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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Picoscope 3000 Series Review....or maybe not

  First off, let me start by saying that this is not really  a full review, but more accurately a first impression after I got to play around with one of these things. 
And because it's a PC scope, the impressions are not so much about the physical aspect of the scope as it is about it's user interface. And, boy, do I have some comments to make here...

"High Performance USB Bla bla bla...."

  The culprit....sorry, I mean the product I had the... opportunity? to play with is a Picoscope 3406D MSO PC oscilloscope.
This little thriller comes with 4 analog channels and 16 digital channels, a 1 GS/s real time sampling (even though the software lets you select all the way up to 2GS/s, but I don't know if that really does anything or it's there just for  the fun of it), USB 3.0 and more features than you can poke a stick at.
Yeah, right. 
And let me make an analogy here: suppose you go to the  local car dealership and go around the show floor, only looking at the specs where it says "Horsepower", paying absolutely no attention to, let's say, how comfortable the interior of the car is, or how well it drives on the street, or... I think you get the point. 
When you do find the one with the most horsepower, you give the dealer all you hard earned money, two small coins, a bottle cap and a paperclip you happen to have in your pocket, making sure you quickly but the latter two back in you pocket, as fast as discretely as possible.
After  you drive home, happy about you new purchase, you will be hit by the worse case of buyer's remorse, ever, because, you will have realized that you just bought the most ugly, uncomfortable, unusable car in history. See where I'm going with this?

So, yes, the hardware specs for the Picoscope 3000 series are very nice, and maybe the scope would deliver on them.....who knows... because I was too preoccupied with getting the software interface of  this thing to actually  work and with scouring through the menus to find basic stuff  like a cursor,  getting the waveforms to actually fit in the center of the screen, and so on. And for these kinds of scope, where all you have is the interface to it, no buttons or knobs, how it looks and feels makes all the difference.

Yes folks, it's bad. The Picoscope software interface is horrific. In the year 2016, when more and more really nice PC scopes are coming on the market, the interface is really frustrating and awkward to use. This, combined with the fact that it looks like something from 10 years ago, really makes you wonder why on earth someone would go and buy this product, as opposed to any other scope of the same caliber. 
First of all, when you start the application, as a first time user you will be met by the most mild-mannered and spartan GUI yet. Also, notice the selected 2 GS/s rate. YEAH baby, now we're talking 

At first glance, you'll notice that it has all the things a normal scope should time-base and Volts/div settings...and trigger settings. Sweet!

On to the fun stuff

Now, for any engineer that has ever used a scope for more than 5 minutes, you will soon realize that for some measurements, you need some way to measure the time interval between event A and event B in time. Nothing more simple, just press the "Cursor" button an a scope's front end.
Well, this detail seems to have escaped the guys that designed this interface. After a frustrating hour of searching all the menus, all the nooks and crannies this interface has and calling another one of my colleagues to the rescue, nu luck. No "Cursor" tab, or menu, or anything like that. Only a daft looking green  little circle tucked away in the lower right corner, that has the amazing property of displaying "0°" on it, no matter where you move it on the waveform.

Again, this is from the perspective of a first time user. It shouldn't be rocket science to use one of these devices and I do apologize if some people that have read the user manual for the GUI know where everything is, that still does not make it any easier to operate.

This thing is also boasting all kind of communication protocols decoding, which is very handy. Except that, with 4 analog channels and 6 digital lines, all 6 with CAN protocol decoding on them, the GUI gets sluggish sometimes. And that happened on a i7 core machine with about 8 Gigs of RAM on it.
Also, that "real time sampling" the scenario I used it, no way was that real time. But who am I to complain.
Also, there was a very peculiar thing I stumbled upon....the traces would not zero properly, i.e. they had a a butt load of offset, one of them about 100 V. But, the guys from Picoscope thought of this ahead, and put in an auto-zeroing button for each channel

Too bad each time I zeroed channels B, C or D, the application crashed.
 A nice thing is that this thing always has the last 32 frames on hand, so you can review them  at any time, to see any missed signal behavior (see the "32 of 32" in the upper middle of the photo). Nice feature this is. But unfortunately, from all the button pushing, my application decided to go all Alzheimer on me and by the time I managed to set up my signal capture profile, both analog and digital (it only took abut 2 or 3 hours, what would have taken me 1 minute on any other mixed signal scope), the GUI only had the current frame on memory, and nowhere could I find something referring to the buffer size or history or the like. So, yeah, all we had to go on was a trigger on a certain event an hoped that all went well.

The Bottom Line

If this software was a pre-beta, OK, I would excuse a few mistakes in the code, here and there. But it's not. The version I downloaded was the latest one. It even said "stable" in the comments next to the version name, in Picoscope's Downloads page, so it had to be good. (F.Y.I. This version also crashed when I hit the "Zero" button for channels B C or D)

 I wonder why the latest version didn't work......

Anyway, a LOT of improvement is necessary here. The guys at Picoscope need to step up their game and actually build a GUI that works. I'll even lend them my scope and see how that works, since obviously none of them ever touched a scope before, otherwise they would have known to put all the common and important stuff where it can easily be accessed, front and center.

So, what's next?

Well, I've been doing a lot of work an my own personal projects lately, and built some nice gear. Of course I'm going to share them, pictures, schematics and all. Also, there's some power supply stuff going on that I want to share.

Also, I've been thinking about building my own LCR meter. After reading and doing some hard core research on the matter, I came up with a configuration  that I hope will work.

So, more interesting design posts to come.

Have fun and keep playing


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