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What is a Digital Oscilloscope?

By Christy Bieber
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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An oscilloscope is an electronic instrument that depicts patterns on a screen that are graphical illustrations of electrical signals, and measures and analyzes these signals. Oscilloscopes are particularly useful in observing the exact wave shape of an electrical signal. A digital oscilloscope is an oscilloscope that digitally provides its reading.

A grid, called a graticule, is superimposed over the electrical signal that is displayed on an oscilloscope screen. The front panel of an oscilloscope generally has control knobs, display controls, and input connectors. Oscilloscopes can be of the laboratory bench-type variety or the more portable types that can be transported for field work. Some portable types are battery operated.

Oscilloscopes come in both analog and digital design. The signal that is to be measured is fed into one of the input connectors. Most oscilloscopes have several input connectors, enabling them to measure and simultaneously inspect several signals.

Analog oscilloscopes work directly with continuously varying voltages while a digital oscilloscope samples the signal and, by utilizing an analog-to-digital (ADC) converter, translates the voltage into digital information. The digital oscilloscope then uses this information to rebuild a waveform on the graticule. Both the analog and the digital oscilloscope are typically suited for most general purposes, but each type possesses distinctive characteristics that make it suited for specific jobs.

When the intent is rapid viewing of varying signals as they occur in real-time, an analog oscilloscope is preferred. On the other hand, a digital oscilloscope has the capability of capturing events that occur only once. Moreover, they are able to process waveform data or store waveform information indefinitely for later viewing. They can also send this information to computers and other equipment for analysis, plotting, or hard copying.

A digital oscilloscope in its simplest form is comprised of six elements. The first is an analog vertical input amplifier, and the second is an analog-to-digital converter and a digital waveform memory. The third is a time base with a triggering and clock drive, while the fourth is circuits for waveform reconstruction and display. Finally, the fifth and sixth elements are an LCD or LED display screen and a power supply.

From radio and television technicians to physicists, oscilloscopes usually are essential equipment for those who work with electronic equipment. One of the most common uses of oscilloscopes is troubleshooting faulty electronic devices; however, the uses of oscilloscopes are by no means limited to the field of electronics. With an appropriate transducer, an oscilloscope can be used to measure all types of physical phenomena.

The transducer creates an electrical voltage in response to the stimuli that it is fed, for example sound, light, heat, mechanical stress, or pressure. Transportation engineers analyze engine vibrations by means of oscilloscopes. Oscilloscopes are used by medical researchers to measure brain waves or to display the waveform of a heartbeat. Oscilloscopes have extensive applications in engineering, science, medicine, industry, and telecommunications.

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