Pocket multimeters seem to have come a long way since the days of massive, bench-mounted voltmeters. While they shouldn’t be regarded as a replacement for a professional meter, and certainly not in a heavy industrial environment, pocket meters are very useful and do a good enough job for 90 percent of jobs around the home or car. Even professional electricians use them.
Great for verifying voltage or checking the continuity of a circuit or wire, the best pocket multimeters may also come with extra features like voltage detection and capacitance. These feature-packed versions thus favored by those into electronics and they can even handle the tasks presented in most HVAC situations.
The best of it is you can simply throw one into a laptop bag, under a motorcycle seat, in the dashboard and of course in your pocket. They are especially useful when traveling, where having a full size meter might not be feasible. Although a $20 meter won’t replace your $300 Fluke, in the above scenario, something is better than nothing.
Pocket multimeters can be just as accurate as full size or compact ones. They typically have similar architecture at the circuit board level, minus the same component capabilities regards current and voltage. Display resolution will never be as high as the best DMMs, but when you’re buying a pocket meter, are you really that interested in perfection to the nth degree?
Pocket DMM Safety
In short, if you are looking to measure current and high energy circuits, start looking at a ‘proper’ multimeter. Pocket versions are simply not meant for that kind of power. Some are rated as high as CATIII to 600V, but that is based on low energy services as opposed to three phase induction motor kind of voltage / current.
Just stick with measuring single phase and low voltage systems with these meters. Even if a meter is well rated, it will unlikely offer full protection at the component level should there be a drastic spike in a circuit. Most these pocket multimeters also have hard-wired leads, so those that can measure current are effectively sharing the same input as every other range, with only the dial or a button separating them.
Digital vs Analog
While you can still buy analog pocket multimeters, it is best to stick with a digital (DMM) one. Analog meters are complicated enough to read on a full size version as it is, so it is harder again to correctly ascertain a given readout. They are also not as hardy as your typical digital meter on account of the relatively delicate mechanics involved in their design. Analog meters are also manual ranging.
All digital multimeters have a numeric display and they are generally clear to read. Although there are manual ranging DMMs, most are now auto-ranging, which makes it a lot easier for non-electricians to work with. Auto ranging meters will automatically ascertain the correct range of an input, whereas you will have to turn the dial to the right range on a manual one.
So, Which One?
Before diving in and buying the first cute one you see, just bear in mind what it will be used for: electronics, instrumentation, the car, around the house? Many do not feature a current range or may only measure DC milliamps, for example, while capacitance and frequency would be a requirement for electronics.
If all you need is something to check battery voltages and basic continuity tests, then even the simplest pocket multimeter can do the trick. Just keep an eye on the category (CAT) rating – the level of voltage it can safely withstand – and always go with a brand name.
Examples of some of the best pocket multimeters on the market:
The PM55A DMM is one of the more expensive pocket multimeters. There’s a reason for that; it has some great features and, of course, it’s an Amprobe. Foremost is that it boasts non-cont
act voltage detection. This is a very useful feature, especially for pocket meters. It is also an auto-ranging multimeter and caters to voltage (to 600 volts), current (to 2mA), resistance (to 6MΩ), capacitance (to 2,000μF) and frequency (to 30kHz).
It feels well built and easily fits in pockets, at 4.4″ high, and, apologies for being politically incorrect, but it is not made in China (Taiwan, actually). As with most pocket DMMs, the probes are hard-wired, but this is one factor that makes them all the more portable and easy to use. The PM55A is quite accurate, has a nice display for its size and also features a MAX HOLD function. Stated category rating is CATII to 600V and CATIII to 300V.
This is a fantastic little multimeter, although is not quite credit card sized as often touted. It comes in a neat, hard flip-back case with the leads nicely tucked away in the lid. This all-sun measures all the main things – volts (600V), milliamps, resistance (2MΩ) and diode checks/continuity. There is also a polarity check and a low battery indicator on the 3 ½ digit LCD display. This super-light meter is CATII-rated and is fused at 200mA.
Another good deal by Amprobe, this little unit is similar to the PM55A, but doesn’t come with voltage detection or a case. A few of the specs are also different, such as resistance, which measures to 40MΩ, and frequency, which goes up to 1MHz. It also measures capacitance, has a MAX/MIN function and is CATII (to 600V) and CATIII (to 300V) rated. The auto ranging is surprisingly quick and the PM51A is also cheaper than the 55A.
Slightly larger than most, the MSR-P600 is quite popular and one of the best pocket multimeters on the market today. Actually more of a mini meter, it is auto ranging and has some useful features, like data hold and a relative function, along with auto power off. You can measure to 400mA, while resistance goes up to 40MΩ, capacitance down to 4nF and frequency to 99.9kHz. It is category II rated to 500V. Read more…
Brymen has a good reputation and produces solid test meters. The BM27 in particular has some outstanding features, not least its non-contact voltage detector, which makes it a useful backup in light industry even. It also has a 6000-count display and high and low impedance voltage functions. Its low current-measuring capacity is a bit of a letdown, but then pocket multimeters weren’t really built for current. A cheaper alternative is the 4000-count Brymen BM22. Both have input protection and are CATII 600V- and CATIII 300V-rated.
Amprobe’s ‘Credit Card Multimeter’ is one of their lightest. Despite the credit card-size statement, it is still small and comes in a case, but, ironically enough, is one of the tallest in this article at more than five inches. The lack of an input selector dial keeps it slim, with a series of buttons for selecting the functions and ranges. An auto-ranging pocket multimeter, the DM78C also has a neat bar graph and is CATII-rated to 300V, CATIII to 600V. Resistance measurement is up to 34MΩ and battery life is rated to 70hrs of nominal use.
RadioShack 22-Range Pocket DMM
RadioShack’s 22-Range is a favorite among many; an accurate, lightweight PMM with its own case. There’s no selector dial, with functions selected by a slider and button, and it can measure volts, amps, ohms and continuity quite well. The AC/DC current rating is up to 200mA, which will be good enough for most small jobs. The RadioShack 22 also has auto-polarity and is priced in the midrange.
Extech DM110 Mini
Extech makes some excellent compact multimeters and they are the go-to brand for many electricians today looking for something in the lower price bracket. Although the Extech DM110 is erring towards the high price point regards the best pocket multimeter, it is a solid tester with all the ranges.
There are many auto-ranging functions, including capacitance and duty cycle, a 4000-count display and even relative and data hold buttons. There’s also an auto power off feature and it has integrated test leads and a rubber holster. Good for jobs around the home and for diagnosing automotive wiring faults. NOTE: Craftsman makes a cheaper, similar meter (below).
This is a great little multimeter for the money, at around the $15 mark. Not only does it have a voltage detector, it also comes with a backlit display, can measure to 200 milliamps and has a battery test function. It is fairly firm to the touch and also has a data hold feature, but is manual ranging only. Beats some of the other cheapies on features, but is not as rugged.
The cheap and cheerful UT120C by UNI-T has been around for a while and is well liked by many in the trade. Although a ‘made in China’ meter, it performs quite well and has a 4000-count display and extra functions, to include hold and relative modes. There is also a continuity buzzer and auto power off, along with a 400mA-rated AC/DC current measuring capacity. Resistance goes up to 40MΩ and the rating is to CATII 600V.
The UT10A is similar to the UT120C, but doesn’t allow for current measurements and is rated to CATII 300V only. It does come with capacitance (down to 4nF), however, and so is more suited to testing electronic circuitry. Both UNI-Ts are well built and have good quality soldering on their circuit boards, with PTC fuse.
The Victor VC921 is a popular pocket DMM and one of the cheaper models on the market. It boasts functions others night not have. These include capacitance test (4nF to 200µF), frequency (from 100Hz to 10MHz) and a data hold button. It also has a continuity buzzer, diode test and auto shut off. Negatives include its large, clunky design, so-so screen and lack of current measurement, but you can’t have it all for $15!
The Cen-Tech 7 Function Pocket Multimeter seems a bit hit-and-miss as to whether you end up with a good one or not. Be aware that this is a manual ranging meter, meaning you’ll have to select the right range to get a reading. It is advertised as having a DC10A rating, although that is a temporary test time and fairly risky. There is also a transistor checker, which is the only one with that feature. The Cen-Techs tend to be a bit inaccurate and the build quality isn’t as good as the Amprobes or all-sun. If you get a good one, they do the basics okay for around $10.
Okay, I had to get a Fluke in here. Although marketed as a pocket multimeter and while smaller than other Flukes, the Fluke 101 is actually the biggest in this list. Although it can measure capacitance and frequency, they weren’t tempted to slip a milliamp range in there and thus this is a basic meter (albeit with banana jacks) for everyday use. It’s also made in China, but then the 110 series is, too, and they function very well. The 101 has a similar price to the Amprobe PM55A, which can measure (some) current.
There are some great little meters here for the money. Many of them have as many features as full-range multimeters and often at a fraction of the cost. I would be wary when testing mains current with a pocket meter, however, no matter what they say on the case. Most of these can certainly make for a useful spare, and even as a main tester in many cases.
As to the overall best pocket multimeter, my vote would have to be the Amprobe PM55A. Despite the relatively high price and there being a Fluke on the list, you are getting the brand name and a pretty solid, feature-packed device. Alternatively, the all-sun EM3081 is also a nice pocket tester with an attractive case.