Looking for higher resolution in oscilloscopes?

Jessy Cavazos, Industry Director, Frost & Sullivan -July 06, 2012

Driven by engineers focused on the signal integrity of their electronic designs, and the performance of the power system supporting those designs, demand for higher resolution in oscilloscopes continues to increase, providing those engineers with the ability to see electrical behavior, increasing their confidence in their measurement results.

Much emphasis today is being put on low-power design for memory systems and mobile devices to preserve the battery and maximize the performance of those devices for longer periods of time. The mobile communications industry and the smart device community that focus on designing devices that are portable in nature are therefore looking for higher resolution in oscilloscopes. “There are numerous applications that benefit from higher dynamic range measurements, and low oscilloscope noise is the key in delivering more bits of resolution. For example, development teams may want to characterize  power consumption from mobile devices that are moving in and out of sleep mode,” says Joel Woodward, Senior Product Manager with Agilent Technologies. “Many teams also want to analyze the small signals riding on top of larger signals such as ripple on a power rail. Scopes with higher bits of resolution enable this analysis.”

The growing importance of embedded design in those industries is expected to boost the demand for higher resolution in oscilloscopes going forward. The use of embedded devices in a mobile or portable fashion is growing beyond tablets and smartphones to include devices that do not necessarily have a phone mechanism in them. Many types of devices are coming out, driving the need for higher resolution in oscilloscopes.

Figure 1: This chart highlights the proliferation of connected devices in the future.
Source: Frost & Sullivan

In addition to higher resolution, engineers are also looking for the ability to evaluate and verify the different serial busses embedded in smart devices to ensure satisfactory communications between chips on the board and interoperability with other functions. The key reason for this is that they can’t possibly be experts in all the functions featured in those smart devices and the respective serial busses that have been designed and optimized for each function. “While serial busses are not new, the evolution and the number of those busses has grown substantially,” says Chris Loberg, Senior Technical Marketing Manager at Tektronix. “Design engineers are now faced with the challenge of mastering the understanding of the behavior of those busses that may be outside of their knowledge level.” 

Although the mobile communications and smart devices industry are key end-user industries asking for higher resolution in oscilloscopes, the demand for higher resolution is more widespread than that with engineers, in general, more interested in seeing more details and looking at very fine details on the waveforms they need to look at and measure. Oscilloscope manufacturers are seeing demand coming from the medical and aerospace and defense industries besides the mobile communications industry among others.

“Over the years, oscilloscopes have become very serious, very fine measurement tools as opposed to just viewing tools,” says David Graef, Chief Technology Officer at LeCroy. “Customers expect much higher accuracy and resolution in oscilloscopes today than in the past.” Having said this, on the high end of the market, the interest in higher resolution is restrained by the tradeoff that needs to be made with bandwidth. The demand for higher resolution is therefore currently concentrated in the 500 MHz to 1 GHz bandwidth range for oscilloscopes.

From a competitive perspective, there are a number of companies today making digitizers that could be turned into oscilloscopes. Featuring 10 and 12 bits of resolution, these instruments are increasing in frequency. Modular digitizers, although having little overlap with oscilloscopes in the design space, find greater use in the production and validation environment and are benefiting from the explosion of high-resolution analog-to-digital converters (ADCs). “National Instruments is committed to bringing the latest and greatest technologies to PXI,” asserts Jordan Dolman, Product Marketing Manager with the company. “Specifically for high speed converters, this is reflected in our modular digitizers that feature high resolutions and high channel density.”

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