All throughout the show floor at the 2009 Microwave Theory & Techniques Society (MTT-S's) Symposium & Exhibition in Boston, test and measurement companies large and small were touting instruments based on a Universal Serial Port (USB, version 2.0) connection to a personal computer running graphical user interface (GUI) software. The beauty of a USB RF/microwave instrument is that the PC and software serve as the "intelligence" and control for the instrument, saving the cost of developing a front panel, display screen, and controls.

The first set of USB RF/microwave instruments focused largely on power measurements, with GUIs controlling combinations of RF/microwave power sensors/meters. But as the idea has grown, instrument makers and even some component suppliers (such as Mini-Circuits) are offering measurement equipment based on the popular USB 2.0 interface. Instruments include frequency counters, signal generators, and even a 9-GHz spectrum analyzer (see story below). As many equipment developers are coming to realize, with just a laptop computer and a handful of USB measurement instruments, an engineer could assemble a multifunction measurement system that could be quickly transported anywhere in the workplace.