Review: SMD Tweezer Meter or Tweezer Probes For Your Multimeter?

It’s remarkable how tiny electronics have become. Heaven knows what an old-timer whose experience started with tubes must think, to go from solder tags to SMD in a lifetime is some journey. Even  the generation that started with discrete transistors has lived through an incredible shift. But it’s true, SMD components are tiny, and that presents a challenge aside from the one you’ll face when soldering them. Identifying and measuring the value of a chip component too small to have any writing upon it becomes almost impossible with a pair of standard test probes.

Happily the test equipment manufacturers have risen to the challenge, and produced all sorts of meters designed for SMD work that have a pair of tweezers instead of test prods. When I was looking for one I did my usual thing when it comes to Hackaday reviews. I looked at the budget end of the market, and bought an inexpensive Chinese model for about £16($21). And since I was browsing tweezers I couldn’t resist adding another purchase to my order. I found a pair of tweezer test probes for my multimeter which cost me just over a pound ($1.30) and would provide a useful comparison. For working with SMD components in situ, do you even need the special meter?

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Analog Discovery 2 as a Vector Network Analyzer

A while back, I posted a review of the Analog Discovery 2, which is one of those USB “do everything” instruments. You might recall I generally liked it, although I wasn’t crazy about the price and the fact that the BNC connectors were an extra item. However, in that same post, I mentioned I’d look at the device’s capabilities as a network analyzer (NA) sometime in the future. The future, as they say, is now.

What’s an NA?

In its simplest form, there’s not much to an NA. You sweep a frequency generator across some range of frequencies. You feed that into some component or network of components and then you measure the power you get out compared to the power you put in. Fancy instruments can do some other measurements, but that’s really the heart of it.

The output is usually in two parts. You see a scope-like graph that has the frequency as the X-axis and some sort of magnitude as the Y-axis. Often the magnitude will be the ratio of the output power to the input power as a decibel. In addition, another scope-like output will show the phase shift through the network (Y-axis) vs frequency (X-axis). The Discovery 2 has these outputs and you can add custom displays, too.

Why do you care? An NA can help you understand tuned circuits, antennas, or anything else that has a frequency response, even an active filter or the feedback network of an oscillator. Could you do the same measurements manually? Of course you could. But taking hundreds of measurements per octave would be tedious and error-prone.

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Function Generator Gets DIY Frequency Standard

For those of us who like to wrangle electrons from time to time, there are some exceptional deals out there for low (or at least lower) cost imported test equipment. If you’re willing to part with a few hundred dollars US, you can get some serious hardware that a decade ago would have been effectively outside the reach of the hobbyist. Right now you can order a four channel oscilloscope for less than what a new Xbox costs; but which one you’ll rack up more hours staring at slack-jawed is up to you.

10 MHz output from DIY frequency standard

Of course, these “cheap” pieces of equipment aren’t always perfect. [Paul Lutus] was pretty happy with his relatively affordable Siglent SDG 1025 Arbitrary Function Generator, but found its accuracy to be a bit lacking. Fortunately, the function generator accepts an external clock which can be used to increase its accuracy, so he decided to build one.

[Paul] starts off by going over the different options he considered for this project, essentially boiling down to whether or not he wanted to jump through the extra hoops required for an oven-controlled crystal oscillator (OCXO). But the decision was effectively made for him when his first attempt at using a more simplistic temperature controlled oscillator failed due to an unfortunate misjudgment in terms of package size.

In the end, he decided to spring for the OCXO, and was able to use the USB port on the front panel of the SDG 1025 to provide the power necessary for the crystal to warm up and remain at operating temperature. After he got the oscillator powered, he just needed to put it in a suitable metal enclosure (to cut down external interference) and calibrate it. [Paul] cleverly used the NIST WWV broadcast and his ears to find when his frequency standard overlapped that of the source, therefore verifying it was at 10 MHz.

Hackers love accuracy, and accordingly, we’ve seen a number of frequency standard builds ranging from extremely cheap to luxuriously overkill.

Handy Continuity Tester Packs Multiple Modes into a Tiny Package

From Leatherman multitools to oscilloscopes with built-in signal generators and protocol analyzers, there seems no end to tools with multiple personalities. Everybody loves multitaskers because they make it feel like you’re getting more bang for your buck, and in most cases that’s true. But a jack of all trades is seldom master of any, and there are times when even the humble multimeter isn’t the best tool for the job.

With that in mind, [sidsingh] has developed what we think is a very nice dedicated continuity tester. With a goal of using only parts on hand, he had to think small to fit everything into the case he had. So he started with a PIC10LF322 to support all the flavors of continuity testing he wanted to support. In addition to straight continuity, the tester can handle diode testing, detecting shorted or open diodes and even differentiating between regular and Schottky diodes. It also has an LED test mode and an interesting “discontinuity” testing mode — it only sounds its buzzer when continuity is broken. The video below shows that mode in action for finding intermittent cable faults, along with all the other modes.

For an ostensibly single-purpose tool, this tester still manages to pack a lot of tests into one very compact package. Simpler continuity testers are good, too — check out this cheap dollar store build, or this slightly more complicated unit based on an ATtiny85.

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Building an Arduino Smart IC Tester for $25

There’s no question that you can get a lot done with the classic multimeter; it’s arguably the single most capable tool on your bench. But the farther down the rabbit hole of hacking and reverse engineering you go, the more extravagant your testing and diagnostic gear tends to get. For some of us that’s just an annoying reality of the game. For others it’s an excuse to buy, and maybe even build, some highly specialized equipment. We’ll give you one guess as to which group we fall into here at Hackaday.

[Akshay Baweja] is clearly a member of the second group. He’s recently published a guide on building a very slick intelligent Integrated Circuit tester with a total cost of under $25 USD. Whether you’re trying to identify an unknown chip or verifying your latest parts off the slow-boat from China actually work before installing them in your finished product, this $25 tool could end up saving you a lot of time and aggravation.

[Akshay] walks readers through the components and assembly of his IC tester, which takes the form of a Shield for the Arduino Mega 2560. The custom PCB he designed and had manufactured holds the 20 Pin ZIF Socket as well as the 2.4 inch TFT touch screen. The screen features an integrated micro SD slot which is important as you need the SD card to hold the chip database.

With an IC to test inserted into the ZIF socket, the user can have the tester attempt to automatically ID the chip or can manually enter in a part number to lookup. The source code for the Arduino as well as the chip ID database is up on GitHub for anyone looking to add some more hardware to the device’s testing repertoire.

The importance of good test equipment simply cannot be overstated. Between highly specialized gear like this IC tester to classic instruments such as the oscilloscope, your bench is going to be full of weird and wonderful pieces of equipment before too long.

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Why You Shouldn’t Quite Forget The Moving Coil Multimeter

Did any of you have an AWS multimeter? Was it the best? Radio-electronics magazine, August 1981.
Did any of you have an AWS multimeter? Was it the best? Radio-Electronics magazine, August 1981.

If you were to ask a random Hackaday reader what their most fundamental piece of electronic test equipment was, it’s likely that they would respond with “multimeter”. If you asked them to produce it, out would come a familiar item, a handheld brick with a 7-segment LCD at the top, a chunky rotary selector switch, and a pair of test probes. They can be had with varying quality and features for anything from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, though they will nearly all share the same basic set of capabilities. Voltage in both AC and DC, DC current, resistance from ohms to mega ohms, and maybe a continuity tester. More expensive models have more features, may be autoranging, and will certainly have better electrical safety than the cheaper ones, but by and large they are a pretty standard item.

If Hackaday had been around forty years ago and you’d asked the same question, you’d have had a completely different set of multimeters pulled out for your inspection. Probably still a handheld brick with the big selector switch, but instead of that LCD you’d have seen a large moving-coil meter with a selection of scales for the different ranges. It would have done substantially the same job as the digital equivalent from today, but in those intervening decades it’s a piece of equipment that’s largely gone. So today I’m going to investigate moving coil multimeters, why you see them a lot less these days than you used to, and why you should still consider having one in your armoury. Continue reading “Why You Shouldn’t Quite Forget The Moving Coil Multimeter”

Network Analysers: The Electrical Kind

Instrumentation has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last few years, however, the fundamental analysis techniques that are the foundation of modern-day equipment remain the same. A network analyzer is an instrument that allows us to characterize RF networks such as filters, mixers, antennas and even new materials for microwave electronics such as ceramic capacitors and resonators in the gigahertz range. In this write-up, I discuss network analyzers in brief and how the DIY movement has helped bring down the cost of such devices. I will also share some existing projects that may help you build your own along with some use cases where a network analyzer may be employed. Let’s dive right in.

Network Analysis Fundamentals

As a conceptual model, think of light hitting a lens and most of it going through but part of it getting reflected back.

The same applies to an electrical/RF network where the RF energy that is launched into the device may be attenuated a bit, transmitted to an extent and some of it reflected back. This analysis gives us an attenuation coefficient and a reflection coefficient which explains the behavior of the device under test (DUT).

Of course, this may not be enough and we may also require information about the phase relationship between the signals. Such instruments are termed Vector Network Analysers and are helpful in measuring the scattering parameters or S-Parameters of a DUT.

The scattering matrix links the incident waves a1, a2 to the outgoing waves b1, b2 according to the following linear equation: \begin{bmatrix} b_1 \\ b_2 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} S_{11} & S_{12} \\ S_{21} & S_{22} \end{bmatrix} * \begin{bmatrix} a_1 \\ a_2 \end{bmatrix} .

The equation shows that the S-parameters are expressed as the matrix S, where and denote the output and input port numbers of the DUT.

This completely characterizes a network for attenuation, reflection as well as insertion loss. S-Parameters are explained more in details in Electromagnetic Field Theory and Transmission Line Theory but suffice to say that these measurements will be used to deduce the properties of the DUT and generate a mathematical model for the same.

General Architecture

As mentioned previously, a simple network analyzer would be a signal generator connected and a spectrum analyzer combined to work together. The signal generator would be configured to output a signal of a known frequency and the spectrum analyzer would be used to detect the signal at the other end. Then the frequency would be changed to another and the process repeats such that the system sweeps a range of frequencies and the output can be tabulated or plotted on a graph. In order to get reflected power, a microwave component such as a magic-T or directional couplers, however, all of this is usually inbuilt into modern-day VNAs.
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