument to measure non-sinusoidal waveforms (like the strange stuff coming from collapsing fields in coils) you are likely to get meaningless numbers. many a well-intended and otherwise honest “free energy” experimenter has been fooled into believing he had achieved over-unity. spend the extra money for a true-rms meter, and pay attention to crest factor.

  4. The even cheaper harbor freight mentioned above is probably the best value (I usually get several to give to coworkers who ask to borrow my stuff, and just to have around).

    For the most portable, there is:


    Tenma “folding” (it doesn’t, but the case does). It has capacitance, frequency, continuity beeper, and quite a few features for $20, and actually fits into a pocket (use the case, or put some unshrunk heatshrink to protect from the sharp probe ends).

  5. @David Ruger, Maybe you should put some model and price information from that meter.

    I don’t think the point of this article was to compare the size but rather the available small/handy and very cheap models.

  6. @Elias, it’s obviously a Sanwa PM3, available here for a mere 147.00 Malaysian ringgits (42USD):


    It’s small, but not that small:


    A classic US-market entry in the field would be the Micronta 22-171, available at better garage sales:


    Actually very tough for a cheesy pocket meter. I don’t remember which battery it uses but it’s something more exotic than CR2032, unfortunately.

  7. I noticed that every pawn shop in my town had at least 3 meters and at least one of them was a nice lightly-used fluke.
    Shop around for nice stuff if you want nice stuff on a budget.

    However, I think having even a decent meter isn’t the point of this – we’re talking pocket sized here. I don’t know how many times I just wanted a continuity tester or something to see if there’s any voltage at all (is there a short? do you need new batteries? the specific voltage often doesn’t matter if you’re just checking something out on a whim at a party or something).

  8. Back in college, my prof tried to convince us that you didn’t need batteries in a digital meter to check voltage (keep in mind this is 20+ years when digitals first came out and most of us were using analogs) I bet him a grade level he was wrong and proceeded to prove it. never gave me the extra grade though

  9. So, the radio shack $30 unit is better than the $10 cen-tech because even though it doesn’t measure as much current (who uses over 200mA anyway?) and it’s not as easy to use, it’s “sexy”.

    So forget about technical specifications, you nerds, and go “pick one up”!

  10. I don’t know why everyone goes on and on about Flukes. If you’re a lineman, sure. If you regularly troubleshoot RF circuits or something, maybe. But for 95% of us hackers, there’s no need to spend more than $40 or so. I have a $39 Extech that runs on AAAs (not those lovely 450mAh 9v), does all the regular stuff to 4,000 count, autoranging with manual range selection, plus capacitance, frequency, duty cycle, temperature and non-contact voltage to boot.

    1. IMO the are plenty of professionals relying on Extech, and similar quality instruments everyday. Not everyone can afford top of the line brands when they start out. My first meter was an analog Eico kit that the tech school used to develop our soldering skills. Those meters served us well for years after we left school

  11. There is no point comparing these multimeters, performance wise they all will have same ICL7xxx(or clone) IC, if you want The Tool pick a Fluke or a Bench meter from Ebay, or a fancier Mastech or Protek, but these tend to be slow on autoranging, and if you measure anything remotely different from sinewaves get one with true rms.

  12. I have a older version of the radioshack one. Very nice. Just doesn’t do Current readings. Held up nice in over 8 years.

    One tip. To get a better/more precise/closer reading then those big tip probes it come with (Which are useful), is to wrap some bell wire (22ga) solid core wire and use that as a probe tip. So much better for SMD testing.

  13. Be careful using these cheap meters if you are measuring large potential voltages. Just because it says 1000v doesnt mean it should be used for such. Get a good grade III or IV meter for this purpose. I have seem these 1000v meters explode on only 440v circuits. Cheaper is not always better.

  14. Arguing that “comparing cheap meters is pointless” isn’t always true. It depends on what you’re working on.

    I’d be damned if I was going to take a $300+ multimeter into the field if there was a chance of dropping it into a sewer or something similar.

  15. I vote for the Fluke. You will never be sorry you spent the money on a good tool. We tried to cheap out at work and bought some Extech 330 meters. These are frustratingly slow to use, as the readings take several seconds to stabilize, especially when reading resistance.

    Buy a Fluke (or other name brand) and you won’t regret it. If you get an Extech or a cheap Chinese meter, it’ll just sit in the corner after you get frustrated and buy the Fluke.

  16. My regular meter is a Fluke 189 and Peter already said everything I have to say on the subject of good tools. Buy the best Fluke you can afford.

    That said, the $2.99 Harbor Freight meter is better than it has any right to be. We buy them at work for the technicians to beat up and for monitoring multiple voltages in test setups and so on. I keep one in my bag of cheap tools in the trunk of my car, too. My only complaint with them so far is that they don’t have an auto-shutoff feature. Since a decent 9V alkaline battery costs about $2.49 it’s almost not worth replacing the battery in them.

  17. It all depends what your needs are. I do mostly digital stuff with some analogue here and there, and find that a basic meter is absolutely fine.

    Capacitance and frequency are nice to have. Cheap auto-ranging is worthless though as it’s too slow. 99 times out of 100 you have a good idea what the range is anyway, and that other 1 time you can just start at the top and work down.

    As for accuracy, for many applications consistency is more important. Say you are building a stereo amplifier, you need two matched resistors to set the gain to exactly the same amount on both channels. If your meter is +30ohms off at 100k it doesn’t matter as long as it is always +30ohms. Two 100,030ohm resistors will still have matched gain.

  18. I’m looking for a small multimeter (not necessarily pocket format) with rechargeable batteries. Maybe I could tweak it to work on dc-plug too, maybe does one already exists with this option.

    If you have any idea.

  19. My dad got me a 10-euro multimeter (that’s about $12.60 for you USians) and it does fine.
    Sure, I have access to a fancy Fluke true-RMS meter.
    But I might as well have a modern, cheap meter.
    It claims to take 600V, but who cares if I zap it?
    For 10 euros it doesn’t really matter, and it’s quite accurate too.

  20. @bjonnh you could pick up the one from harbor freight for 2.50$ (coupon code:59026906) and put a rechargeable 9v battery in it (i’m 85% sure the cen-tech models use 9v), there might also be enough room for a small 9v regulator board for external power

  21. Between me and my husband we’ve owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I’ve settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are

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