Oscilent Corporation - Technical References
Introduction to Quartz Frequency Standards

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Introduction to Quartz Frequency Standards - Accuracy, Stability, and Precision

Oscillators exhibit a variety of instabilities. These include aging, noise, and frequency changes with temperature, acceleration, ionizing radiation, power supply voltage, etc. The terms accuracy, stability, and precision are often used in describing an oscillator's quality with respect to its instabilities. Figure 15 illustrates the meanings of these terms for a marksman and for a frequency source. (For the marksman, each bullet hole's distance to the center of the target is the "measurement".)

Figure 15
Figure 15. Accuracy, stability, and precision examples for a marksman, top, and for a frequency source, bottom.

Accuracy is the extent to which a given measurement, or the average of a set of measurements for one sample, agrees with the definition of the quantity being measured. It is the degree of "correctness" of a quantity. Frequency standards have varying degrees of accuracy. The International System (SI) of units for time and frequency (second and Hz, respectively) are obtained in laboratories using very accurate frequency standards called primary standards. A primary standard operates at a frequency calculable in terms of the SI definition of the second: "the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium atom 133" [15].

Reproducibility is the ability of a single frequency standard to produce the same frequency, without adjustment, each time it is put into operation. From the user's point of view, once a frequency standard is calibrated, reproducibility confers the same advantages as accuracy. Stability describes the amount something changes as a function of parameters such as time, temperature, shock, and the like. Precision is the extent to which a given set of measurements of one sample agrees with the mean of the set. (A related meaning of the term is used as a descriptor of the quality of an instrument, as in a "precision instrument." In that context, the meaning is usually defined as accurate and precise, although a precision instrument can also be inaccurate and precise, in which case the instrument needs to be calibrated.)