SDR, a quirky but promising technology

I always find it striking that HAM radio operators talk about SDR as if this technology is the holy grail of the amateur world. When the Baofeng UV-3R came out, operators from all over the world started to wave with their credit cards. They just had to own one. “It’s Software Defined Radio in a package the size of a cigarette pack! There’s a DSP inside, too!” The Baofeng UV-5R triggered similar reactions.

Fact is that SDR and DSP inside these HT’s aren’t that impressive. For now, the only advantage is price. And, as we all know, there ain’t such thing as a free lunch. Something has to give. Let’s take a look at the hardware side of things first.

Receiver architecture
Most receivers use a variable-frequency oscillator, mixer, and filter to tune the desired signal to a common intermediate frequency or baseband, where it is then sampled by the analog-to-digital converter. However, in some applications it is not necessary to tune the signal to an intermediate frequency and the radio frequency signal is directly sampled by the analog-to-digital converter (after amplification).

Real analog-to-digital converters lack the dynamic range to pick up sub-microvolt, nanowatt-power radio signals. Therefore a low-noise amplifier must precede the conversion step and this device introduces its own problems. For example, if spurious signals are present (which is typical), these compete with the desired signals within the amplifier’s dynamic range. They may introduce distortion in the desired signals, or may block them completely. The standard solution is to put band-pass filters between the antenna and the amplifier, but these reduce the radio’s flexibility, and flexibility is the whole point of software defined radio.

Disappointing results in the real world
For the reasons described above, the receivers of Baofeng hand helds have a rather poor reputation. How come? They’re digital, right? Yes, they are. What many people tend to forget is that the word ‘digital‘ in itself means nothing when it comes to signal quality. I can produce digital audio files of very poor quality. No sweat. Digital TV sometimes delivers an image quality inferior to analog, and the Dutch DVB-T system is a good example. Compression is so high that same-color parts of the image fade away in a circular pattern.

Weird sounds
Both the UV-3R and UV-5R can sound ‘weird’ when the DSP kicks in. Sometimes this translates into a hissing noise, sometimes into muffled RX audio. It is as if the digital hardware inside can’t make up its mind. Put an analog HT next to it and you know how it can/should sound. Yes, this aging analog technology can serve as an example, because it had the time to mature to the point of perfection.

In theory however digital systems are capable of producing far better results than their analog counterparts. It’s all a matter of time and money. And even when all problems are solved, there’s a human factor to deal with. Perfect digital signals don’t always sound pleasant. When Siemens developed and introduced the first ever VoIP phone system for use within companies, they had to introduce ‘comfort noise’. The signal was so clean that users thought that the system was dead, and hung up their phone. Just a little bit of artificial noise on the line was sufficient to solve the problem.

Shaved Legs
The same proved true for images. I’ve seen digital images coming from a DSLR which were so perfect that it started to bother me. Digital is sometimes like shaved legs on a man – very smooth and clean, but there is something acutely disconcerting about it.

OK, enough about the hardware, let’s go to the software side of things.

“A program is good when it’s bug free. Which is impossible.”
This quote was used at a press conference I once attended. SDR is a system where components that have been typically implemented in hardware (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded computing devices.

While faults or problems in a conventional design can often be solved with a soldering iron in one hand and decent test equipment in the other, with SDR you’re depending on the qualities (or lack thereof) of the programmer. This is especially true for ham radio equipment such as the Baofeng hand helds. If you are a good programmer, you might be able to fix things yourself. Unfortunately these Chinese hand helds do not allow that. As far as we know, you can’t change even one bit. You can’t update the firmware either. If such a device is littered with bugs, the only option is to send it back to the manufacturer, or throw it away if the warranty expired. For many operators this is a real pain in the butt.

Future
Will SDR and DSP concur the world? Yes, I believe so. In the long run I expect this technology to become better than analog. At higher price levels there are enough examples of well implemented SDR-based systems. At this point in time however I keep cherishing my analog hand helds and rigs.

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6 comments on “SDR, a quirky but promising technology

  1. “If such a device is littered with bugs, the only option is to send it back to the manufacturer, or throw it away if the warranty expired”. What else can you do with such a cheap device like the UV-3R. As long as it is working it does a fine job, when the thing fails you just throw it away and buy a new one. That’s how it works today! 73, Bas

    • You have a point, of course. The price of Baofeng HT’s is such that you can’t expect the manufacturer to set up a decent support and update department.

      My remark is more about the design flaws which come with newer technology than anything else. Newer technology doesn’t always translate to ‘better’. I actually believe we’re guinea pigs of sorts, or free-of-charge debuggers. And we don’t seem to mind…

      Hans

  2. “Digital is sometimes like shaved legs on a man – very smooth and clean, but there is something acutely disconcerting about it.” – I shall relay your comments to the men currently on the Tour De France! 😀

  3. “While faults or problems in a conventional design can often be solved with a soldering iron in one hand and decent test equipment in the other, with SDR you’re depending on the qualities (or lack thereof) of the programmer”

    I think that point is mute to a certain extent… Good luck trying to fix the tiny surface mount packages in most of today’s HTs that make up the VFOs/mixers/filters with a soldering iron and decent test equipment. Many of the parts you would commonly need to work on (like connectors) you still have access to whether on SDR or ‘conventional’ radios.

  4. I’m not saying it is impossible. However, with the amount of effort and equipment needed to make repairs on HT RF circuits it is unlikely you will gain much from a purely analogue radio. You may not even be able to obtain the necessary chips if one needs to be replaced.

    Also, you missed a large point about software-defined radios. Since the signal processing is not done in special hardware, what protocols you use is virtually limitless. One radio could have twenty modulation schemes.

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