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Test instruments go 'faceless' in 2014

04 Dec 2014  | Martin Rowe

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PC-based test instruments that required an external computer have been used by engineers for many years, including the now-extinct parallel port as a communication bus. In addition, they have developed custom user interfaces for automated test systems for years and have had USB and Ethernet-based oscilloscopes, data-acquisition systems, audio analysers and other instruments. So what makes 2014 specially different?

2014 is the year that "faceless" test instruments migrated in earnest from the production floor to the test bench or even to the engineer's office. In particular, RF test equipment in the form of spectrum analysers and signal analysers. The trend became rather clear at IMS 2014 where companies such as Anritsu, Copper Mountain, Rohde & Schwarz and Signal Hound demonstrated instruments such as spectrum analysers and VNAs (vector network analysers). PXI-based RF and wireless testers from Keysight Technologies and National Instruments also made appearances at IMS. In November, Tektronix joined the faceless RF instrument club with its handheld RSA306 USB spectrum analyser. Other faceless instruments such as the Audio Precision APx555 audio analyser and VirtualBench from National Instruments also appeared in 2014.

4824 8-channel oscilloscope

Companies such as Pico Technology and Link Instruments have made USB oscilloscopes for years, but now other test instruments are going "faceless." This Pico Technology 4824 8-channel oscilloscope, introduced in February 2014, connects to a PC through a USB 3.0 port.

Why have so many bench instruments, especially RF instruments, suddenly appeared? Part of the reason stems from faster data pipes and more powerful off-the-shelf PCs. Spectrum analysers from Signal Hound (BB60C introduced in June) and Tektronix (RSA306 introduced in November) have USB 3.0 ports, and need them.

"Real-time spectrum analysis is a computationally demanding application," said Bruce Devine, CEO of Signal Hound. "Now that computers have advanced to the point of being able to do a good job of handling this high performance computing task, there is no turning back."

 BB60C spectrum analyser

The FM broadcast band displayed using persistence mode with the Signal Hound BB60C spectrum analyser. Note the pulsed series of harmonics left of centre. These would be unclear on a regular spectrum analyser.

Matt Maxwell, product manager of Tektronix echoed Devine's sentiments. "Until the advent of USB 3.0, it simply wasn't possible to move real-time signal information to a laptop or tablet computer fast enough." Both Devin and Maxwell commented on how the Intel i5 and i7 processors have made their respective companies' products possible. That's because spectral analysis using real-time FFTs (fast Fourier Transforms) is computationally intensive. Because today's PCs have the power to perform the computations, instrument makers don't need to add expensive DSPs or FPGAs to their instruments, which lowers product cost. The instrument needs only the analogue front end, the digitiser and the bus interface. The host PC does the rest. This is a reverse trend from earlier days where instruments needed to relieve the host PC of computationally intensive tasks.

 Tektronix RSA306

The Tektronix RSA306 uses the company's SignalVu-PC software to produce real-time spectral plots up to 6.2GHz.

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