Q&A: Here’s what led to Tektronix' new big display mid-range scopes

In early June, Tektronix launched two new products to its oscilloscopes portfolio with the 3 Series MDO and the 4 Series MSO. EE recently chatted with the company's product marketing director to learn how these two scopes came about.

Tektronix' new 3 Series MDO (left) and 4 Series MSO (right)Tektronix' new 3 Series MDO (left) and 4 Series MSO (right)Tektronix

In early June of this year, Tektronix announced two new products to its portfolio with the launch of the 3 Series Mixed Domain Oscilloscope and the 4 Series Mixed Signal Oscilloscope, with the duo building off the user experience first introduced in the 5 and 6 Series MSOs released between the past two years.

“Tektronix is a company built for engineers, by engineers, and we continued that legacy when we developed our new scopes,” said Chris Witt, vice president and general manager of Tektronix’ Time Domain Business Unit, in the company’s accompanying press release for the new products. “Our teams spent 100s of hours meeting with engineers around the world, testing and prototyping new features and designs, and we’re excited to bring the very best oscilloscopes to market—built around insight from everyday engineers.”

I recently interviewed Dave Slack, Tektronix product marketing director, asking about what led to the development of the 3 and 4 Series scopes and their key features. Read on to see our discussion.

Mike Hockett, Evaluation Engineering: Customer feedback drives so much of the innovation in electronic test & measurement instrumentation. What were customers telling you that led to how the 3 and 4 Series were designed?

Dave Slack, Tektronix product marketing directorDave Slack, Tektronix product marketing directorDave Slack, Tektronix: As we talked to customers, they kept bringing up some of the same issues over and over again. Customers want to see more signals simultaneously, and decoded bus signals and spectrum analysis—time after time. So, we’ve designed the 3 and 4 series with the largest display screen in their class. They are the only screens to display this high-resolution. More than five times the amount of information can be displayed than some of our competitors. At 1920x1080 display, you can have a really rich dataset that let’s customers get more done at the same time and allows an unprecedented level of simultaneous workflow. In this type of display, where they’re trying to see minute details in the signal, this level of high-resolution really comes into play. The challenge is how to get a big display and features into a small footprint. With this scope, we really think we’ve found that balance between a monster display and a small footprint with enough buttons.

The complete lineup of (from left) Tektronix 3 Series MDO, 4-Series MSO, 5 Series MSO, and 6 Series MSOThe complete lineup of (from left) Tektronix 3 Series MDO, 4-Series MSO, 5 Series MSO, and 6 Series MSOTektronix

MH: After the success of the 5 and 6 series oscilloscopes (5 Series released in 2017, 6 Series released in 2018) how important was it for the 3 and 4 Series to feature the same user interface?

Dave Slack: That’s another theme that came up on the software side. Customer loved the interface we brought with the 5 and 6 series. It allows even an infrequent user to work through its capabilities. One thing that’s key about it is that this user interface that’s common across the 3, 4, 5 and 6 series of oscilloscopes. It’s the same user experience across the entire series.

When they’re buying this oscilloscope, they’re not just buying it for today’s project. It’s likely that they want a scope they’ll use for many projects down the road. An oscilloscope may be the biggest capital purchase they make during the year. It really gives customers the confidence that this is the scope that will get the job done for years to come.

Mike Hockett: Besides the large display and familiar interface, what other key features do the 3 and 4 series offer?

Tektronix' new 3 Series MDOTektronix' new 3 Series MDOTektronixDave Slack: Another trend that’s coming up—really driven by consumers—is the desire for more battery life. What this means for the design engineer typically means low power consumption. So, we’ve developed a true 12-bit A/D that captures very small detail with high vertical resolution.

Another feature that customers have responded to really well is the concept of FlexChannels. They’re completely backward compatible with our previous portfolio of probes—they’ll all work on these new scopes. They offer the flexibility of being both analog and digital at the same time. Simply plug in the probe and the scope does the rest. The scope understands what kind of probe it is and finds that input automatically. It offers a whole bunch of flexibility. Prior to FlexChannels, customers would have to decide at purchase if they wanted the MSO option. Now they can do that as an add-on later. It brings a whole new level of purchase flexibility and functional flexibility. FlexChannels are unique to the marketplace. If they wanted, users could have up to 48 digital channels by using those six FlexChannels.

Mike Hockett: Today’s test engineer workforce demographic is considerably different than just 10 years ago. Back then, it seemed the average test engineer had tons of experience—often several decades or more—whereas today, Millennial-aged engineers are entering the field with little test background, or, engineers from design or software are taking on some of that testing. Solution vendors have responded to this by making today’s new instruments very user friendly. What are your thoughts on that and how it relates to the design of Tektronix’ new 3 and 4 Series scopes?

Dave Slack: There’s a whole new kind of engineer that’s kind of being forced to use an oscilloscope. Looking 30 to 40 years ago, those designing scopes were mechanical engineers. As things became more advanced, more engineers began writing firmware, along with software engineers and computer engineers writing the software interface. Those folks haven’t typically had a lot of hands-on experience with scopes. Now all of a sudden, that guy is wondering why his driver isn’t talking to his external chipset. They’re having to go in a lab and hook things up. It can be intimidating to learn a whole new interface.

That’s why with our interface, things like double-tapping on a waveform or dragging/dropping something on to a waveform becomes a process they’re already familiar with. We really re-thought the interface from the ground up. We asked ourselves things like, “How would you run this on an iPad or something else without knobs and buttons?”

Mike Hockett: In a nutshell, what are the key differences between the 3 Series Mixed Domain Oscilloscope and the 4 Series Mixed Signal Oscilloscope?

Tektronix 4-Series MSOTektronix 4-Series MSOTektronixDave Slack: The two are intentionally very similar. Some of the differences between them are simply so we could offer this in a smaller package and lower price point. We didn’t just scale down everything—we rescaled the interface so it still looks appropriate to its size. The spectrum analyzer input is not available on the 4 series. On the 3, we decided to retain the true spectrum analyzer input.

For many customers, that FFT option on oscilloscopes can be tricky to use because it’s not set up as a traditional spectrum analyzer. You don’t have the traditional controls, so you have to do the mental math to figure out the signal rate and time domain to get the display you’re looking for. To answer that call, we put a true spectrum analyzer hardware in the 3 Series MDO. It’s still using the scope input, but it’s more than just an FFT like that has traditional been done. With the 4 series, we brought that true spectrum analyzer capability on all six channels. The 3 Series MDO uses 8-bit ADC, while the 4 Series is 12-bit.

Mike Hockett: What are a few specific application areas where the 3 or 4 Series will be particularly useful?

Dave Slack: You’ll often see the 3 or 4 Series in an embedded design environment. They have a wide range of uses for a control system inside your projector that’s sitting in your conference room. Other serial cases would be in 4-speed USB or Canned DBC in automotive, where having the ability to have the bandwidth of the 5 becomes useful. As for key markets, broad market embedded is the top by far, where they’ll be useful for everything from Nest Thermostats to conference room projectors. And with both the 3 and 4 using the TekVPI probe interface, users have access to the full range of Tektronix differential voltage probes, including the new power rail probes and optically-isolated probes.

Learn much more about Tektronix’ new 3 Series MDO and 4 Series MSO online.

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