Re-Thinking Software-Defined Radio

After blowing two evenings trying to get SDR working, I’m beginning to think I was correct in basically writing the technology off as not worth the trouble some years ago. I fight with computers in my day job. I don’t want to do it as a hobby.

First, I use Macs. If you use a Mac, you’re really left out. The vast majority of SDR software supports Windows and Windows only. The few exceptions tend to run on Linux and not Macs.

Sure, I could boot Linux on my Mac, but it’s Linux. That means it was written by hard-core geeks for hard-core geeks, so documentation is incomplete (if available at all). To prove my point, I tried to create a bootable Linux flash drive last night, following all the instructions meticulously. It didn’t work; it failed to even appear as a boot device when the system came up. That means there’s probably some missing step in the by-geeks, for-geeks instructions that was left out because it’s transparently obvious… obvious to a hard-core Linux geek that is. Figuring out the answer to that puzzle could easily involve me blowing my free time on it for the next several weeks. No thanks. I want to geek around with radio, not Linux systems administrivia.

The few exceptions, i.e. SDR programs that run on the Mac natively, tend to involve Mac Ports. Which is (link) currently broken. Sigh.

That leaves running Windows, which probably means buying and setting up a whole new computer. If it comes to that, there goes any cost advantage of SDR; even a sub-$10 dongle like the one working its way to me from Singapore will have a total cost about twice that of the Alinco receiver I just purchased. It actually might come to ruunning Windows… eventually. Right now, there’s higher priorities for spending that sort of cash.

Alinco DJ-X11 First Impressions

Why buy yet another radio? Two reasons:

  1. I’m currently trying to do noise mitigation in the HF bands, and that means walking around the neighborhood with a radio. While I can use one of my existing sets for this purpose, they tend to be very awkward, as they are all desktop models.
  2. I’m also interested in helping friends whose homes might be bugged (seriously; they’re known as activists, and the government has a nasty record of surveillance on such individuals) do some searching for bugs. It’s yet another something for which a small, battery-powered radio is a useful tool.

So I wanted a small, battery-powered wideband receiver that could tune as many frequencies as possible in as many modulation modes as possible. The latter is an important point; most of the wideband receivers out there (such as the Icom R6) can’t receive SSB or CW at all, which is a major limitation on the shortwave bands.

First impressions:

  1. It doesn’t feel super solid and professional, like I’d imagine the Icom R20 (discontinued) or the AOR 8200 (no raw I/Q output) to feel. It doesn’t feel super-fragile either; its plastic case does feel quite rugged and right. But there’s very little metal in the thing; it’s surprisingly lightweight.
  2. It’s very complex, and the manual isn’t the best in explaining the complexity. It can take some searching and experimentation to figure out how to do something.
  3. It won’t put my desktop HF receivers out of work; it’s significantly less sensitive than them, not so easy to use, and tuning SSB signals is somewhat painful.
  4. Notwithstanding the above, it does actually work acceptably on MF (aka AM broadcast) HF, VHF, and UHF signals. Given its small size and wide coverage range, its performance is quite remarkable.
  5. Forget about using the rubber duck antenna it was shipped with for HF; get an SMA-mount whip (thankfully I already have one).
  6. It comes with a rechargable lithium-ion battery and a drop-in charger. The latter was a pleasant surprise; I much prefer drop-in chargers to plug-in ones, and I was expecting the latter, given the price.

This is the USA, so mine is the crippled DX-X11T model with the stupid government-mandated gaps in the 800 MHz band (fuck you very much, Congress). I seriously entertained the idea of taking a trip to Canada and smuggling a non-crippled one across the border, but:

  1. That involves blowing most of a weekend.
  2. There’s always the (slight) risk of my purchase getting confiscated on the way back.
  3. I already have a desktop receiver capable of tuning such frequencies (completely legally; I bought it before the law became effective so it’s grandfathered).
  4. I also have an RTL2832 dongle on order which, together with a free software program, will be a software-defined radio that goes from about 24 to 1700 MHz with no such gaps.
  5. If I do find a bug, I’d rather do so with a 100% legal receiving device, to minimize the very real risk of governmental retribution should I be open to it by possessing contraband.


The Smart Phone Era Will End… Eventually

Why? Several reasons.

Just because something can be done does not mean it should be done. This reason is currently lying dormant, as ours is a technology-fetishizing society and we’re still in the stage of being wowed and dazzled by how smart phones are even possible.

Just because something can be done does not mean it is therefore fashionable and popular. Another one that is currently lying dormant due to technology fetishism, and probably a much more relevant one than the above. Eventually, the fashionable will decide not to carry smart phones. People like movie stars and politicians in high office don’t need them; they have assistants to handle such duties. Jettisoning the phone will be a fashion statement that they are powerful and affluent enough to have such assistants.

This will be much like having a suntan went from being a sign of a common farmer to being a sign of someone privileged enough to have lots of leisure time outside of factories and offices. Even if those without personal assistants still have to carry a phone with them, they will opt for phones that are as small and inobtrusive as possible.

When will this happen? Who knows. It could take another ten or twenty years. I don’t think it will take significantly longer than twenty. That’s a generation, which is long enough for a new generation to see smart phones and obsession over them as yet another dorky adult thing. At that point, the way will be paved for the newest, most fashionable entertainment figures to establish not carrying much personal technology as a fashion statement.

Does my personal bias play any part in my forecasting this? Almost certainly. Yet while I personally want the smart phone era to end, that doesn’t change how the above factors all exist and lie waiting ready to manifest themselves. And personally, I’d want the new trend to happen faster than ten or twenty years, yet I’m not forecasting it will begin soon. So it can’t be written off as purely personal bias.