A colleague and I were looking at an oscilloscope catalog. They often had a model with different options for bandwidth, and higher bandwidth oscilloscopes were more expensive.

My colleague said that in reality the models that were the same except for the bandwidth had exactly the same hardware, and the manufacturers would simply change their software to set the bandwidth. I thought this was a bit absurd, and argued that the higher bandwidth would likely require higher sampling rate and probably different parts inside the oscilloscope. He then argued that it wouldn't make sense for a company to have so many different hardware and thus they just do it by software.

We couldn't reach an agreement. So, do oscilloscope manufacturers just set the bandwidth of their oscilloscope in software and we pay extra just for a software setting?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ In general it is true, that the same scopes are coming with different enabled features, which are enabled by either some small plugged expansion card (which is of course nothing, but some kind of enablement key), or by a simple software update. It's business, nothing personal. Same practices also exist for some other products. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eugene Sh.
    Jun 22 at 17:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that the hardware must support whatever software limitations are present. I.e. there might be two hardware versions of one scope model; a 50-150MHz version and a 200-500MHz version. Each has more/less/different components populated. The first is analog-limited to 150MHz and the second 500MHz. But because more exotic parts are used in the 500MHz scope, it's going to cost a lot more, even if software-limited to 200MHz. \$\endgroup\$
    – rdtsc
    Jun 22 at 18:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ The cost of the ADC rises sharply with speed t[ns] x resolution [bits] x depth [GB] below the 1ns threshold. X N channels. . . . . . . what are your specs and budget? Is the real question. How they are made depends on the technology you choose. There is no single answer. although I do know IBM, Unisys used these tricks on mainframes. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22 at 18:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rdtsc, RE ", it's going to cost a lot more", the mark-ups on test equipment are so high (at least if you ignore R&D costs) that even if the hardware costs twice as much, they can probably sell the product for 10% more and still be highly profitable. The sales price is generally "whatever the customer is willing to pay" rather than driven by the BOM cost of the product. \$\endgroup\$
    – The Photon
    Jun 22 at 20:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ A common practice in CPUs is to bin products on testing. An i3 has the same goodies a i7 has, but disabled or broken. No idea if that is the case here too. \$\endgroup\$
    – user190756
    Jun 23 at 8:44

1 Answer 1


Your colleague is basically right.

Some scopes are software upgradeable.

You can upgrade scope bandwidth or memory simply by purchasing a license.

Which means same hardware can be sold with different firmware or software options.

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    \$\begingroup\$ key word here: "some" \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22 at 18:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @evildemonic I believe it is the majority of mid/high-end digital scopes today. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eugene Sh.
    Jun 22 at 18:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EugeneSh. I was actually wondering if it is the majority nowadays, so thanks for that. It certainly isn't all, but maybe it is even the vast majority now. Either way, I don't know if this will solve the argument between OP and his colleague. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22 at 18:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @evildemonic Well, don't take it as a fact, just as impression from personal observation/experience :) OTOH, the digital scopes are basically computers, so it makes a perfect sense for them to be software upgradable. But it is not exactly the same as artificial limitation of basic features. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eugene Sh.
    Jun 22 at 18:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is correct within families for sure. When you cross over into another family/class (from the same mfr), then that group will likely have different hardware from the other family. Bandwidth is a favorite to control via software. Look into Rigol. There are a number of hacks out there to get software keys to get better specs on their equipment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aaron
    Jun 22 at 19:03

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