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Posted: 04:29:57 PM, 06/02/2014

The best scope for hacking PCBs at home

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These days, life is a wonderful thing for the open hardware hacker and hobbyist. Ten years ago, electronic industry professionals could have only dreamed of development kits such as the Arduino, BeagleBone, and Raspberry Pi. However, today we must face the problem we faced in the pastbuilding an adequate personal electronic hardware workbench at home.

Even many hardware lovers like me spend a lot of time working with embedded software. This is OK and cheapeven cheaper if you are a Linux advocate, as I ambut problems arise when you must deal with a real PCB. Almost all of us own a multi-meter, which is great for DC signals and power supply measurements, but what about analogue and digital signal scoping?

If you are not afraid of cables or building your own equipment, and if you don't mind using relatively little in signal conditioning and amplification circuitry, you can use your PC audio card and some specialised software in the role of a poor man's oscilloscope. I've been doing this for years, using Linux packages such as Xoscope, which is more than sufficient if all you need to do is capture and analyse signals within a 100kHz bandwidth.


Xoscope oscilloscope over PC audio card.
Xoscope oscilloscope over PC audio card.

Unfortunately, this is not sufficient when dealing with a PCB that includes digital devices such as MCUs and/or FPGAs. In that case, you need bandwidths of at least tens of megahertz. Having one's own oscilloscope may cause pain for one's wallet, but I'm afraid it's a sacrifice we must make to get a fully functional laboratory at home. For some time, I've been wondering where to get an inexpensive but functional oscilloscopecheap enough that my wife would agree to buy it as a Christmas present. Fortunately, a colleague told me about the last toy he had purchased for his home laboratory.

This was the ?239 ($335) Rigol DS1052E oscilloscope, which boasts a 5.7-inch TFT QVGA (320X240) with 64K colour LCD backlit display, 50MHz bandwidth, a real-time sample rate of 1 gigasamples per second, two analogue channels with sensitivity of 2 mV/division to 10 V/division, up to 1 million points of signal memory, and tons of handy software functions such as FFT calculators. This is just what you need to debug complex signals such as the ones you will find when dealing with Arduino-like development kits.

Front view of the Rigol DS1052E oscilloscope.
Front view of the Rigol DS1052E oscilloscope.

One feature that has established this scope as the smart choice for hardware hackers around the world is the fact that you can hack it to a real 100MHz bandwidth by just applying a software upgrade. This came about when some hackers realised that the DS1102E sports the same signal acquisition hardware as the higher-graded DS1102. It wasn't long before a hacked upgrade was released to unleash all the DS1052E's hardware horsepower. Of course, the hacking process will almost certainly break any guarantee you get from Rigol, but I think the fact that the hack is available is worth highlighting.

After learning about the hack, I quickly ordered a DS1052E unit from to my local Rigol distributor, which sent it directly to my house in a few days. In future blogs, I'll provide more feedback about my experiences using this scope while working on my open hardware projects. In the meantime, if you would enjoy unboxing such a beauty, check out the slideshow below. It features some pictures I took when my DS1052E arrived. (I'm so proud of my acquisition that I want to make everyone jealous.)


The newly arrived, boxed Rigol DS1052E oscilloscope sitting on my desktop.
The newly arrived, boxed Rigol DS1052E oscilloscope sitting on my desktop.

Until my next blog, do you have any questions or comments on the DS1052E oscilloscope?

Javier D. Garcia-Lasheras
Open Science Activist

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