Contest season for me is still going strong. This past weekend was the ARRL 10M contest. I was looking forward to it because our local amateur radio club participates as a group effort and I would like to add to the effort. Last year I managed 345 contacts which I ended up with 103,452 points. I guess my goal is to break that.
I decided to enter as a single operator, low power without using assistance of the cluster/skimmer. I knew band conditions weren’t going to be so great. It wasn’t going to be packed with juicy multipliers everywhere and felt that I wasn’t going to be having high rates.
This year I put more focus in CW contesting. Without the cluster/skimmer I knew that Morse code will be much harder. No problem, I need less assistance anyways.
Starting Off Slow
0z came and I was off to the races. However around here 0z is 7pm and the band is pretty much closed to skywave contacts. There were a handful of local ops running and I managed to make contact with them. It was nice to make contact with locals. Plus it’s nice to see who around here is playing. through out the contest I would keep tabs on them and see who they were contacting.
I went to bed making only a dozen or so contacts.
The Contest Continues On
I woke up Saturday thinking it would be like Christmas morning as a kid. Got my coffee and hopped on the air expecting wall to wall contesting like years past. Well the solar cycle slapped me in the face this year. There wasn’t much on. However I hear DX stations so I will work them!
South America was really strong. I was hoping to make some contacts with countries I need like Boliva and the Falkland Islands.
I ended up not making many contacts on Saturday as the day was nice and I had other on my mind. Propagation predictions said I should be around 2pm local time for the peak but I just wasn’t feeling it. I’ve notice some locals putting a good effort though.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday
After the run I had on Saturday, I wasn’t expecting Sunday to be much better. Sure enough I got on the air and it confirmed my feelings. I don’t think I made any European contacts. I concentrated my efforts on making contacts to west on CW. I needed a bunch of states for the ARRL triple play award so my efforts were on the US and SA.
The K3’s filters are amazing!
Here is an SDR shot of the CW section of 10 meters on Sunday. Compared to last year, this screen is empty. If you look to the right side of the image you will see a very strong CW signal. I thought it was going to wipe out the other two or three signals nearby. When I tuned into those signals, I could barely notice the strong station. It was there and I can hear it but it didn’t really affect the signal I was trying to listen to. This was very nice considering I don’t have a CW filter installed. I was using the 1.8Khz filter.
On SSB the filters got a workout as well. There were multiple loud Brazilian stations almost on top of each other. This is where the 1.8Khz filter really came in handy. I was able to hear each station even though some of the other stations were in the passband. Maybe it’s the kool-aid talking. Not sure.
Once the band died down to local traffic, I called it quits
Made a 132 contacts. With the multipliers, I ended up with 26,000 points. Nowhere near the 103,000 I made last year doing mostly SSB. You will see that almost half my contacts were CW.
It was fun but you can see the solar cycle taking it’s toll. I better start working on better antennas for 40, 80 and the 160m bands. A good kick in the butt to make 5 band DXCC as I already have 10, 15 and 20 locked down.
I’ll be honest and say that I laughed when I saw the Yaesu FT-817 for the first time when it was released in 2001. “You’re not going to make any contact with that! It’s small and only 5 watts! No one is going to hear you!” I recall saying a lot. I like to note that I was brand new to amateur radio and had no HF experience. I thought it was silly to “talk” around the world with the same amount of power that my handheld VHF puts out. Well… 12 years later and they are still being produced and sold. I’ve seen the error of my ways and accept that QRP (low power) contacts are very possible. Now that I’ve been involved with HF for about 4 years now, I can see how rewarding QRP contacts are. Now that I’m more involved with SOTA (summits on the air), doing a bunch of VHF SOTA activations and watching my peers on HF, I decided to purchase a portable HF rig.
I ended up going with the Elecraft KX3.
I could have went with the much cheaper FT-817 and other QRP Xceivers but the features and technology of the KX3 far surpass what the FT-817 had to offer. Well… at least in writing. I just wanted something NEW for a change. Even though the KX3 is expensive, I cheaped out as much as possible and got the kit version of the KX3 with no options or extra accessories.
Hopefully the postal carrier didn’t notice me peeking through the windows with the excited look on my face as he approached.
There are already dozens, if not hundreds of videos, blogs, forum posts of assembling the KX3. I am not going to go into detail here. However I would like to share some notes and tips if you were to get the kit. Most are common sense.
Spend time and make sure every nut, screw, standoff and part is in the kit! Use muffin tins or a tackle box to keep parts separate.
Do not be surprised if your missing something. They include an extra parts bag and hopefully it’s in there.
Read the assembly manual entirely before starting. Do not jump ahead!
It’s not a contest, take your time and confirm each step
Besides a screw driver and other basic hand tools. I strongly suggest in using tweezers or a “Jewelers Pickup Tool”
This tool helped me out as the tiny 2-56 screws were a wee bit hard to handle.
The only issues I had were installing the plastic battery holders (which is noted in the manual) and having to deal with missing 4-40 screws. luckily I had anodized screws in my personal extra screw bin. Overall the assembly went okay and it took about 2 hours. Is it worth the extra $100 for an assembled kit? All depends on how you value your time. Think of it costing $50/hr for assembly. Are you worth more than that?
After turning it on, one of the first things I did was to compare the receivers of the KX3 to my FT-950 using a switch and the G5RV antenna. Since I don’t have any type of equipment that will give accurate readings, I am basing my findings from what I’ve seen and heard. On SSB, it seemed to receive similar with the DSP turned on in the 950 (No DNR). It has similar S-Unit readings. However the KX3 felt like it dealt with adjacent signals better than the 950. On CW, it seemed the KX3 was better at receiving.
Should Have Purchased Options
Like usual, I was being cheap and purchased the KX3 as a kit without any options. For some people that would work just fine. If you have a spare microphone and resonate antennas at the frequencies you want then you might not have a need for options like the ATU (Automatic Antenna Tuner) or microphone. But here I am with no microphones and no resonate antennas. I could have purchased an Emtech ZM2 or Hendricks SOTA tuner and a used microphone online that would have done just fine, but I didn’t want to lug around more equipment and didn’t want to modify the microphone. I ended up purchasing the ATU and Microphone from elecraft a short time later.
Issues with the KX3
I’ve held off writing this article for a long time because I had issues with my KX3. After assembly and before installing the ATU, I was hot to trot. I went on the air, started sending out CW to see what skimmers (bots) were picking up my signal. I couldn’t transmit at full power. Even with the KX3 powered using an External 5amp supply, I could not get past 7W. When using batteries, I saw 3watts max. Putting blame on my antenna at first I didn’t think much of it. At this point I decided it was best to order the ATU as I would end up using compromised antennas like an end fed or random wire where needing a “tuner” (match) would be important. When I received and installed the ATU, I noticed that I couldn’t tune correctly and it was still folding back power. After taking it out on it’s first SOTA activation, I knew something was wrong.
Dealing with Elecraft
I knew it had to be fixed. The first stop was the Elecraft KX3 Yahoo Group to see if anyone else had similar issue. None were found so after following the advice on Elecraft’s website, as requested, I contacted them VIA e-mail.
I’ve heard that Elecraft support was AMAZING!! However I felt the opposite. Just to get a reply from Elecraft took me well over a week. I ended up finding e-mail addresses to some of the staff/support members for Elecraft and after contacting them, my issue was finally looked at. It felt like I had to be pushy and demanding to get stuff done which is not a part of who I am so it was uncomfortable. However I just spent a lot of money, for some it may be nothing but it was a lot of saving on my part so I felt cheated a bit even though Elecraft did absolutely nothing wrong.
Once the RMA process started, it was fast and easy. Elecraft sent me a confirmation once the item was received but I didn’t hear anything else until the day it was shipping out almost a week later. Since I’ve never dealt with returning a radio before, I felt that I had no idea what was going on or even if the radio has been touched by service. When Elecraft got back to me, it was shown that the PA Driver chips were replaced. I wished for a little more detail into what could possibly caused the replacement as to avoid it from happening again.
Months later and with very LITTLE use, the plastic knobs started to crack. After contacting Elecraft, they moved quick and got the replacements I need. Even though it appears this was a common issue, I was a little more impressed with their service this time around.
Amplifier over 2M module
When the KX3 first rolled out, a 2M module was incorporated into the design but wasn’t available. Due to the fact that I enjoy doing SOTA on VHF, I was excited that there was going to be a 2M option at some point. That means less equipment that I’d have to carry and something better than the Chinese radios that I’ve been using. However I was very disappointed when they decided to design an amplifier for a radio that was designed to be a QRP portable rig. I get why they did it. Not many people really care about QRP SSB on 2m or 2M in general when it comes to portable operations. They would rather have something that would allow for 100W while mobile or at the home while taking advantage of a really good receiver. It turns the KX3 into a dual purpose rig. I would have rather seen the 2M module first.
Even though at times, it may seem I’m very critical of Elecraft, It’s because I want them to succeed. They make good products, they’re very interactive with the community and they’re based in the United States. I just want them to improve so they can be on the same production level as the “Big Three”. I honestly think it’s possible.
Using the KX3 on top of Mt. Tom, Holyoke MA
When I decided to purchase the KX3, I thought I would be taking up adventures like climbing mountains, hiking, going to parks and testing the limits of QRP. It didn’t really happen. Those times I got to get out and played radio, the KX3 performed very well. The very low current draw allowed me to use full power (approx 10W) using a Hobby battery (Turnigy 2200mAh 3S 20C Li-Po 11.1v) that lasted for at least an hour before turning back the wattage (to 5W) when the battery voltage dipped below the 11vdc threshold (time will vary depending on duty, temp and mode). The radio is easy to pack and deploy. If there are trees tall enough in the area, I can hang a dipole and get on the air within 10-15 minutes.
Even though there are cheaper alternatives, I think I’ve made a wise choice. If I ever decide to go portable, It’s there and ready to go and it just works.
SOTA Pack consisting of KX3, G5RV Jr and End Fed
I would recommend this radio to others under certain circumstances. If you’re just getting into the hobby, I wouldn’t suggest it unless you have the money for radio and amplifier or you live in a restricted area where a base antenna setup is just not possible and would have to go portable/mobile. QRP is a rewarding challenge but frustration will set in when your in a pile up with a 5W signal and a compromised antenna.
Hopefully the 2M module doesn’t cost as much as the K3’s module.
When I first saw the FLEX3000 in action while I was at W1AW, I was suddenly interested in Software Defined Radio (SDR) and didn’t really have much idea about it. After playing around with it, I was amazed that you can see 96Khz of bandwidth. That means I can potentially see up to at least 24 SSB QSOs all at the same time. After leaving W1AW, I wanted to buy a flex but the problem is that I just spent a lot of money not to long ago on my FT-950. So I put the FLEX radio in the bin of dreams with the rest of the toys I wanted. When I was looking up the FT-950, I notice the DMU-2000 which provides a “Band Scope” which is like SDR. However the $1000 price tag and multiple negative reviews made that decision quick to make. Now I’m certain that I wouldn’t be using SDR.
Then one day I was looking around Youtube and saw a video of someone tuning around a FT-950 with SDR. I got excited thinking that I can finally have a SDR. After doing some more reasearch, I found that there is a company that makes a board that installs where the DMU-2000 would be installed at and it will provide an IF out signal. For $200 I was thinking that it would be well worth the money. What I didn’t know is that I still need another piece of hardware that takes the IF Signal from the radio converts it and sends it to the computer for processing. The same company (RFSpace) sells that hardware (SDR-IQ) for $524.00…. WOWZAS!!! It has great reviews and nothing but praise but it’s too rich for my wallet. That’s $724 to look at signals on a screen (it does more than that, I’ll explain later). The DMU-2000 is starting to look promising again.
There must be a cheaper way. I have to live up to one of the stereotypes of an amateur radio operator and find a cheaper way. Well… There is… Sort of. I already know that In order for me to play with SDR and my FT-950, I would have to buy the RF-Space IF-2000 card. But there was no way in hell that I am going to get the SDR-IQ. So I went ahead and purchased the IF-2000 as it’s a must. The next best thing that kept coming up was the LP-Pan. For $225 (Now $250) I thought wow, I can do the same thing for half the cost. YES!!! Then I kept reading… You should always keep reading! I found that in order to get full use of the LP-Pan, I would have to purchase a Sound Card. Not just any ol’ sound card but one that has 192KHz of bandwidth on the input. Those can get expensive so now you have to tack on another $100 and more cables to run back and fourth. Unless you already have a 192kHz card, you can get away with the one built into your computer. However you’ll only get 96 or most likey 48kHz of bandwidth.
CHEAPER!!! CHEAPER!!! CHEAPER!!!
If I were to get the LP-PAN, I would get the costs down from $724 to $550. I’m also sacrificing features as the price goes down. Is there anything out there that is cheaper? Is there? Yes there is and it’s called SoftRock. You can purchase the Softrock Lite II (For 30M, Just tell him what you’re doing and ask for the correct crystal) for around $20. There are many SDR receiver options out there now. As long as it can receive a 10.55MHz signal then it can be used with the IF-2000 card. I ended up using a Softrock Ensemble II as I had one at the shack. With my computers built in sound card, softrock rcvr and IF-2000 board, I was able to add SDR to my FT-950 for around $220. THAT’S CHEAP!… Well is it? It’s cheap but you get what you pay for. Most of the money is spent just getting the IF signal out of the FT-950. You can use the softrock indepently. Since I didn’t invest in a decent sound card, I am stuck only receiving 48kHz of bandwidth. That means if the radio is on 14.160MHz, I can see anything going on from 14.112Mhz thru 14.208Mhz. If you were to get the proper sound card, you would be able to see from 13.968Mhz thru 14.352MHz which is the entire 20M US amateur band.
For the FT-950, the IF-2000 is a must. At this point in time, there are no other mass produced boards that can hook into the FT-950 (or FT-2000) that will give you an IF out. Here is the installation of the IF-2000 into the FT-950
IF-2000 In box form…. Whoopie dooo. Well, it’s not just going to sit there
Insides of the box. Doesn’t look like much for $200. But at least you get a serial cable to hook up the FT-950 to either the computer or SDR-IQ. This is if you didn’t hook up the radio to the computer for control (CAT)
To get at where you have to install the IF-2000 in the FT-950, remove all the many screws (except the feet) that hold on the bottom cover on. Once removed you will see this void with the taped wire. That is where the DMU would go. Bah! We’re putting the IF-2000 there instead.
Look at that pretty board installed. Not even 5 minutes of work.
Cable from the IF Out of the IF-2000 is hooked directly into the Softrock. You also can’t go wrong with the gold plated Radio Shack patch cable. Gold plated cables is what keeps Radio shack in business (Sense my sarcasm?) What you see is the USB cable that controls the Softrock, Audio cable that is hooked up the the Line input of the sound card, Power cable and the BNC cable from the IF-2000.
I am not going into detail about getting the SoftRock going as it’s a project by itself and not the point of this article. There are so many different SDR related software, it’s very hard to give you a how-to on each software. Please refer to other sites that provide help with getting the Softrock going.
Now that I have the Softrock hooked up to the computer and I have the IF-2000 hooked up to the softrock, time to have some fun!
I’m using SDR# as a panadapter. As you see (above image in green), I tuned the Softrock to 10.55Mhz which is tuned to the converted signal that the IF-2000 is putting out. So now if I spin the dial, I can see 24Khz of activity on each side of the center frequency which is giving me 48Khz of bandwidth (see above image in red). This is now just a basic panadapterY. If you have a decent sound card, you can display 96kHz or even 192kHz of bandwidth which is possibly all you need. The software (SDR#) doesn’t have rig control so it’s pretty difficult to link your transceiver to the software. Other software like SDR-RADIO, HDSDR, SpectraVue, Power SDR-IF and some others will allow you to link your rig and allow complete control so when you click around on the waterfall, the radio will be in sync for TX
As I mentioned before, you get what you pay for! Even though the softrock is a great and cheap way into SDR, it has it’s problems. If you look at the above picture, you will notice that in the center of the waterfall there is a big line (or sets of lines). The big line is the result of the SoftRock picking up groundloops. If you were to “Listen” to the hump you will get instant feedback which is very annoying. There are ways to combat this (using batteries instead of wall-warts amoung other things) to where it’s more manageable. Most operators offset the signal away from the DC offset.
I WANT MORE!
At this point all I have is a Panadapter that can see 48KHz. An extra $100 on a sound card would get me 96kHz or 192kHz which would be great. Just having the Panadapter capabilities allows me to find and tune into signals much faster. I can also find “Holes” in a packed band where I can setup shop and talk (or contest) much faster. I tried it in a contest and it made search and pouncing much more faster. It improved my Q rate by almost half. Well worth the money just having it as a panadapter. But depending on the software and your computer, you can do a lot more with SDR than just displaying signals. The software is now doing most of the filtering. You can adjust the filters really quickly to grab that SSB or CW signal. I am not saying in any way that the FT-950 w/ SDR is better than Flex-3000 or Flex-5000 but you now have similar features. A really good feature that I like compared to a Flex radio is that I still not dependent on having a computer hooked up to the radio. I can simply disconnect the IF out cable and will be able to still use my radio out in the field or during emergency power situations. I would lose SDR but I can still have a usable radio.
I am satisfied with that setup but I WANT MORE!
I hate having 48kHz of bandwidth and I hate having that DC Hump in the middle of the screen. I also want the software to control my rig and allow me to know exactly where that signal is. So I want more bandwidth. Well I could spend around $100 for a sound card to get 192kHz of bandwidth but I’m still stuck with the DC Hump in the middle of my screen. I could add toroids and use a battery pack to power the softrock which would dampen the DC hump. It would be okay if I were just using as a stand-alone receiver but when combining it with a radio, it makes it difficult to know what frequency your listening to than what is displayed on your VFO for TX.
That means I have to upgrade to a new SDR unit. As mentioned before, If it can tune to 10.55MHz then I can use it. I could get the LP-Pan or the SDR-IQ which was designed for my situation but that was a couple years ago. There are now other products out there that will give you similar or better results for a cheaper price and possibly while your reading this article, someone somewhere is making even something better. I ended up buying the AFEDRI SDR-NET.
Here it is! Awww so sweet. I lived up to the cheap ham stereotype and purchased the unit without a case to save $50. If you happen to buy one, I strongly suggest to buy it with the case. The case is made out of extruded aluminum and is well worth the the $50. Let me repeat, I strongly urge you to buy it with the case.
The AFEDRI SDR-Net costs around $250 (with the case). That is the same price as a LP-Pan. Why didn’t I just get the LP-Pan? Because the AFEDRI has much more to offer for the same price. With the AFEDRI, there is no need for a sound card which saves me an extra $100. It also samples at 1.2MHz!!! That means if I’m centered on 14.200MHz, I can see from 13.600Mhz to 14.800MHz!! I Can see activity on the entire 20M band and more! I can see almost 6X more bandwidth compared to the LP-Pan and SDR-IQ. The AFEDRI is compared to some of the more expensive SDR units and it can hold it’s ground.
Hooked up and ready to rock.
Getting the AFEDRI to run could be a little difficult. If it wasn’t for a fellow ham that owned one walking me through it, I would’ve had a hard time even though there are instructions sent over from the person selling these boards. To get full use (1.2Mhz bandwidth) you want to use the AFEDRI on your network (that is if you have one) or hooked directly to your LAN port on your computer. You can use USB but your limited to around 200KHz of bandwidth. That’s like buying a HF/VHF/UHF multimode base rig just to talk on a repeater. I have the AFEDRI hooked up to my switch/hub located in my office. When you first program the AFEDRI, you will need to also have it hooked up the USB on the computer. After it’s programmed and working (through the network), you can disconnect the USB. If you can make or get your hands on a 7.5V LINEAR power supply, that would work great on powering the AFEDRI (It does come with a DC plug). DO NOT FEED THE AFEDRI WITH 12V !!! I got lazy and had a bunch of cell phone chargers that had the Mini USB plug and 5V . I powered the AFEDRI through the USB port. It works but the problem is that it’s a switching power supply that creates noise. It is noticeable but not as bad as the softrock.
The AFEDRI is great but it does lack one thing… On board filtering. Due to the lack of filtering and being near (within 2mi) of 3 AM broadcast transmitters, The front end is overloaded when using the AFEDRI SDR-Net stand alone (without the FT-950)
YIKES! The Image above shows exactly what my problem is. What your seeing is 1.2Mhz of bandwidth showing the same 3 AM broadcast stations that are near my QTH. That almost makes the SDR useless unless I add filtering to get rid of the AM BCB signals. But when I hook it up to the FT-950, it shows something different.
Much Much Better… This is showing the 80/75m band even though the display says 10.56 (should be 10.55). At this point I am still using the software as a panadapter tuned the converted IF output frequency of the IF-2000 . I’m assuming it’s better because the signal is passing through the FT-950’s bandpass filters before the signal is sampled. I am assuming this because If I made adjustments to the Attenuator and pre-amp on the front of the rig, I can see instant changes on the screen. If you are going to use the AFEDRI by itself. Don’t be alarmed. You can purchase or even make your own high pass filters that will solve a lot of the issues.
You will also notice that I am sampling at 1.2MHz even though I am using the FT-950 w/ the IF-2000. The reason why I brought this up is that RF Space claims on their website that the IF-2000 adds a 190KHz of display. That was my biggest fear when I was purchasing the AFEDRI that when I hooked it up to the FT-950 and IF-2000, I was only going to get 190KHz of bandwidth due to any limitations on the IF-2000. When I hooked it up, I was glad to see that I am taking full advantage of the AFEDRI.
The only issue I have at this time is calibration. If you spin the dial to a known frequency and listen it to it on SDR, you will notice compared to your radio that the signal is off. This can be fixed partially by calibrating the AFEDRI using the supplied software. I am now within 1-3Hz of a signal on LSB. However when I switch it to USB, I am off by .500KHz. Depending on the software, you can make a different correction (offset) for each mode.
Now I have a pretty Panadapter that allows me to view the entire band for most of the HF bands. It makes it easier to see if the band is “alive” and it allows me to dial in a station faster but what if I could just “CLICK” on a signal and have my radio automatically tune the VFO to that frequency so I can talk?
The AFEDRI by itself is a receiver. You can hook up your antenna to it and away you go! But I have it hooked up to my transceiver which adds a whole new element to having an SDR rig. by having it as a panadapter, I can just spin the dial to the signal on the screen and talk. But what if the signal is 100Khz away? I would have to spin the dial pretty quick. Depending on your rig and SDR software being used, it’s possible just to click on a signal that you see on the screen and the radio will automatically put will put it’s VFO right on or near the frequency you want to talk on. During contesting, that would allow me just to click on signals instead of spining the knob during search and pounce.
The ability to “Click And Tune” all has to do with the software. The software has to have a CAT control option. I ended using a slightly older version SpectraVue because of it’s ease of use but I also successfully used HDSDR and SDR-RADIO to where both the FT-950 and AFEDRI work together in RX and TX.
Here is a video of the FT-950 and AFEDRI in action
I find that SpectaVue is the easiest to use but lacks features found in both HDSDR and SDR-RADIO.
LOOSING A COM PORT
I like to use software such as N1MM, HRD and DX Labs Suite for logging, contesting and working “Digital” stations. However I won’t be able to use my SDR software because the port is being used by the logging/CAT control software and vise versa. For me, logging software is just as important as having SDR in my book. Have no fear but yet another piece of software to use to “Emulate” the com port allowing multiple applications to share the same com port. One such software I has success with is “Virtual Serial Ports Emulator”. If you happen to use the same software. “Create a new device” as a “Splittler”. Choose the regular comport that was normally used with the FT-950 and then choose the “Virtual” port. You will have to reconfigure all the software to communicate with the “Virtual” port. Another tip is to make sure the settings in VSPE are the exact same as what is used in the other programs used with your rig.
SO FAR SO GOOD
I’ve been messing around with this setup for about a week now and I am impressed. SpectraVue doesn’t allow custom offsets per mode (just has one main offset) but I fixed that by using the “Shift” feature on the FT-950. There are a couple issues that I see but don’t annoy me enough to get rid of SDR and I am sure it’s going to improve as more people get into SDR. The biggest annoyance is that when I TX, the software doesn’t catch on for a bit and I can hear my TX audio for a second. There is also a slight delay (as expected) between hearing the signal on the radio and the computer. I am not sure how it’s going to fair in a contest but the worst case is that I’ll use the SDR as a controllable panadapter and use the audio from the radio instead of the SDR.
Now I have to make a case!
Thanks for reading,
Jeff – NT1K
IF-2000 from RF Space – Allows the FT-950 to become a whole different beast Softrock Lite – A simple means of SDR with the FT-950 and IF-2000 AFEDRI SDR-NET – My personal choice for SDR. Alex is a great guy and is very helpful SpectraVue – SDR software that I use. It’s also on RF Spaces website. I suggest getting a version previous to 3.25 if your using the AFEDRI. HDSDR – Another SDR software that I use. A modified version that works with the AFEDRI is included on a CD that comes with the AFEDRI. Virtual Serial Ports Emulator – Allows the FT-950 to be used with both logging/CAT control software and the SDR software at the same time
I am sure some of you have been hearing the letters RTL-SDR come up more often. At the time all I knew was what the SDR part meant (Software Defined Radio) and didn’t really care about the subject. After hearing more and more I decided to see what all the buzz was about.
The company Realtek (sounds familiar?) designed an IC chip called the RTL2832/RTL2832U (USB 2.0) that was originally used by electronics manufacturers that made DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcast – Terrestrial) receivers. These devices will display Digital TV signals from nearby TV stations (Remember the whole Digital TV upgrade that made older TV’s useless unless it has a converter) as well as digital FM radio onto your computer/laptop. The actual RTL chip demodulates the signal, cleans it up and processes the signal using a built in ADC (Analog to Digital Converter). All the software does is display the information that is coming out of the RTL and it will also control the frequency and filtering of the signal through a tuning chip on the board. It’s way more technical than that but I’m just giving you the basics.
Someone found out that RTL chip with the tuner could allow you do sample/listen to signals from 64Mhz up to 1678Mhz (Varies depending on the tuner) which is quite impressive. These chips could also decode many different modulations and you can view/sample megahertz at a time. All of this for around $20 USD and some software. With some other tricks you can decode APCO25 (P25) or other digtal and digital type signals with this dongle.
What does all this mean to me?
In short terms you have a Software Defined Receiver (SDR) that you can listen and actually SEE any signals from around 64Mhz to around 1678Mhz at around 2Mhz at a time.
For example you can listen/watch a good portion of the 2M (Let’s say from 146.000-148.000Mhz) band and see all the conversations going on in that 2Mhz span. Depending on the software you’re using, you can filter just what you want to hear while seeing what else is happening . If you’re listening to a repeater, you can view the station on the input as well as hear and see the same station on the output frequency on 2M. If you tried to get the same features in a police scanner, you could be spending at hundreds of dollars.
Is this too good to be true? What’s the catch? Is this a Scam?
It does seem to be too good to be true but it’s actually true. For around $20 USD, you can have a VHF/UHF SDR receiver. I have a feeling the price will go up as retailers are seeing a huge increase in sales of these “Cheap” devices. There are some catches however. It doesn’t have the best filtering so signals could get cross and mixed in. You’ll sometimes hear “Birdies” and there are times where the frequency displayed is not correct to the frequency you’re listening too (So far I’ve seen if off around 6khz). Another issue is with the dongle itself, depending on the manufacture the cases don’t have really any shielding and the antenna connection and the supplied antenna is basically crap. At the time of writing this, there are a couple companies seeing the demand for these RTLSDR’s and are making units with the correct case and antenna connection. But for the issues it has and for the price they are being sold at the moment, it’s well worth having. It’s almost comparable to purchasing a FunCube dongle for around $190 that is similar even though I think the FunCube is better and helps support AMSAT.
Ok ok ok… You’ve sold me. How do I get one these $20 dongles?
This should be the only battle you have to do. Securing the Proper Dongle at the correct price. There are many manufactures of dongles that do almost the same things. You want to find a dongle with the correct RTL chip and the correct tuner chip. The Cat’s meow of Chipsets are the RTL2832U and the Elonics E4000 (AKA E4K) tuner chip. Why? I have no clue. Some dongles have this configuration and some use other Tuners like the Fitipower FC0013 and FC0012 that work also. Some of the differences are the Bandsplit of what frequencies the tuner chip can tune.
At the time of writing this, If you can get your hands on a EzCap EzTv668 (or EzTv666) with the RTL2832U and E4000 tuner then you are golden. However the company that designed and manufactured the E4000 is no longer in business and the company is now being liquidated. This means at this point in time the E4K is no longer being produced. Most companies are switching over to the FITIPOWER FC0013. So you want to make sure that you are getting a unit with the E4K. There are some ebay sellers that are claiming to ship dongles with the E4K but they are really the FC0013.
If you happen to get stuck with one, don’t worry. It will still work.
Here is a Ebay “EzCap EzTV668” screen shot of one I actually purchased on Ebay.
(Click to enlarge)
I purchased this from a seller on Ebay as well as one from Deal Extreme (DealExtreme.Com). The reason I purchased it from Ebay is the one I ordered from DealExtreme was taking way too long and when I contacted their customer service, I was told they were out of stock and could take almost another month for it to come in.
If you notice the Ebay Auction says RTL2832U and E4000 tuner… Well… This is what I got!
It’s a EzTv645 and it has the Fitipower FC0013. This dongle is NOTHING like the advertised dongle on Ebay.
I could have complained and returned it but as you can tell, I hacked it up already. I just wanted to warn you that you might not get what is advertised on Ebay.
I added a Pigtail with a PL-259 which voided any warranty (if any) it had. I wasn’t going to waste time with trying to return someone that was sold over ebay and shipped from china.
When soldering on the coax to the board. I messed up and used a powerful (too powerful) soldering iron without any grounding or ESD protection.
Here is a Video of the dongle with the FC0013 in action
You’ll see some of the signals being mixed and some other horrible stuff.
I am not sure if this is how it is normally is or damage done from my soldering job.
Also for some reason the video lost sync with the audio.
The dongle still works but it’s in the hands of my co-worker who would really have fun with this.
The very next day after screwing up the Ebay EzTV645 purchase, My order from DealExtreme showed up
After reading posts on Reddit of people saying their recent DealExtreme orders have the FC0013 tuner got me a little bit worried. I opened the dongle and is happy to see this
This is what you’re looking for. It’s the advertised 668 with the Elonics E4000 Chip (Little square chip to the right of the Antenna Jack) and the RTL2832U (Under the IR Sensor).
I dared not to touch this one with a soldering iron. For now I went to Radio Shack and got a couple connectors (PAL to BNC). I would suggest going on ebay and getting the correct adapters or if you have a really good soldering station, solder in a SMA pigtail and/or connector.
Here is a video of the new dongle
It looks and sounds much better than the one I purchased from Ebay. But I can’t tell you for sure since I hacked up the Ebay one before I can make a comparison between the two.
The hardware finally came in… What now?
You now have to obtain software to display the information from the dongle. At this point while writing the article, the best choice for RTLSDR software is SDR# (SDR Sharp). There are others out there depending on the operating system you are running. I’ve chosen SDR# because it’s really easy to setup and use (compared to some of the others) and it works on some other SDR hardware I have. Plus IMO it’s best choice for beginners like myself. If you do end up using SDR#, make sure to download the DEVELOPMENT (DEV) Version as well has ZADIG which will replace the driver that was automatically installed (or attemped) when you plugged in the dongle with the one that is needed to run in SDR#
That’s It!! It should be working. Tune around and have fun. If you’re using the antenna that came with the dongle, good luck! You will not pick up much with the stock antenna. I ended up cutting the plug off the antenna and soldering it to some RG-58 as to not mess up the board. You can also find adapters online and possibly at Radio Shack. The plug looks like an RCA but it’s really a “Belling Lee” (IEC 169-2) connector or PAL connector.
Here are some RTLSDR websites that were helped me out and are resources for this article.