If you do any work with high-speed signals, you quickly realize that probing is an art unto itself. Just having a fast oscilloscope isn’t enough; you’ve got to have probes fast enough to handle the signals you want to see. In this realm, just any old probe won’t do: the input capacitance of the classic RC probe you so often see on low-bandwidth scopes starts to severely load down a circuit well below 1 GHz. That’s why we were really pleased to see [Andrew Zonenberg’s] new open-source design for a 2 GHz resistive probe hit Kickstarter.
The design of this new probe looks deceptively simple. Known as a Z0-probe, transmission-line probe, or resistive probe, the circuit works as a voltage divider, created from the 50-Ohm input impedance of a high-speed oscilloscope input and an external resistor, to reduce loading on the circuit-under-test. In this case, the input resistance has been chosen to be 500 Ohms, yielding a 10x probe. In theory, building such a probe is as simple as soldering a resistor to the end of a piece of coaxial cable. You can do exactly that, but in practice, optimizing a design is much more complex. As you can see in the schematic, just choosing a resistor of the right value doesn’t cut it at these frequencies. Even the tiny 0402-size resistors have parasitic capacitance and inductance that affect the response, and choosing a combination of parts that add to the correct resistance but reduce the overall capacitive loading makes a huge difference.
Don’t be fooled: the relatively simple schematic belies the complexity of such a design. At these speeds, the PCB layout is just as much of a component as the resistors themselves, and getting the transmission-line and especially the SMA footprint launch correct is no easy task. Using a combination of modeling with the Sonnet EM simulator and empirical testing, [Andrew] has ended up with a design that’s flat (+/- 1 dB) out to 1.98 GHz, with a 10-90% rise time of 161 ps. That’s a fast probe.
The probe comes in a few options, from fully assembled with traceable specs to a DIY solder-it-yourself version. You probably know which of these options you need.
We really like to see this kind of knowledge and thoroughness go into a project, and we’d love to see the Kickstarter project reach its goals, but perhaps the best part is that the design is permissively open-source licensed. This is a case where having the board layout open-sourced is key; the schematic tells you maybe half of what’s really going on in the circuit, and getting the PCB right yourself can be a long and frustrating exercise. So, have a look at the project, and if you haven’t got probes suitable for your fastest scopes, build one, or better yet, support the development of this exciting design.
We’ve seen [Andrew’s] oscilloscope work before, like glscopeclient, his remote oscilloscope utility program.