By now, most hams have probably heard about the cheap SDR dongles that everyone is getting. Meant for DVB-T use in other parts of the world, radio amateurs have figured out that these powerful, affordable devices are great for listening to local traffic across a sizable chunk of the RF spectrum.
All you have to do is just plug it into your computer’s USB port, fire up the software of your choice and you’re on your way to listening to local amateur, commercial, and aircraft traffic, tracking aircraft positions, and more. If you’re a radio head, it’s (almost) the most fun you can have in front of your PC screen – but who wants to be stuck at their desk or mess with their laptop just to listen to a little radio?
If you like to go mobile with your tech, you’re living in a golden age. The market is flooded with cheap, no-name Android tablets that may or may not work as well as their brand name counterparts. Microsoft and other manufacturers have been cranking out Windows tablets, but the Windows RT versions are neutered and can’t run much useful ham software while the Windows 8.1 “Pro” models still have sky-high prices. iPads… Well, some of the older models are coming down in price, but there just isn’t much there for radio amateurs. Enter the new generation of affordable tablets.
For our demo, I’m using a Toshiba Encore Mini (WT7-CT16) – a 7″ touchscreen tablet with USB support that runs Windows 8.1 and has an MSRP of just $100 for the 8GB model that I got. With flash memory chips’ capacity going up and prices going down, 8GB models are getting harder to find, though, so you may have to “settle” for the 16GB model. I gather that the non-signature edition comes with some bloatware, but I’m not sure since I do have the MS signature version. This is a pretty amazing deal, considering that an OEM copy of Windows 8 by itself costs about as much or more. This tablet is perfect for this application (and lots of others!). Since it runs a full version of Windows 8.1 and has a quad core Intel Atom x86 processor with a gig of RAM, it can run “real” Windows software. Since it’s a touch screen, it doesn’t need extra gadgets like a keyboard or mouse to use it, although a stylus may help avoid “fat fingering” the controls.
Next, of course, we need the SDR dongle. We’re using the Nooelec RTL2832 + R820T dongle. The dongle, stubby antenna with cable and useless remote control sells for right around $20. There is nothing Continue reading
A while back, some ingenious radio amateurs figured out that they could pair a $20 USB dongle meant for watching television in other parts of the world with some SDR software and listen to the ham bands (and more).
The “and more” part is what first caught my attention. Much of the area uses digital trunked systems for their emergency communications and something like a TrunkTracker IV, despite being one of the more affordable pieces of equipment in this category, is still a bit out of my reach. As someone who lives close to the site of a HAZMAT train derailment as well as a massive tire fire, and having had police chases that end in stand-offs go racing past my house, the ability to be “in the know” sounds like a good idea. I haven’t got up and running with digital trunking systems yet (watch for a future post?), but I have definitely already got more than my $20 worth of use out of this gadget.
The first thing I did was order a Nooelec RTL2832U & R820TSB dongle. Once it arrived, the package contained the USB dongle (which looks like a fat jump drive), a stubby little antenna with a few feet of coax and a small, mostly useless remote control. I was ready to get started! Continue reading