Saturday, December 11, 2010

The great electronics lab equipment rip-off

Having recently set up my own little electronics design consultancy, I eventually (and inevitably) found myself needing some test equipment.

(Actually, I managed to survive for several months without even 'basic' equipment - such is the life these days, where most of the work is done on CAD tools and not in real life.  If you're thinking of stepping out on your own, don't assume you'll need $10k of seed money just for tools - or, at least, not right away.)

My desire, of course, was naturally to get some of the Fluke tools that I'd used in the past.  The 189 is a lovely meter, and having worked with Fluke (the company) and Fluke tools (the meters) before, I know they are top-notch.  Unfortunately, they command top-notch prices as well.  $900 for a Fluke 289 is not in my budget right now.

Being a curious sort, I ended up researching this topic, and soon ran across Mastech ( and their line of 'high-end' meters for low-end prices.  The 8218 model was particularly fascinating, at around $170 on eBay.  But was it even worth that amount?

Let's get real here.  Professionals pay premium prices to reduce errors and downtime.  An auto tech who works at Canadian Tire will still pay premium prices for Snap-On tools because (a) they won't break, and (b) when they do break, the Snap-On guy will deliver new tools to them the next day.  It's just as much about the service as the product.

Same goes for electronic test equipment, except we pay for peace of mind.  When you get a reading of 41.2 uA, you want to know in your heart that it is actually 41.2 uA, because if it's 42.2 uA, your product will only last ten months instead of twelve.  Which can be more than a big deal, it can be everything.  Calibrations and all that only serve to maintain this peace of mind.

Sure, there are some way cool items out there. The remote-display Fluke meter is an awesome idea, and the 289 supports in-meter datalogging and graphing functions that are not easy to find on other meters. Barring these special features, though, a meter is a meter is a meter.

So how good is good enough?  Well, I ran across a very helpful article by David Cook at the Robot Room (of all places) that describes his findings of several "cheap" multimeters that you can easily get for under $100.

Judge the results for yourself, but I ended up picking up some rebranded Mastech units for a tiny fraction of the Fluke meters. A very, very tiny fraction, as they were at a truly massive discount owing to the Xmas season. I could have bought more than 30 of these meters for the price of one 289. For that price, if I had to buy ten to find two that worked, it would have been worth it.

Plus these meters include direct temperature reading using a thermocouple, which was the real reason I was buying them in the first place. Note the Mastech 8218 does not include a direct temperature reading feature using a thermocouple - a strange omission, and one I did not recognize quickly as the advertising all claims it has a temperature function. If you read the manual, you will find out it does not.

If I had not run into these, I probably would have purchased a couple of VC97 meters, which were reviewed by Mr. Cook and found to be pretty damn good. Easily available on eBay for a nominal price.

So face it - it's a DMM. It's not magic anymore. The days when companies had to struggle to get an accurate and stable current or voltage measurement circuit are long, long gone. Really. Unless you really need DMM datalogging, just buck up, put your professional ego away and save your money for something worthwhile.

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