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What is an oscilloscope?

The oscilloscope is basically a graph-displaying device – it draws a graph of an electrical signal. In most applications, the graph shows how signals change over time: the vertical (Y) axis represents voltage and the horizontal (X) axis represents time. The intensity or brightness of the display is sometimes called the Z axis. In DPO oscilloscopes, the Z axis can be represented by color grading of the display.

Oscilloscopes can be classified in two major categories – analog and digital types. In contrast to an analog oscilloscope, a digital oscilloscope uses an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) to convert the measured voltage into digital information. It acquires the waveform as a series of samples and stores these samples until it accumulates enough samples to describe a waveform. The digital oscilloscope then reassembles the waveform for display on the screen.

Digital oscilloscopes can be classified into digital storage oscilloscopes (DSOs), digital phosphor oscilloscopes (DPOs), mixed signal oscilloscopes (MSOs), and digital sampling oscilloscopes. A basic oscilloscope consists of four different systems – the vertical system, horizontal system, trigger system, and display system.  All of these systems are used by the oscilloscope to provide the most information about the signal and allow the user to determine integrity, predictability and reliability of these signals for any number of applications

Who uses oscilloscopes?

Oscilloscopes are used by everyone from physicists to repair technicians. An automotive engineer uses an oscilloscope to correlate analog data from sensors with serial data from the engine control unit as well as any number of embedded systems that are driving the connected and autonomous experience in contemporary vehicles.

A medical researcher uses an oscilloscope to measure brain waves. Engineers use Oscilloscopes to monitor power usage and consumption in everything from microchips to urban power grids. The possibilities are endless.

What do oscilloscopes measure?

Oscilloscopes are used for many measurements including:

  • Voltage Measurements
  • Time and Frequency Measurements
  • Pulse Width and Rise Time Measurements
  • Phase Shift Measurements

Other measurement techniques involve setting up the oscilloscope to test electrical components on an assembly line, capturing elusive transient signals, and many others. The measurement techniques you will use will depend on your application, but hopefully these basics are enough to get started.

How does an oscilloscope work? »