Tag Archives: SDR-Console

SDR Primer Part 2: Exploring the world of SDRs for $200 or less

The $22 RTL-SDR paired with a Raspberry Pi and employed as an ADS-B receiver/feeder.

The following article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


Welcome back to the world of SDRs

Last month we covered Part One of our three-part primer on software-defined radios (SDRs). While last month’s Part One focused on the nomenclature and components of a functioning SDR system, Part Two will take a look at some affordable SDR station options that will propel you into the world of SDRs for less than $200 US. We’ll cover Part Three in November, and we’ll dive a little deeper into the rabbit hole and cover higher-end SDRs and ham radio transceivers with embedded SDRs.

SDRs are affordable

Photo by Kody Gautier

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this part of our primer, it’s that SDRs are truly affordable. For less than the price of a typical full-featured shortwave portable, you can own an SDR that covers almost all of the listening spectrum, and that does so with excellent performance characteristics.

We’re lucky to live in a time of phenomenal radio innovation. When I first jumped into the world of SDRs, the least expensive SDR that covered any of the bands below 20 MHz was about $500. That was only a few years ago, in 2010 or so.

Yet in the past three years, affordable SDRs have become the dominant radio product on the market.  And these modestly-priced products have made the barrier of entry into the SDR world crumble overnight.

Today, even a $100 SDR has more features, more frequency range, and more functionality than a $1000 SDR from just a decade ago.  Times have changed dramatically; indeed, the pace of innovation in this craft is simply amazing.

Before we begin looking at some choice sub-$200 SDRs, I’d just like to direct your attention to the first part of our SDR Primer (click here to read). Specifically, I’d like you to note one element I discussed in that article:  the vital importance identifying your goals as an SDR owner. In other words, how do you plan to use your SDR? If you’re only seeking an SDR to listen to local ham radio repeaters, track cubesat satellites, or gather ADS-B information from aircraft, a $25 SDR will more than suffice. If you wish to use the SDR as a transceiver panadapter, or you wish to chase weak signal DX on the HF bands, then I’d suggest you invest a bit more.

I’d also like to remind you, as I noted in the previous article, that this primer will be limited in the SDRs I highlight. The reason for this is simple:  there now exists a vast ocean of SDRs on the market (just search eBay for “SDR” and you’ll quickly see what I mean) so all models simply can’t be included in this introductory foray. I’ll be focusing here on several SDRs that cover the HF spectrum and above. I’ll also focus on SDRs with which I have personal experience, and which I consider to be “enthusiast” grade among a healthy community of users. Of course, this part of the primer will only include HF-capable receivers that cost a total of $200 or less.

Let’s take a look at what’s on the market in order of price, starting with the most affordable.

$10-$25: The RTL-SDR dongle

No doubt, many of you reading this primer have purchased an RTL-SDR dongle. Over the years, I’ve owned three or four of them and have even purchased them for friends. These dongles originally appeared on the market many years ago as mass-produced DVB-T TV tuner dongles based on the RTL2832U chipset. Very soon, users discovered that with just a little hacking, the dongle was capable of much, much more than its original intended purpose.

The dongle resembles a USB memory stick. On one end, you’ll find a standard USB connector.  On the other, you’ll find an antenna port, typically SMA, to which one connects an antenna. Although it goes without saying, here’s a friendly reminder: make sure you’re choosing an antenna to match the frequency range you’re exploring!

I’ve seen this older model of RTL-SDR being sold for $9 at Hamvention.

Early RTL-SDR dongles couldn’t cover the HF bands or lower, but many models can now cover a gapless 500 kHz all the way to 1.75 GHz.

So, what can you do with an RTL-SDR dongle?  In short, quite a lot! Here are a few of this simple device’s many applications and uses in our hobby.  It can:

  • become a police radio scanner
  • monitor aircraft and ATC communications
  • track aircraft with ADS-B decoding and read ACARS short messages
  • scan trunking radio conversations.
  • decode unencrypted digital voice transmissions such as P25/DMR/D-STAR.
  • track maritime boat positions like a radar with AIS decoding.
  • track and receive weather balloon data
  • connect to VHF amateur radio
  • decode APRS packets
  • receive and decode GPS signals
  • utilize its rtl-sdr as a spectrum analyzer
  • receive NOAA weather satellite images
  • and so much more––! This list is not fully comprehensive by any means.  Check out this list of projects at RTL-SDR.com.

And, of course, you can listen to any signals between 500 kHz up to 1.75 GHz––essentially, most of the radio listening landscape.

Is $25 still a little high for your budget? RTL-SDR dongles can be found for as low as $10 US, shipped, on eBay. While the cheapest of these dongles may suffice for some radio applications, I’m partial to the dongle produced by RTL-SDR.com, since they’re built in a tough metal enclosure, have thermal pad cooling, as well as extra ESD protection. Amazon has an RTL-SDR.com dongle starter package with antenna options for about $26. That’s, what, the price of three hamburgers? Two orders of fish and chips? And worth it.

Many third-party SDR applications support the RTL-SDR dongle, but my favorite is SDR# (click here to download).

So, the major pros of this little SDR are 1) obviously, the price; 2) many, many uses; and 3) the fact that it’s the most popular SDR on the market, with a massive online user base.

What about negatives? Well, to be frank––aside from the dongle’s budget-busting versatility––the fact is that “you pay for what you get.” You’re investing just $10-$27 in this receiver, so don’t expect exceptional performance especially on anything lower than 50 MHz. On HF, for example, the RTL-SDR could easily overload unless you employ external filtering.

Indeed, I’ve never used the RTL-SDR for HF DXing, but I currently have three dongles in service 24/7:  two as ADS-B receivers, and one as a receiver for the LiveATC network. And these work hard. Indeed, It’s a workhorse of a device!

I suggest you grab an RTL-SDR and use it as an accessible step into the world of SDRs, and as an affordable single-purpose tool to unlock the RF spectrum!

Click here to check out the RTL-SDR blog SDR dongle via Amazon (affiliate link).

$99: The SDRplay RSP1A

When you invest a modest $99 US (or $120 shipped), and purchase the RSP1A, you take a major step forward in the SDR world.

UK-based SDRplay is an SDR designer and manufacturer that focuses on enthusiast-grade, budget wideband SDRs. SDRplay designs and manufactures all of their SDRs in the United Kingdom, and over the past few years, they’ve developed a robust user community, extensive documentation, and, in my humble opinion, some of the best tutorial videos on the market.

SDRuno windows can be arranged a number of ways on your monitor.

Although the RSP series SDRs are supported by most third-party SDR applications, SDRplay has their own app: SDRuno. Moreover, SDRuno is a full-featured, customizable application that takes advantages of all of this SDR’s performance potential and features. I should mention that installing the RSP1A and SDRuno is a pure plug-and-play experience:  just download and install the application, plug in the RSP1A to your computer, wait for the USB driver to automatically install, then start SDRuno. Simplicity itself.

While the RSP1A is SDRplay’s entry-level wideband SDR, it nonetheless plays like a pro receiver and truly pushes the envelope of performance-for-price, and for other SDR manufacturers, sets the bar quite high. The RSP1A is a wideband receiver that covers from 1 kHz all the way to 2 GHz; equally pleasing the longwave DXer, HF hound, tropo-scatter hunter, and even radio astronomer. This affordable SDR really covers the spectrum, quite literally. Not only does the RSP1A cover a vast frequency range, but its working bandwidth can be an impressive 10 MHz wide and via SDRuno, the RSP1A will support up to 16 individual receivers in any 10 MHz slice of spectrum. All this for $99? Seriously? I assure you, yes.

Think of the RSP1A as the sporty-but-affordable compact car of the SDR world. It delivers performance well above its comparatively modest price, and is fun to operate. In terms of DX, it gets you from point A to point B very comfortably, and is a capable receiver which will help you work even weak signals––and very reasonably!

If you’re looking to explore the world of SDRs, would like a capable receiver with great LW/MW/HF reception to do it with, but also want to keep your budget in check, you simply can’t go wrong with the RSP1A.

Check out the RSP1A via:

$167 US (125 GBP): FUNcube Dongle Pro+

Many years ago when I ventured into the world of SDRs, one of the only affordable SDRs which covered the HF bands was the FUNcube Dongle Pro+.

The Funcube Dongle Pro+, which resembles the RTL-SDR “stick” type dongle, was originally designed as a ground receiver for the FUNcube Satellite (cubesat) project initially made possible by AMSAT-UK and the Radio Communications Foundation (RCF). The original Funcube dongle did not cover any frequencies below 64 MHz, but the Funcube Dongle Pro+ added coverage from 150 kHz to 1.9 GHz with a gap between 240 MHz and 420 MHz.

In full disclosure, I’ve never owned a FUNcube Dongle Pro+, but I have used them on several occasions. I believe you would find that it is prone to overloading if you use a longwire antenna that’s not isolated from the dongle. In other words, during such use it seems to be subject to internally-generated noise. In my experience, the Pro+ worked best when hooked up to an external antenna fed by a proper coaxial cable.

To be clear, with the advent of SDRplay and AirSpy SDRs, the FUNcube Dongle Pro+ is no longer the budget SDR I would most readily recommend.

Still, the Pro+ is a very compact dongle that has a great history, and around 2012 really pushed the performance-for-price envelope. It still has many dedicated fans. No doubt, this product has had a huge influence on all of the sub $200 SDRs currently on the market, thus we owe it a debt of gratitude.

Click here to check out the FUNcube Dongle Pro+.

$169 US: SDRplay RSP2 & RSP2 Pro ($199):

The SDRplay RSP2 Pro

In 2016, after the remarkable success of the original RSP, SDRplay introduced the RSP2 and RSP2 Pro SDRs. The RSP2 is housed in an RF-shielded robust plastic case and the RSP2 Pro is enclosed in a rugged black painted steel case. In terms of receivers and features, the RSP2 and RSP2 Pro are otherwise identical

The RSP2 and RSP2 Pro provide excellent performance, three software-selectable antenna inputs, and clocking features, all of which lend it to amateur radio, industrial, scientific, and educational applications; it is a sweet SDR for $169 or $199 (Pro version). I know of no other SDRs with this set of features at this price point.

The RSP2 series has the same frequency coverage as the RSP1A. Of course, to most of us, the big upgrade from the SDRplay RSP1A is the RSP2’s multiple antenna ports:  2 x 50-Ohms and one High-Z port for lower frequencies.

The SDRplay RSP2 with plastic enclosure.

As with all of SDRplay’s SDRs, their own application, SDRuno, will support up to 16 individual receivers in any 10 MHz slice of spectrum.

Bottom line? Since the RSP2 has multiple antenna ports––and two antenna options for HF frequencies and below–the RSP2 is my choice sub-$200 SDR to use as a transceiver panadapter. (Spoiler alert: you’ll also want to check out our summary of the recently released $279 RSPduo from SDRplay in this review or in Part 3 of our primer before pulling the trigger on the purchase of an RSP2 or, especially, an RSP2 Pro!)

Check out the RSP2 via:

$199 US: AirSpy HF+

Sometimes big surprises come in small packages. That pretty much sums up the imminently pocketable AirSpy HF+ SDR.

The HF+ has the footprint of a typical business card, and is about as thick as a smartphone. Despite this, it’s a heavy little receiver––no doubt due to its metal alloy case/enclosure.

AirSpy’s HF+ was introduced late 2017. Don’t be surprised by its footprint which is similar to a standard business card to its left, this SDR is performance-packed!

Not to dwell on its size, but other than my RTL-SDR dongle, it’s by far the smallest SDR I’ve ever tested. Yet it sports two SMA antenna inputs: one for HF, one for VHF.

The HF port is labeled as “H” and the VHF port as “V”

When I first put it on the air, my expectations were low.  But I quickly discovered that the HF+ belies its size, and is truly one of the hottest sub $500 receivers on the market! Its HF performance is nothing short of phenomenal.

The HF+ is not a wideband receiver like the FunCube Dongle Pro+ or RSP series by SDRplay. Rather, the HF+ covers between 9 kHz to 31 MHz and from 60 to 260 MHz only; while this is a relatively small portion of the spectrum when compared with its competitors, this was a strategic choice by AirSpy. As AirSpy’s president, Youssef Touil, told me,“The main purpose of the HF+ is [to have] the best possible performance on HF at an affordable price.”

Mission accomplished.  Like other SDRs, the HF+ uses high dynamic range ADCs and front-ends but enhances the receiver’s frequency agility by using high-performance passive mixers with a robust polyphase harmonic rejection structure.  The HF+ was designed for a high dynamic range, thus it is the best sub-$200 I’ve tested for strong signal handling capability on the HF bands.

You can very easily experiment and customize the HF+ as well; easy access to the R3 position on the circuit board allows you to make one of several published modifications. “During the early phases of the design,” Yousef explains, “R3 was a placeholder for a 0 ohms resistor that allows experimenters to customize the input impedance.” He goes on to provide in-depth clarification about these mods:

“For example:

  • A 300 pF capacitor will naturally filter the LW/MW bands for better performance in the HAM bands
  • A 10µH inductor would allow the use of electrically short antennas (E-Field probes) for MW and LW
  • A short (or high value capacitor) would get you the nominal 50 ohms impedance over the entire band, but then it’s the responsibility of the user to make sure his antenna has the right gain at the right band
  • A custom filter can also be inserted between the SMA and the tuner block if so desired.”

Since the introduction of the HF+, it has been my recommended sub-$200 receiver for HF enthusiasts. If you want to explore frequencies higher than 260 MHz, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Also, note that longwave reception is not the HF+’s strong suit––although modifications to R3 and future firmware upgrades might help with this! Additionally, the HF+’s working bandwidth is 660 kHz; quite narrow, when compared with the RSP series, which can be widened to 10 MHz.

AirSpy also designed the free application SDR# to take full advantage of their receivers’ features and performance.

The AirSpy application (a.k.a. SDR#)

Installing the HF+ and getting it on the air is pure plug-and-play. While SDR# is a powerful and fluid SDR application, I actually use SDR Console more often, as it supports most of my other SDRs as well, and offers advanced virtual receiver and recording functionality.

If you’re an HF guy like me, the HF+ will be a welcome addition to your receiver arsenal. It’s a steal at $200.

Click here for a full list of AirSpy distributors.

Conclusion

If you haven’t gathered this already, it’s simply a brilliant time to be a budget-minded radio enthusiast. Only a few years ago, there were few, if any, enthusiast-grade sub-$200 SDR options on the market.  Now there are quite a number, and their performance characteristics are likely to impress even the hardest-core weak-signal DXer.

Still, some hams and SW listeners reading this article will no doubt live in a tougher RF environment where built-in hardware filters are requisite to prevent your receiver from overloading. Or perhaps you desire truly uncompromising benchmark performance from your SDR. If either is the case, you may need to invest a little more of your radio funds in an SDR to get exactly what you want…and that’s exactly where I’ll take you November in the final Part Three of this SDR primer series.  Stay tuned!

Stay tuned for more in Part Three (November). I’ll add links here after publication.

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Software Defined Radio Primer Part 1: Introduction to SDRs and SDR applications

The new ELAD FDM-S3.

The following article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


SDR Primer Part 1: Introduction to SDRs and SDR applications

I author a radio blog known as the SWLing Post; as a result, I receive radio-related queries from my readers on a daily basis.  Among the most common questions are these:

“So, what is an SDR, exactly? Are these better than regular radios?”

and/or,

“I think I’d like to buy an SDR. Which one do you recommend?”

Great questions, both! But, before I address them, I must let the reader know that they are also “loaded” questions: simple enough to ask, but quite nuanced when it comes to the answers.

No worries, though; the following three-part primer sets out to address these questions (and many more) as thoroughly as possible. This first part of the primer will focus on the basic components of an SDR system. In part two, next month, we’ll look at affordable SDRs: those costing less than $200 US. In part three, we’ll take a look at pricier models and even include a few transceivers that are based on embedded SDRs.

But before we begin, let’s start with the most basic question: What is a Software Defined Radio (SDR), exactly?

Not your grandpa’s radio

Here’s how Wikipedia defines SDR:

“Software-defined radio (SDR) is a radio communication system where components that have been traditionally implemented in hardware (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded system.”

Whereas your grandpa’s radio was all hardware––in the form of filters, mixers, amplifiers, and the like––SDRs are a mix of hardware and software. With the exception of tabletop transceivers and receivers with embedded software and systems (which we’ll discuss in part three of our investigation), SDRs typically take on a “black box” appearance: in other words, the radio looks like a simple piece of hardware with a minimum of an antenna port, a data port and many times there’s also some sort of LED or light to let you know when the unit is in operation. On some models of SDRs, there is a separate power port, additional antenna connections, power switch, and possibly some other features; however, “black box” SDRs often look like a nondescript piece of portable computer hardware––something like an external portable hard drive.

Why would you want an SDR?

Many of us have made it through life thus far without an SDR…so, why in the world should we want the use of one?  Below, I’ll list some of the most appealing reasons:

Bang-for-buck

The Airspy HF+ (top) and FDM-S2 (bottom). Photo by Guy Atkins.

By and large, SDRs are quite a value when compared to legacy all-hardware radios. For example, I wouldn’t hesitate to pit my SDRs––such as the $500 Elad FDM-S2 or $900 WinRadio Excalibur––against legacy receivers that cost two to three times their price. Indeed, my $200 AirSpy HF+ SDR will give many DX-grade ham radio general coverage receivers a real run for their money. They’re that good.

Spectrum display

SDR applications have a spectrum display which gives you a real-time view of a broad swath of the radio dial. Whereas you can tune to and listen to one frequency at a time with legacy receivers, SDRs allow you to view, say, the entire 31 meter band. With the spectrum display, you can see when signals come on or go off the air without actually being tuned in to them. You can tell what signal might be causing interference because you can see the outline of its carrier. Spectrum displays are truly a window––a visual representation––of what’s on the radio. Using legacy receivers now often makes me feel like I’m cruising the bands with blinders on. After becoming accustomed to having a spectrum display, there’s simply no way I’d want to be without at least one SDR in my shack.

Powerful tools

I like how clean the user interface is for this SDR application (SDRuno) window that controls the SDR’s frequency, mode, filters and notch.

SDRs usually afford access to a dizzying array of customizable filters, gain controls, noise blankers, digital signal processing (DSP), audio controls, and more. Being able to customize the SDR’s performance and listening experience is simply unsurpassed. In fact, it’s almost a curse for SDR reviewers like me––comparing two SDRs is problematic because each can be altered so much that identifying the best performance characteristics of one or the other becomes a real challenge. In other words, comparing SDRs is almost like comparing apples to oranges: even using a different application can enhance and thus alter the performance characteristics of an SDR.

Multiple virtual receivers

SDR Console makes managing multiple virtual receivers a breeze.

Whereas most legacy tabletop receivers allow you to switch between two VFOs (VFO A and B) some modern SDR applications allow for multiple independent virtual receivers––in essence, multiple sub-receivers. On my WinRadio Excalibur, for example, I can run three fully-functional and independent virtual receivers within a 2 MHz span. On receiver 1, I might be recording a shortwave broadcaster on 7490 kHz. On receiver 2, I might be recording a different broadcaster on 6100 kHz, and following a 40 meter ham radio net on 7200 kHz in the lower sideband.

Recording tools

SDR applications, more often than not, have functionality for making audio recordings of what you receive. Some, like the WinRadio Excalibur and SDR Console, actually allow for multiple simultaneous recordings on all of their virtual receivers.

SDR Console recording dialog box

Most SDR applications also allow you to make spectrum recordings, that is, to record not just one individual broadcast from one radio station at a time, but to record an entire broadcast band, all at once. Each recording can easily contain dozens of stations broadcasting simultaneously. Later, you open the recording and play it back through the SDR application. Recordings can be tuned and listened to as if they were live. Indeed, to the SDR application, there is no difference in using an antenna or using a recorded spectrum file; the tuning experience to the listener is also identical.

So imagine that propagation is stellar one evening, or there’s a global pirate radio event just when you’re going to be away from home: simply trigger a spectrum recording and do a little radio time travel tuning later. It’s that easy.

Constant upgrades

Both SDR applications and SDR firmware are upgradable from most manufacturers. In fact, I’ve found that the most affordable SDRs tend to have the most frequent upgrades and updates. Updates can have a positive impact on an SDR’s performance, can add new features, such as the ability to expand the frequency range or more filters or embed time stamps in the spectrum waterfall. It could be pretty much anything and that’s what’s so brilliant. As a user you can make requests; your SDR’s developers might, if they like the idea, be able to implement it.

So, what’s not to love?

Looking at all of these advantages of SDRs over legacy radios, it sounds like SDRs should truly suit everyone. But the reality is, they don’t. For some radio enthusiasts, SDRs do have some unfortunate disadvantages:

First, if you’re primarily a Mac OS or Linux user, and/or prefer one of these platforms, you’ll find you have much less selection in terms of SDRs and applications. While there are a few good applications for each, there are many more SDR applications for PCs operating Windows. Until I moved into the world of SDRs, in fact, I was a Mac OS user outside of work. At the time, there were only one or two SDR applications that ran on the Mac OS––and neither was particularly good. I considered purchasing a copy of Windows for my MacBook, but decided to invest in a tower PC, instead.

Second, one of the great things about legacy radios is that with just a radio, a power source, and an antenna, you’re good to go; travel, field operations, and DXpeditions are quite simple and straightforward. SDRs, on the other hand, require a computer of some sort; when traveling, this is typically a laptop. I’ve spent several summers in an off-grid cabin in Prince Edward Island, Canada. My spot is superb for catching DX, and there’s no RF interference, so I love making spectrum recordings I can listen to later. Problem is, powering so many devices while off-grid is an art. Normally, my laptop can run off of battery power for hours, but when the laptop also provides power to an SDR and portable hard drive, it drains the battery two to three times faster.

The ELAD FDM-DUOr (receiver).

With this said, keep in mind that there are fully functional tabletop radios (like the Elad FDM-DUO and FDM-DUOr) that are actually SDRs, providing an easy way to bypass this concern.

Finally, there are simply some people who do not care to mix PCs and radio. I’ve a friend who’s a programmer, and when he comes home to play radio and relax, the last thing he wants to do is turn on a computer. I get it––as a former programmer, I used to feel that way myself.  But the world of SDRs lured me in…and now I’m a convert.

Scope of this primer series

The world of SDRs is the fastest growing, most dynamic aspect of the radio world. Because of this, I simply can’t include all SDRs currently on the market in this primer.  Let’s face it: there are just too many, and it is beyond the scope of this article to try to cover them all. Instead, I’ve curated my list, by no means comprehensive, to include a selection of the most popular and widely-used models.

I’ll be focusing on SDR receivers unless otherwise noted. In Part Three, I’ll call out some popular SDR transceivers. Additionally, I’ll bring my attention to bear on the “black box” variety of SDRs.

This primer is long overdue on my part, so I’ll provide answers to the most frequent questions I receive. But though this primer is in three parts, it barely scratches the surface of the vast world of SDRs.

Thus far we’ve defined an SDR and discussed its advantages and disadvantages.

Now, let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need to build a station around an SDR.

Assembling an SDR station

Guy Atkins’ laptop running HDSDR software in his SUV; the receiver is an Elad FDM-S2. (Photo: Guy Atkins)

In truth, most of you reading this primer will already have everything you need to build a listening post around an SDR. Understanding the components of the system in advance, however, will put you in a better position to get on the air quickly with an SDR that suits your needs best. Let’s discuss this component by component.

A computer

By virtue of reading this primer now being displayed on your screen, unless you’ve printed it out, I’m guessing you have access to a computer of some sort.

SDRs are really quite flexible in terms of computer requirements. SDRs are compatible with:

  • A desktop PC running the Windows operating system
  • A laptop PC running the Windows operating system
  • A desktop Apple computer running MacOS and/or Windows
  • A laptop Apple computer running MacOS and/or Windows
  • A tablet or smartphone computer running Android or Windows
  • A Raspberry Pi/Beaglebone (or similar budget computer) running a Linux distribution

If SDRs are compatible with so many computer operating systems and configurations, then why would you worry about which ones to choose?

As I mentioned earlier most, but not all, of the SDR applications on the market are only compatible with the Windows operating system. If you want the most out-of-the-box, plug-and-play SDR options, then you should plan to use a Windows PC. If you’re a MacOS user, fear not. Modern Apple computers can support Windows—you simply purchase a copy of Windows and set your system to boot as a Windows machine (assuming you have the storage space for a dual boot).

Secondly, processing speed is certainly a factor: the faster, the better. While you can use an Android/Windows tablet or a Raspberry Pi to run an SDR, they often don’t have features like multiple virtual receivers, wideband spectrum recording capabilities, and large fluid waterfall displays due to the simple lack of processing power. My guess is that by 2023, however, tablets and budget computers will have ample processing power to handle most, if not all, SDR functions.

Finally, if you plan to make spectrum recordings, especially wideband ones (2 MHz, plus), you need both a snappy processor and a high-capacity hard drive with a decent write speed. This is the reason I now have a desktop PC at home for spectrum recordings: I can use a very affordable SATA drive as a storage device, and the write speed is always more than adequate. My OS and SDR applications run on an SSD (solid state drive) which is very fast.  All of my recordings are saved to internal and external 4TB+ hard drives. Happily, I’ve never had a hiccup with this system.

An SDR application

SDRuno has an attractive user interface comprised of multiple adjustable windows.

Wait a minute…am I suggesting you choose an SDR application before you choose an SDR?  Why, yes, I am! You cannot use an SDR without an SDR application, but, with only a few exceptions, you certainly can use an SDR application without an SDR attached.

Unlike a legacy hardware radio, you can essentially test drive an SDR by downloading an application (almost always free) and then downloading a test spectrum file. Most SDR manufacturers will have all of this on their download page. Simply install the application, open the spectrum file, et voila! You’re now test driving the SDR. Your experience will be identical to the person who originally made the spectrum recording.

The WinRadio Excalibur application also includes a waterfall display which represents the entire HF band (selectable 30 MHz or 50 MHz in width)

I always suggest test driving an application prior to purchasing an SDR.

While all SDR applications have their own unique layout and menu structure, almost all have the same components, as follows:

  • a spectrum display, which gives you real-time information about all of the signals within the SDR’s frequency range;
  • a waterfall display, which is a graphical representation of the signals amplitude or strength across the SDR’s frequency range displayed over time;
  • filter controls, which help you adjust both audio and signal widths;
  • mode selections, which allow you to change between modes such as AM, SSB, FM, and digital;
  • a signal meter, which is typically calibrated and resembles a traditional receiver’s “S” meter;
  • a frequency display for the active frequency;
  • VFOs/virtual receivers, which may have real estate allocated on the display;
  • a clock, which displays the time, possibly as both UTC and local time (note that many SDR apps also embed time code in waterfall display);
  • memories, where you can store a near-infinite number of frequencies (and some SDR applications allow you to import full-frequency databases); as well as
  • other controls, such as squelch, gain, noise blanker, DSP, notch,etc.

After you’ve become comfortable with one SDR application, moving to another can be a little disorienting at first, but the learning curve is fairly short simply because most have the same components.

Types of SDR applications

SDR applications usually fit one of three categories: proprietary app, free third-party apps, paid third-party apps, and web browser based apps. (Assume each application runs on Windows unless otherwise noted.) Let’s take a look at each.

Proprietary SDR applications

Proprietary apps are those that are designed by the SDR manufacturer and provide native plug-and-play support for the SDR you choose. Proprietary apps give priority support to their own SDR, but some are compatible with other SDRs––or can, at least, read spectrum recordings from other SDRs. Most popular SDRs have a proprietary application. Here are examples of a few proprietary apps:

  • WinRadio App for the WinRadio/Radixon line of SDRs
  • Perseus Software Package for the Microtelecom Perseus
  • SDR# App for the AirSpy line of SDRs
  • SDRuno App for the SDRplay series of SDRs
  • FDM-SW2 App for Elad SDRs
  • SpectraVue App for the RFSpace line of SDRs
  • SmartSDR App for FlexRadio SDR transceivers

Free third party SDR applications

Free third party applications are incredibly popular and some even offer performance and feature advantages over proprietary applications. Third party apps tend not to be associated with any one particular manufacturer––SDR# being a noted exception––and tend to support multiple SDRs. I’m a firm believer in supporting these SDR developers with an appropriate donation if you enjoy using their applications.

  • HDSDR is a very popular application that supports multiple SDRs and spectrum file formats. The layout is simple and operation straightforward.
  • SDR Console is a very powerful and popular application. Like HDSDR, it supports multiple popular SDRs. It is my SDR application of choice for making audio and spectrum recordings.
  • SDR# runs AirSpy SDRs natively, but also supports a number of other receivers including the venerable RTL-SDR dongle.
  • Linrad (Linux)
  • SdrDx (MacOS and Windows)
  • Gqrx SDR (Linux)
  • SDR Touch is a popular SDR application for Android devices (Android)
  • iSDR is one of the only SDR applications currently available for iOS devices. Its functionality is somewhat limited. There are other SDR applications in the works, but at the moment these are in development stages only. (iOS)

Paid third-party apps

Paid third-party apps represent a tiny fraction of the SDR applications available on the market. Indeed, at time of posting, the only one I know about that’s currently on the market is Studio 1, which has been the choice for those looking for an alternative application to the Microtelecom Perseus Software Package.

Web browser-based  SDR applications

The KiwiSDR browser-based application

This is, perhaps, one of the newest forms of SDR applications. While a number of SDR applications (like SDR#, SDR Console and the Perseus Software package) allow for remote control of the SDR via the Internet, there are actually few applications that are purely web browser-based. At the time of this writing, the only one with which I’m familiar is the KiwiSDR application, which allows both the SDR owner and (if set up to do so) anyone else in the world to operate the SDR as if they are at the SDR’s location. In fact, the KiwiSDR only has a web browser-based application, there is no downloadable application. It will allow up to four simultaneous users, and the experience of using a KiwiSDR locally or globally is nearly identical. If you would like to use a KiwiSDR, simply visit http://SDR.hu or https://sdr.hu/map and choose a remote location.

[Note that if you like web-based SDRs, I highly recommend checking out the University Twente WebSDR located in the Netherlands.]

Choosing an SDR

In Parts Two and Three of this primer, we’ll take a closer look at some of the SDRs currently on the market; prices range anywhere from $15 to $6,000. As you can imagine from such a price range, these are not all created equally.

But first, ask yourself what your goal is with your SDR. Do you want to monitor ham radio traffic? How about aviation communications? Follow pirate radio? Listen to a range of broadcasters? Pursue radio astronomy? Is your dream to set up a remote receiver?

Whatever your flavor of radio, you’ll want to keep some of these needs in mind as you explore the SDR options available to you.

Budget

Photo by Kody Gautier

Be honest with yourself: how much are you willing to spend on an SDR? While entry-level SDRs can be found for anywhere from $15-50 US, a big leap in performance happens around the $100 mark. If you’re looking for benchmark performance, you may need to appropriate $500 or more. Whatever you choose, keep in mind that SDRs are only as good as the antennas you hook up to them. Set aside some of your budget to purchase––or build––an antenna.

Compatible applications

As mentioned above, not all SDRs are compatible with anything beyond the OEM/proprietary application. If you have a choice third-party application in mind, make sure the SDR you choose is compatible with it.

Frequency range

If you want an SDR that covers everything from VLF/longwave up to the microwave frequencies, then you’ll need to seek a wideband SDR. Each SDR manufacturer lists the frequency ranges in their specifications sheet. It’s typically one of the top items listed. Modern wideband SDRs can be pretty phenomenal, but if you never plan to listen to anything above 30 or 50 MHz, for example, then I would advise investing in an SDR that puts an emphasis on HF performance. Check both specifications and user reviews that specifically address performance on the frequencies where you plan to spend the bulk of your time.

Recording and processing bandwidth

The new SDRplay RSPduo can display up to 10MHz visible bandwidth (single tuner mode) or 2 slices of 2MHz spectrum (dual tuner mode)

If you plan to make either audio or spectrum recordings, or if you plan to monitor multiple virtual receivers, pay careful attention to an SDR’s maximum recording and processing bandwidth. This bandwidth figure is essentially your active window on the spectrum being monitored. Your active virtual receiver frequencies will have to fall within this window, if you’re making simultaneous recordings. In addition, this figure will determine the maximum bandwidth of spectrum recordings. Some budget SDRs are limited to a small window––say 96 kHz or less––while others, like the Elad FDM-S3, can widen enough to include the entire FM broadcast band, roughly 20 MHz!

Portability

AirSpy’s HF+ was introduced late 2017. Don’t be surprised by its footprint which is similar to a standard business card to its left–this SDR packs serious performance!

If you plan to take your SDR to the field or travel with it, you’ll probably want to choose one that doesn’t require an external power supply. Most late-model SDRs use the USB data cable to power the unit.  This means you won’t need to lug an additional power plug/adapter or battery. Still, many professional grade SDRs require an external power supply.

Recording features

If you plan to make spectrum recordings, determine whether you have many options to set the unit’s processing bandwidth. Some SDR applications have robust recording functionality that allows for both spectrum and audio recordings, including advanced scheduling. Some applications don’t even have audio recording or spectrum recording capabilities. Test drive the application in advance to check out their recording functionality. Of course, if recording is your main interest, you’ll also want to set aside some of your budget for digital storage.

Know your goal!

If your goals are somewhat modest––perhaps your budget is quite low, you simply want to familiarize yourself with SDR operation prior to making a bigger purchase, or you only want to build an ADS-B receiver––then you might be able to get by with a $25 SDR dongle. If you plan to use your SDR as a transceiver panadapter during contesting, then you’ll want to invest in a unit that can handle RF-dense environments.

Identify exactly what you’d like out of your SDR, and do your research in advance. Note, too, that many popular SDR models have excellent online forums where you can pitch specific questions about them.

Scoping out the world of SDRs

Three benchmark receivers in one corner of my radio table: The Airspy HF+ (top), Elad FDM-S2 (middle) and WinRadio Excalibur (bottom).

Now that we have a basic grasp on what SDRs are, what components are needed, and what we should research in advance, we’ll look next at some of the SDR options available to us. In Part Two, we’ll look at budget SDRs; those under $200 US in price. In Part Three, we’ll survey higher-end SDR packages.

Stay tuned for more in Part Two (October–click here to read) and Part Three (November–click here to read)I’ll add links here after publication.

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Video: Guide to using SDR-Console V3 remotely

Many thanks to Jon Hudson at SDRplay who produced the following excellent instructional video about setting up SDR-Console V3 for remote use. Jon writes:

For SDR Console users, this video guide shows you how to access other people’s SDRs and how to add your own.

If you are wanting to add your own SDR for remote use, there are a couple of things to be careful with:

Be careful when plugging multiple SDRs into a single USB2 socket to make sure there’s enough power – for multiple SDRs, you may need a powered hub ( like this: http://amzn.to/2oa84kM) [or this in North America].

Once you are up and running – please go to http://www.sdrspace.com/Version-3 and view your listing – if there is a yellow triangle, then you are not accessible outside your own firewall – attention is needed! Just because you can access it on your own LAN doesn’t mean it’s accessible via the internet!!! This is the most common area to have problems – double check your router’s port forwarding settings are correct (default port 50101 TCP).

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SDR Console Version 3: A Holy Grail SDR application for the radio archivist

Encouraged by SWLing Post contributors Guy Atkins and Ivan Cholakov, I recently installed the latest version of SDR Console on my PC.

I had not tried SDR Console in many, many years, but after Guy announced that SDR Console had moved from preview to Beta, I decided it was time to try it once again.

All I can say is: WOW!

As someone who evaluates a number of software defined receivers and who regularly makes off-air audio and spectrum recordings, I’m simply amazed by SDR Console’s versatility.

The recording functionality, as Guy previously stated, is phenomenal–perhaps the best of any SDR application I’ve used to date save, perhaps, that of the Titan SDR Pro (which is proprietary).

Though I still haven’t logged a lot of hours on SDR Console, I can already mention several powerful features that I love:

Virtual receivers

So few SDR applications allow you to run multiple virtual receivers and–especially–make independent recordings from them simultaneously.

When I started writing this post last night, I was listening to and recording the Voice of Greece on virtual receiver #1,  Radio Guinea on #2, and WRMI on #3 using the brilliant little AirSpy HF+.

Audio recording options

When you start a recording of an active virtual receiver, a dialog box pops up allowing you to make a custom file title–it pre-populates the date, start time, frequency and mode. This is a simple but time-saving feature as most SDR applications save files according to global application settings–not for each individual recording. With the SDR Console dialog box, I can insert the name of the broadcaster in the file title which makes organizing recordings later a breeze.

Additionally, you can choose between MP3, WAV or WMA file types for each recording. I know of no other SDR app that gives you this flexibility.

Scheduled recordings

I’ve yet to use the scheduler feature, but based on Guy Atkins’ feedback, I know this will be an invaluable resource for collecting off-air recordings while I’m away from home.

So many features to discover…

As both Guy and Ivan have shown us in past posts, SDR Console allows for multiple application “instances”–meaning, you can run two independent SDRs simultaneously. This is a fantastic feature for those of us who make multiple spectrum recordings. Of course, it’s an ideal platform to compare SDR hardware as settings can be easily matched between both units (something very difficult to do when using different SDR applications).

I’ve so much to learn about SDR Console, but I can tell I’ll be spending a great deal of time with the application this year, attempting to learn every nuance.

I took Guy Atkins’ suggestion for new users of SDR Console and downloaded Paul Jones’ (NN4F) PDF manual.

I sent a donation to Simon (G4ELI) last night after having only used SDR Console for a few minutes. SDR Console is totally free, but I’m a firm believer in supporting creators who are doing amazing things! If you use SDR Console, consider sending Simon a donation as well.

I’ve a little free time this morning and plan to set up SDR Console to run my Elad FDM-S2, RTL-SDR dongle, SDR Play RSP1A and RSP2. It’ll be a bit revolutionary to have one SDR application to unite them all!

Post readers: Any other SDR Console fans out there?  What are your favorite features?

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Popular SDR-Console V3 Software Moves from Preview to Beta

Simon Brown, G4ELI’s widely used, free SDR-Console V3 was upgraded from “Preview” to “Beta 1” level today. Many SDR enthusiasts have waited for this next step; even in Preview form, Version 3 has performed nearly as well as a production release in many ways.

I have briefly used SDR-Console (V2 and V3) off and on for a few years, but it wasn’t until acquiring AirSpy HF+ receivers that I took a serious plunge into V3. Now that I’ve gone through its modest learning curve, I like this SDR software quite a bit!

There are many things I enjoy about SDR-Console, not the least is the power and ease of use of the Recording Scheduler, a feature that’s important to medium wave DXers. I’m sure others who like to set up unattended WAV I/Q recordings for later review benefit from this also.

I’ve not found a list of improvements between Preview and Beta 1, but I suspect Simon has made the upgrade because the Preview has shown itself to be quite stable already. He did publish a list of a few known bugs:

  • External Radio using IF output does not work.
  • Remote Server using the SDR-IQ has stutter.
  • Kits are not signed – a code signing certificate has been purchased from Comodo but is not yet available.

Simon indicates that these bugs will be worked on in the next few weeks.

If you use and benefit from SDR-Console software, please considering support the development efforts through a PayPal donation. Links to download the newest Beta 1 version, and/or to donate, can be found here: http://www.sdr-radio.com/Downloads

Here are a couple YouTube videos which show SDR-Console V3 (Preview build) in action:

Guy Atkins is a Sr. Graphic Designer for T-Mobile and lives near Seattle, Washington.  He’s a regular contributor to the SWLing Post.

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