What is a Multimeter? A multimeter or a multitester, also known as a VOM (Volt-Ohm-Milliammeter), is an electronic measuring instrument that combines several measurement functions in one unit. A typical multimeter can measure voltage, current, and resistance. Analog multimeters use a microammeter with a moving pointer to display readings. Digital multimeters (DMM, DVOM) have a numeric display, and may also show a graphical bar representing the measured value. Digital multimeters are now far more common due to their cost and precision, but analog multimeters are still preferable in some cases, for example when monitoring a rapidly varying value.
A multimeter can be a hand-held device useful for basic fault finding and field service work, or a bench instrument which can measure to a very high degree of accuracy. They can be used to troubleshoot electrical problems in a wide array of industrial and household devices such as electronic equipment, motor controls, domestic appliances, power supplies, and wiring systems.
A multimeter is a combination of a multirange DC voltmeter, multirange AC voltmeter, multirange ammeter, and multirange ohmmeter. An un-amplified analog multimeter combines a meter movement, range resistors and switches; VTVMs are amplified analog meters and contain active circuitry.
For an analog meter movement, DC voltage is measured with a series resistor connected between the meter movement and the circuit under test. A switch (usually rotary) allows greater resistance to be inserted in series with the meter movement to read higher voltages. The product of the basic full-scale deflection current of the movement, and the sum of the series resistance and the movement’s own resistance, gives the full-scale voltage of the range. As an example, a meter movement that required 1 milliampere for full scale deflection, with an internal resistance of 500 ohms, would, on a 10-volt range of the multimeter, have 9,500 ohms of series resistance.
For analog current ranges, matched low-resistance shunts are connected in parallel with the meter movement to divert most of the current around the coil. Again for the case of a hypothetical 1 mA, 500 ohm movement on a 1 ampere range, the shunt resistance would be just over 0.5 ohms.
Moving coil instruments can respond only to the average value of the current through them. To measure alternating current, which changes up and down repeatedly, a rectifier is inserted in the circuit so that each negative half cycle is inverted; the result is a varying and non-zero DC voltage whose maximum value will be half the AC peak to peak voltage, assuming a symmetrical waveform. Since the rectified average value and the root-mean-square value of a waveform are only the same for a square wave, simple rectifier-type circuits can only be calibrated for sinusoidal waveforms. Other wave shapes require a different calibration factor to relate RMS and average value. This type of circuit usually has fairly limited frequency range. Since practical rectifiers have non-zero voltage drop, accuracy and sensitivity is poor at low AC voltage values.
To measure resistance, switches arrange for a small battery within the instrument to pass a current through the device under test and the meter coil. Since the current available depends on the state of charge of the battery which changes over time, a multimeter usually has an adjustment for the ohms scale to zero it. In the usual circuits found in analog multimeters, the meter deflection is inversely proportional to the resistance, so full-scale will be 0 ohms, and higher resistance will correspond to smaller deflections. The ohms scale is compressed, so resolution is better at lower resistance values.
Amplified instruments simplify the design of the series and shunt resistor networks. The internal resistance of the coil is decoupled from the selection of the series and shunt range resistors; the series network thus becomes a voltage divider. Where AC measurements are required, the rectifier can be placed after the amplifier stage, improving precision at low range.
Digital instruments, which necessarily incorporate amplifiers, use the same principles as analog instruments for resistance readings. For resistance measurements, usually a small constant current is passed through the device under test and the digital multimeter reads the resultant voltage drop; this eliminates the scale compression found in analog meters, but requires a source of precise current. An autoranging digital multimeter can automatically adjust the scaling network so the measurement circuits use the full precision of the A/D converter.
In all types of multimeters, the quality of the switching elements is critical to stable and accurate measurements. The best DMMs use gold plated contacts in their switches; less expensive meters use nickel plating or none at all, relying on printed circuit board solder traces for the contacts. Accuracy and stability (e.g., temperature variation, or aging, or voltage/current history) of a meter’s internal resistors (and other components) is a limiting factor in the long-term accuracy and precision of the instrument.
Resolution and accuracy
The resolution of a multimeter is the smallest part of the scale which can be shown, which is scale dependent. On some digital multimeters it can be configured, with higher resolution measurements taking longer to complete. For example, a multimeter that has a 1 mV resolution on a 10 V scale can show changes in measurements in 1 mV increments.
Absolute accuracy is the error of the measurement compared to a perfect measurement. Relative accuracy is the error of the measurement compared to the device used to calibrate the multimeter. Most multimeter datasheets provide relative accuracy. To compute the absolute accuracy from the relative accuracy of a multimeter add the absolute accuracy of the device used to calibrate the multimeter to the relative accuracy of the multimeter.
The resolution of a multimeter is often specified in the number of decimal digits resolved and displayed. If the most significant digit cannot take all values from 0 to 9 it is generally, and confusingly, termed a fractional digit. For example, a multimeter which can read up to 19999 (plus an embedded decimal point) is said to read 4½ digits.
By convention, if the most significant digit can be either 0 or 1, it is termed a half-digit; if it can take higher values without reaching 9 (often 3 or 5), it may be called three-quarters of a digit. A 5½ digit multimeter would display one “half digit” that could only display 0 or 1, followed by five digits taking all values from 0 to 9. Such a meter could show positive or negative values from 0 to 199,999. A 3¾ digit meter can display a quantity from 0 to 3,999 or 5,999, depending on the manufacturer.
While a digital display can easily be extended in resolution, the extra digits are of no value if not accompanied by care in the design and calibration of the analog portions of the multimeter. Meaningful (i.e., high-accuracy) measurements require a good understanding of the instrument specifications, good control of the measurement conditions, and traceability of the calibration of the instrument. However, even if its resolution exceeds the accuracy, a meter can be useful for comparing measurements. For example, a meter reading 5½ stable digits may indicate that one nominally 100,000 ohm resistor is about 7 ohms greater than another, although the error of each measurement is 0.2% of reading plus 0.05% of full-scale value.
Specifying “display counts” is another way to specify the resolution. Display counts give the largest number, or the largest number plus one (so the count number looks more impressive) the multimeter’s display can show, ignoring the decimal separator. For example, a 5½ digit multimeter can also be specified as a 199999 display count or 200000 display count multimeter. Often the display count is just called the ‘count’ in multimeter specifications.
The accuracy of a digital multimeter may be stated in a two-term form, such as “±1% of reading +2 counts”, reflecting the different sources of error in the instrument.
Analog meters are older designs, but still preferred by many engineers. One reason for this is that analog meters are more sensitive to changes in the circuit that is being measured. A digital multimeter samples the quantity being measured and then displays it. Analog multimeters continuously read the test value. If there are slight changes in readings, the needle of an analog multimeter will track them while digital multimeters may miss them or be difficult to read. This continuous tracking feature becomes important when testing capacitors or coils. A properly functioning capacitor should allow current to flow when voltage is applied, then the current slowly decreases to zero and this “signature” is easy to see on an analog multimeter but not on a digital multimeter. This is similar when testing a coil, except the current starts low and increases.
Resistance measurements on an analog meter, in particular, are of low precision due to the typical resistance measurement circuit which compresses the scale heavily at the higher resistance values. Inexpensive analog meters may have only a single resistance scale, seriously restricting the range of precise measurements. Typically an analog meter will have a panel adjustment to set the zero-ohms calibration of the meter, to compensate for the varying voltage of the meter battery.
Modern multimeters are often digital due to their accuracy, durability and extra features. In a digital multimeter the signal under test is converted to a voltage and an amplifier with electronically controlled gain preconditions the signal. A digital multimeter displays the quantity measured as a number, which eliminates parallax errors.
Modern digital multimeters may have an embedded computer, which provides a wealth of convenience features. Measurement enhancements available include:
- Auto-ranging, which selects the correct range for the quantity under test so that the most significant digits are shown. For example, a four-digit multimeter would automatically select an appropriate range to display 1.234 instead of 0.012, or overloading. Auto-ranging meters usually include a facility to hold the meter to a particular range, because a measurement that causes frequent range changes can be distracting to the user.
- Auto-polarity for direct-current readings, shows if the applied voltage is positive (agrees with meter lead labels) or negative (opposite polarity to meter leads).
- Sample and hold, which will latch the most recent reading for examination after the instrument is removed from the circuit under test.
- Current-limited tests for voltage drop across semiconductor junctions. While not a replacement for a proper transistor tester, and most certainly not for a swept curve tracer type, this facilitates testing diodes and a variety of transistor types.
- A graphic representation of the quantity under test, as a bar graph. This makes go/no-go testing easy, and also allows spotting of fast-moving trends.
- A low-bandwidth oscilloscope.
- Automotive circuit testers, including tests for automotive timing and dwell signals.
- Simple data acquisition features to record maximum and minimum readings over a given period, or to take a number of samples at fixed intervals.
- Integration with tweezers for surface-mount technology.
- A combined LCR meter for small-size SMD and through-hole components.
Modern meters may be interfaced with a personal computer by IrDA links, RS-232 connections, USB, or an instrument bus such as IEEE-488. The interface allows the computer to record measurements as they are made. Some DMMs can store measurements and upload them to a computer.
The first digital multimeter was manufactured in 1955 by Non Linear Systems. It is claimed that the first handheld digital multimeter was developed by Frank Bishop of Intron Electronics in 1977, which at the time presented a major breakthrough for servicing and fault finding in the field.
A multimeter may be implemented with a galvanometer meter movement, or less often with a bargraph or simulated pointer such as an LCD or vacuum fluorescent display. Analog multimeters are common; a quality analog instrument will cost about the same as a DMM. Analog multimeters have the precision and reading accuracy limitations described above, and so are not built to provide the same accuracy as digital instruments.
Analog meters are also useful where the trend of a measurement is more important than an exact value obtained at a particular moment. A change in angle or in a proportion is easier to interpret than a change in a digital readout. For this reason, digital multimeters often approximate this with a bargraph (typically with a more rapid reading response than the primary readout); the most effective of these are arranged in an arc, to simulate the pointer of an analog meter.
Analog meter movements are inherently more fragile physically and electrically than digital meters. Many analog multimeters feature a range switch position marked “off” to protect the meter movement during transportation which places placing a low resistance across the meter movement, resulting in dynamic braking. Meter movements as separate components may be protected in the same manner by connecting a shorting or jumper wire between the terminals when not in use. Meters which feature a shunt across the winding such as an ammeter may not require further resistance to arrest uncontrolled movements of the meter needle because of the low resistance of the shunt.
The meter movement in a moving pointer analog multimeter is practically always a moving-coil galvanometer of the d’Arsonval type, using either jeweled pivots or taut bands to support the moving coil. In a basic analog multimeter the current to deflect the coil and pointer is drawn from the circuit being measured; it is usually an advantage to minimize the current drawn from the circuit, which implies delicate mechanisms. The sensitivity of an analog multimeter is given in units of ohms per volt. For example, a very low cost multimeter with a sensitivity of 1000 ohms per volt would draw 1 milliampere from a circuit at full scale deflection. More expensive, (and mechanically more delicate) multimeters typically have sensitivities of 20,000 ohms per volt and sometimes higher, with 50,000 ohms per volt (drawing 20 microamperes at full scale) being about the upper limit for a portable, general purpose, non-amplified analog multimeter.
To avoid the loading of the measured circuit by the current drawn by the meter movement, some analog multimeters use an amplifier inserted between the measured circuit and the meter movement. While this increases the expense and complexity of the meter, by use of vacuum tubes or field effect transistors the input resistance can be made very high and independent of the current required to operate the meter movement coil. Such amplified multimeters are called VTVMs (vacuum tube voltmeters), TVMs (transistor volt meters), FET-VOMs, and similar names.
Because of the absence of amplification, ordinary analog multimeter are typically less susceptible to radio frequency interference, and so continue to have a prominent place in some fields even in a world of more accurate and flexible electronic multimeters.