I'm learning more about digital oscilloscopes (previously have only worked on analog), and encountered a setting for trigger sensitivity, expressed as a value like 0.30 div.

Tektronix gives this description:

The oscilloscope will trigger on a signal of 0.35 divisions amplitude p-p in the range of frequencies from DC to 50 MHz. As the frequency goes beyond 50 MHz, the signal must be larger (higher in amplitude) to trigger the instrument. At 3 GHz, the signal must be at least 1.5 divisions in amplitude. Trigger sensitivity is specified with a sine wave input.

I'm confused because I thought the trigger level (the horizontal bar which selects the desired amplitude for the trigger) was a yes or no type of event. Either the waveform reaches the level or it doesn't.

The manual for the DSO I am using (a BK 2542B) doesn't explain this setting well at all: "Set the trigger sensitivity by turning the entry knob."

I'm suspicious it applies only to trigger types such as pulse and video, but sensitivity appears in the triggering menu regardless of type.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I was able to find a more descriptive article, but I still think some experts at EE.SE could do a better job. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – JYelton
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 6:11
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ The tektronix link says: An oscilloscope’s trigger sensitivity determines its ability to react to specified edge trigger conditions over a range of frequencies. This sounds suspiciously like hysteresis used in analog circuits, though I don't know if the two are related. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 9:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ helloworld922,Looking at Fig 9 in the article linked to by @Brian Plummer, it looks like you're spot-on (I think, as I only did a quick read). It seems to me then that the trigger level on a DSO simply sets the width of that hysteresis band in Fig 9. So,I guess in the case shown (rising edge trigger),no 2nd trigger event can occur until the signal has dropped below the hysteresis band, at which point it becomes eligible for retrigger assuming it then rises again above the trigger level at the top of the band.For falling triggers the band would be above the trigger level, rather than below. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 2:32

3 Answers 3


I too was wanting to know what trigger sensitivity was, and how it related to the trigger level. I found this article which explains it. http://www.rohde-schwarz-scopes.com/_pdf/Benefits_of_RTO_digital_trigger_system-White%20Paper.pdf Basically the trigger sensitivity sets the hysteresis level. In a complex waveform a trigger level may be crossed several times within a cycle of the fundamental frequency, creating multiple triggers within each cycle. Applying a hysteresis ensures that only one trigger occurs for each cycle of the fundamental frequency.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Correct me if I'm wrong, but please read my comment just above, under the question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 2:35

On a digital scope, once the waveform is in the digital realm, bit resolution is quite important. As the bit resolution needs to be no greater than the screen resolution it is convenient to express trigger sensitivities as a fraction of the signal as displayed on the screen.

For example on my Tektronix digital scope, if the waveform displayed is much below 1 division (looks rather like 1cm to me) then it doesn't want to trigger BUT if I raise the sensitivity so instead of 1V/cm it's 0.5V/cm then it does trigger.

The subtlety in this discovery is that I'm altering the sensitivity in the analogue part of the scope which translates to more resolution in the bits for the small signal I'm trying to trigger on.

If the trigger circuit is working in the digital realm, I suspect it needs a certain number of bits to be exceeded when edge triggering and/or pulse triggering. This is to avoid problems with noise causing false triggering. I'm not talking about external noise but internal noise in the scope.

Why does the signal need to be bigger at higher frequencies - I suspect greater noise in the wider bandwidth required at high frequencies has something to do with this "feature".

  • \$\begingroup\$ Any brave person want to explain the downvote? \$\endgroup\$
    – Andy aka
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 16:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry Andy, wasn't me. I'm still not entirely clear on how sensitivity, values like 0.30 div, relates to the position of the trigger (the horizontal voltage threshold). \$\endgroup\$
    – JYelton
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 17:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JYelton OK maybe I could explain better... the trigger is done digitally at the same resolution as the display and trying to trigger on small displayed signals is always going to be a problem in the presense of noise. On 3GHz BW, that noise is going to be something like 8 times bigger than at 50MHz BW. Because the signal is probably converted to 8 bit accuracy (to suit the display) it makes some sense to refer to trigger levels as a fraction of display height. Does this help? \$\endgroup\$
    – Andy aka
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 17:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes and no; bear with me, as I'm still new to this. So, as an example I have a 3.3V square wave. I set the trigger threshold to 1.4V and it seems to trigger just fine. The sensitivity defaults to 0.30 div, which I assume is one third of a division vertically. If I am looking at the signal at 2.0V/div, the sensitivity then must be 0.6V. Does this mean that when I set the trigger level to 1.4V it actually is 1.4V +/- 0.6V? \$\endgroup\$
    – JYelton
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 17:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JYelton I believe it is referring to the p-p waveform size. If too small there is nothing concrete to trigger on because it is just a few bits jumping around. My Tek scope doesn't set trigger levels like yours so I can't follow what you are aiming at. \$\endgroup\$
    – Andy aka
    Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 21:28

For me, a picture helps explain this best, so I'm going to use Figure 9 from the article that Brian Plummer mentioned, which I've pasted below. (Thanks Brian).

Two Trigger Settings: Holdoff and Sensitivity:

In the world of digital oscilloscopes, getting clean triggers is important, so that you trigger on the signal, where you want to, and not on noise. Two trigger settings are meant to do this: 1) the time (horizontal) "holdoff" setting, and 2) the amplitude (vertical) "sensitivity" setting.

  1. The holdoff setting says, "don't allow a 2nd trigger event until __ time has elapsed since the 1st trigger event." This prevents unwanted triggers, for example, on subsets of a larger period waveform.
  • Ex: you're reading a pulsing square wave signal with repeated short pulses over a 10ms large period. You want to say, "don't trigger on every short pulse; just trigger once per large period." So, set the holdoff to just over 10ms and problem solved: it triggers once per set of short pulses, ie: once per large period.
  1. The "sensitivity" setting makes up for the trigger sensitivity hysteresis that apparently occurs naturally on analog oscilloscopes. It says, "don't allow a 2nd trigger event until the 1st trigger event is over, and we won't consider the 1st trigger event to be over until the signal goes some vertical distance Y away from the amplitude at which it triggered."
  • For a rising edge trigger that occurs at amplitude Y1, this means: "don't allow a 2nd trigger event until the signal falls below (Y1 - sensitivity_value), then rises back up above Y1 again."
  • For a falling edge trigger it's just the opposite: for a falling edge trigger that occurs at amplitude Y1, this means: "don't allow a 2nd trigger event until the signal rises above (Y1 + sensitivity_value), then falls back down below Y1 again."
  1. Notice that the trigger sensitivity is measured in major divisions. This simply makes it easier for you to choose a good value, since you can look at your signal and the vertical divisions and decide how many divisions is good for what you're doing.

Example case:

Look at Figure 9 below. This is for a rising edge trigger, with the trigger set at amplitude TA, and the blue hysteresis band width, top to bottom, being equal to the "sensitivity" setting. The trigger occurs at the blue vertical line (un-numbered), since the signal rises above TA. Then, at point 2, a 2nd trigger tries to occur, simply due to noise in the ADC (Analog to Digital Converter) of the oscilloscope, but is prevented from occurring since condition 2a, above, is not met. The signal first has to fall below TA - "sensitivity" (ie: to the bottom of the blue horizontal band), before it is eligible for retrigger. Consequently, no triggers occur at 2, 3, or 4, either. The signal has to fall below the bottom of the band, then rise again above TA for another trigger event to occur.

Notice that using the "holdoff" delay setting alone, you could prevent false triggers at points 1 and 2. But what about points 3 and 4? Maybe the period of the signal fluctuates in such a way that you can't safely just increase the "holdoff" setting to eliminate 3 and 4, so instead you choose to increase the "sensitivity" setting, which eliminates false triggers at 1, 2, 3 and 4.

If you were to choose a relatively short "holdoff" and a very small "sensitivity", consider how you could cause the following: you trigger at 1, but not 2 due to the holdoff condition not being met. Then, you trigger at 3 since "sensitivity" is too low, but again, not at 4 due to the holdoff condition not being met.

Play with your settings and you can cause triggers at 1, 2, 3, AND 4, or NEITHER 1, 2, 3, NOR 4, or at 1 and 3 but NOT 2 and 4.

A skillful use of both settings is sometimes required to get exactly what you want.

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