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.
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