An oscilloscope is a piece of equipment used in many industries for maintenance of equipment, lab work and diagnostics that shows signal voltages as a two-dimensional graph. Oscilloscopes also show distortion measure time between events and frequency. Traditional oscilloscopes are standalone pieces of equipment that sometimes can be portable. The development of a PC oscilloscope, which attaches to a personal computer and uses the computer hardware to power the device, obtain data and provide data analysis, has opened a whole new range of options for oscilloscope users.
A PC oscilloscope consists of a signal acquisition board with an electrical interface, isolation and automatic gain control, analog-to-digital converters, memory and a digital signal processor. The hardware acts as a data log agent or digitizer. It works in conjunction with the computer display, control interface, storage, networking and power supply of a personal computer to do its job. Manufacturers are finding a wide array of customization options for PC oscilloscopes that were not realistic with standalone units.
Some PC oscilloscopes are used in a general-purpose setting. Technicians use the device to maintain electrical equipment and diagnose malfunctions of computers or other devices. Oscilloscopes are used in laboratory work, both industrial and medical. The electrocardiogram tests show the heartbeat in wave form through use of an oscilloscope. Mechanics and engineers use the PC oscilloscope or a standalone unit to analyze automotive problems.
As the price for personal computers drops and processor speeds rise, the PC oscilloscope becomes very attractive in many markets. For example, in the education market, personal computers are common equipment. The price of electronic equipment can quickly overwhelm an educational budget, but the PC oscilloscope provides the same capability for less money than a standalone unit and will work with existing personal computers in most cases.
Advocates of the PC oscilloscope tout several advantages. The unit costs less, assuming the user owns a personal computer. Data is easily exported to PC software, such as word processors, spreadsheets and analysis software. PC oscilloscopes make use of the computer's existing networking and storage capabilities, cutting out expensive customization when included with a standalone unit. Remote use, automation, size, portability and a high-resolution, detailed display make the device attractive.
There also are disadvantages to using a PC oscilloscope. Power supply and PC noise require appropriate shielding in order for the device to obtain good signal resolution, and data transfer rates are not always stable, which can affect the functionality of the device. Oscilloscope software must be installed on the user's computer, which takes time. Further time is required waiting for the computer to start up. Despite these disadvantages, the PC oscilloscope has grown in popularity.