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Top 5 Best Multimeters of 2016

This blog post is all about multimeters and its importance in all our technology here at Bare Conductive. As an Engineer, I’m using them constantly to measure Electric Paint‘s resistance, new PCB’s voltage and continuity.

I have owned, loved, broken, lent, borrowed and let the magic smoke out of a lot of multimeters (and other tools) in the past 32 years. Here are some of my highlights – it’s mostly stuff that survived the abuse!

My home meter is my venerable old Fluke 179. It’s bombproof, backed by a lifetime warranty and has never let me down. The battery seems to last forever, it never drifts far from calibration and the display is responsive with easy to use Min / Max / Hold features there when you need them, but hidden away most of the time. The fact that it is rated for CAT IV 600V measurements (stuff connected directly to the grid – even before the main distribution board) made it very useful when I used to work on large-scale architectural art installations too. I only have two gripes about this meter – the current measurement ranges default to AC (which hint that it is aimed more at electricians than electronic engineers) and there is no microamp range (although I generally used my uCurrent Gold adapter for low power work anyway).

The second portable meter that I own is an Extech EX330, which was a winner in Dave Jones’ $50 multimeter shootout back in 2010. It’s a really useful secondary meter and includes some really nice features at that price point, including a microamp range (the main reason I bought it) and a non-contact mains detector which is handy for DIY work where you want to avoid drilling into wires in the wall – although don’t rely on this as your only source of information! It’s rated for CAT III 600V measurements, which makes it useful for line-referenced work and the addition of a relative voltage measurement mode can be very useful (more so than the capacitance measurement which I don’t often bother with). My main use for this meter is for simple current draw measurements, especially on low power circuits where it really shines. If you are going to own just one multimeter, this is the one I would buy.

The Keithley 2100 is a great bench multimeter for precision analogue circuit design. Rather than the 3½ digits that the previous two meters can manage, this is a 6½-digit meter (available for around £600, which is a bargain for the performance). For most people, this is massively overkill (and I have never owned one myself) but its precision, wide input voltage range and USB programmability (along with 4-wire measurements for precisely measuring low-value resistors), make it an ideal choice for precision power supply development and automated test. High input impedance (100 Mohm) make it useful in conjunction with high-voltage resistive dividers and sophisticated mathematical / memory functions allow it to do a lot of work for you. The main downside is the limited input current range and precision, but that’s not really what this meter is aimed at. Santa, if you’re listening – this is the meter for me!

The next two entries aren’t actually multimeters, but really useful sidekick tools that I think most electronics hobbyists and designers would benefit from having in their toolbox.

Peak Electronics’ Atlas Star Pack contains their LCR40 meter for measuring inductors, capacitors and resistors along with their DCA55 for discrete semiconductor measurements. Based in Buxton, Derbyshire, Peak are a British company, which manufacture quality goods in the UK and I have been using their kit for well over a decade with no problems. The LCR40 has been surpassed and improved upon by them but it’s still massively useful for matching components in the audio design, identifying stuff in your junk box and checking whether or not an inductor core is cracked. The DCA55 is fantastic for identifying all of those mystery components you pull from old projects or scavenge from skip dives and for more audio transistor matching, along with helping me sort through our component amnesty bin here at Bare Conductive. These are the kind of tools that you buy and don’t use every day, but whenever you get them out you’re really glad you have them.

The final entry on my list is the uCurrent Gold from Dave Jones. This handy widget is a precision current adapter for multimeters – you pass a current through it and it outputs a voltage that is proportional to the input current. This is really handy for meters without a microamp range and it even has a nanoamp range! I use this a lot when developing low power circuits where I often need to measure tiny currents precisely. Another advantage of using the uCurrent over a multimeter is its low burden voltage (at the cost of reduced protective circuitry). This means that the voltage dropped across the current sensor inside is very small compared to a regular multimeter – even many of the best! When you’re working on very low voltage circuits this is really important as 0.5V of burden voltage dropped when your circuit is running off a 3.0V Lithium coin cell is going to affect the performance of your circuit (and accuracy of your readings) a lot. These are pretty hard to come by in the UK as Dave’s UK stockist often sells out fast, but you can buy direct from Dave’s website, shipping from Australia.

Well, that’s about it – I was asked to write about five multimeters and wrote about three multimeters, two device measurement / classification tools, and a multimeter addon! But few people need five multimeters and the other tools are just as important in my opinion. I hope that you found this write-up useful. What are your favourite meters or tools you couldn’t do without? What do you think that I have missed off my list? I would love to hear your opinions, so feel free to comment!