The new oscilloscopes are evolving in multiple areas, but the most interesting aspect seems to be the increased focus on the user—the engineer who actually uses the scope. Kapil Sood, managing director, and Naresh Narasimhan, country manager at Tektronix India spoke with Dilin Anand of EFY
Q. What are the most exciting changes affecting scopes recently?
A. The oscilloscopes market is characterised by three distinct categories—basic, main and professional. In the mainstream segment, users are mostly embedded engineers working on a mixed-domain design. In the analogue-to-digital era, a lot of digital designs came onto the analogue board, thus bringing up the Mixed Signal Oscilloscopes (MSOs) several years ago. The trend has evolved since, and what we are seeing today is that this mixed domain has moved to another level with the inclusion of wireless RF signals. Analogue, digital and now RF signals are coming together to the embedded domain, creating significant changes on how work is done in designs houses and research centres, specifically with respect to analysing those signals in as short a time as possible.
Q. How is this affecting engineers’ design work?
A. RF signals are also now being added to the mix of digital and analogue signals that have to be analysed. This is not easy for the design engineers working on the project, because they have to put all of these together and analyse on multiple fronts to successfully debug and complete a design. Time to market is a critical factor for design engineers, since the product lifecycle period is significantly shorter today. It means they have to come out with a newer version of their design three months down the line, which also results in a shorter innovation cycle. Thus the engineers need tools where time to answer is shorter for them.
Q. What are the elements that such a tool should have?
A. With integrated instruments, engineers get multiple tools in one instrument in a compact form factor, and are thus able to get results faster. The key aspect of the integration in an MDO3000 is the inclusion of a logic analyser, protocol analyser, spectrum analyser, function generator and digital voltmeter into the oscilloscope itself. This is crucial from the customers’ perspective. Their tool of choice to debug and verify their designs is the oscilloscope. The other instruments are used on an intermittent basis.
Q. So is it relevant only to those working on debugging on multiple domains?
A. Multiple instruments are not only about the ability to debug in multiple domains, it’s also about a design engineer who has the time to debug thoroughly. With a mixed- domain oscilloscope, he is able to use two methodologies to debug—the frequency domain approach or the time domain approach. Previously, he could use only time domain. With two options to debug or validate his design, the chances of his design passing through or his bringing the product into market, is much higher. Instruments like these are relevant to a broader group of design engineers, both education and research people. The multiuse features of MDO3000, for instance, offer the functionality of six independent instruments without the significant cost of separate instruments.
Q. How exactly is this instrument beneficial for a design team starting out?
A. The basic customer will continue to use the basic scope as even design houses still have a combination of basic, mid-stream and performance scopes. When you look at the ROI aspect, there is an expectation that the upgradability built into the instrument should make it scalable for the future. In fact, the upgradability of instruments like this new mixed-domain oscilloscope sets it apart in the marketplace due to both the number of upgrades available as well as how easy the upgrade process is. There are two major categories of upgrades. First, there are performance upgrades. Customers can upgrade the bandwidth of their oscilloscope all the way up to 1GHz. When the analogue bandwidth is upgraded, the frequency range of the included spectrum analyser is also upgraded to the new bandwidth level. There are also functionality upgrades. These include adding the digital channels, arbitrary function generator, a variety of serial trigger/decode solutions as well as other advanced analysis packages, such as power analysis and limit/mask testing.
Q. What are the different challenges that are solved by such an instrument?
A. Sometimes, when you debug, you do not find your point of interest or fault on your device in the time domain. The issue would be in the frequency domain, but because it is not visible in time domain the fault lies hidden. In such cases, it should be possible to change to frequency domain easily. And that’s when design engineers pull over the spectrum analyser. Later, when the software and hardware come together, you understand what’s happening to the protocol and have to co-relate every code to a physical signal, which is another spectrum analyser or the logic analyser of the scope. Every design house is doing something on this level of design, as this is how it comes together in the workflow. As long as there is a need to lower the time to market for a product, the trend will be seen going towards multiple scalable instruments, and design engineers will need the ability to get work done at one shot.
Q. What else is being done to improve users’ experience with instruments?
A. Another important aspect is usability and the user interface. If I am comfortable in using an oscilloscope, it might not be easy for me to use a different instrument, because the user interface, the contrast and the pattern that gets formed might be different. A crucial thing here is that engineers can spend more time on their design, because they don’t have to spend time learning the instrument.
Q. Will instruments like these make sense for start-ups and small design houses running on shoestring budgets?
A. When a design house starts up in Bengaluru, they might have just two or three people to begin with. Later, as the company hires more people and begins to grow, they will need instruments that grow with them. So rather than buying a new expensive instrument, they can simply upgrade their current basic instrument.
Q. For low-power designs, any functionality or features that aim to help?
A. There is a power module that goes into some instruments. It aims to help the users with just that. Engineers who want to improve switching power supply efficiency can use it to measure power loss at the switching device. When working on low-power designs, one has to depend on the power supply that typically moves from linear to switching in order to be power efficient. Power modules like these allow you to look at the rise time and fall time of the switching, and can be used to evaluate various options like topology.