PC-based analysis of previously captured test data is a growing technology that offers great value to teams looking for alternatives that hold promise. While PC-based tools that operate with files captured on oscilloscopes have existed for a decade, adoption has been slow. New advances in PC-based oscilloscope analysis software allow teams to better utilize their oscilloscope investments. Here are three reasons to consider adding PC-based oscilloscope analysis software to complement oscilloscope investments.   

1. View and analyze anywhere your PC goes

PC-based oscilloscope analysis software enables engineers to work remote from the target system and scope. A user captures waveforms on a scope, saves the data to a file, and then recalls the data in a PC-based application. This use model provides several advantages over relying exclusively on working at a scope.

Users now have access to critical measurement data viewing, analysis, sharing, and documentation anywhere their PC goes. Many engineers would like to view and analyze measurements away from the scope/target, and offline applications provide the capability to do this. A quiet desk environment is often more conducive to productivity. With PC-based scope analysis software, engineers have access to test data anywhere their PC goes. They don’t need to be in the lab. They can view and analyze results anywhere and anytime that is convenient. For example, markers can be used to view delta timing measurements between events of interest. Or, a user can acquire a waveform and perform a deep-memory FFT at their PC to see what the spectral content looks like. A user can take a look at rise-time or peak-to-peak voltage measurements on a waveform, or look at signal activity across multiple waveforms. For users who need to make eye or jitter measurements, this can also be done using PC-based analysis tools.

Another viewing and analysis advantage on a PC is display size and quality. Most scope are limited to 8” to 12” display, with the biggest offering 15” displays. While 15” XG display may be impressive for instruments, this size and resolution pales in comparison to display sizes and resolution found in offices. Most engineers have extended displays across two monitors. Offline analysis applications take advantage of this by allowing the scope viewing and analysis windows to be undocked and split across multiple displays.  

As early prototypes are often limited in quantity, offline analysis allows for greater sharing of limited target systems. While one user is using a scope, other users who previously captured data can view and analyze this information on their PCs allowing for greater usage of limited target systems or oscilloscopes. Since target systems and test equipment is limited to a single user, this use model enables more productive sharing of target systems and test equipment. Users who previously took measurements can analyze the results using just their PCs, and then return to the target system when additional new measurements are needed.

Since the user’s PC already contains valuable design creation content, moving between design and test information on the same computer promotes faster problem resolution.  

Both the design files and real-world test data now reside on the same computer and can be rapidly accessed by the same user.  Most of the offline application packages import both vendor-specific data file formats as well as generic data formats, such as .csv, allowing application software on a PC to accept waveforms from any scope vendor. This has an added benefit for EDA tools that can produce a .csv file. Simulation data can be viewed using the same tool that provides visualization of real-world signals. This facilitates a number of previously unavailable comparisons between the modeled and real world. Some users value this capability as a way to compare measurements from two different scope vendors as a single analysis engine eliminates algorithm variances between scope vendors.

2. Share scope measurements more easily

Oscilloscopes are often used for problem resolution, and problem resolution typically involves multiple people and disciplines. To share measurement data, scope users have historically needed to bring others to the scope, or to save and send screen shot images. The former is not always an option as collaborators may be in a different time zone or more simply just not available when a specific scope measurement is made. Sharing screen images often results in the “what happened just before” question, which can’t be addressed with static images. PC-based scope analysis enables teams to share measurements more easily than if they exclusively rely on a scope.  

It’s really easy to share measurement data that is on a PC. The industry has produced thousands of tools that make it easy to share PC data. Examples include USB and network drives, email, and web-based collaboration tools. If local, offline applications enable users to get together around a PC which often is an easier approach than bringing another person to the scope and target, particularly for measurements that may be done remotely in the field. Other difficult environments to bring people to include secure labs, and environmental chambers. With PC-based analysis, scope measurements can be more easily shared across teams, and, if needed, with customers and vendors using a variety of sharing tools.

When sharing screen shots, the recipient is restricted to a static view exclusively consisting of the time window and signals displayed on the image. With offline analysis, an engineer can share entire waveform records instead of being limited exclusively to screen shots. This enables collaborators to move to any event of interest in a waveform record without restrictions.  

Some PC-based analysis tools enable collaboration with others who aren’t equipped with the same tools. Floating and transportable licenses allow users to share not only the measurement data, but also to loan out the application and analysis options so others can see exactly what they are seeing.

3. Create useful documentation faster

Most engineers consider test documentation a required, but disliked portion of their job. It’s tedious, requires a lot of manual attention, and invariably someone later asks a question that the documentation didn’t address. Nevertheless, design documentation remains a critical task for design supportability and communication between teams and disciplines. PC-based analysis tools allow a user to create more useful documentation faster than they could using just an oscilloscope. Here’s how.  

Tedious tasks such as copying screen shots into documentation applications like Microsoft Word become a magnitude easier. Users can simply right-click and cut-and-paste to move screen images between applications, without ever having to save the image to a file. Users can save images in a variety of formats if higher resolution is needed, or they can use common screen image copy functions such as simply pushing the control and print screen keys.

The PC-based applications often show annotated results more easily than they can be viewed using a printout, such as when users want to quickly determine time and vertical values as they are prominently displayed on axis. Measurement result windows can be sized and filled with just the information the user needs for documentation. Additional annotation capabilities such as callouts and bookmarks produce friendly documentation. Multiple windows and splitters allow users to document in a format that works for specific needs. Instead of documenting using just screen shots, users can save entire measurement records in a mouse click in case there’s a need to revisit them later.

Evaluating PC-based oscilloscope analysis tools
If you are considering PC-based oscilloscope analysis software to complement your scope investment, take a few minutes to explore what is on the market. If you’ve previously used one of these tools, you may be surprised at how better the tools have become in the last year.
Pricing and downloads
Several of the PC-based applications are free and offer unlimited usage. Other PC-based scope applications that are more capable and of higher quality can be purchased for under $1,000, while others can cost a few thousand dollars. Most of the for-pay applications are well maintained, have been testing to some degree across a variety of PC types and have decent performance. As they are maintained, they also typically receive regular updates with new functionality. The for-pay variety typically offers add-in upgrade options for protocol decode, jitter, and eye analysis. All have free downloads with the ability to explore and experiment.

Evaluation licensing. Free offline applications generally have no licensing, while for-pay apps offer free trial periods, typically 14 to 30 days. During the trial periods users have access to all application features and can experiment with their own personal waveforms. After this time period, users can still use standard tool capabilities, but are restricted to demo waveforms from the vendor.

File compatibility. Offline tools support a variety of file formats and the software may come from a scope vendor, or a third party. Generally, software from a scope vendor will offer great support of compressed formats that are unique to that scope vendor, as well as the ability to import non-compact .csv files produced on other vendors’ scope. Some users prefer evaluation with vendor-supplied demo waveforms as this makes for a faster evaluation.

What to look for
During evaluation it’s critical to see how well the PC-based tool performs for viewing and analyzing captured signals. How much does it feel like a scope? How easy is it to scale waveforms, navigate, take measurements and turn on markers? How easy is it to share the resulting information? For example, are axis values clearly marked? Can window sizing be customized to highlight events of interest? How well do bookmarks and annotations work? Lastly, will the application create useful documentation faster? Does the application eliminate or reduce the need to save screen images? Can the entire record be easily archived and recalled if needed? How easy is it to customize views and analysis that are needed in reports? Testing these needs against PC-based scope analysis software on the market today will let engineers determine to how useful it would be to complement both new and existing scope investments this type of software.