Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The SDR Chronicles (#2: First Light)

With the USB issue sorted out, it was time to get down and hack some serious radio with the slick Excalibur Pro.

People have said good and bad things about the user interface.  Personally, I love it.  I'd actually downloaded and run the Perseus and WinRadio software test versions as part of my agonized decision making.  I found the WinRadio software to be more usable on my graphics production monitor with its large screen and small font sizes.   Something like this is important with a tool as intensive as an SDR, which serious users will undoubtedly stare at for hours at a stretch.

The interface has three major displays. Top left is the DDC spectrum, top right is the demodulator spectrum, and across the entire bottom is the spectrum analyzer. This third one displays the entire range of the analog-digital converter, from the low-frequency band to either 30 or 50 MHz depending on configuration.

It really is rather compelling to turn on the waterfall display, and watch all of HF go by at once.  Chirpsounders make diagonal lines across the entire band, and often multiple reflections appear and disappear.  OTHB radars make little short squiggly lines that change frequency.   CODARs show up as closely spaced diagonal sweeps, making it a snap to measure their frequency ranges.   A mysterious entity centered on 24 MHz produces a whole band of little bursts with a frequency distribution resembling the statistical bell curve.  Spread spectrum?

In practice, of course, one sees a lot more detail with this display zoomed in.  Being an SDR, it is of course clickable, taking you right to interesting spots.  So are the other two plots.

Returning to the spectrum display, I clicked a nice spike around 22 MHz.  With some tweaking in the DDC window in waterfall mode, I got centered on an obvious broadcast station.  Its carrier showed as a vertical line, with symmetrical sidebands going out both ways.  It was Radio Australia.

Somewhat later, another interesting spike showed up in 75 meter amateur, where voices usually display as the intermittent RF bursts of lower sideband emission.  Yes, it was AM.  In fact, the voice was familiar.  My new SDR had apparently found a local ham buddy on that band's AM frequency.  He was discussing his new SDR (a Flex), which he'd picked up at Dayton.

Ultimately life intervened, and I had to tear myself away from the Excalibur Pro.  By then I had the user interface pretty much wired, and I was getting used to the best ways to unleash the awesome performance of this little box, with its vertical filter slopes (more on these later), amazingly low noise, and generally snappy performance.

It is clear that this radio is a tool.  You do not listen to it as much as you wield it, like King Arthur with his magic sword.  Congratulations to WinRadio for making a product that really does live up to its initial hype.