The oscilloscope (or simply scope, for short) is arguably the single most useful piece of test equipment in an electronics laboratory. The primary purpose of the oscilloscope is to plot a voltage versus time although it can also be used to plot one voltage versus another voltage, and in some cases, to plot voltage versus frequency. Oscilloscopes are capable of measuring both AC and DC waveforms, and unlike typical DMMs, can measure AC waveforms of very high frequency (typically 100 MHz or more versus an upper limit of around 1 kHz for a general purpose DMM). It is also worth noting that a DMM will measure the RMS value of an AC sinusoidal voltage, not its peak value.
While the modern digital oscilloscope on the surface appears much like its analog ancestors, the internal circuitry is far more complicated and the instrument affords much greater flexibility in measurement. Modern digital oscilloscopes typically include measurement aides such as horizontal and vertical cursors or bars, as well as direct readouts of characteristics such as waveform amplitude and frequency. At a minimum, modern oscilloscopes offer two input measurement channels although four and eight channel instruments are increasing in popularity.
Unlike handheld DMMs, most oscilloscopes measure voltages with respect to ground, that is, the inputs are not floating and thus the black, or ground, lead is always connected to the circuit ground or common node. This is an extremely important point as failure to remember this may lead to the inadvertent short circuiting of components during measurement. The standard accepted method of measuring a non-ground referenced potential is to use two probes, one tied to each node of interest, and then setting the oscilloscope to subtract the two channels rather than display each separately. Note that this technique is not required if the oscilloscope has floating inputs (for example, in a handheld oscilloscope). Further, while it is possible to measure non-ground referenced signals by floating the oscilloscope itself through defeating the ground pin on the power cord, this is a safety violation and should not be done.