When I first started to become involved with electronics, I realized that it would be important to invest in a set of tools that would help me build my projects. However, I had lots of questions about which tools to purchase and -- since I was on a limited budget -- which pieces of equipment should I acquire first.
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So, for any beginners out there, the following is my list in order of what I have found to be important along with some of the mistakes I've made along the way:
A location: I would recommend first finding a place where you can put all your tools in a somewhat organized fashion. For quite some time, I made the mistake of trying to have things here and there around the house. I found that I would frequently misplace things and -- instead of spending time working on a project -- I would spend time looking for the tool that I needed. The location in your house does not need to be big, but should be a dedicated space.
A desk or a workbench: This is a fantastic addition. It does not need to be fancy -- it's a place to leave your projects in between your working sessions. I started out with a small card table that was approximately $30 from Walmart. I later upgraded to this workbench from Harbor Freight. (Actually, there are few Harbor Freight items that I would recommend, but this is one of them.) It has four integrated drawers and a hardwood top. I got it on sale for $106 delivered to my door, and it has proved to be a great upgrade.
A computer: How would you perform tasks like programming and PCB layout without a computer? This item is a must. It does not need to be dedicated to electronics design, but you can pick up a cheap laptop or desktop for around $300.
A breadboard: I personally have a very nice integrated breadboard that I was able to pick up for a very reasonable price (approximately $35) from eBay. This is the predecessor to the Global Specialties PB505. As you can tell, I got it for quite the discount. All I needed to do was repair a damaged potentiometer to get my eBay special working.
A soldering iron: I am not talking about one of those $10 Radio Shack "fire starters," but a real, temperature-controlled soldering iron. There are a lot of options out there (including this open-source device), but I would recommend saving up your pennies and getting a combination hot air rework station as well as soldering iron. I purchased the Aoyue 968, which has since been upgraded to the 968 A+. It was about $160 at the time. In fact, I have used the hot air rework station for reflowing my boards more than I have used the soldering iron side. This truly has been a workhorse in my lab.
Logic Analyzer: Diagnostic tools are a must. Before the oscilloscope, I would purchase a logic analyzer. I purchased the open source Open Bench Logic Sniffer for $50 and it has served me well. This tool has been great to be able to see if I am actually communicating what I want over my serial communication lines.
Oscilloscope: Once you have acquired all of the tools noted above, it really is well worth getting an oscilloscope. An oscilloscope is great for looking at issues that are harder to diagnose. It can help you identify issues with a serial communications signal, DAC outputs, and many other areas. The biggest problem is that there are so many choices -- where does one start?
Do you go for analog or digital? Will a $200, 10MHz USB scope do what you want it to do? For a starter oscilloscope, I would say that you can get what you need for 50 to $200. I was able to get an analog, 4-channel, 300MHz, Tek 2465 with two probes for $200. I had to do some eBay shopping to find it, but it has proved to be a very good scope for the money. Right now, I am looking to add a digital scope to my tool kit. For that one, I am looking at the Rigol DS2000 series. The nice thing about this series is that they have a gradient weighted display that makes the screen display the signals in a very similar manner as an analog scope. But they run 800 to $1600, so I am going to have to save up for this item.
Power Supply: All of the above and no power supply? Until now, I've been able to get by with simple "wall warts" and breadboard power supplies that had fixed voltages. I finally was given a dedicated, bench-top power supply by a friend. This power supply is an old analog, dual-output supply that can regulate both voltage and current. This may not be a necessity for many folks, but if the price is right it will make for a very nice addition to your laboratory.
So far, I have spent about $700 on my home electronics workshop. This cost excluded the cost of the computer as I already had one around that I use. Do I think that my workshop is complete? Can you ever have enough tools? Of course not! I do have a few things that are yet on my watch list. As I indicated, I am looking to purchase a DSO (digital sampling/storage oscilloscope), but I would also like to have an arbitrary waveform generator, a small reflow oven, and perhaps even a small pick-and-place machine.
One tool that I am very tempted to get is the new Red Pitaya that is on Kickstarter right now. My only hesitation is that it is only a 125Msp/sec (mega-samples per second) per channel device -- ideally I would like to have a 1Gsp/sec device. The nice thing though, despite the lower sampling rate, is that it has a 14-bit sample depth vs. the standard 8-bit sample depth on most DSO scopes.
Have I missed anything? I am always open to new tools for the workshop. Please let me know in the comments below (I'm sure my wife would appreciate it).
@Elizabeth - I just checked out that link - they have the AD unit for A$199 Academic price (which I should be able to get as I'm on a course). Have to do some overtime to pay for it..... Thanks very much again.
@Elizabeth thanks for that, I'll check it out later (jsut about to go to work). I dealt with a different company some time ago who said they'd come back to me with a price but never did...my NI Mydaq is OK for very basic stuff but really no good for anything more than basic AF stuff. Thanks again.
Sixscrews, thanks for contributing your thoughts. I think that your advice is a really good recommendation for those that are looking to step up into the next level of devices. I admit that the current recommendation on the oscilloscope is geared towards an entry/mid level person that is trying to be able to do a wide range of designs.
As you indicated, I too am looking to upgrade my scope. I am looking at the $800-$1500 range devices. I think that it may yet be a few years before I make that jump.
All the pieces are good here but I would suggest investing in a top-notch oscilloscope. I have a four channel Tek 2014 ca 2003 that always works and doesn't mind getting exposed to line voltage (120/240VAC) when I'm not being as careful as I should be (no discussion about exposing my personal wetware to same). Similar scopes (non-Tek) go for under $1k these days and good 'scope skills will carry you far in tracking down things that go bang in the night....
The OV tolerance is one of the big difference between USB based devices and commercial 'scopes - commercial units are rated for CAT II (or CAT III if you have the bucks and need that rating) and give you an extra margin of safety as well as keeping that nasty utility voltage out of your precious computer case.
An alternative if you can't pop for the high priced 'scope is an isolation transformer - a few hundred kVA line voltage to line voltage. It keeps your USB scope and computer away from the fault currents of your local distribution system.
The other pieces are spot-on. My power supply is a Heathkit triple output unit ca 1978. Voltage mode only, so I'm often mooning over those current limited units but you use what you have.
No worries, I have come to learn a long time ago that getting emotion across on the internet is sometimes a difficult task.
As for my desk being tidy, well I did clean up a bit before the picture ;) When I am in the midst of a project, it is not near as clean as you see it there. This week, I will be getting it a bit dirty as I have 5 boards to solder up to deliver to customers.
Adam...just seen yours above about your Meterman DMM. I got a Meterman RS-232 interface from the bargain bin or a shop here for $5. It was for a Meterman 38XR meter. I then got the meter off Ebay for about $50 So I got a really classy meter, with a computer interface, for $55. Not as small as yours, but as you say they have a lot of features. I think they have now gone bust, or been taken over (maybe by Wavetek if memory serves me right). One (more) of my intended projects is to get a PC in my workshop, so to be able to log stuff with it will be very useful. I found an article somewhere with decodes of the data format, so might be able to do custom stuff. I also found a VI (software) to interface it to Labview, have not tried that yet though.
Sorry, Adam, hope you didn't take that the wrong way...wasn't meant to be in any way disparaging....I love getting into my workshop (I work in telecomms so like you electronics is not my primary job). But I'm a hoarder as well and my space tends to get full of stuff - albeit interesting stuff - that I am NOT working on. I wish I was as tidy as you! And yes your article has certainly given me food for thought and encouragement to get my act together!