Written by Patty Yu
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Waves exist all throughout our physical environment, creating repetitive patterns--brain waves, sound waves, and ocean waves are all examples. Electrical signals create waveforms, just like all vibrational motions of atoms in solids. These electrical signals pass through circuits in electronic devices by means of transistors. By understanding how electrical signals move through solids and interact together, engineers are able to create better semi-conductors.

However, we cannot see these electrical signals with the naked eye. Instead, engineers use electronic equipment made specifically to read and display electrical voltage signals. There are many types of testing equipment on the market, but oscilloscopes are the kind that take voltage signals and translate them into graphical representations. Looking at these graphs, engineers are able to see how signals influence each other.

It is necessary to study and test signals because oftentimes, new signal paths appear that are not on the schematics. These unpredictable signal paths are considered classic analog phenomena that can create integrity problems. Oscilloscopes show engineers waveform details, transients, noise, edges, and allow precise measuring to understand timing relationships. These readings are all essential to the development and repair of electrical equipment.

Types of Oscilloscopes

Just like any other type of electrical device, an oscilloscope can be either analog or digital. Analog oscilloscopes use an electron beam, which displays the movement of a waveform against a phosphor screen. The beam deflects up and down the screen as it also moves left to right, revealing the shape of the wave. These measurements are taken in real-time as they occur, and are preferred by users who require such real-time measurements.

Digital oscilloscopes use an analog-to-digital converter (ADC), which converts the measured signal into digital information, which means the measurements are not taken in real-time. The oscilloscope stores information about the waveform as a series of binary values, which are then reassembled to display the shape of the waveform. Since the digital information can be stored, engineers may analyze, process, and print details about the waveform long after the signal has passed.

Due to the storing nature of digital oscilloscopes, data is also often transferred to personal computers (PCs), which are able to process information at much greater speeds. Special oscilloscope software allows engineers to perform various applications using the information received from their oscilloscopes. This type of extensive waveform processing is not possible with analog oscilloscopes.

Testing Equipment Trends

In the last several years, the general-purpose test equipment market has experienced higher levels of competition. Many companies who make products like oscilloscopes actively participate in the market by addressing the wide range of demand experienced in the vertical market. Oscilloscopes are used throughout various markets, from research and telecommunication to educational institutions and hobby. Such a wide scope of usage results in an equally wide range of end-user groups, with differing requirements and budgets.

The industry now offers many more options to these end-users, including financing, trade-ins, and insurance, which gives purchasers more buying power. All these factors, along with development and labor costs, drastically influence oscilloscope prices. However, engineers can be grateful knowing that although high-end oscilloscope prices are increasing, that price/performance ratios are also improving. Therefore, oscilloscope purchasers are getting the most for their money.

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