Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Scratching the SDR itch

One of the blogs I regularly read is that of Larry W2LJ. Larry has been watching some of the streamed video presentations about software defined radio (SDR) coming out of Dayton and believes that SDR is now mainstream and the shape of things to come.

I would be dishonest if I said that I have never looked at some of the SDR products and wished that I had one to try. SDR is becoming an itch that many of us would like to scratch. But I suspect that, in my case at least, it is an itch that once scratched would go away. Although I'm sure that software defined radio technology will find increasing use in tomorrow's radios - as it already does in the Elecraft K3 - I hope that "black boxes" controlled via a computer console never completely usurp standalone hardware radios.

Dedicated hardware "just works". General purpose computers are just too much hassle. There are the security issues, the updates, the driver incompatibilities, the crashes, the unfathomable problems. You switch on a radio and it is ready to use. You switch on an SDR and you must then start the computer and wait for it to boot, then start the SDR application and wait for it to load. Is this progress?

Dedicated hardware works until it dies. Computer based devices only work until a new version of Windows comes out that doesn't support it. How many perfectly good printers and scanners have you had to throw away because they wouldn't work with your new computer?

Real radios have an aesthetic and provide a sensory experience that simply cannot be matched by a computer interface. Isn't turning a knob preferable to moving a slider with a mouse? Isn't making a real audio cable easier than trying to configure a virtual one? Many of us prefer a real S-meter to a graphical simulation. Most of us spend far too much time staring at computer screens already.

With real radios you can look at the schematic and get in there with your soldering iron and make modifications or fix faults. With SDR you are dependent on somebody else unless you are a skilled programmer and have access to the source code and development tools.

I can't see myself swapping any of my radios for a black box and a computer application interface any time soon. I'll still work the same bands and the same modes, so what benefits would an SDR give me? A hardware radio is instant-on, intuitive, virus-proof and crash-proof, can't be broken by some application I install on my PC, doesn't lock me into using a particular brand of operating system and won't be made obsolete by the next version.


Theodore said...

You are sooo right Julian. I could not agree more. Recently, I had to finally replace my dying PC. Then the fun started. Which of my extensive library of digital modes programs (amongst others) will work with which OS. Oh... sorry you will need to buy windows 7 professional for XP compatibility, $400 please. It was a nightmare, and I hope I don't have to do it again soon. I think the SDR concept is great, but despite what the FLEX reviews say, it is still always a work in progress, driven by the loudest squealers. All the other poor sods have to go along with them or lose the continuous firmware upgrade stakes. They are also ugly, look at the flex, have no personality and are at the total mercy of the PC. But the fan boys will defend their baby with all their might. If you want to feel like you are in the "military SDR radio" group just get Ham radio deluxe, connect it to your normal radio and you can control most everything you want. After all, who wants to make their radio just like windows, fix all the bugs after you buy it !!!

Keith said...

Hi Julian on May 24th Workington Radio club will be having a talk on SDR's ( Hermes project ) so if you make it you can make a more informed decision - as to wether you would entertain such devices.

Jay Dighsx said...

I agree that an SDR rig does put yet another layer between you and the actual workings of the rig. But that said I've got an IC7000 and an FT-857 neither of which I'd have a snowballs chance in hell of fixing if they broke. Or even being able to open up and follow how things work.

SDR is just a new way for some people to enjoy the hobby. It's not for everyone but it's happening and we're not going to stop it. You see more and more rigs now coming with USB and RJ45 jacks on the back of them. The computer and the radio are getting merged. But I say so what. I've got my IC7000 hooked to my computer and run Ham Radio Deluxe and DM700. I honestly can't tell you the last time I touched any button other then the power button on the rig. I also own an KX1 and a Buddy Pole and love going out camping and playing radio. My newest toy is a NuePSK modem for portable psk. And I've been thinking about getting an SDR rig (that Flex-1500 sure looks neat). I like the gadgetry of all of it.

One way we should look at SDR is that it might be just the thing that gets younger people into the hobby. They seem to like tech and gadgetry as well.

It would be interesting to bring a ham back alive from say the 40's and see what they would think of the FT-857 or the IC7000.

So the long and short of it is, some guys like beer, some guys like wine. I saw why not drink them both!

Jay aka KD8EUR

GW0KIG said...

I prefer to have the option of switching the PC off when I operate radio so a totally SDR based shack wouldn't be for me. That said the SDRs do have some interesting features and there are some cheap entry level ways of getting into SDR like the Elektor board which I mentioned in my blog. I am waiting to get some feedback on that radio from a local amateur before I decide whether to take the plunge.

73 Kevin

ConnerVT said...

I tend to lean both ways on this issue. Part of me does truly enjoy the visceral pleasure of having all of the knobs and buttons to manipulate on a quality transceiver. The other part enjoys the new, the untested, and the development of new ideas, methods, and equipment.

One of the interesting things about this hobby is that it is so hard to accurately describe, much like nailing Jello to a wall. Ask 20 hams what they do in the hobby, and you may get 20 different answers. From 160M to microwaves; appliance operators to experimental builders; CW, AM, SSB, RTTY to the latest digital mode; contesters, DX chasers and rag chewers. Everybody has their own slice of the spectrum.

Will SDR someday usurp some of what the modern transceiver now does. Most likely. But just as many use their transceiver as they would any appliance (such as a toaster), with open source code and a yearning for experimentation, SDR will likely coexist in the amateur radio world fairly peaceably along side of the modern transceiver.

Fred N1ZUK

Unknown said...

I'm not against SDR technology altogether - by some definitions the Elecraft K3 is a software defined radio - it is the implementation of it using general purpose computers that I dislike.

I don't like HRD either and regard computers as a necessary evil, good for the things they are designed to do like managing information - logging. I hope that SDR never usurps hardware radios to the extent that even to do some QRP portable operating you need to take a laptop in your rucksack.

Theodore said...

I tend to think that SDR will slowly creep into conventional radios rather than the other way around. I don't think manufacturers of radios would be willing to suffer the tsunami of service calls from hams who could not figure out why their radio is not doing this, or doing that. Wrangling some unknown operating system problem is no fun, even when the configuration is known. Flex and others have carved out a niche market which others have avoided, but it is still a niche.
I can see the day coming soon though where you will be able to install new firmware to give "new features", perhaps at an upgrade price, to otherwise conventional radios. Many radios already have microprocessor set "calibration" settings, and it would only be a small extension to expand this to other parts of the radio.
I can't agree with you on HRD though, it's a great program. A bit bulky, but for digimodes its the best I have found. It makes operating a pleasure, radio control, digimodes, logging, eqsl'ing ... what can't it do.
Well everyone has different ways of operating and what fits your style is best, but after trying them all, I keep coming back to HRD. This of course only applies if you are a digimodes freak, as I am. For SSB/CW it is redundant.