World’s Simplest Logic Analyzer for $5

Today’s post documents my recent hack that may just be the world’s simplest logic analyzer. More accurately, it is a circuit consisting of a 74HC126 quad buffer chip and R-2R resistor network (eleven 330 ohm resistors) that acts as a D/A converter, enabling one to analyze four logic lines with a single channel digital oscilloscope and $5 in parts!

With the circuit described below and an entry level USB scope like the PicoScope 2204, bursts of data can be captured at 10 MSps (million samples per second), and continuous capture rates of 2.5 MSps are possible, the length of the capture only limited by your PC’s memory. This is obviously much better than recently covered Bus Pirate’s 1 MSps for 4 ms!

Even higher throughput can be achieved with better scopes, although the A/D conversion requires several consecutive samples at same logic level, which means that a 100 MHz scope with 200 MSps capture rate should generally be able to analyze logic operating at ~40 MHz speeds. At such speeds, a fast buffer chip and D/A converter is naturally needed as well.

Above you can see an example of SD card traffic analyzed using my circuit – the full capture was 10 million samples which enabled me to capture all the traffic generated by my SD tutorial project without any additional triggering. Read on for details of the hack. A lot of effort has been made to keep the material very accessible and informative to electronics beginners, too. In the end of the article, source code for PicoTech 2000 series is included, and it can easily be adapted for any scope that can transfer captured waveforms to PC (in the simplest form by reading waveforms from a CSV file).

How It Works

Basic idea is to connect 4 logic lines to a D/A converter, that will transform the binary 1/0 values (represented by VCC and GND voltage levels, respectively) into a 16-step analog waveform. Because input lines cannot be directly connected to the R-2R resistor network that is used to do the D/A conversion, a 4-line buffer chip is used in between to provide high impedance inputs that do not interfere with the logic being analyzed.

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PicoScope 2204 USB Oscilloscope Review

PicoScope 2204 USB scope

One of the nicest things when starting a new hobby is that there’s just so many things you don’t yet have, and can thus look forward to researching and then maybe buying if the price is right. In electronics, you can pretty much get started with a $10 soldering iron, $25 multimeter, maybe a $30 programmer if you want to use microcontrollers, and then just buy cheap components to tinker with. But sooner or later, you start thinking about how nice it would be if you had an oscilloscope.

For me it took about nine months. I saw an article on using AVR as an RFID tag and noticed I could build a simple RFID reader with a few components. However, to really learn something, it would be nice to actually see the 125 kHz RFID carrier wave instead of fumbling blindly with the schematics. Additionally, I could use the scope to verify DIY D/A circuits, maybe debug serial protocols and much more. So I started researching.

Getting a used analog or digital scope from eBay was of course one option. However, old scopes are big, clunky and I don’t really have much table space. And if the scope fell out of use, it would be wasting space in a closet. New Chinese-made digital scopes from Owon and Rigol looked good and were relatively small and light. However, they had 640×480 or 800×600 displays and I had 2560×1600 30″ monitor sitting on my workspace, and being more of a software person, I eventually decided against them and chose to get a PC scope instead.

Options in USB scopes

Going through the options for digital scopes, there seemed to be a few price brackets:
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