To SDR or To Not SDR? Is That Really Even a Question?

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.



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8 thoughts on “To SDR or To Not SDR? Is That Really Even a Question?

  1. Ryan ki4rex says:

    Steve, thanks for the well thought out and worded blog posting. It hit on the same points that I have tried to make on some OTA discussions on the topics.

  2. Paul Coats - AE5JU says:

    My problem with SDR is not the radio, but the rapidly accelerating changes in our computers. We still have gear coming out with Serial Ports that no longer exist on many computers. USB is on its last legs, it seems. I had trouble attempting to operate a 3 year old HP printer with an HP laptop with Vista. And the Lexmark printers we use at work, it was more than 6 months before we got Vista drivers for them. My fear would be to have perfectly good hardware that I could not use just a few years down the road due to changes in computer operating systems and interconnectability. What if the radio manufacturer no longer supports the radio with software updates? Well, those are just a few of my questions about SDR.

  3. Ed N4EMG says:

    Very nice read, you address some very good points, many of the same ones that I’ve run across myself when reading through posts and comments. I do believe that there will continue to be some resistance from hams who have either been reluctant to adopt computers or remain steadfastly “old school”. While I’ve never seen an SDR in action firsthand, I have been extremely intrigued by what I’ve read and the videos posted online by users. I’m not sure how many hams still work on their radios, certainly some have the skill set to work on even modern radios, but I believe that number to be dwindling. Some probably present that argument (I’d like to be able to work on my radio) but never actually tackle a minor repair. How many of us are able to work on our cars nowadays?

    Paul does bring up a good point, one that I’ve found to be a subject amongst SDR fans, finding compatible hardware, such as USB dongles and firewire ports that function reliably. Of course, it would be a mistake to blame the SDR manufacturers for that problem, but it is something that remains to be addressed.

    Thank you for a nice post.

  4. k9zw says:

    Very good points gentlemen. Rather than post thoughts as comments, later this week I’ll post a follow up Blog Post on the pros/cons of SDR adoption.



  5. I would heartily recommend to ALL SDR fans to only buy SDR equipment that has Open Source software. That will somewhat insure the availability of software for your SDR rig as long as there are hams who can program. And I only see the number of hams who can program INCREASING in the future – not decreasing.

    Luckily, most (if not all) ham SDR equipment I’ve seen has open source code software. Anyone can get the code and tinker with it themselves OR find a programmer who is willing to work on it for them.

    The only downside is that if you get a SDR rig that only a few hundred hams bought it might be difficult to find a programmer who is willing to spend the time and effort to benefit a relatively small number or hams.

  6. Ken N9VV says:

    On that horrible day 9/11/2001 Firefighters in one stairwell could not communicate with the proprietary systems used by First Responders in another stairwell. The FCC responded to the need for communications reform and so did the U.S. Military. The FCC mandated Software Defined Radios for next generation Government designs, as did the Military “Joint Tactical Radio System” (JTRS).

    Commercial entities have had SDR equipment for sale since 2002 and there are millions of cell phones in daily use that have SDR at their heart. Gerald Youngblood (President Flex-Radio Systems) wrote his QEX articles beginning in 1999. Dan Tayloe N7VE patented the Tayloe Detector with Motorola in 1997 and there are references to the “Weaver” or “Phasing” method back in 1958.

    The most interesting software is no longer the SDR itself, but the “Cognitive Radio” software for auto recognition of all forms of modulation. And of course the covert use by various agencies for surveillance of all frequencies all the time. The 1950 Analog designs that are being sold by YaeComWoodTec appeal to a very small and uninformed audience.

    You can still build a Linear Amplifier if you have a large enough set of metal working tools. But SDR requires a new generation of sophisticated talent and engineering who’s tools are computers, compilers, I2C buses, ADC/DAC, and FPGA chips.

    As Steve noted in this thought provoking Blog post, there are SDR projects (kits) being produced throughout the world. For example, there is the venerable Softrock from Tony KB8YIG in Muncie, Indiana, Genesis in Australia, OpenHPSDR in the UK, Germany, Australia, Singapore, and the USA.

    Jump on board and if you are life-time learner sign up for a C++/Qt or Java class at the local Community College.

    Go here and check out the long list of SDR projects. Perhaps one of them will light a fire under you and catch your interest:

    thank you Steve for this opportunity to express my opinion,
    73 de Ken N9VV

  7. […] 16, 2010 zl2cco Leave a comment Go to comments I enjoyed reading K9ZW’s blog post on  To SDR or To Not SDR? Is That Really Even a Question? and the accompanying comments.  My view is that SDR is here to stay and I personally enjoy the […]

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