SDR needs more UX

Spotted a very interesting post from Tobias, DH1TW on his blog ‘Contesting & SDR‘ titled Does SDR really suck?. He wonders out loud if the performance, flexibility and cost of SDR is so excellent, why hasn’t it taken off? What possible barriers might there still be to it assuming a place matching its promise and achievement?

He identifies the missing link as adequate user interface. He mounts a case arguing for a similar level of investigation and development on the user experience front to match the investment and experimentation on RF and signal processing.

And he acknowledges that there may be more than one user interface solution. Contesting and HFPack have different UX demands as other experts understand. Look at Elecraft‘s K3 and KX1, or the Steve Weber, KD1JV designs, especially the ATS series. And now Tobias argues, SDR gives us the opportunity to re-think user interface design from the ground up.

Who says that the radio controls must be on the front of a black box and located perpendicular to your shacks desk? SDR allows us for the first time to completely redefine and optimize the radios User Interface! Are you serious into contesting? If so, you want to pay special attention to ergonomics. Why not having the control console directly next to your keyboard? Or do you prefer portable, backpack operations? Then your focus will lie on the limited physical dimensions. N2ABPs SDR-Cube is a nice example on this.

A very timely – and well illustrated – read.

Heathkit Genesis

Last week at the Waverley Amateur Radio Society monthly meeting there was a fascinating and well-prepared talk from Justin Lavery VK2CU on the history of the Heathkit company.

The scene at the front of the clubroom was not unlike this great shot from the website of Fred W1SKU.

Heathkit equipment on display at W1SKU
Heathkit equipment on display at W1SKU

Only there were more pieces of equipment on display! Justin’s clearly been collecting for a while, specialising in valve gear and the SB series. He had a stash of catalogues dating back to the early 1960s which evoked memories for many of us there old enough for Heathkit – even on the other side of the Pacific Ocean – to have been a radio icon.

Justin filled in the deep history of the company, with its kit airplane beginnings through to its heyday when it actually made economic sense to build your own colour TV!

He also managed to evoke the history of the time – which is some achievement for someone who I don’t think was actually alive for most of it!

MAKE magazine beautifully evokes the times and the anticipation – those long painful delicious moments between posting the order and the kit arriving.

Heathkit times (MAKE Online)
Heathkit times (MAKE Online)

I was especially interested in observations about how the fortunes of the company were in synch with a strong tradition of making it yourself – which seems to be a core part of both the US and Australia. We both have frontier experiences still in our recent folk memory.

I wonder what Heathkit would make of the kit market today if they were still around. They certainly set a benchmark. And they certainly sold a lot of kits over the years.

So it was an interesting coincidence for me at least that on the same day as I’m thinking about Heathkit and how I used to long to own an HR-10 and a DX-60, I received my Genesis G59 Mk2 SDR transceiver kit.

The Genesis G59 is a very exciting sounding project. I believe I’ll have a pretty impressive SDR transceiver once it’s complete.

While GenesisRadio is more cottage industry in scale than Heath – who grew so much they opened a factory in the UK – the quality is there where it counts. Part of the decision to take the plunge was an estimation of the support both from Nick Hacko VK2DX and the online community of builders on the Yahoogroup.

One step in phase 1 building the G59 SDR kit
One step in phase 1 building the G59 SDR kit

The then and now comparison shows how much kit building has changed. Kits now can be delivered across the world in days. Speedy support from a global network of enthusiasts is available via email. Documentation is able to be kept up-to-date and builders alerted to important developments. And most amazing, of course, the firmware can easily be updated and improved.

The key to the success of all of this is the social glue of the builders online. That’s another reason not to delay the build and to glean maximum advantage of the communal energy available there.

The Genesis documentation is clear with excellent photos. Not the component by component style of Heathkit, but totally adequate.

So far I’ve completed phase 1 successfully (the power supply) and am in the middle of the second phase (the microcontroller circuit). I’m taking it slowly and really enjoying those moments at the end of the night when I can get to it. That lateness is the one reason I’m taking it slow. The other is – I really enjoy this part!