If you’re serious about electronics and engineering, you’re going to need some tools to help poke, prod, measure and coerce all those stray electrons into going to their proper destination or tracking them down when they go astray. While hardly exhaustive, this guide will hopefully point you to some of the keys tools you might need to design, build and test things more efficiently.
I’ve tried to list them in the order that I think they should be acquired from most frequently used to more specialized gear, but obviously it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Where relevant, I’ve tried to list at least two models, one lower cost but reliable option for people getting started or intermediate users, and one professional device that I know is tried and tested if you need something that you can rely on day in and day out year after year when the numbers really matter.
Digital Multi-Meter (DMM)
It’s important to buy good quality tools, but thankfully one of the most important tools on your bench is also one of the most affordable and easiest to find: the Digital Multi-Meter (often referred to as a DMM). The DMM lets you measure all kinds of critical information like voltage, resistance, continuity (testing if there is an electrical connection between two points), and depending on the model many other values like current draw, etc. If you don’t already have a DMM, don’t be tempted by the $5 ebay specials. Spend the money on a good entry level to intermediate model, since this is something you’ll find yourself pulling out again and again.
Learning to use a DMM should be your first step getting serious about electronics. Learn how to check if a signal is actually high or low, make sure the voltage is what it should be before plugging something in, etc.
- Entry-Level: There are many options out there (not all being equal!), but for an affordable all-rounder check out the VIC830 DMM ($14.95!)
- Intermediate: The Extech EX330 12-Function Auto-Ranging Meter has all the measurement bells and whistles plus auto-ranging ($59.95)
- Professional: OLED display, check. Tight tolerances, check. Brick-sized and abuse-resistant, check. I trust my Agilent U1253B day after day, and it’s a pleasure to use when you really need to trust your numbers. Agilent’s main (and more perhaps more popular) handheld-DMM competitor is Fluke, which provides a number of competitively priced high-end meters, but I found feature for feature the Agilent U1253B was a slightly better value for money. (Have a favorite Fluke meter and think I’m out to lunch? Feel free to post it up in the comments!) $450 for the Agilent, and $300-500 for competitive models.
- Test Lab: Are you setting up a shared lab space, and doing some complex characterization or test work with a lot of steps and data involved? You might want a programmable DMM that you can control via USB or Ethernet. The Agilent 34410A is a top-of-the-line bench-top DMM that won’t disappoint There are less expensive options without USB and Ethernet, but if you’re serious about setting up a professional test lab and a shared working environment, it’s important to buy tools that can be programmed remotely with custom test SW, and Agilent has excellent libraries that allow you to program their devices in C++, C#, etc., or using Ethernet and LXI commands from any OS. B&K Precision, Fluke and Keithley also have some excellent bench-top DMMs, but I looked into this in a lot of detail and found the 34410A was the best value for my needs and the level of precision and flexibility I was looking for. If you don’t need USB/Ethernet, though, you’ll have more flexibility on price, but you want to be sure you have a DMM that you trust when the numbers and repeatability really matter. $1Kish and higher.
Thanks to very hobbyist friendly platforms like Arduino that can be purchased pre-soldered, you can get your feet wet in electronics without having to learn how to solder, but if you want to start making anything yourself you’ll eventually have to pick up a soldering iron. Although it’s intimidating for a lot of people at first, anyone can learn to do it. It is important to have a decent soldering iron, though, with enough heat to get the solder to reflow, otherwise the experience will be unnecessarily frustrating and unproductive.
- Entry-Level: There are many options out there for simple probes, but Adafruit’s 30W 110V soldering iron is a bargain and a safe first choice if you just don’t know if you’re going to stick with electronics as a hobby, and don’t want to spend $100 on a tool for something you’re just exploring. At $22, this will allow you to solder header pins on your boards without breaking the bank.
- Intermediate: You can’t go wrong with the rock-solid Hakko FX-888. It’s sleek, it’s reliable, it’s temperature adjustable (important if you work with lead and lead-free solder), and you can easily gets tips a plenty for it (which is one of the most important things when soldering … the right tip for the right job). For the difference in price, don’t buy a crummy imitation off ebay or a $50 Chinese knock-off. You’ll use and reuse this thing for ages, so the assurance of something well designed with quality heating elements is worth the extra money. I used Hakko for ages myself, and only upgraded because I needed SMT hot-tweezer adapters and wanted to be able to add a pre-heater, which meant going to a more flexible soldering station. I still keep it as a backup unit, though! It’s $95 and a solid value.
- Professional/Test Lab: There’s a lot of debate here. I have a Weller WX2021 that I’m very happy with (SMT Tweezers and dual heads, $900), but ladyada is very happy with her Metcal which I’ve used myself and found just as good (heats up very quickly and lots of accessories and tips). I bought the Weller since I’m in Europe and it’s easier to get replacement tips and add-ons. When you’re looking at $1,000 soldering stations, make sure add-ons and repairs are readily available in your local market. A new professional grade units should put you out +/- $1K. Sometimes you can find a used units for less, just be sure it has the accessories you need!
Basic Hand Tools
- Flush Diagonal Cutters: These are useful when you solder through-hole parts onto boards, since you can cut off the metal stubs that are left over. You’ll want a nice pair that feels good in your hands if you have a whole lot of pins to snip off.
- Wire Strippers: You can use these to safely pull the shielding off wires (it works better than your teeth, and your dentist will thank you for it). You simply select the right notch for the wire gauge, insert a length of wires, close the wire strippers and gently pull the wire out. Afterwards, you can ‘tin’ the exposed wire with a bit of solder, and then solder it onto your PCB to connect whatever two points you need to connect. Essential debugging skill! You can find cheap models on ebay, etc., but Hakko makes great quality hand tools and the CSP-30-1 feels great and works well, and includes a notch for 30 AWG (many less expensive strippers don’t). I use these all the time and have never been disappointed.
- Tweezers: I couldn’t live with these for careful work with tiny surface mount parts. A good pair of tweezers is one of the most important purchases you’ll make, but thankfully China has made these ridiculously cheap without sacrificing much in quality. You have two choices: fine-tip curved or straight. Personally, I prefer curved and almost never use straight, but it’s 50/50 with most engineers I talk to. They’re cheap enough that I’d get both and experiment, and it’s always good to have a backup pair anyway. You’ll wonder how you lived without them since they’re useful for pushing stuff around on boards as well.
- Basic Pliers: You might already have a pair of these somewhere, but a basic pair of pliers is extremely useful when assembling stuff. I use these for all kind of stuff, like pulling boards out of the reflow oven.
- Crimping Tool: This is a much more specialized tool, but it’s priceless when you need it. You use a crimper to, well, ‘crimp’ metal headers onto bare wires so that they can be inserted into special connectors. I first saw this crimping tool in Tokyo from a company named ‘Engineer, Inc.’ (short and sweet, no?), and they may seem expensive but it’s an incredible bargain compared to specialized crimpers that only work for one connector type, and everything I’ve ever bought from Engineer Inc. has been exceptionally well designed and machined. If you need to make custom cables in small quantities, Engineer Incs. PA-09 is probably the best general purpose crimper out there. You can read more about it on their website if you’re curious what connectors it supports.
I often mention Saleae’s Logic as one of the first tools I’d buy if my lab burned down, since it’s priceless if you ever have to work with sensors using common buses like I2C, SPI, I2S, etc. It helps you to see exactly why a driver isn’t working and solve the problem in minutes, compared to hours of dull printf debugging or setting breakpoints in your code. Logic lets you not only visualize the data transitions from high to low in an very attractive UI, it also interprets them to display the hexadecimal values of data being sent over SPI, etc., and can be used to check the timing constraints by measuring the delay between two capture points (perfect for verifying clock speeds, etc.). I have a good mixed-signal oscilloscope with a 200MHz 8-channel logic analyzer and I do sometimes need to pull it out (Agilent MSO-X 2024A), but the Logic is always the first tool I go to since it’s so flexible and easy to use.
Writing you own drivers and don’t have one of these yet? Do yourself a favor and pick one up … it’s the best $150 you’ll spend and in an hour you’ll be wondering how you lived without it.
There are two models to choose from: The Logic 8 and the Logic 16. They both use the same free software and function identically, but the Logic contains 16 channels and can capture signals up to 100MHz (less as you add channels). The cheaper Logic 8 contains eight channels and is limited to 24MHz max. Which one you require depends on the debugging you are doing, but if you only ever need to debug SPI and I2C sensors, the Logic 8 is probably all you will ever need. The Logic 16 is more useful for debugging things like 8-bit buses with control lines or very fast signals, and is a nice upgrade but if you need it you probably understand the advantages and can decide yourself if it’s worth the extra money.
There was a joke at one of my former employers that every new engineer needs two standard pieces of equipment from day one: a good oscilloscope, and an intern. You’re on your own for finding interns, but there’s a reason oscilloscopes are so valued by engineers. They’re one of the most flexible and useful tools available during design, development and debugging, helping you spot difficult timing issues, and visualize data in a relatively easy to understand way. It’s most efficient way to find out if that buggy board is having issues because of noise on the lines, to quickly verify that values plugged into your MCU for the PWM output are right, to measure parameters like chip wake-up time and signal rise times, and many other things.
An oscilloscope isn’t a necessary purchase if you’re just casually interested in playing with Arduino, but if you become really serious about electronics and want to see and understand how things actually work and whats really going on with your HW, a good oscilloscope is the best investment you can make both financially and to bring your electronics know-how to the next level.
There are a lot of USB oscilloscopes out there, but if you can afford it, I’d personally recommend staying away from them and buying the right tool once and getting an entry level scope like the Rigol DS1052E. It’s a real HW oscilloscope, they’re an excellent value, and it will probably take a few years before you outgrow it, at which point you can likely sell it to upgrade since there’s always a market for oscilloscopes in the DIY and engineering community. These can get very expensive very quickly, but the Rigol is a good value. There are competitive units from companies like Owon that seem serious, but I only have first-hand experience with the 1052. (Feel free to chime in in the comments section if you think the Owon’s or similar scopes are a better value than the Rigol!)
- Entry-Level: Honestly, save your pennies for a real HW oscilloscope, you won’t regret it.
- Mid-range: Rigol 1052E or similar scope ($400)
- Professional/Test Lab: Agilent MSO-X 2000 or 3000 series (can measure both analogue and digital signals, all the bells and whistles). Generally, $2K and up.
I’m biased including this here. I have absolutely terrible eye-sight and couldn’t get anything done without my bulky stereo microscope, but even for someone with vision better than mine a good stereo microscope with 5x and 10x magnification will give your hands superpowers, and imbue you with solder inspection prowess you never imagined you had. Hand soldering 0402 or even 0201? It’s all good with enough magnification!
While microscopes are a pretty standard fixtures for soldering and inspection in professional labs, there are actually two cases where you’ll probably want to different types of microscopes if you’re on a budget:
- Sometimes you need read part numbers of extremely small parts, inspect pads on a PCB, or just see that one solder joint on the edge of a QFN chip in much more detail than the naked eye will give you … this is where USB scopes come in handy since they can be viewed on large screens, and the display lag doesn’t matter. Inspect but not soldering? Go USB.
- Classic 10KG of metal stereo scope, though, are what you need for soldering. USB scopes can be impressive tools for debugging and verifying HW, but you can’t solder with them since there is a delay before you see the image on your screen that makes it extremely awkward to solder with. No such problems with a big chunk of analogue metal and glass and you’ll be soldering 0402 in no time!
- Entry-level USB microscope: Basic USB scope with LED illumination will get your eyes closer than you ever imagined. Sniffing around bare dies? No problem with this thing! $80
- Intermediate USB microscope: Aluminum USB Microscope with Precision Stand is a good investment since you often want something with precise movements and a solid base, particularly if you’re sewing several images together in post-production (such as photographing a die or large area of a PCB). $150
- Professional Stereo Microscope: Ebay is a great place to find stereo microscopes, but it can be confusing since you’re also competing with scientific instruments that aren’t as useful for electronics. What you want for general purpose electronics work and precision soldering is something in the range of 5-20x magnification, and you should splurge for a ‘trinocular’ design. The trinocular scopes have an optional third tube that can be used to insert USB cameras or DSLRs adapters (harder to find but they exist). They’re not much more money the classic stereo microscopes, and the extra tube is worth the extra money. You should also look for something called a barlow lens. They come in a variety of factors but adjust working distance at the expense of magnification. What I have myself is a 10-20x trinocular scope with a 0.5x barlow lense that cuts the magnification in hald to 5x and 10x, but doubles the working distance. This gives me a perfect setup for soldering since these are ideal magnifications, and I have a lot of working space for my hands between the lense and the PCB. Also get some sort of LED illumination to shed some light on that board … the scope eats up a lot of light. You really want the boom-stand version as well since you need to swivel the head around over the PCB! $500 or so, and ebay is your friend in North America.
- Test Lab Setup: Mantis! If you want to keep the backs of all your engineers happy and have deep pockets, this is where you should start your search. If you need to ask the price you can’t afford it. 🙂
This is admittedly an extremely specialized item, but USB is also an extremely popular means of making your HW communicate with the outside world, and if you interested in commercializing anything, there’s a very good chance you’ll be using USB. Unfortunately, debugging USB can be fraught with pain. If you stop the device during initialization to debug it will probably stop the initialization process, or if you’re trying to spy on a USB device to get it work with USB Host you’ll find SW sniffers aren’t always up to the task.
The Beagle USB 12 Protocol Analyzer will allow you to capture and analyze any low or high-speed USB 2.0 traffic, and see what’s really going on frame by frame. Not a tool that everyone needs, but if you’re serious about understanding USB and working with it and can deal with the 12MB/s limit (most small embedded MCUs can’t do more than full-speed USB anyway), the Beagle USB 12 Protocol Anaylzer is a good value. $400.
Still Can’t Decide? Get the Kitchen Sink!
If you’re a bit confused about what to buy and just getting started, have a look at Ladyada’s Electronics Toolkit. A DMM, a soldering iron, a Panavise to hold that pesky PCB in place, wires, wire cutters … you can solder and test almost anything with this kit, and it’s sure to please anyone looking to get serious about electronics but not sure where to start for gear!
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