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ABCs of Probes Primer


Precision Measurements Start at the Probe Tip

Probes are vital to oscilloscope measurements. To understand how vital, disconnect the probes from an oscilloscope and try to make a measurement. It can’t be done. There has to be some kind of electrical connection, a probe of some sort between the signal to be measured and the oscilloscope’s input channel.

In addition to being vital to oscilloscope measurements, probes are also critical to measurement quality. Connecting a probe to a circuit can affect the operation of the circuit, and an oscilloscope can only display and measure the signal that the probe delivers to the oscilloscope input.

Thus, it is imperative that the probe have minimum impact on the probed circuit and that it maintain adequate signal fidelity for the desired measurements.

If the probe doesn’t maintain signal fidelity, if it changes the signal in any way or changes the way a circuit operates, the oscilloscope sees a distorted version of the actual signal. The result can be wrong or misleading measurements.

In essence, the probe is the first link in the oscilloscope measurement chain. And the strength of this measurement chain relies as much on the probe as the oscilloscope. Weaken that first link with an inadequate probe or poor probing methods, and the entire chain is weakened.

In this and following sections, you’ll learn what contributes to the strengths and weaknesses of probes and how to select the right probe for your application. You’ll also learn some important tips for using probes properly.

What Is a Probe?

As a first step, let’s establish what an oscilloscope probe is.

Basically, a probe makes a physical and electrical connection between a test point or signal source and an oscilloscope. Depending on your measurement needs, this connection can be made with something as simple as a length of wire or with something as sophisticated as an active differential probe.

At this point, it’s enough to say that an oscilloscope probe is some sort of device or network that connects the signal source to the input of the oscilloscope. This is illustrated in Figure 1.1, where the probe is indicated as an undefined box in the measurement diagram.

A probe is a device that makes a physical and electrical connection between the oscilloscope and test point
Figure 1.1. A probe is a device that makes a physical and electrical connection between the oscilloscope and test point.

Whatever the probe is in reality, it must provide a connection of adequate convenience and quality between the signal source and the oscilloscope input (Figure 1.2). The adequacy of connection has three key defining issues – physical attachment, impact on circuit operation, and signal transmission.

Most probes consist of a probe head, a probe cable, and a compensation box or other signal conditioning network
Figure 1.2. Most probes consist of a probe head, a probe cable, and a compensation box or other signal conditioning network.

To make an oscilloscope measurement, you must first be able to physically get the probe to the test point. To make this possible, most probes have at least a meter or two of cable associated with them, as indicated in Figure 1.2. This probe cable allows the oscilloscope to be left in a stationary position on a cart or bench top while the probe is moved from test point to test point in the circuit being tested. There is a tradeoff for this convenience, though. The probe cable reduces the probe’s bandwidth; the longer the cable, the greater the reduction.

In addition to the length of cable, most probes also have a probe head, or handle, with a probe tip. The probe head allows you to hold the probe while you maneuver the tip to make contact with the test point. Often, this probe tip is in the form of a spring-loaded hook that allows you to actually attach the probe to the test point.

Physically attaching the probe to the test point also establishes an electrical connection between the probe tip and the oscilloscope input. For useable measurement results, attaching the probe to a circuit must have minimum affect on the way the circuit operates, and the signal at the probe tip must be transmitted with adequate fidelity through the probe head and cable to the oscilloscope’s input.

These three issues – physical attachment, minimum impact on circuit operation, and adequate signal fidelity – encompass most of what goes into proper selection of a probe. Because probing effects and signal fidelity are the more complex topics, much of this primer is devoted to those issues. However, the issue of physical connection should never be ignored. Difficulty in connecting a probe to a test point often leads to probing practices that reduce fidelity.

The Ideal Probe

In an ideal world, the ideal probe would offer the following key attributes:

  • Connection ease and convenience
  • Absolute signal fidelity
  • Zero signal source loading
  • Complete noise immunity

Connection Ease and Convenience

Making a physical connection to the test point has already been mentioned as one of the key requirements of probing. With the ideal probe, you should also be able to make the physical connection with both ease and convenience.

For miniaturized circuitry, such as high-density surface mount technology (SMT), connection ease and convenience are promoted through subminiature probe heads and various probe-tip adapters designed for SMT devices.

Such a probing system is shown in Figure 1.3a. These probes, however, are too small for practical use in applications such as industrial power circuitry where high voltages and larger gauge wires are common. For power applications, physically larger probes with greater margins of safety are required. Figures 1.3b and 1.3c show examples of such probes, where Figure 1.3b is a high-voltage probe and Figure 1.3c is a clamp-on current probe

Most probes consist of a probe head, a probe cable, and a compensation box or other signal conditioning network
a. Probing SMT devices
Most probes consist of a probe head, a probe cable, and a compensation box or other signal conditioning network
b. High-voltage probe.
Most probes consist of a probe head, a probe cable, and a compensation box or other signal conditioning network
c. Clamp-on current probe
1.3. Various probes are available for different application technologies and measurement needs.

From these few examples of physical connection, it’s clear that there’s no single ideal probe size or configuration for all applications. Because of this, various probe sizes and configurations have been designed to meet the physical connection requirements of various applications.

Absolute Signal Fidelity

The ideal probe should transmit any signal from probe tip to oscilloscope input with absolute signal fidelity. In other words, the signal as it occurs at the probe tip should be faithfully duplicated at the oscilloscope input.

For absolute fidelity, the probe circuitry from tip to oscilloscope input must have zero attenuation, infinite bandwidth, and linear phase across all frequencies. Not only are these ideal requirements impossible to achieve in reality, but they are impractical. For example, there’s no need for an infinite bandwidth probe, or oscilloscope for that matter, when you’re dealing with audio frequency signals. Nor is there a need for infinite bandwidth when 500 MHz will do for covering most high-speed digital, TV, and other typical oscilloscope applications.

Still, within a given bandwidth of operation, absolute signal fidelity is an ideal to be sought after.

Zero Signal Source Loading

The circuitry behind a test point can be thought of as or modeled as a signal source. Any external device, such as a probe, that’s attached to the test point can appear as an additional load on the signal source behind the test point.

The external device acts as a load when it draws signal current from the circuit (the signal source). This loading, or signal current draw, changes the operation of the circuitry behind the test point, and thus changes the signal seen at the test point.

An ideal probe causes zero signal source loading. In other words, it doesn’t draw any signal current from the signal source. This means that, for zero current draw, the probe must have infinite impedance, essentially presenting an open circuit to the test point.

In practice, a probe with zero signal source loading cannot be achieved. This is because a probe must draw some small amount of signal current in order to develop a signal voltage at the oscilloscope input. Consequently, some signal source loading is to be expected when using a probe. The goal, however, should always be to minimize the amount of loading through appropriate probe selection.

Complete Noise Immunity

Fluorescent lights and fan motors are just two of the many electrical noise sources in our environment. These sources can induce their noise onto nearby electrical cables and circuitry, causing the noise to be added to signals. Because of susceptibility to induced noise, a simple piece of wire is a less than ideal choice for an oscilloscope probe.

The ideal oscilloscope probe is completely immune to all noise sources. As a result, the signal delivered to the oscilloscope has no more noise on it than what appeared on the signal at the test point.

In practice, use of shielding allows probes to achieve a high level of noise immunity for most common signal levels. Noise, however, can still be a problem for certain low-level signals. In particular, common mode noise can present a problem for differential measurements, as will be discussed later

Realities of Probes

The preceding discussion of The Ideal Probe mentioned several realities that keep practical probes from reaching the ideal. To understand how this can affect your oscilloscope measurements, we need to explore the realities of probes further.

First, it’s important to realize that a probe, even if it’s just a simple piece of wire, is potentially a very complex circuit.

For DC signals (0 Hz frequency), a probe appears as a simple conductor pair with some series resistance and a terminating resistance (Figure 1.4a). However, for AC signals, the picture changes dramatically as signal frequencies increase (Figure 1.4b).

Most probes consist of a probe head, a probe cable, and a compensation box or other signal conditioning network
Figure 1.4. Probes are circuits composed of distributed resistance, inductance, and capacitance (R, L, and C).

The picture changes for AC signals because any piece of wire has distributed inductance (L), and any wire pair has distributed capacitance (C). The distributed inductance reacts to AC signals by increasingly impeding AC current flow as signal frequency increases. The distributed capacitance reacts to AC signals with decreasing impedance to AC current flow as signal frequency increases. The interaction of these reactive elements (L and C), along with the resistive elements (R), produces a total probe impedance that varies with signal frequency. Through good probe design, the R, L, and C elements of a probe can be controlled to provide desired degrees of signal fidelity, attenuation, and source loading over specified frequency ranges. Even with good design, probes are limited by the nature of their circuitry. It’s important to be aware of these limitations and their effects when selecting and using probes.

Bandwidth and Rise Time Limitations

Bandwidth is the range of frequencies that an oscilloscope or probe is designed for. For example, a 100 MHz probe or oscilloscope is designed to make measurements within specification on all frequencies up to 100 MHz. Unwanted or unpredictable measurement results can occur at signal frequencies above the specified bandwidth (Figure 1.5).

Most probes consist of a probe head, a probe cable, and a compensation box or other signal conditioning network
Figure 1.5.Probes and oscilloscopes are designed to make measurements to specification over an operating bandwidth. At frequencies beyond the 3 dB point, signal amplitudes become overly attenuated and measurement results may be unpredictable.

As a general rule, for accurate amplitude measurements, the bandwidth of the oscilloscope should be five times greater than the frequency of the waveform being measured. This “five-times rule” ensures adequate bandwidth for the higherfrequency components of non-sinusoidal waveforms, such as square waves.

Similarly, the oscilloscope must have an adequate rise time for the waveforms being measured. The rise time of an oscilloscope or probe is defined as the rise time that would be measured if an ideal, instantaneous-rise pulse were applied. For reasonable accuracy in measuring pulse rise or fall times, the rise time of the probe and oscilloscope together should be three to five times faster than that of the pulse being measured (Figure 1.6).

Rise time measurement error can be estimated from the above chart. An oscilloscope/probe combination with a rise time three times faster than the pulse being measured (3:1 ratio) can be expected to measure the pulse rise time to within 5%. A 5:1 ratio would result in only 2% error.
Figure 1.6.Rise time measurement error can be estimated from the above chart. An oscilloscope/probe combination with a rise time three times faster than the pulse being measured (3:1 ratio) can be expected to measure the pulse rise time to within 5%. A 5:1 ratio would result in only 2% error.

In cases where rise time isn’t specified, you can derive rise time (Tr) from the bandwidth (BW) specification with the following relationship:

Tr = 0.35/BW

Every oscilloscope has defined bandwidth and rise time limits. Similarly, every probe also has its own set of bandwidth and rise time limits. And, when a probe is attached to an oscilloscope, you get a new set of system bandwidth and rise time limits.

Unfortunately, the relationship between system bandwidth and the individual oscilloscope and probe bandwidths is not a simple one. The same is true for rise times. To cope with this, manufacturers of quality oscilloscopes specify bandwidth or rise time to the probe tip when the oscilloscope is used with specific probe models. This is important because the oscilloscope and probe together form a measurement system, and it’s the bandwidth and rise time of the system that determine its measurement capabilities. If you use a probe that is not on the oscilloscope’s recommended list of probes, you run the risk of unpredictable measurement results.

Dynamic Range Limitations

All probes have a high-voltage safety limit that should not be exceeded. For passive probes, this limit can range from hundreds of volts to thousands of volts. However, for active probes, the maximum safe voltage limit is often in the range of tens of volts. To avoid personal safety hazards, as well as potential damage to the probe, it’s wise to be aware of the voltages being measured and the voltage limits of the probes being used.

In addition to safety considerations, there’s also the practical consideration of measurement dynamic range. Oscilloscopes have amplitude sensitivity ranges. For example, 1 mV to 10 V/division is a typical sensitivity range. On an eight-division display, this means that you can typically make reasonably accurate measurements on signals ranging from 4 mV peak-to-peak to 40 V peak-to-peak.

This assumes, at minimum, a four-division amplitude display of the signal to obtain reasonable measurement resolution.

With a 1X probe (1-times probe), the dynamic measurement range is the same as that of the oscilloscope. For the example above, this would be a signal measurement range of 4 mV to 40 V.

But, what if you need to measure a signal beyond the 40 V range?

You can shift the oscilloscope’s dynamic range to higher voltages by using an attenuating probe. A 10X probe, for example, shifts the dynamic range to 40 mV to 400 V. It does this by attenuating the input signal by a factor of 10, which effectively multiplies the oscilloscope’s scaling by 10. For most general-purpose use, 10X probes are preferred, both because of their high-end voltage range and because they cause less signal source loading. However, if you plan to measure a very wide range of voltage levels, you may want to consider a switchable 1X/10X probe. This gives you a dynamic range of 4 mV to 400 V. However, in the 1X mode, more care must be taken with regard to signal source loading.

Source Loading

As previously mentioned, a probe must draw some signal current in order to develop a signal voltage at the oscilloscope input. This places a load at the test point that can change the signal that the circuit, or signal source, delivers to the test point.

An example of resistive loading
Figure 1.7.An example of resistive loading.

The simplest example of source loading effects is to consider measurement of a battery-driven resistive network. This is shown in Figure 1.7. In Figure 1.7a, before a probe is attached, the battery’s DC voltage is divided across the battery’s internal resistance (Ri) and the load resistance (Ri) that the battery is driving. For the values given in the diagram, this results in an output voltage of:

Eo = Eb * RI/( Ri + RI)

= 100 V * 100,000/(100 + 100,000)

= 10,000,000 V/100,100

= 99.9 V

In Figure 1.7b, a probe has been attached to the circuit, placing the probe resistance (Rp) in parallel with RI. If Rp is 100 kΩ, the effective load resistance in Figure 1.7b is cut in half to 50 kΩ.

The loading effect of this on Eo is:

Eo = 100 V * 50,000/(100 + 50,000)

= 5,000,000 V/50,100

= 99.8 V

This loading effect of 99.9 V versus 99.8 V is only 0.1% and is negligible for most purposes. However, if Rp were smaller, say 10 kΩ, the effect would no longer be negligible.

To minimize such resistive loading, 1X probes typically have a resistance of 1 MΩ, and 10X probes typically have a resistance of 10 MΩ. For most cases, these values result in virtually no resistive loading. Some loading should be expected, though, when measuring high-resistance sources.

Usually, the loading of greatest concern is that caused by the capacitance at the probe tip (see Figure 1.8). For low frequencies, this capacitance has a reactance that is very high, and there’s little or no effect. But, as frequency increases, the capacitive reactance decreases. The result is increased loading at high frequencies.

For AC signal sources, probe tip capacitance (Cp) is the greatest loading concern. As signal frequency increases, capacitive reactance (Xc) decreases, causing more signal flow through the capacitor
Figure 1.8.For AC signal sources, probe tip capacitance (Cp) is the greatest loading concern. As signal frequency increases, capacitive reactance (Xc) decreases, causing more signal flow through the capacitor.

This capacitive loading affects the bandwidth and rise time characteristics of the measurement system by reducing bandwidth and increasing rise time.

Probe Attenuation R C
P6101B 1X 1 MΩ 100 pF
P6109B 10X 10 MΩ 13 pF
P6139A 10X 10 MΩ 8 pF
P6243 10X 1 MΩ ≤1 pF
Table 1.1. Probe capacitance

Capacitive loading can be minimized by selecting probes with low tip capacitance values. Some typical capacitance values for various probes are provided in the table below:

Since the ground lead is a wire, it has some amount of distributed inductance (see Figure 1.9). This inductance interacts with the probe capacitance to cause ringing at a certain frequency that is determined by the L and C values. This ringing is unavoidable, and may be seen as a sinusoid of decaying amplitude that is impressed on pulses. The effects of ringing can be reduced by designing probe grounding so that the ringing frequency occurs beyond the bandwidth limit of the probe/oscilloscope system.

The probe ground lead adds inductance to the circuit. The longer the ground lead, the greater the inductance and the greater the likelihood of seeingringing on fast pulses.
Figure 1.9.The probe ground lead adds inductance to the circuit. The longer the ground lead, the greater the inductance and the greater the likelihood of seeingringing on fast pulses.

To avoid grounding problems, always use the shortest ground lead provided with the probe. Substituting other means of grounding can cause ringing to appear on measured pulses.

Probes are Sensors

In dealing with the realities of oscilloscope probes, it’s important to keep in mind that probes are sensors. Most oscilloscope probes are voltage sensors. That is, they sense or probe a voltage signal and convey that voltage signal to the oscilloscope input. However, there are also probes that allow you to sense phenomena other than voltage signals.

For example, current probes are designed to sense the current flowing through a wire. The probe converts the sensed current to a corresponding voltage signal which is then conveyed to the input of the oscilloscope. Similarly, optical probes sense light power and convert it to a voltage signal for measurement by an oscilloscope

Additionally, oscilloscope voltage probes can be used with a variety of other sensors or transducers to measure different phenomena. A vibration transducer, for example, allows you to view machinery vibration signatures on an oscilloscope screen. The possibilities are as wide as the variety of available transducers on the market.

In all cases, though, the transducer, probe, and oscilloscope combination must be viewed as a measurement system. Moreover, the realities of probes discussed above also extend down to the transducer. Transducers have bandwidth limits as well and can cause loading effects.

Some Probing Tips

Selecting probes that match your oscilloscope and application needs gives you the capability for making the necessary measurements. Actually making the measurements and obtaining useful results also depends on how you use the tools. The following probing tips will help you avoid some common measurement pitfalls:

Compensate Your Probes

Most probes are designed to match the inputs of specific oscilloscope models. However, there are slight variations from oscilloscope to oscilloscope, and even between different input channels in the same oscilloscope. To deal with this where necessary, many probes, especially attenuating probes (10X and 100X probes), have built-in compensation networks.

If your probe has a compensation network, you should adjust this network to compensate the probe for the oscilloscope channel that you are using. To do this, use the following procedure:

  1. Attach the probe to the oscilloscope.
  2. Attach the probe tip to the probe compensation test point on the oscilloscope’s front panel (see Figure 1.10).
  3. Use the adjustment tool provided with the probe or other non-magnetic adjustment tool to adjust the compensation network to obtain a calibration waveform display that has flat tops with no overshoot or rounding (see Figure 1.11).
  4. If the oscilloscope has a built-in calibration routine, run this routine for increased accuracy.
Probe compensation adjustments are done either at the probe head or at a compensation box where the box attaches to the oscilloscope input.
Figure 1.10.Probe compensation adjustments are done either at the probe head or at a compensation box where the box attaches to the oscilloscope input.

An uncompensated probe can lead to various measurement errors, especially in measuring pulse rise or fall times. To avoid such errors, always compensate probes right after connecting them to the oscilloscope and check compensation frequently.

Also, it’s wise to check probe compensation whenever you change probe tip adaptors.

Overcompensated.
Overcompensated.
Under compensated.
Under compensated.
Properly compensated.
Properly compensated.
Figure 1.11. Examples of probe compensation effects on a square wave.
Direct probe tip contact.
Direct probe tip contact.
Two-inch wire at probe tip
Two-inch wire at probe tip.
Figure 1.12. Even a short piece of wire soldered to a test point can cause signal fidelity problems. In this case, rise time has been changed from 4.74 ns to 5.67 ns.
6.5 inch probe ground lead.
6.5 inch probe ground lead.
28 inch lead attached to probe lead.
28 inch lead attached to probe lead.
Figure 1.13. Extending the length of the probe ground lead can cause ringing to appear on pulses

Use Appropriate Probe Tip Adapters Whenever Possible

A probe tip adapter that’s appropriate for the circuit being measured makes probe connection quick, convenient, and electrically repeatable and stable. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see short lengths of wire soldered to circuit points as a substitute for a probe tip adapter

The problem is that even an inch or two of wire can cause significant impedance changes at high frequencies. The effect of this is shown in Figure 1.12, where a circuit is measured by direct contact of the probe tip and then measured via a short piece of wire between the circuit and probe tip.

Keep Ground Leads as Short and as Direct as Possible

When doing performance checks or troubleshooting large boards or systems, it may be tempting to extend the probe’s ground lead. An extended ground lead allows you to attach the ground once and freely move the probe around the system while you look at various test points. However, the added inductance of an extended ground lead can cause ringing to appear on fast-transition waveforms. This is illustrated in Figure 1.13, which shows waveform measurements made while using the standard probe ground lead and an extended ground lead.

Summary

In this first chapter, we’ve tried to provide all of the basic information necessary for making appropriate probe selections and using probes properly. In the following chapters, we’ll expand on this information as well as introduce more advanced information on probes and probing techniques.