10 Reasons Every Hobbyist Needs an Oscilloscope
For my 18th birthday I finally got one of the tools I’ve sorely needed the most for a lot of my projects: an oscilloscope. I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve said “Man it would be nice to have an oscilloscope right about now.” It’s not even like they’re prohibitively expensive; the cost of reliable and feature-rich oscilloscopes has come down remarkably in the last few years. Now that I have one I’ll list what I’ve been using it for most in an effort to get you to make the jump as well.
An oscilloscope is something every serious maker should have in their kit.
I was given the Hantek DSO5072P. In my opinion, this scope is one of the best entry-level oscilloscopes currently on the market. It has all the features of an expensive scope but the cost of a really cheap scope — you can find it on Amazon by clicking here. I won’t discuss any features specific to this oscilloscope, however. All of my tips will be general and applicable to almost any oscilloscope on the market.
Reason #1: It’s like a multimeter, but way cooler!
Sure, the primary function of an oscilloscope is to measure electrical waveforms. But it’s also pretty darn useful for measuring mostly constant voltage levels as well. For example, I used mine just today when I was verifying the output of different levels of power supply voltage. It can also do what most multimeters can’t: detect small fluctuations in supply voltage.
Reason #2: You can use them to debug the analog outputs of sensors
I have a ton of analog distance sensors. Some of them are genuine, and some of them are cheap knock-offs. Before I stick one of the… um… more questionable sensors… into a circuit I will first connect them to my oscilloscope to measure if the analog output is behaving the way it should.
Reason #3: They’re great for catching simple errors
While I was building my light-up poker chip I had some issues getting one of the demo sketches to flash the lights correctly. By hooking it up to my oscilloscope and measuring the period of the flashes I was able to determine that I added an extra zero somewhere in the code.
Reason #4: Oscilloscopes are especially proficient at debugging PWM signals
I’ve recently had some problems with a sketch for my Annoy-O-Bug project, so I used my o-scope to take a look at one of the PWM outputs on the ATtiny. It turns out that one of the timed functions in my sketch was interfering with the pulse width modulation on that pin. I would have probably never figured out why the PWM square wave wasn't constant if it weren’t for my scope.
Reason #5: You can use oscilloscopes to debug communications busses
I did some repairs to replace the screen on one of my business cards with a screen and much to my chagrin the whole device stopped working. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why until I probed the I2c bus of the display on the card. I was expecting to see the tell-tale square waves at odd intervals that indicate data is being transmitted, but I actually found something quite different: while re-assembling the screen I accidentally shorted the SDA line to ground. Since data is transmitted by pulling the SDA line to low, this obviously was creating problems. Fixing the solder joint fixed my issue.
Reason #6: They make it really easy to collect data
Many oscilloscopes feature a CSV-export mode where data points are collected for a few seconds, and saved to a USB stick. You can then bring the CSV file into a spreadsheet program such as Numbers or Excel for further analysis. There are a ton of cases in which this would be useful, such as when you want to get the exact formula for a trigonometric waveform.
Reason #7: They’re great educational tools
There’s only so much you can learn from looking at points in a circuit using a multimeter. By being able to see changes in the waveform of an analog circuit in real time, or by being able to watch the bits and bytes be transmitted from one device to another in a digital circuit, you can get a better appreciation of just how intricate some circuits really are. You can also dig into your oscilloscope by taking off the back panel to discover a little bit about analog/digital circuits.
Reason #8: SOME GUY MADE 3D OSCILLOSCOPE ART
Alright so maybe you can’t do this on scopes with digital screens, but still. Look at how cool this is:
Reason #9: You can perform complex math analysis on multiple waveforms
Say you’re trying to develop a sound jammer circuit for a specific frequency of sound. You can connect the result of the jammer circuit to one of the channels on your scope, and connect the sound wave to the other channel. Many oscilloscopes offer the ability to then add one wave to another. If you get a flat line, you know your circuit is working! This is just one example; there are a ton of different scenarios in which this would be useful.
Reason #10: They make a great backdrop/prop for photos
I’m running out of useful scenarios (10 is a lot) so I decided to throw a somewhat superfluous use case into this post. You can really spice up photos of your projects by including an oscilloscope in the unfocused background — it adds an air of credibility to photos and makes you look like a real maker! Above is my tiny poker chip with my oscilloscope in the background. Also note the homepage of Hackster.io. Looks like the photographer and I have the exact same model of scope!