Denis

Student der Physikalischen Technik an einer deutschen Fachhochschule. Gelegentliche Aushilfe als Tutor im Grundlagenpraktikum der Physik.

My “9 Euro ticket” Travelling Experience

Introduction

Since June 1st 2022 it is possible to travel within the whole country of Germany by public transportation system with a flat-rate ticket which costs only 9 Euros per month. The ticket is time-limited and valid only during the current month. It applies only to the German public transportation system (e. g. trains of German Railways such as DB RegionalBahn, RegionalExpress, S-Bahn, also metropolitan transportation  systems such as U-Bahn, busses & trams). The ticket doesn’t apply to inter-regional trains such as ICE, IC or EC and doesn’t cover 1st class travelling in any of the mentioned transportation systems.

It was proposed by the German Government as a time-limited experiment in order to motivate people to drive less cars and as a financial relief due to very high energy and gasoline prices. The 9 Euro ticket will be obtainable during months June, July and August in 2022. The financial losses to the transportation companies due to this very cheap ticket will be compensated by the taxpayers. I think this is a good idea although its execution wasn’t very well planned. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction! The German public transportation system is “OK” but isn’t able to handle – let’s say – sudden passenger increases of 20% or more very easily.

My Trip from Braunschweig to Meschede

I’ve bought myself a 9 Euro ticket and went on a trip from Braunschweig to a small city called Meschede. I’ve been living and working in Meschede for about 1.5 years before moving to Braunschweig. Although its location is in mid-western Germany and it’s only 260ish kilometers distant, it is a remote location because it’s surrounded by forests and hills of the Sauerland region. There is no easy way to get inside or outside of Sauerland 😉 My trip planner calculated a total travel time of about 5 hours and 21 minutes with approx. 1 hour of exchange durations. Travelling from Braunschweig to Meschede and back by train will be at least a 10 hr and 42 minute trip (which was the case).

I’ve started from my apartment at roughly 6:30 in the morning and took the bus to the central station. My first train went from Braunschweig to Bielefeld, a ~2hr trip. The two floor train was very clean and there was enough room for passengers and bicycle users. Changing train in Bielefeld offered a different image. The train was heading in direction to Dortmund. It was pretty full with passengers and commuters but I was able to get a seat in the bike wagon. People standing around me were 10 drunk ladies (bachelor party) which were very funny and entertaining. In Dortmund, the train filled up to its maximum capacity where I felt sorry for the passengers. They were stuffed like canned tuna. I’ve spent about 20 minutes on the Dortmund central station gathering some fresh air. Nothing special: cops everywhere, fewer-than-usual soccer fans, LGBTQ pride flag carriers, occasionally religious fanatics and beggars. It’s a wild place but somehow appealing. The last section of the route was from Dortmund to Meschede. The train was OK – clean, not too full, a little bit loud due to its diesel engines. I found a seat near a group of drunk guys which were also very funny and entertaining. At one of the train stations, another drunk guy joined and collected refundable bottles. This was so unreal, he looked like a 70 year old smashed alcoholic, barely able to walk but the drunk party donated like 10-12 empty bottles of beer instantly to him 😀

To my surprise, all trains were on time and there were no major delays. I arrived in Meschede at 12:40 so the total travelling time starting from my apartment was approx. 6 hr 10 min. I couldn’t stay for a long time in Meschede because of the 6h return trip so I planned to stay for about 4.5 hours. This is one thing to consider when using 9 Euro ticket: the travel duration killed most of the day and reduced the visit duration significantly.

However, I was able to visit my old workplace and say hello to my former colleagues and some old friends. The Open-Door Day at University of Applied Sciences in Meschede offered a rich program of science, engineering, entertainment and food. The weather was excellent and very inviting.

 

The return journey was very tiring: the train from Dortmund to Bielefeld was 15 minutes late and full to the max. We were standing for about 30 minutes without any room to move until a portion of passengers left the train. Luckily due to long exchange duration, the meanwhile 20 minute delay didn’t affect the connecting train from Bielefeld to Braunschweig. The section from Bielefeld to Braunschweig was OK – no problems whatsoever. About 90% of people inside of trains were wearing a face mask due to COVID-19 pandemic which was very nice. The current infections are very low in the region of 350 per 100 000 inhabitants but one has to be careful anyways. There may be a new infection wave in the autumn this year…

Summary and conclusion

Dortmund central train station – definitely an interesting place to be! 😉

I’ve spent most of my day travelling in trains. It was cheap but also do-able. I was able to travel from Braunschweig to Meschede and back in one day for 9 Euros! This trip would have cost at least 50 Euros instead without much improvement in travel quality. I’ve been to Meschede few weeks before this trip by car and the gasoline alone cost me 80 Euros.  The quality of trains (size, cleanliness) and its connection vary significantly from region to region. One has to consider that trains will be full during commuting hours and empty outside of them. During weekends, bicyclists take up a lot of space in the trains so this can be an issue, too. The people are usually friendly and very helpful but there are also exceptions: drunk and loud people, some of them smell badly due to sweat or even urine. The toilets are in an acceptable condition but don’t rely on this – try to take Number One/Number Two at a train station instead inside of a train toilet.

The 9 Euro ticket is definitely worth it and should be used to visit all kinds of places in Germany. There are wonderful towns and regions which should be visited during the summer time. I haven’t been to cities such as Rostock, Schwerin, Konstanz, Kiel, Flensburg, SaarbrĂŒcken and many others so I’ll try to catch up with my visits.

Controlling Test Equipment via GPIB and Python

Introduction

Taking measurements with electronic equipment doesn’t require much skill and effort: turn the device on, set up the measurement parameters such as input channel/range/sensitivity, trigger the measurement and read the numbers on the screen (if there are any). The same procedure can be applied in everyday situations – whether you have to read the time from a clock or check the temperature in your fridge/oven.

But what if one does have to take thousands or even million of measurements  every day? What happens if measurements have to be performed 24/7? There surely are applications where it is necessary  to take measurements manually but putting a human behind a bench and performing boring and repetitive measurements during a 8-hour-workday is prone to exhaustion and errors. This is where automated test equipment (ATE) kicks in. It is possible to let a computer do the “boring stuff” while the human operator may spend his or her precious time on solving problems instead of doing repetitive work. I’ve successfully stolen borrowed and tested foreign Python code and want to demonstrate how to control a digital multimeter and a function generator via General-Purpose Interface Bus (GPIB) and Python’s pyvisa module.

GPIB

GPIB is a 8-bit parallel interface bus which has been invented in the late 1960’s by Hewlett-Packard (see Wikipedia article). Prior to its standardization in the late 1970’s as IEEE 488, it was known as HP-IB (Hewlett-Packard Interface Bus). It allows interconnection between instruments and controllers. It is system independent of device functions. This de facto standard has been around for a while and is well established in the Test & Measurement industry. Fast forward to the year 2022, GPIB is still present in test equipment although in recent two decades, communication with instruments have been enabled with modern-day interfaces such as USB or Ethernet. GPIB allows a very diverse topology – one can connect all instruments either in a Daisy Chain or parallel configuration or even in a combination of both of them. There are certain GPIB-specific limitations concerning cable lengths, maximum number of connected devices, data transfer speeds and others which have to be considered when automating test equipment.

Experimental Setup

Schematic of my test test setup. The HP 3325B function generator provides a sinusoidal voltage for the HP 34401A digital multimeter in order to measure a well-known test signal. Both instruments are connected via GPIB to a GPIB/Ethernet controller.

I’ve connected a HP 34401A digital multimeter to a HP 3325B function generator in order to generate a sinusoidal test signal, which can be represented by an equation \(v(t) = v_0 \cdot \sin (\omega t) \) with \(\omega = 2\pi f\). Both instruments are connected to a GPIB controller National Instruments GPIB-ENET/100. The GPIB-ENET controller acts as a bridge  and allows communication to GPIB devices via ethernet, which is highly convenient in my lab. It allows me to control the instruments via LAN from any of my computers. This device requires drivers from National Instruments so I’ve chosen NI MAX v17.5 along with NI-488.2 driver in order to be able to use the legacy GIPB-ENET/100 controller. I’m using Windows 10 along with the WinPython distribution. WinPython comes along with Python 3.9.10 and hundreds of useful modules, such as numpy, pandas, matplotlib etc. (which are optional). The pyvisa module needs to be installed manually via pip, see PyVISA’s project website for further installation instructions.

National Instruments GPIB-ENET/100. This unit is legacy and is not supported by current NI drivers anymore. The last known driver version which supports this unit is v17.5. The GPIB-ENET/1000 (1 Gbit/s version) is currently supported by National Instruments.

Important notice for new users

Many of the GPIB-USB adapters sold on eBay are fakes or counterfeits. They are sold very cheap (different brands such as National Instruments, Agilent/Keysight, Keithley) in the price range of 100 EUR to 120 EUR per piece whereas the genuine GPIB-USB adapters often cost more than 400 EUR. Buying a new unit directly from the manufacturer will cost in the order of 900 -1200EUR which is kinda crazy! Nevertheless, some of the fake GPIB-USB adapters seem to work pretty well and are recognized by the official drivers. However, some EEVBlog users also report having problems with fake adapters… So it’s really a gamble.

I’ve bought a 2nd hand “fake” GBIB-USB-HS for cheap which didn’t work for the previous owner but works perfectly on my Windows 10 machine. I haven’t tested it with Raspberry PI yet which will be done in a future project. The GPIB-ENET/100 unit is a little bit pricy (~200ish EUR) but the most affordable interface cards are the PCI-GPIB types. I’ve seen genuine units being sold on eBay for 40-80 EUR. No need to spend hundreds of Euros for a GPIB interface. Microcontroller-based GPIB-USB projects also exist where one can assemble a GPIB-USB or GPIB-LAN controller for cheap (which may not work always but gets the job done). Proper GPIB-cables can be expensive, too, but I’ve seen them being sold for approx. 7 … 12 EUR per piece occasionally. Custom-made GPIB cables out of ribbon cable and Centronics/Amphenol connectors may also work and get the job done.

NI GPIB-USB-HS adapter. Unfortunately, this unit is a fake (counterfeit). Despite being a fake, it works on my PC.

Example Code

First of all we’re gonna need to import some Python modules. pyvisa is mandatory, other modules will be useful.

# Import Python modules
import pyvisa
import numpy as np
import pandas as pd
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import datetime
import time

Next step: we need to open the pyvisa Resource Manager. We need to know the GPIB addresses of our instruments. For example, I’ve assigned GPIB address No. 4 to my digital multimeter dmm and the frequency generator fgen has the GPIB address No. 18. GPIB 22 is another digital multimeter which isn’t used in this example.

# Open pyvisa Resource Manager, print out a list with active devices
rm = pyvisa.ResourceManager()
print(rm.list_resources())

The print(rm.list_resources()) statement gives us the GPIB addresses of the connected devices, such as: ('ASRL3::INSTR', 'GPIB0::4::INSTR', 'GPIB0::18::INSTR', 'GPIB0::22::INSTR').  Now we can open a connection to the resources.

# Assign GPIB address 4 to dmm and open resource
dmm = rm.open_resource('GPIB0::4::INSTR')
dmm.read_termination = '\n'
dmm.write_termination = '\n'

# Assign GPIB address 18 to fgen and open resource
fgen = rm.open_resource('GPIB0::18::INSTR')
fgen.read_termination = '\n'
fgen.write_termination = '\n'

The dmm and fgen objects have been created. The statements dmm.read_termination = '\n' deal with line feed and carriage returns. The next step will set the DMM settings and call an identify string via a SCPI command *IDN?

# Set the DMM for measurements
print(dmm.query('*IDN?'))                      # Identify string
print(dmm.write('CONF:VOLT:DC 10,0.001'))      # Set DC voltage range and 4.5 digits of resolution

The same commands are applied to our frequency generator. The output of the DMM looks something like (name, model, firmware version):
HEWLETT-PACKARD,34401A,0,4-1-1
22

# Set the FGEN for measurements according to the manual
print(fgen.query('*IDN?'))             # Identify string
print(fgen.write('AM 2.0 VO'))         # Set amplitude to 2 V_pp
print(fgen.write('FR 0.1 HZ'))         # Set frequency to 0.1 Hz

The parameters such as measurement range, frequency and amplitude have been set. Now let’s take a single measurement. This is done via query command. A query is a short representation of dmm.write() and dmm.read() commands. The READ? command fetches the current measurement value from the digital multimeter.

# Example 1: Take a single measurement
print('Measured value: {} Volts.'.format(dmm.query('READ?')))

Measured value: -9.97000000E-02 Volts.

We have measured the voltage! Yaay! Its value is -99.7 mV, written in the engineering notation. Our next code example will be used to take 2048 measurements and timestamp them. I’ve used the pandas DataFrame as a convenient structure to store the data. This could have been done with numpy arrays for sure! OK, after setting the Number of acquired samples to N = 2048, I’ve created an empty pandas DataFrame. It will be filled with our precious data. The next line (6.) prints out the date and time. The t0 variable in line (7.) is used to get the timestamp value at the beginning of the measurement. This value will be subtracted from the timestamps generated by time.time().

The for loop starts at the value 0 and calls two commands according to line (9.). It writes a timestamp and measured value into the DataFrame df at index 0. After execution of line (9.), the for loop is repeated N-1 = 2047 times. As soon as the for loop finishes, we need to convert the string-datatype voltages into floating point numbers, otherwise Python will have difficulties handling  them with further calculations.

# Example 2: Take N numbers of measurements
N = 2048                               # Number of samples to acquire
df = pd.DataFrame(columns=['t', 'V'])  # Create an empty pandas DataFrame

# Print date and time, write data into the DataFrame
print(datetime.datetime.now().strftime('%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S.%f'))
t0 = time.time()
for i in range(N):
    df.loc[i] = [time.time()-t0, dmm.query('READ?')]

# Convert dmm readout strings to a float number
df.V = df.V.astype(float)

That’s it! We’ve acquired 2048 measurements. Just imagine sitting there and typing all these numbers in Excel! Such a waste of time 😉 The next line of code extracts the total measurement time from the DataFrame timestamps. The measurement took approx. 25.8 seconds to complete. This corresponds to approx 79.2 samples per second at 4.5 digits of precision.

# Show elapsed time in seconds
df.iloc[N-1].t

25.846375942230225

# Calculate the sampling rate in Samples per Second
str(np.round((len(df)-1)/df.iloc[N-1].t, 3))

'79.199'

The last step of this example will be to plot the results into a graph figure. First we create an empty figure called fig with sizes 11.6 x 8.2 inches at 300 dpi resolution. The plt.plot() command needs the \(x\)– and \(y\)– values (or time and voltage values) as function arguments in order to plot a nice diagram. We label the axes, set a title and grid. The figure is then saved as PNG file and displayed. See picture below!

# Plot the results, annotate the graph, show figure and export as PNG file
fig = plt.figure(figsize = (11.6, 8.2), dpi=300, facecolor='w', edgecolor='k')
plt.plot(df.t, df.V, 'k.')
plt.xlabel('Time (s)')
plt.ylabel('Voltage (V)')
plt.title('HP 34401A measurement (Range: 10 V (DC), Resolution: \n 4.5 digits @ ' + str(np.round((len(df)-1)/df.iloc[N-1].t, 3)) + ' Sa/s, $f$ = 0.1 Hz, $v_0$ = 2 V$_{pp}$)')
plt.grid(True)
plt.savefig('Measurement_result.png')
plt.show()
Measurement result after data acquisition of 2048 samples.

Now we could do some statistics or fit a sine function to it. I’ll explain this in a future blog post. A small bonus can be achieved via the following command:

dmm.write('DISP:TEXT "73 DE DH7DN"')
HP 34401A with a custom text message, sent to the device via GPIB.

Night Mode Image Quality = meh

I shot some oscilloscope images yesterday with my smartphone and I was really wondering about the bad image quality of the 10 MHz sine wave. Today I tried to repeat the experiment and unfortunately I got the same results. As it seems, the bad image quality is the result of using the “Night Mode” and simultaneous digital zoom-in. The image shot took 5-8 seconds in a motion stabilized environment. However, the heavy compression artifacts are still there.

Night Mode, zoomed out.
Night Mode, zoomed in. Crappy image…

After tinkering around with the camera app, I discovered the “Pro” Mode where the user is in control of camera parameters such as ISO, focus, camera lens and exposure time. The results are much better – sharper image and no compression artifacts. The phone is a Samsung Galaxy S22 with Android 11 operating system.

“Pro Mode”. Selected Tele-Lens, ISO-200 and 4 s exposure time.

The results are comparable to my Nikon D7200. Unfortunately, the workflow from shooting photographs to transferring to the PC is a horror. I’m currently trying to figure out how to shoot quick photographs, process them and upload them as quickly as possible.

Leo Bodnar Fast Risetime Pulse Generator

A new and useful addition to the lab is a (30 ± 2) ps Fast Risetime Pulse Generator from Leo Bodnar Electronics. A pulse generator is needed to test oscilloscopes for their analog frequency bandwidth and risetime. Other applications for pulse generators would be for example time domain reflectometry (TDR) or high-speed broadband measurements (radar, semiconductors). The function description and details of the Leo Bodnar Pulse Generator are very well explained in a YouTube video by Shahriar from TheSignalPath.

So, having all the informations I need, I made some photo(n)graphs and did a quick measurement on my Tektronix 2465B analog oscilloscope. Its specified bandwidth should be 400 MHz. By measuring the rise time \(T_\mathrm{r}\), one may estimate the analog bandwidth \(\Delta f\) by using the following equation:

\(  \Delta f = \cfrac{0.35}{T_\mathrm{r}}.  \)

For example, if the rise time is measured in nanoseconds, the bandwidth will be stated in GHz because… physics: \( f = 1/T \).

The pulse generator is a very compact device. Its dimensions are approx. 24 mm x 24 mm. It is equipped with an USB and Trigger (SMA) connectors on the front side and a oscilloscope connector (BNC, SMA or 2.92 mm microwave) on the back side. In order to operate it, one needs a USB cable with a power supply (e. g. a PC or an USB power bank), various adapters (SMA to BNC) and a short coaxial cable in order to connect the trigger output to the oscilloscope.

DSC_0602.JPG
Leo Bodnar Fast Risetime Pulse Generator.

I ordered a SMA version of the pulse generator, however they shipped me the 2.92 mm version which is slightly more expensive (99 pounds). The shipping from UK to Germany took approx. 2 weeks and added 20% costs due to customs and shipping. Yeah, Brexit has a price tag for all of us. The 2.92 mm version has a slightly higher upper frequency specifications (40 GHz) compared to SMA (18 GHz). They provided me a calibration chart with determined rise times of approx 30 ps (rising edge) and 28 ps (falling edge).

DSC_0593.JPG
In order to connect the 2.92 mm microwave connector to an oscilloscope, one needs a proper adapter (shown on the left handed side). The adapter is not shipped and has to be bought separately.
DSC_0591.JPG
Pulse generator with SMA to BNC adapter.

I’ve added some cool stereo microscope close-up pictures in my gallery, check them out! Here for example, one can see the center pin of the 2.92 mm connector. The center pin is surrounded by air as dielectric, as opposed to PTFE (Teflon) on a standard SMA connector. The center pin is very delicate and one has to handle it very carefully in order to minimize the wear out.

20220206_008.jpg
2.92 mm microwave connector.

The pulser is powered via USB. The USB and SMA cables were not included. I powered the pulse generator via a battery/power bank. The RF output was connected into a 50 Ohm terminated Channel 1, the trigger output was connected to Channel 2. Trigger settings were set to Channel 2 rising edge.

DSC_0578.JPG
Experimental setup.

The first signal one should see is a 10 MHz square wave with approx. 1 V peak to peak (1 Vpp) amplitude. If you’re using 1 MΩ termination instead of 50 Ω, the amplitude will be 2 Vpp.

DSC_0566.JPG
Leo Bodnar pulse generator: 10 MHz square wave.

 

DSC_0569.JPG
Measurement of the 10 MHz square wave.

Next step will be the determination of the rise time of the rising edge. One has to zoom in to the maximum value (e. g. 5 ns/div) and activate the x10 magnification. This will lead to a 500 ps/div time scale.

DSC_0584.JPG
Tektronix 2465B with Leo Bodnar fast risetime pulse generator.

Taking the measurement is quite straight-forward. One has to determine the 10%-90% rise time. The lower image shows how the measurement is performed.

DSC_0582.JPG
Measurement of the rise time on a Tektronix 2465B. The baseline is placed on the 0% dotted line. Now we seek the intersections of the 10% and 90% horizontal lines with our trace. The cursors are used to pinpoint the intersections. The rise time is approximately 0.84 ns.

Now plugging in the measured value of \( T_\mathrm{r} = 0.84~\mathrm{ns} \) into the Bandwidth Equation gives us:

\( \Delta f~ \mathrm{[GHz]} = \cfrac{0.35}{0.84~\mathrm{ns}} = 0.416~\mathrm{GHz} = 416~\mathrm{MHz}. \)

A resulting bandwidth of 416 MHz for a 400 MHz analog oscilloscope is quite acceptable! This is almost my fastest analog oscilloscope. Since I’ve acquired quite a few of Tektronix 7000 series oscilloscopes over time, I will test the pulse generator on my 500 MHz units. I’ll share the results here.

73, DH7DN

Installing PCI Digitizer Cards and a Graphics Card in my old PC

I spent the past weekend primarily with chores. I ordered some nice ESD-protected boxes in order to store all of my sensitive components which are mostly used for my electronics and optics projects. The cleaning of my apartment was a full success and I’m happy with the results.

ESD boxception.
My newly ordered ESD boxes. Size: 40 cm x 30 cm x 22/30 cm.

I also spent some time upgrading my old PC for a future project. Approx. 12 years ago, I bought a second hand PC from a German reseller called ITSCO for about 450 EUR. It’s a workstation PC, type Dell Precision T5400 (2x Intel Xeon E5440 2.83 GHz, 4096 MB RAM (DDR2 667 ECC Fully Buffered, PC2 5300F), DVD-RW+ and whatnot). It was my daily workhorse until 2021. Using a PC for 11 years is quite impressive if compared to older generation PCs from the mid-1990’s until ~2006. Those old PCs were prone to obsolescence because of Moore’s Law.

Over the years, I experienced only few minor problems with the Dell workstation: I’ve lost few RAM modules (error correction code memory, ECC) due to thermal issues. The RAM modules got pretty hot (70 °C – 80 °C) during operation. If one does not take care of dust and proper ventilation during hot summers, those electronic parts will inevitably fail. Luckily, the ECC DDR-SDRAM prices for those kind of PCs fell significantly over the past years so I was able to restock my RAM module supply with many replacement modules for a minor investment of ~20ish EUR.

Unfortunately, the user experience declined over time. Upgrading to Windows 10 and Google Chrome as a web browser in 2019 was a pain in the ass. Those applications are very power-hungry, especially when it comes to RAM. An average PC with 4-8 GB RAM – while being very decent in the years ~2010…2015 – is totally crippled by modern day software. Booting a PC and loading a web browser already consumes 4-6 GB or RAM! So I moved on and acquired another workstation (hp Z440) as an intermediate solution because of the ongoing global shortage of electronic components.

Nevertheless, my Dell workstation is still of great value! Due to its age, the motherboards from the 2006-2009 era were produced with PCI and PCI Express (x16). Modern day PCs and motherboards are produced with PCI Express slots exclusively although there are PCIe-to-PCI bridge solutions out there. While PCI slots are becoming more and more obsolete, there is still valuable hardware out there which is based on this kind of technology: PCI-based oscilloscopes. I bought over the past years such PCI oscilloscope cards which in return can be used as high-speed digitizers. A digitizer is a piece of test equipment which converts analogue signals (e. g. voltages) into digital ones. The digitized values are called samples. Digitized signals have one huge advantage: since the samples are basically just numbers, they can be treated numerically for further calculations! A digitized and recorded signal can be further processed, e. g.: arithmetic, regression analysis, spectrum analysis (FFT), waveform arithmetic and analysis, plotting, digital filtering, etc.. This will be very interesting for a super secret future project 😉

So in order to install two of those oscilloscope cards, I had to rearrange few cards. My old “gaming graphics card” (AMD Radeon 7700XT Series) had to be replaced by a smaller graphics card (Nvidia Quadro FX 580). The graphics card needed to be smaller in size because of the limited space inside of the PC housing and PCI/PCIe slot arrangement. After installing the oscilloscope cards, it is very necessary to leave space between card in order to prevent thermal failures by heat buildup. The oscilloscope cards may heat up in the order of 60 °C during operation and maybe up to 65 °C during data acquisition. If one does not take care of this issue, the cards may overheat and fail over time. I also cleaned the PC with air duster and a vacuum cleaner in order to clear the slots from dust.

I hope this workstation will last few more years. I have already found an external PCI solution. A friend of mine ordered an unbranded adapter from China (based on an IC type P17C9X) for a very low price of ~25 EUR. It’s a PCIe-to-PCI bridge which serializes the PCI signals and transmits them via a USB-like cable to a PC. Since the whole thing is standardized, no further Windows/Linux drivers are needed. This concept proved to work with few tested PCI cards (e. g. NI PCI-GPIB) where the power consumption is fairly low. However, the PCI oscilloscope cards  need certain amounts of power (~25 W) during operation and therefore an external power supply is necessary. If the PCIe/PCI-bridge does not provide the amount of power needed, the PC will freeze and one will have to reboot the system in order to recover. This can be solved by attaching a Molex to SATA power connector from the power supply to the PCIe/PCI-bridge. The “Chinese “module does not work with full-length PCI cards as seen in the pictures. I’ll try to desolder the SATA connector and arrange it differently in order to avoid the collision.

New Addition to the Lab: NanoVNA V2 Plus4

While browsing the Internet, I stumbled here and there upon a nice little gadget for ham radio amateurs called NanoVNA. This is a compact Vector Network Analyzer (VNA) — a piece of test equipment which allows to measure radio frequency (RF) properties of a Device Under Test (DUT) such as Magnitude and Phase. This is very useful in order to characterize RF components such as antennas, filters, cables or amplifiers – the usual ham radio stuff. Few weeks ago I ordered a NanoVNA in order to perform simple tests on my RF equipment. This article will be about  a quick set up of NanoVNA and doing some simple measurements.

Prices for “Maker/hobbyist level” VNAs  vary from 50ish EUR to ~550 EUR (DG8SAQ VNWA V3) depending on model and additional accessories. More sophisticated vintage test equipment (HP/Agilent, Rohde&Schwarz) may be found on eBay in the range from 1k+ EUR to ~3.5k EUR. Brand new entry level VNAs start at ~2k EUR without upper price limit,  depending on its measurement capabilities. As soon as you buy a VNA you will also need accessories such as torque wrench, lots of adapters (Type N to SMA to BNC and vice versa) and calibration standards (short/open/load/through, SOLT) in order to perform correct measurements. Professional calibration standards (e. g. metrology grade SOLT) are extremely expensive (~3…10k USD) and unaffordable for the low budget hobbyist – so yeah…

I didn’t want to spend 500+ EUR for a piece of test equipment which may result in even greater financial commitment. Based on the positive reviews and my requirements (easy to use, convincing measurements), I bought the NanoVNA V2 Plus4. It’s a compact 2-port VNA with integrated 4″ touch screen display, the specifications are listed here. The total price was ~215 EUR for NanoVNA + shipment + customs. The delivery from China to Germany took approx. 3 weeks from November till December 2021 (standard shipment, no express parcel).

The accessories are shown in the picture above: NanoVNA V2 Plus4 enclosed in a metal housing, two SMA cables, SOLT calibration set, USB cable and a small stylus for the 4″ touch screen. A 4/3 A type 18650 rechargeable Li-Ion battery was not provided due to transport restrictions of hazardous materials (exploding Li-Ion batteries on aircrafts…). The rechargeable battery had to be bought separately (+13 EUR). I’ve added few pictures of my NanoVNA V2 Plus4 here.

The usage of the VNA is pretty much straight-forward: turn it on, set sweep parameters, perform SOLT calibration and test your DUT. The basic measurement results provided by a VNA are Magnitude and Phase over the set frequency range. Those measurements are used to calculate very useful quantities such as  VSWR (voltage standing wave ratio), ESR (equivalent series resistance), LCR (inductance, capacitance, resistance) and plotting a Smith chart. The result can be seen directly on the 4″ display and read by different cursors. This is a perfect tool to do quick performance or sanity checks on RF components.

As soon as one wants to do systematic measurements on different components, it becomes a little bit inconvenient to photograph the Smith chart due to glare, mirror reflections and possible motion blur while taking photographs. However, it is possible to control the NanoVNA via USB and read out the measurements to the PC. The readouts can be stored and processed via standard software such as MS Excel, LibreOffice Calc, Python/matplotlib, MATLAB, GNU Octave and others. This is where the fun begins.

NanoVNA readout via USB

An user from the EEVBlog (joeqsmith) tested early versions of NanoVNA and was quite unhappy with the provided tools at the time. He developed a very useful software front end for the NanoVNA which is based on LabVIEW 2011. In his software, commands are sent via USB protocol to the NanoVNA in order to set measurement parameters and to perform SOLT-calibrations. After triggering the measurement, the data is transferred to to PC and displayed graphically and processed through math equations. He put a lot of effort in the development and the results are astonishing. His software is capable of controlling NanoVNA via comprehensible user interface, taking measurements, performing calibrations, calculating almost all imaginable RF quantities in time and frequency domain. This is very helpful for newbies like me who have never worked with a VNA before. His software can be found on GitHub, downloaded and used freely with no limitations or charge. Props to joeqsmith — he maintains an active and educational YouTube channel so check it out if you’re interested in RF or handheld Digital Multimeter testing methods.

First steps

Buy NanoVNA, plug in the USB cable and turn it on. If you’re using Windows 10, the device should be recognized as USB CDC (Communications Device Class) on a virtual serial port (e. g. COM6). Next steps will be a little bit annoying: create an account on the National Instruments (NI) homepage, download and install the NI LabVIEW Runtime Engine (Version 2011 SP1 32-bit, size ca. 215 MB) and NI VISA. I have installed VISA v17.0 which is a 750 MB chonker.  It contains drivers for USB/Serial communications any many others (also some important drivers for my obsolete GPIB test equipment which aren’t supported in the newer versions anymore). Install VISA and the Runtime Engine and spend your precious life with many reboots. I highly recommend to read Joe Smith’s User Manual, otherwise you may run into problems. Unfortunately, NI software is closed source/BLOB but everybody is encouraged to develop his own  free and open source software for NanoVNA.

After the Installation is complete, download, extract and run the Runtime Version Executable (NanoVNA_V2Plus.exe) from Joe’s GitHub. Execute the File (abort the file dialogue if you don’t have any stored calibration files) and you should see something similar to the screenshots below. Setup the connection parameters (COM-port) and establish a link to your NanoVNA.

After starting NanoVNA V2+4, one needs to select the proper COM Port. Switch to “Main” tab afterwards.
Click on the “Link” button and your NanoVNA should display “USB Mode”. The NanoVNA identifier message should appear.
Photograph of the NanoVNA V2 Plus4 in the USB Mode.
Start the sweep by clicking on the “Sweep” button. One should see some activity during the sweeps. I’ve connected a 50 Ohm load on Port 1 as seen in the Smith chart.

Alright, now we’re ready to go. Next step: SOL(T) calibration, taking measurements and data analysis. The usage of this software is described in Joe Smith’s User Manual or on his YouTube channel. He has a plenty of demonstration videos how to make proper measurements with NanoVNA V2 Plus4. This is easily done by clicking on the “2PortCal” button followed by some dialogues. After the SOLT calibration is performed, it can be saved and reused. A calibration is necessary as soon as the frequency span changes.

Sanity Tests

It’s a good practice to somehow validate your measurements. This requires some additional gadgets like filters or self-made circuits. I’ll gather some over time. I’m currently checking if the attached SOL standards are displayed correctly.

Testing a coaxial cable

50 Ohm coaxial cables such as RG58 or RG174 are widely used as transmission lines for radio frequency signals. Some important electrical properties of this cable type are: characteristic impedance (typical 50 ± 2 Ohm), capacitance per unit of length (96 pF/m), attenuation per unit of length (0.67 dB/m) and its operating frequency range (DC – 1 GHz). Data taken from Radiall’s RF and Microwave assemblies. For amateur radio operators, the SWR (standing wave ratio) is another important quantity which determines the match between impedances of the source (e. g. transmitter) and the load (e. g. an antenna). In case of an impedance match Z = Z_0, we obtain a SWR close to 1:1. We can measure the impedance Z with a little help of a VNA over a wide frequency range.

NanoVNA measurement setup. DUT: Tektronix 012-0482-00 Precision Coaxial cable. Inside of the cable loop are my BNC “calibration standards”.

This is what the measurement setup looks like. I’ve connected the NanoVNA ports to two SMA cables (blue) in order to perform a SOLT calibration. My DUT will be a Tektronix 012-0482-00 Precision Coaxial Cable which has a length of 36″ and an impedance very close to 50 Ohm. I’ll set up the measurement for 1 MHz to 300 MHz and check the SWR, attenuation/losses and its impedance. The measurement results can be seen in the figures below.

Measurement result: Smith Chart. Comparison between two coaxial cables of slightly different lengths. Frequency range: 1 MHz to 300 MHz.
Measurement result: Transmission Rectangular. Comparison between two coaxial cables of slightly different lengths. Frequency range: 1 MHz to 300 MHz.
Measurement result: Standing Wave Ratio (SWR). Comparison between two coaxial cables of slightly different lengths. Frequency range: 1 MHz to 300 MHz.
Measurement result: Reflection Coefficient. Comparison between two coaxial cables of slightly different lengths. Frequency range: 1 MHz to 300 MHz.
Measurement result: Impedance Rectangular. Comparison between two coaxial cables of slightly different lengths. Frequency range: 1 MHz to 300 MHz.

Conclusions

There you have it! Both cables show a similar performance. Tektronix 012-0482-00 shows an impedance slightly closer to 50 Ohms and a slightly better transmission compared to a no-name brand RG58 C/U. Well, maybe the sharp drop of the reflection coefficient coincides with the fact, that this cable has to be used along with Tektronix SG 503 Levelled Sine Wave Generator in order to perform oscilloscope bandwidth checks. Tek SG503  covers the frequency band from 250 kHz up to 250 MHz. Very interesting! Maybe this information may be useful to other Tektronix users. I’ll try to characterize the Tektronix coaxial cable with a “slightly better equipment” later this year, just to validate the NanoVNA measurements. Please take the provided information “as is”. It might be wrong after all.

NanoVNA – would recommend

The NanoVNA is a very useful, nice and affordable addition to a hobbyist electronics lab. Using Joe Smith’s NanoVNA software works pretty well and offers a rich repertoire of calculations and graphical diagrams. I didn’t experience any kinds problems on my Windows 10 machine while using Joe’s software. The installation and setup was straightforward and I was able to obtain plausible measurements. Unfortunately I don’t have coaxial cables with matching lengths in order to make comparison measurements with my Tektronix 012-0482-00 but that’s the part where one starts going down the RF rabbit hole…

Few things to consider

Please be aware that the components used in combination with NanoVNA are very cheap. The quality is “OK” or let’s put it in another way: “good enough for the job”. The devil is in the details. In order to perform reliable and comparable measurements, one needs quality cables, good connectors, good adapters, better calibration standards and a torque wrench. If you’re possessing good RF gear, please be careful when interchanging the components. It’s very easy to damage quality gear with cheap rubbish. I’m trying to maintain two ecosystems: the cheap components will be used for non-critical projects and quick and dirty measurements. The quality equipment will be used for careful measurements and calibration.

Going down the RF rabbit hole?

What if one already possesses quality accessories — a question might arise why not spending money on a good vintage VNA anyway? Unfortunately I’m not an RF engineer and I don’t test or develop commercial RF circuits. RF is just a hobby and not my daily business. This kind of affordable tool lets you make a first step into the world of RF components and circuit testing. I don’t need to emphasize its usefulness for testing and debugging of RF circuits or performing sanity checks. I’ll keep looking for a vintage HP/R&S VNA because the answer to this question is always YES.

73 de DH7DN

Happy New Year 2022

Tek 7904

During the past year and a half, I’ve build my electronics lab. I’m able to measure many electrical quantities like voltage, current, resistance, capacitance, inductance, frequency, spectra and much more. I surely am suffering to the Gear Acquisition Syndrome and I’ve already posted some pictures inside of the TEA-thread (Test Equipment Anonymous) of the EEVBlog. I wasn’t kidding when I posted that I have sold my soul for Tektronix. I’d like to start restoring/repairing/calibrating/maintaining the older Test Equipment in order to do be able to do some exciting electronics projects in the years to come!

After half a decade of changing jobs, cities, apartments, relationships, … — I think it’s time to finally follow my passions and share them with like-minded people 🙂

Happy New Year 2022 and see ya around!

vy 73 de Denis (DH7DN)

Blog design and further testing

Hello there!

During the past few days I’ve made some progress concerning the design and functionality of this blog. I think I’ll use the current dark theme called “Astra”. Although the “Pro” version of this theme is quite expensive, the functionality is far better than other minimalistic dark themes.

LaTeX and Python code

Let’s test some Python code highlighting. For example…

# Useless code snippet
k = [1, 2, 3]
for i in k:
    print('Hello World!')

And now one famous equation written in \(\LaTeX\)

\( E = mc^2 \)

Alright, this stuff seems to work! 😀

piwigo Image Gallery

I’m testing some stuff with piwigo, a very nice and easy to use photo gallery written in php.

Let’s see, if the picture is parsed correctly:

Unfortunately, the WordPress Media Library is not suitable for sophisticated photo management. I’m planning to publish high quality photographs of test equipment and repairs.

Another nice picture…