The very first instrument that an hobbyist buys for the electronics lab is the Multimeter. There are several choices in the market and it is very difficult to make the right decision.
Sometimes it is the amount of available money that forces our hand when choosing the instrument, and sometimes the inexperience drive us to make the wrong judgement.
In this article I will try to provide a set of useful information that will help you make an informed decision. But, always remember that the cheapest solution is not always really the cheapest one. When you are uncertain between a couple of models, always choose the one with the best features. That will avoid future regrets, the moment you realize that the missing features where those that you needed the most. Making the wrong choice may force you, later on, to buy a second instrument because you realize the one you got does not satisfy your needs.
Let’s start with the first categorization: analog versus digital.
In this era of digital devices permeating the market in all electronics categories, the choice of buying a digital multimeter seems obvious. But is it? We need to explore a number of properties and features of both kind o devices. Only after you know pros and cons of each, you will be able to make a decision based on what you envision being the usage that you’ll make with the instrument. And, sometimes, you’ll find that having both kind of instruments is better that having only one.
A digital instrument is definitively easy to read, especially if it has a large display, and it is even better if it tells you the measurement unit along with the value, like in the one depicted on the left. On the other end, to be able to show you a number, the digital instrument needs to make an analog to digital conversion, which takes time to complete. After all the quantity under measurement is always an analog one.
The problem with the analog to digital conversion is that it takes time; it is not instantaneous. As a result, if you are measuring a quantity that slowly changes over time, you could end up with a situation where the quantity changes before the instrument has completed the conversion. In such a case, you would not be able to see any useful reading on the display. The numbers would keep change continuously and inconsistently.
An analog instrument, on the other end, is not that easy to read. Depending on the type of measurement you have to make, and how big is the value under measurement, you will have to find on the display the right scale to use, and that can be confusing, sometimes. The good thing about this instrument, however, is the fact that the needle always responds instantaneously to the quantity being measured.
It might take some time for the needle to reach the right position on the scale, because of its inertia. But that same inertia allows the needle to find itself an average of the value if the quantity is slowly changing over time. Not that the measurement will be precise. It will not, but it will give you an idea of what is going on, while with the digital instrument, you would just see a bunch of numbers continuously changing in a pseudo random way.
Is then the analog instrument better than the digital? Well, wait a minute here. There are still several parameters to evaluate.
Let’s talk about precision. Both digital and analog instruments can have a pretty good precision, but with the analog instrument sometimes you have to guess the best reading, because the needle is not exactly on a mark on the scale, but is instead in between two marks. And things get even worst when accounting for the parallax error. When you look at the mark underneath the needle, depending on the position of your eyes compared to the needle itself and the scale, you may find that moving your head a little bit on one side or the other, the measurement changes. And that’s why the best analog instruments have a mirror on the display. If you look at the needle with one eye only and you position yourself in such a way that you don’t see the reflection of the needle on the mirror, then you are perfectly vertical on top of the needle and you can make a better measurement. And of course this takes time, usually more time than taking a measurement with a digital instrument. Digital instruments, on the other way, may have the precision of just a couple of digits or more. The more the better of course. For a decent lab instrument, you may want to go with instruments, either digital or analog, where you can make a read of at least 3 digits, better 4.
And after all the effort to make a good measurement, you could find yourself with a perfectly useless measure. Why? Because of the impedance that the multimeter puts in parallel to the points under test. And this bring us to yet another difference between analog and digital multimeters.
The majority of analog multimeters present a low input impedance, which means that they draw a certain amount of current from the test points. And this extra current could cause an extra drop of voltage across another resistor that is part of the device under test. The result would be that the reading looses accuracy.
A digital instrument, on the other end, usually has a very high input impedance, in the order of several mega-ohms, compared to the tens of kilo-ohms of the analog instruments. Just because of that, measurements taken with a digital multimeter are usually more accurate.
But then, that is not always true. There are analog multimeters that are equipped with an amplification stage with FET or MOSFET. Those analog multimeters have an input impedance comparable to the one of the digital instruments. Always read the specs of the device you are buying and try to figure out if the input impedance is in the order of the kilo- or mega-ohms. The higher the better.
To conclude, to make the right choice when buying an instrument, normally go with a digital one, unless you already know that the majority of readings you will ever make will be done on slowly changing values. Buy always an instrument that gives you the best precision you can afford, with the highest input impedance. And keep in mind that for a multimeter to be useful in an electronic lab, you want to be able to measure magnitudes very small but not necessarily that high. Shoot for an instrument that will make you read micro-amps and milli-volts, for example.
Last, if you can afford it, you could buy both a digital and an analog instrument. Analog instruments are cheap nowadays, and can be easily found also in the second hand market, like on eBay. And once you have a decent analog instrument, you don’t have necessarily shell a lot of money on a digital instrument. There are decent digital multimeters below the one hundred dollars value. Take a look at the Merchandise section of this web site for such an instrument.
If you would like to know more on this topic, and see both the analog and digital multimeters in action, I suggest you to watch this Youtube video.