Signature Analyzer Tutorial

- a summary or tutorial about the signature analyzer or signature analyser, used for fault finding digital or logic electronics circuits

The signature analyzer or signature analyser was an item of test equipment that was used for fault finding digital / logic electronic circuits.

In view of the significant increase in complexity of logic circuits the signature analyzer is little used these days.

Also few signature analyzers are available these days as most are now obsolete items in the test equipment manufacturers' catalogues.

In its day, the signature analyser provided a very easy to use and convenient method for fault finding electronics digital / logic circuits.


Options for digital / logic analysis

When testing and analysing digital or logic circuits there are several options that are available. Each of these has its own advantages and limitations and a choice can be made dependent upon these.

  • Logic probe:   This is a very simple instrument used to detect logic states, or give a very basic indication of a changing logic state. It typically has a single LED to indicate the logic state. However it gives no real indication whether any logic pattern is correct.
  • Oscilloscope:   Oscilloscopes can see the waveforms present at various points of a circuit. They are excellent for looking at waveforms, and waveform shapes, but they are not so convenient for looking at logic patterns.
  • Signature analyzer:   Signature analysers are able detect digital waveform patterns. These are typically indicated by their hex value making it easy to define the pattern at a given point in the circuit under given conditions. These analysers are idea for field repair and other similar applications where simple analysis of complex waveforms is required.
  • Logic analyzer:   A logic analyser is the ultimate tool for analysing logic patterns. However they can be expensive and more complicated to drive.

The signature analyser forms an ideal form of test instrument for analysing digital or logic patterns in a circuit in some circumstances. It is often ideal for field repair and applications where it can detect logic patterns in a circuit under given conditions, thereby enabling detection of correct or incorrect operation of a circuit or board.


Signature analyzer basics

A signature analyzer is normally used for checking data on given nodes within a logic system such as a microprocessor board. A known operational scenario is set up, e.g. a test mode, and the data on various nodes may be monitored. The signature analyzer converts the serial data into a hexadecimal equivalent of the data pattern - this is the signature. Typically this signature is four digits long, although different signature analyzers may have different lengths.

The basic signature analyser takes in the input from the node under test and using a clock from the system. Start and stop pulses are captured to start and end the sample. The pulses from the node under test are then passed into a shift register to provide the hexadecimal equivalent of the waveform.

Basic block diagram of a typical signature analyser showing the various blocks Basic block diagram of a typical signature analyzer

If the signature captured by the signature analyzer aligns with that of the same node on a known good board, then this indicates this area is operating correctly.

By probing different areas of a board with the signature analyzer, and comparing the results with expected values, often detailed in a repair and service manual, it is possible to locate the problem area.


Signature analyser instrument

A typical signature analyser will consist of the basic instrument with a number of switches, inputs, outputs and a display like the image shown below.

Typical front panel arrangement for a signature analyser showing the main switches, display items and any connections. Typical Signature Analyzer Front Panel

On the front panel are several different items:

  • Gate:   This indicates the input gate of the signature analyser is open and samples are being taken.
  • Display:   The display indicates the signature taken, and in this case it shows the value '832A' corresponding to the hex value of the signature of the data being sampled.
  • Unstable signature:   As the name implies, this indicates that the signature is unstable, i.e. varying and the data is not satisfactory.
  • Probe test:   This is a connection and it is used for testing the probe to ensure the correct operation of the probe and the system.
  • Line:   This is the power On / Off switch
  • Start:   This is used to select which edge is required to initiate the sampling period - positive or negative going edge.
  • Stop:   Like the start, this is used to select which edge is required to terminate the sampling period - positive or negative going edge.
  • Clock:   This is used for selecting which edge of the clock pulse is used for sampling the line state.
  • Hold:   This is used to hold a single signature regardless of any changes in the incoming date, for example if the input conditions change, etc..
  • Self-Test:   This is used to put the test instrument into a self-test mode for checking he operation of the instrument as well as the probes.

In addition to the test instrument itself, a special test pod may also be used. This enables active circuitry of the analyser to be placed closer to the circuit under test to remove or reduce the effects of loading and long leads on rise times, etc..

The test pod will include the test probe for the point to be monitored as well as the clock input.

By Ian Poole

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