NI’s 5-in-1 VirtualBench Ups Speed and Power Ante

January 27, 2016 by PatrickM

The five-in-one National Instruments release is a dream platform.

If you have an extra $5,999 floating around, you may want to consider investing in the latest VirtualBench, and five-in-one instrument that National Instruments showed off at this week’s DesignCon event in Santa Clara. NI’s own Jim Schwartz gave All About Circuits a five-minute live tour of the instrument that lets you do almost everything through a single interface.

The VirtualBench combines a mixed-signal oscilloscope, a function generator, a digital multimeter, DC power supply, and a digital I/O into a single device that integrates with your PC or iPad. Nice!

While the instrument platform itself is not new, it’s software based, NI did come to DesignCon with the latest edition that features enhanced specs and some really useful triggering options that we recorded on video so you could get a feel for what it can do. Some things are just better shown on video, and this is one of them.

Here are the spec upgrades: The new version ups the oscilloscope bandwidth from 100 MHz to 350 MHz and has some extra channels. The sampling rate is the same at 1.5 GSamples/s, but the power supply was beefed up from 1A to 3A.

As it’s an all-in-one interface, you can view both analog and digital channels, as well as the DMM, power supply and function generator, all on one screen view. The new version also added digital phosphor capability, along with the aforementioned triggering capabilities, and can now also output arbitrary waveforms from a file using the function generator. This latter feature is really useful as it lets you record a signal from the oscilloscope and then play that out again via the function generator for characterization and test of your system.

The demo comprised a digital SPI outputting to digital-to-analog converters. As both the digital and analog signals could be shown in real time simultaneously on the screen, a glitch in the analog signal could be detected and correlated to the corresponding digital irregularity, ostensibly caused by flawed software.

NI’s VirtualBench allows the display of analog and digital signals simultaneously on the same time base, so in the DesignCon demo, a glitch in the analog output waveform of the DUT can be correlated to an errant software instruction in the digital domain. 

As Schwartz said -- tongue in cheek, of course -- you can then go blame the software team, versus having to do a new board spin.

The VirtualBench is designed to be “software defined,” so NI is constantly updating it for new functionality on top of the new hardware updates. So while you may spend anywhere from $1,999 to $5,999, you will have an instrument that will let you test and debug just about anything, assuming you’re not doing PAM-5 waveform test on 100-Gbit/s Ethernet.

If you are, then there’s plenty more to talk about elsewhere at DesignCon, as it was replete with PAM-5. Let me know if you’d like to hear more on this. It was very much a case of that Sixth Sense scene, but substituting in PAM-5 for dead people: “I see PAM-5 waveforms; they’re everywhere.”