To SDR or To Not SDR? Is That Really Even a Question? 8 - February - 2010Posted by k9zw in Amateur Radio, K9ZW, K9ZW Just Rambled.
Tags: K9ZW, K9ZW Just Rambled, SDR, Software Define Radio
Debate about SDR (Software Defined Radio), like the Flex-Radio, Genesis Radio, SoftRock and the many other SDR offerings has been in our hobby magazines, nets and blogs.
Many of the arguments go on in length to explain why this or that author is not adopting SDR and why they are staying/clinging/satisfied with some various past generation of radios – whether their prized Collins Gold Dust Twins, their 1990’s Contest worn FT-1000 (but only after and only before certain factory mods), or even new IC-7800 class rig – and many go to explain that SDR isn’t what amateur radio is about in their estimation.
Discussions fall into at least a couple groups:
- “Real Radios” have knobs (guess the TenTec Pegasus, the Kachina and the computer only Kenwood TS-B2000 weren’t real, despite having been around for years….).
- It has to live in just one box to be a “Real Radio” (How does the Yaesu FT-2000 type system, with the DMU and external DX Tuning Coils fit as a “real radio” much less the TX/RX/VFO/Exciter stations of years gone?)
- Computer, Computer – a real radio don’t need no stinkin’ computer! (not understanding that embedded processors are also computers?).
Ever since the spark & crystal gave way to tubes, then to transistors, then to IC Chips, there has been those who argue that the next wave of technology was somehow “Bad” or somehow “less good” than the “old way.”
It is easy to dismiss these opinions as the incantations of technological Luddites, but they hold some truth – that usually with each step forward we do loose something. There is a trade-off in innovation that does have a cost.
Often though what is seen as technological innovation is really nothing more than our being exposed and allowed to “touch” components that have been part of our radios for years, and secondly bringing expensive established technology to the hobbyist affordable price point.
Even though they have knobs, many modern transceivers are largely software driven, and some do signal processing partially using the same technologies that SDR offers. It is just that their “computer(s)” live inside the box with knobs.
Reading current transceiver ads you’ll notice a focus on what main processor a particular brand’s “box” has, and how many DSP IC Chips it uses. Advertising responds to the market’s perception that the imbedded computers have become important marketing material.
Didn’t we go from factory-upgradable firmware, to user replaceable PROMs, then to EPROMs we could use a special connection & process to update, then to Flash Updates, on to the SD-card personality Updating, and now system updating by built in internet ability?
Who would have thought when we were building the wonderful radios we now call “boat anchors” that tomorrow’s radios would share audio & RF input/output connection types, but otherwise little else?
The IP Address many new fully with-knob rigs would have you configure so they can exist on your network, wasn’t even being talked about as fantasy just a couple product cycles back!
SDR is here to stay.
The real question is not whether to SDR or Not SDR, but rather a series of questions about architecture and man/machine interface.
While the Panadapter band view of many SDRs is a huge tool, it has existed in some form for decades. The very advanced SDR processing again is accessible to regular hams, but also has existed in other forms for those able to put together a serious station.
Current SDR has brought these sorts of features to a technological access point and economic cost/benefit point where any Radio Amateur could implement the technology in their shack.
Of course no one needs to adopt the latest technology the instant it appears on the horizon. To be realistic the current SDR user group has expanded to include “regular hams” who are implementing rather than experimenting.
Isn’t that what most of us do anyway? We pick and choose various station components, many of them “black boxes” we will never open up, modify or develop any further than flashing someone else’s updated software/firmware into, and assemble the pieces into a station.
Even in the “old days” we sourced parts – tubes, transformers and whatnot – to build usually following fairly well established circuit designs.
In each case we follow paths well worn, with books, best practice manuals (and now the internet) to guide us, and basically do little more than acquire a taste of knowledge while building what amounts to “adult Lego building” in assembling a station.
It is the uncommon radio amateur who knows the block diagram of his knobs & buttons transceiver, much less the detailed circuit layout – IF the manufacturer even provides a copy.
It will become that way for SDR too, through time. Those hobbyists less interested in “how it works” than they are in “just make it work for me” will be served by the marketplace with non-technically demanding SDR offerings. Even now the present level of SDR offerings include all-in-one-box SDR with on-board computer rigs like the Flex-Radio 5000C, which basically becomes a high end radio sans-physical controls.
At the other end you can build modules and assemble your own SDR from offerings from TAPR, Genesis Radio and others. You can roll-your-own software, again using modules or starting from your own source code.
In many ways the current state of SDR amateur radio is embracing experimentation, individual development and the intense learning that characterized the very essence of the nostalgic memories of some anti-SDR sentiments.
A pragmatic development, there is an interesting development in the SDR world addressing the no-knobs machine/interface debate, with the offering of several tuning-pod and faux-frontplate knob & switch offerings.
These offerings, just like the current all-in-one-box mainstream transceivers, use rotary digital or optical encoders to tune, and translate your knob movement into digital commands.
The same technology, but somehow different? Seems more ironic the clinging to the past when you realize the past is the same (albeit more expensive) as this (affordable) SDR future.