My areas of interest include computers, audio recording technology and studio setups, and any kind of hardware in between.
How to Find a Handheld Digital Oscilloscope That Works
Did you know there are portable digital oscilloscopes that fit into the palm of your hand nowadays? I'd love to go back in time and show the users of the original oscilloscopes what we have to work with these days; they'd be amazed. However, not all handheld digital oscilloscopes are made equal, and they may not have the features you need.
Oscilloscopes are useful for a variety of scientific and electronic tasks. They're even used in automotive work. As we move further into an increasingly digital age, we're finding new uses for these multi-faceted devices. If you're finding that lugging around that big old oscilloscope you've had for 30 years is getting tedious, you might consider upgrading to a smaller unit.
My Top Picks
This article will be checking out a few of the best (in my opinion) portable digital oscilloscopes around today. Because most product literature will only outline the good news and not the bad, I'll be reviewing each one with practical information on its uses and limitations. Hopefully by this you'll get a good sense of where to invest your money. Let's get going!
- Owon Portable Digital Oscilloscope With USB
- Owon Handheld Digital Oscilloscope, 2-Channel
- Velleman Handheld Pocket Oscilloscope
- Rigol Digital Storage Oscilloscope
Below, you'll see a lot of models (but not all) with USB functionality. That's a very useful feature on a digital storage oscilloscope. It lets you load the stored data from a test into your computer for more in-depth analysis, storage and printing.
It's not strictly essential, but it's definitely a feature you'll miss if you opt out.
1. Owon Portable Digital Oscilloscope With USB
Owon is a well-known name in the oscilloscope and waveform generator industry. They have a ton of quality products, but I want to highlight this one in particular because it hits the 'sweet spot' of features, price tag and portable size, making it a prime candidate for many applications.
One of the first things that makes this unit stand apart from many of the handheld and portable sized competitors is the fact that it has multiple input channels, which let you test multiple inputs at the same time and cross compare. Many of the smaller devices only have one. That's not terrible, but it doesn't give you as much versatility. The dual channels on this device are are a boon.
Its bandwidth is 25 MHz, and the sample rate is approximately 100 MS/s. If you do a price to bandwidth comparison with other models, you'll see that that is actually quite a good price tag for what you're getting. The waveforms you'll see on this device are quite detailed and good for many applications.
It also features handy stuff like auto scale (which can be enabled or disabled at your discretion) and built-in basic math formulae and fast Fourier transform options. It has automated measurements like peak-to-peak, period and frequency. It also has USB connectivity for your PC or for any devices you want to connect with. The 8" screen has pretty good resolution for the price too. You can screen capture up to 4 images at once for later retrieval, though the built-in memory isn't huge.
Overall this is a small (15cm x 35cm x 10cm) digital storage oscilloscope with enough features to keep most users quite happy. For the price, it is excellent.
2. Owon Handheld Digital Storage Oscilloscope, 2-Channel
If you're hoping for a cheap option, this isn't really it (though comparatively speaking it's definitely affordable), but considering the full set of features it boasts, this is a great handheld digital storage oscilloscope for both the professional and the hobbyist.
The unit features a 20 MHz bandwidth, which results in a sample rate of 100 MS/s. That results in detailed waveforms on both channels, especially compared against less expensive handheld units with lower sample rates. If detail is important to you in a pocket product, this is the one for you.
Another huge factor in this product's favor is the fact that it boasts 2 digital channels, something many other handheld units just don't have.
It actually features many of the nice built-in functions that the bigger Owon units have, such as automated measurements like peak-to-peak, period and frequency, as well as math formulae like FFT, subtract, multiply, etc. You can manually adjust the range or you can opt to use the handy auto-range feature.
The screen is a color LCD version which is about 3.7 inches across. It has a rechargeable battery and charger, and it has USB plugin functionality, so you can hook it up to your PC and download and print stored waveform data. It even comes in a durable carrying case.
Downsides? Only a few. On the whole I'd love the 'fit and finish' to be a bit better on this device, as it's mostly plastic. The screen isn't bad, but it's not terribly bright and may require an auxiliary light source in dark situations. So essentially the features are all there, but maybe not the most durable. But considering it has the features of many products that are 3 times more expensive, it's a worthwhile trade in my opinion.
3. Velleman Handheld Pocket Oscilloscope
If you're looking for something truly portable and handheld, it's hard to get much smaller than this tiny pocket oscilloscope by Velleman. It's small enough to fit easily in the palm of your hand, and while it isn't nearly as feature rich as some of the bigger options, it's a good possibility for anyone who needs portability over everything else. It's a small package with a big range.
The resolution is pretty good considering how small this device is. It has 10 MHz and a sample rate of 40MS/s. That's not the kind of resolution that gives you fine detail, but it's often more than enough for a travelling service tech, and it is a great help in troubleshooting.
It's sensitive enough to read down to 0.1mV, but the auto range only works down to about 5mV. If you need more sensitivity than that you'll have to set it manually. Still, the addition of auto range is a handy feature.
It features a rechargeable battery which will save you some money, and comes with a charger. The backlit LCD screen isn't anything special, but it has a low power draw and gets the job done.
Two things I'd love to see on this device that it doesn't have: it only has a single lead for input, which limits you, and it doesn't have USB connectivity for syncing with your laptop or PC. But I do understand: the price is low and the device was built for portability and on-the-spot diagnoses; it does those tasks admirably!
4. Rigol Digital Storage Oscilloscope
Of all the smaller, less expensive digital o-scopes out there, this one by Rigol is among the very best. It's feature-rich and powerful. It features the highest bandwidth and therefore the highest sample rate of any of the scopes we've taken a look at thus far. If sample rate is important to you, this is one to check out.
It's also the biggest one I'm reviewing today. It needs the extra space to house all those extra goodies, so it's not exactly handheld. But with that being said, it's small enough to make it very convenient to store and move about. Its size (approximately 18" x 12" x 11") and weight (6 pounds) make it better suited to someone who needs a bit more shelf space in their lab or workshop.
To get down to the brass tacks, this has a bunch of features that put it nearly on par with some of the behemoths out there. With 50 MHz of bandwidth comes a sample rate of 1 GS/s over both channels, much higher than any reviewed here. That really lends this device to detailed analysis. It has two input channels too.
It has a vertical sensitivity of between 2mV and 10V / div. And this is also a USB device which can be synced with your PC using a cable, so you can get access to the onboard waveform storage. It also has the automatic measurements you'd expect as well as FFT.
Downsides? The screen somehow seems a bit small for such a high sample rate. It's not bad, mind you, nearly 6 inches in width and full color, but if you're used to analog scopes there might be a bit of an adjustment. Also the instructions are not well written and require a careful read-through to fully understand the features. That apart, it's a great scope and a good choice.
Reading through this article, no doubt you've noticed a strong correlation between the price tag of the unit and the features. Specifically speaking, there is a strong link between the bandwidth / sample rate and the price, as well as the number of channels available. To a lesser extent, user interface and ease of use play a role in how much you'll be charged. I would definitely encourage you to aim for a higher bandwidth wherever possible. The lower the bandwidth, the less applicable your device will become.
With pocket sized oscilloscopes, there's an even greater jump in price with additional features. That's due to the cost of miniaturization.
I'd break it down like this: if you're a hobbyist, you probably don't need to spend more than a couple hundred on your scope. If you're a professional, or if you need it for a professional or scientific application, a budget range of anywhere between $250 and $5000 is pretty standard. Typically speaking, you do get what you pay for.
If you're after a specific application or set of features not covered here, leave a message and I'll try to point you towards a solution. Thanks for reading!
What Are Handheld Oscilloscopes Used For?
As mentioned earlier, modern oscilloscopes are becoming increasingly invaluable, especially as our reliance on electronics increases. Here are a few modern applications for handheld models.
- Electronics Troubleshooting: A portable digital oscilloscope is often handy in tracing issues in an electronic system. A popular example would be identifying a faulty piece of equipment or component in a series by cross-referencing the expected signal with an aberrant or incorrect reading. An oscilloscope measures what the voltage is doing over time in a visual representation, unlike a voltmeter, which measures a single instance at a time. We are visual creatures, so that can be a great help.
- Prototyping and New Circuitry: Oscilloscopes are very useful in the prototyping stage of electronics, because they let you test a new circuit before integration.
- Automotive Use: Since most modern vehicles make use of an onboard computer, some specialized handheld oscilloscopes can help a technician or mechanic test the signals on both the computer itself and the sensors it relies upon, removing much of the guesswork.
What About You?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions or specific comments? Feel free to post them here.
Will Henry (author) from British Columbia on September 17, 2015:
I think the Rigol would be a good one to learn and grow with. It has the highest resolution of the bunch here. Should should be able to show low frequency clipping as you require. It's a hair above your price point of £200. An investment, but sounds like you'll be getting a lot of use out of it.
Alternatively there is the less expensive Owon PDS5022, but it has lower resolution.
Will Henry (author) from British Columbia on September 17, 2015:
Hi Bill, it would depend on the sensors. Assuming they're very low voltage (which they likely are), the Velleman should work great for you. Either one should work, but the Velleman is more affordable, so I'd go that route. Hope that helps!
Bill Robinson on September 17, 2015:
Pls i need something pocket to enable me measure Automobile cam, crank, injectors sensors for cars, I cant afford pico pls advise me between the dso n vellman which one would aid me as I am new to scope n will now begin to learn it way of functionality. So advise which one will help. Thanks
MRV9318 on September 15, 2015:
Im an electronics graduate on a budget looking to assemble an arsenal of equipment, and want to start small.
Looking for a high resolution scope for detecting audio distortion in audio applications at low frequencies, it will also be used under other applications such as RF projects to Amplifier design and beyond, budget of around £200
Will Henry (author) from British Columbia on March 30, 2015:
Hi Ian, disclaimer: CCTV is admittedly outside of my area, but are you sure a 'scope is necessary for your applications? What kind of troubleshooting are you doing? My first thought is that a dedicated CCTV tester might be more suitable...
Ian on March 26, 2015:
I'm looking to buy an oscilloscope to set up monitors for the purpose of displaying CCTV images. It's a minefield out there. Can you recommend any good ones?
Alphapx from Philippines on October 08, 2013:
I predicted that handy oscilloscope is already in the market these days. There are many inventions today and one of my imagination was having this kind if stuff.