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!

Arctic DXpedition

Over the weekend sunspot 1112 erupted and produced a strong solar flare. Now according to space weather sites there’s a 25-35% chance of high latitude auroras on 19-20 October.

And right now a group of four Norwegian friends are enjoying their annual DXpedition to Kongsfjord – well and truly in the high latitudes – at 70°43′N 29°21′E at the top of Norway.

Kongsfjord, Norway - a nice place to set up your 500 metre Beverage antenna
Kongsfjord, Norway – a nice place to set up your 500 metre long Beverage antenna

Four of the main participants are Arnstein Bue, from Trondheim, Bjarne Mjelde (host), from Berlevåg, Odd-Jørgen Sagdahl, from Trondheim and Tore Johnny Bråtveit, from Trondheim. As you’ll see if you visit their pages these men are serious medium wave and short wave DXers, with impressive equipment racks and listening achievements to match.

Arnstein Bue’s blog DX Paradise gives a sense of some of the QSL trophies. DXpedition host, Bjarne Mjelde’s blog Arctic DX has an entry logging their first day last Friday anticipating the weather awaiting them:

“+2 Celsius, 15-20 m/s (35-45 mph) northerly winds, rain and sleet showers…”

As I write this it’s early afternoon there and according to their website it’s warmed up to +4 Celsius!

They also appear to operate remotely from this spot. Their antennas include a new 500 metre long Beverage aimed at the North Island of New Zealand which is clearly working very well. Two shorter Beverages (225m & 330m) and a Quad Delta Flag Array complete this dream DXing antenna farm.

And if you visit the website you’ll see ample evidence that they clearly know how to enjoy themselves at the dining table as well. Local King crabs are accompanied by the finest New Zealand wines. Their dining notes are as tempting as their DX!

Main course was pork sirloin marinated in garlic and chili, served with tagliatelle, basil, leeks and cherry tomatoes. With the pork we tried Kim Crawford’s Pinot Noir. Maybe a bit light for the quite tasty meat, but absolutely a super wine!

For dessert we had local blueberries with grappa – another Kongsfjord signature dish! And now we are off to listen to more recordings and prepare for another – hopefully eventful night. The solar indexes are going down and the K-index for Tromsø is now 0, and we hope that it will remain like this!

The main website is also the repository of a number of documents on DXing issues by Dallas Lankford. There are also data sheets for a large number of receivers (including AOR, Racal, Rohde & Schwarz, R L Drake Company, Siemens, Harris, TenTec, Icom etc) and information about antennas. Bjarne Mjelde has distilled his experience into a definitive article about the best antenna wire. The conclusion? A thumbs up for galvanised steel and aluminium. A number of his reviews are also aggregated on the site, including reviews of the IC-703 and the Perseus SDR.

Their sites demonstrate how much a part SDR plays in modern DXing and monitoring. There are some huge SDR recordings and mp3 files available as well. Retrospective analysis of these files enables them to find rare stations as well as – presumably – traditional live listening.

It’s been a delight checking in on their site each day to catch up with the activities of such a convivial group of friends. Truly inspiring to this reader on the other side of the globe.

And they’re racing!

Interesting thread on the softrock40 email list about how easy it is these days to get a good sense of how well your station and the ionosphere are performing in an almost ‘hands-free’ way.

Increasingly modes like WSPR and tools like SDR have enabled us to let the radio do its thing and in a short amount of time access detailed logs of our successes – where we were heard. The softrock40ers were using this approach to compare their SDR rigs performance to other sets.

Rob KL7NA joined in the conversation. He pointed to his recent paper on what he calls ‘Robotic radio‘ that he presented to the DCC meeting in Vancouver WA recently.

Your radio is doing what the operator used to do automatically, and as you have been finding out, it is really fun to horse race different software demodulators, receivers and antennas, and radio locations this way.  I am trying to promote it as a way for our youth to get into amateur radio.  They seem to be very enamored by robotics.

Rob’s paper is full of interesting ideas and he lists the building blocks of Robotic radio… hardware, software and networks. He introduces his open source project CW Robot which is still in alpha and explains the thinking behind it.

This looks like a very rewarding place to play and discover – and there’s already a road map.

LCWO on iPad & iPhone

Great news for owners of Apple portable devices who want to access Fabian Kurz DJ1YFK’s brilliant site on the move. LCWO stands for “Learning CW Online”. If you don’t know the site and you want to learn morse code or improve your code skills, this is one of the best destinations available – and it’s totally free.

LCWO - Learn CW Online
LCWO – Learn CW Online

Since May Fabian has been working on alternative ways to deliver the material, using HTML5 as an alternative to Flash.

As of Tuesday this week, Fabian has enabled the HTML5 player option to work with Apple Safari so it can handle mp3 files. And now at last iPhone and iPad owners can use the site as it was intended. Now I have no excuse for not getting my CW into shape.

Another cause for celebration is that today the site welcomed its 20,000th visitor. As Fabian says on the site “The reports of CW’s death are greatly exaggerated.”