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).
Unfortunately Scope Junction is no more. As for your putting tweezers into a lamp socket, when I was about 6 years old I stuck my finger into a lamp socket at 220 VAC. I learned a healthy respect for electricity.
Thanks for the information. That is very good to know. I will go and try and find your post. That is the bad thing about those tools is that they are so expensive that it is hard to really know what you are getting until you get a problem.
I've heard only good things about Rigol scopes. A 4CH 1GHz is what I wanted at my day job, but the boss found something cheaper. Take a hint - avoid the ATTEN brand like the plague. I wrote a 4-part blog over on Scope Junction called "The Scope from Hell" about all its shortcomings, and am still finding glitches. Triggering becomes erratic in averaging mode, and just last week discovered that when I use inverted screen colors for pasting waveform captures into a schematic, the horizontal scale factor disappears!
From what I was reading, though, it was at times cheaper to purchase something from England and then have is shipped to Australia. Shipping then should not be the cause, but perhaps higher cost of labor might play somewhat into that.
Well Australia is at the A** end of the world so there's some justification from transport costs. And wages are probably a bit higher here than some other places. But considering most stuff comes from China these days that does not explain doubling of prices like this. As you say consumer electronics is a big one - things like phones and computer stuff often seems outrageous compared to the US.
I know that your government recently called some of the larger consumer electronics groups on the carpet to justify their pricing. It is always hard, though, to gauge the seriousness/truthfulness of these types of things as the news can get a little twisted over such large distances. It is always better to hear it directly from people that are there.
@Adam, Sixscrews....I just got an email from RS yesterday with some Tektronix specials and the prices have come right down...cheapest <$1000 and some very tasty ones (MSOs) from < $2000 I think. I have bought a couple of Lotto tickets!
BTW my current scope is a 25MHz CRT clunker. The Analog Discovery discussed above would almost beat it...... I'd love just to have your current one!
Hi Adam: That is awful to see that it is almost double the price of the student version here in the US.
Welcome to Australia!! It happens a lot here, and then the retailers cry foul because everyone buys stuff on the net! However I am happy with that price....for $7.50 extra I can get it with the TINA suite which does simulation and PCB design as well as having instrument software that works off the AD. On the Aussie site there are only 2 price levels, commercial and academic (students and teachers).
Also, it costs the same as my NI Mydaq, which is 200 KSPS vs the AD's 105 MSPS. Go figure....
That is awful to see that it is almost double the price of the student version here in the US. It is also interesting to note that there are three price levels. There is the student, then academic, and then full price. I am guessing that the academic would be for teachers.
I am glad, though, that you were able to get the information you needed to be able to purchase one.