A digital multimeter is to a circuit designer what a stethoscope is to a general physician. The multimeter is the ultimate diagnostic tool for troubleshooting issues in electrical circuits. If you intend to work on circuits at any level, a multimeter is a must have.
But, choosing the best multimeter for your needs is a tricky business, especially if you have never used one. All the buttons, symbols, and settings may confuse you. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide. After reading the article, all aspects of buying a multimeter will become crystal clear and you’ll be well on your way to owning one. Let’s get started with our picks for the best multimeters of 2018.
In the first part of this article, you’ll find reviews introducing you to the top products on the market. These multimeter reviews will give you a feel for what to expect. After the reviews, we dive deep into all factors that play a crucial role in buying a multimeter. To get the best out of the article, we recommend that you scan the reviews, and then come back to it after you’ve gone through all the relevant factors.
|MODEL||PRICE||ITEM WEIGHT||USER RATING|
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|Klein Tools MM1000||$$$|
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Fluke makes some of the best digital multimeters on the market, and the Fluke 115 is one of its most popular models. Investing in this fully functional multimeter represents a shift from a dabbler’s mindset to that of an expert.
I recommend buying the Fluke 115 for its safety, accuracy, durability, and functionality. Built to CAT III standards, the 115 shields you from electrocution while troubleshooting dangerous systems, such as the electrical main circuit breaker panel. All measurements, such as AC & DC current, frequency, AC & DC voltage, capacitance, diode voltage drop, and resistance, conform to strict tolerances with an extremely low margin for error.
All parts, from the soldering on the PCB circuit board to the protective casing, are well made and assembled securely. The Fluke 115 comes with many features, such as auto-range, manual-range, min-max, hold, backlight, latch-on continuity testing, and a fused current port. But, there’s one thing missing in this unit that throws me off.
The Fluke 115 does not have a milli-amp measurement system. If it did, it would be the best multimeter for electronic and electrical problem solving, but the absence of this feature makes the Fluke 115 better suited for checking electrical systems rather than electronic circuits.
Buying a $100+ multimeter to learn the basics of circuit debugging isn’t necessary. The core features remain the same across the price spectrum. However, the build quality, accuracy, responsiveness, and safety varies significantly as you move up price brackets. But, these aspects aren’t critical for people who are merely exploring the capabilities of a multimeter.
For example, you don’t need an expensive CAT III multimeter while working on a 12-Volt breadboard prototype. That’s why a low-cost multimeter like the INNOVA 3320 is just what you need. Within this price range, this is the best multimeter for the money.
The 3320 has auto-range capabilities for measuring DC voltage, AC voltage, resistance, AC current (0 to 200 mA), DC current (0 to 10 A) and DC current (0 to 200 mA). The measurements are accurate and responsive. The multimeter also offers a battery test, a diode test and a continuity test.
However, I must bring some safety issues to your attention. Although, the 200 mA port has a 0.315 A general purpose fuse, the DC 10 A port is unfused. Also, the 200 mA port isn’t separate from the voltage probe. This is dangerous because if the selected multimeter function and the probe position don’t correspond, it can damage your multimeter and circuitry.
To be fair, this is a CAT I multimeter. So, it’s not intended for use on circuits plugged into the grid. Within this scope, the INNOVA 3320 performs extremely well.
The INNOVA 3340 is a digital automotive tester. A digital automotive tester offers many of the same functions as a regular digital multimeter. However, extra features on an automotive multimeter allow you to diagnose problems specific to your car’s electrical and electronic systems.
For example, the 3340 can measure the duty cycle, and pulse width of your vehicle’s solenoid or actuators. Plus, it allows you to measure RPM, temperature, and clamp current. A conventional multimeter does not have these features.
In addition to specialized automotive features, the 3340 measures AC & DC voltage, resistance, diode voltage drop, continuity, frequency, DC current (0 to 15 A), DC current (0 to 400 mA) and AC current (0 to 400 mA). This multimeter also has record and review functions such as min-max-average and measurement hold.
Like the INNOVA 3320, the 3340 is also a CAT I multimeter. The low-current system has a 0.5 A fuse, but the high-current system is unfused. But, the 15 A port and the 400 mA port are separate. So, the 3340 is a little safer than the 3320.
Overall, a CAT I multimeter is enough for automotive testing. So, the 3340 is relatively safe for the environment for which it is designed. But, using a CAT I multimeter on live electrical systems is dangerous. I suggest you buy a CAT III multimeter for that purpose.
An automotive tester is a specialized variant of a regular digital multimeter. The HVAC multimeter is another example of a specialized multimeter variant. Now, HVAC does not mean high-voltage AC. A lot of people make this mistake. HVAC refers to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in buildings.
The HVAC system depends on an array of sensors to function. Any time a sensor acts weirdly, you need tools to diagnose it. Any good multimeter can do this. But, in addition to sensing electrical parameters, technicians require temperature data to check HVAC systems. This is where HVAC multimeters become extremely helpful.
Among all HVAC multimeters, the crown goes to the Fluke 116. As a CAT III 600 V multimeter, the Fluke 116 has highly accurate circuitry for measuring temperature, micro-amp current, resistance, continuity, capacitance, diode voltage drop, and frequency.
Sometimes, you get a voltage reading on a system that’s disconnected from the supply. This phenomenon called “ghost voltage” can cause errors in your measurement. Normally, you can ignore these voltages. But, for HVAC systems, ghost voltages make troubleshooting tricky. Fortunately, the LoZ system in the 116 eliminates ghost voltage. Therefore, you get an accurate reading every time.
Although this multimeter is expensive, it’s the best at what it does. However, this is a niche product. It’s not suitable for electronic hobbyists.
The Klein Tools MM1000 is the safest multimeter on our list. Rated at CAT III for 1000 V and CAT IV for 600 V, you can use this multimeter to diagnose almost any electrical system. This auto-range multimeter can measure AC & DC voltage, resistance, continuity, diode voltage drop, frequency, duty cycle, capacitance, temperature, micro-amps, mill-amps, and AC & DC current.
Adding to the safety of the multimeter, both the 10 A measurement system and the 400 mA system have protective fuses and separate ports. The multimeter has a relative button, manual range selection, max-min display, display hold, and backlight. This multimeter is a complete package.
So, why isn’t this our top choice? The Fluke 115, our top pick, beats the MM1000 in precision and accuracy. But, it’s a close call. If you value economy and functionality over precision, go for the MM1000. However, if you prefer accurate measurements to extended functionality and economy, go for the Fluke 115.
Also, the Fluke 115 comes with a 3-year warranty, and the MM1000 comes with a 2-year warranty. You get better purchase protection with the Fluke 115. Now, a lot of people don’t use all the functions in a multimeter. Personally, I prize accuracy over functionality. So, the Fluke 115 is a better multimeter, but the MM1000 isn’t far behind.
Buying a digital multimeter is a challenging task for all those who approach it unsystematically. People who divide the process into a series of decisions, rather than see the purchase as one big decision, can find the right product with ease. In this section, we will take you through all the important choices you must make. Ultimately, these choices will lead you to the best multimeter for your needs. To this end, you must begin with this question:
Doctors use various instruments to measure indicators of health, such as blood pressure and heart rate. Similarly, tools such as multimeters and oscilloscopes help electricians measure parameters that indicate the health of electrical or electronic circuits.
Multimeter users fall into two broad categories – creators and maintainers. Creators design electrical circuits, and maintainers repair circuits when they malfunction. The roles aren’t mutually exclusive, and they do overlap quite a lot. People often switch categories depending on the situation. Unless you identify with either of these categories, you don’t need a multimeter.
However, if you’re interested in going deeper into the world of electrical and electronic devices, you need a multimeter. Here’s an example that demonstrates how this interest serves practical situations.
Using a multimeter, you can calculate the true power rating of any appliance. You see, my blender claims to run on a 1500-Watt motor. But, when I used my multimeter to measure the current the blender draws from the supply mains, I discovered the blender draws only 11 A. So, although the motor may be rated for 1500 Watts, it runs at 1210 Watts. I’m sure glad I didn’t overpay for the blender. In summary, if you want to know what’s really going on inside your machines, buy a multimeter.
In some products, as the number of functional features increases, the cost increases. This is not true for multimeters. Almost every multimeter on the market offers all the basic functions, such as current, voltage, resistance, and continuity measurement.
So, what drives the cost of multimeters? Safety, range, and accuracy. High-end multimeters allow you to take measurements more accurately and safely than low-cost multimeters do. Also, the range of measurements is broader in high-end multimeters. Here’s an example:
The Fluke 115 and the INNOVA 3320 allow you to measure DC voltage. The Fluke 115’s range varies from 0 to 600 mV, and it has an accuracy of 0.5% across the range. The INNOVA 3320’s range varies from 0 to 200 mV, and it has an accuracy of 0.8% across the range. Can you guess which is the high-end brand, and which is the low-cost one?
The main takeaway here is that the less you care about accuracy and range, the better it is to buy a low-cost multimeter. But, we haven’t talked about the third cost driver – safety.
Thanks to implementation of the CAT rating, it’s a lot easier to tell whether a multimeter is safe for its intended use. To understand the significance of the CAT rating, you must understand the basics of power distribution.
The electricity available at your domestic outlet is routed through your home’s main circuit breaker. The main circuit breaker receives its electricity from your area’s transformer. The transformer, in turn, gets electricity from a substation linked to the power grid.
The closer you get to the source, the more dangerous it becomes to measure electrical parameters. For example, a sub-station requires massive current transformers to measure current. Now, let’s come back to CAT rating.
If you’re taking measurements on anything connected to a domestic power outlet, you need a multimeter that’s at least CAT II. For taking measurements at your main circuit breaker, your multimeter must be at least CAT III. Anything beyond your main circuit breaker requires a CAT IV multimeter. Now, if you’re testing circuits that don’t require a connection to an outlet, a CAT I multimeter will do.
The CAT rating applies to the multimeter and the probes as well. Make sure the CAT rating of the multimeter is in sync with the CAT rating of the probes. Also, pay attention to the voltage that corresponds to the CAT rating. For instance, the Klein Tools MM1000 is rated at CAT III for 600 V and CAT IV for 1000 V.
In addition to the CAT rating, these are some other safety features you must inspect:
In my opinion, safety is the best place to put your money in. But, here are some other useful features that a multimeter must have:
Now that you’re clear on the factors to consider when buying a multimeter, I encourage you to revisit the list of products in our top picks for the best multimeter of 2018. Since the list caters to a wide range of customers, I am confident you will find what you need on the list. But, if you want more options, use the information here to research the full range of multimeters from Fluke, Innova, and Klein.
Before I recommend multimeters, I account for the person’s experience and need. For a beginner who wants to build familiarity with basic electronic circuits, the Innova 3320 is just right. For those who wish to go beyond electronic circuits, and into the world of electrical circuits, the Klein MM1000 is the ideal multimeter. For increased accuracy and safety, go for the Fluke 115, our top pick.
Our multimeter reviews also cover two specialized multimeters – the automotive multimeter and the HVAC multimeter. People in this line of work will find the best mix of price, performance, and functionality in the products listed here.
The first handheld digital multimeter hit the market in the late 1970s. Since then, the multimeter has become more functional, economical, and safe. Today, a ton of companies compete to make their products the best in the market. This is simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing.
On one hand, the competition has increased the quality of multimeters. On the other hand, it has created a lot of clutter. But, with the right information and guidance, you can sort through the clutter and identify the best multimeter for your needs. And, I hope this guide helps you do exactly that.
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