Best SDR Under $100?

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LubeckTech

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I have began playing with a Realtek RTL2832U marked under the name Digital Energy. Someday I will invest in a deluxe, better constructed SDR but in the time my question is; What is the best thing going in the <$100 range? Currently I have been using SDR Sharp in Win7/XP, is there other easy to use software which runs on windows out there??
 

KC1UA

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Other than the RTL dongles there isn't much in the VHF and above range for under $100. The forthcoming Airspy device will be reportedly $99-$149 more than likely. It will have the same frequency coverage as the RTL dongles but will be a more robust device.

Check It's all about the software... It's all about the software... It's all about the software... It's all about the software... It's all about the software... for some very nice software that'll work with RTL dongles. You will need to add some .dll files to the main folder of the software to get them to work, do a Google of AA5SH RTL or something similar, which should point you to a download that will take care of that.
 

br0adband

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They're all basically the same with respect to two aspects (because these are the two aspects that matter the most):

1) The most popular "model" is made with the R820T tuner by Rafael Microelectronics so as long as it's using that tuner. You'll see R820T quite often with respect to SDR hardware for the low cost side of things.

2) The most popular controller chip - for USB communications to and from the device itself - uses the Realtek RTL2832U chipset hence the extremely common use of "RTL" when referring to these types of devices.

If any stick you're interested in looks like this you're pretty much ahead of the game already because these are arguably the most popular ones that fulfill both aspects above:



There are several other variations out there too:

- the Elonics E4000 tuner version, which has a wider frequency response overall - I think it's like 60 MHz to 2.4 GHz - but Elonics went out of business so they're no longer made and considered quite rare nowadays (the Teratec sticks use that type of tuner chip, at least some of the models) and their pricing reflects the scarcity: they usually sell for $50+ and that's if you're fortunate enough to find a reseller that has some (even one) in stock and you're willing to fork over the cost

- the FC series of tuners (not even sure who makes them) is the other mildly popular tuner that's not nearly as well supported for whatever reasons, and there's several versions

You can find a lot more info on this page from the RTL-SDR wiki (which if you note refers to the Realtek chipset again, the sheer overwhelming popularity of those particular chipset based models puts it high enough that the entire community just refers to itself as RTL-SDR nowadays):

compatibility - RTLSDR

tl;dr version: Get one based on the RTL2838U with the Rafael R820T tuner, which won't be tough to do because - again - they're so popular. NooElec is probably the most popular reseller in the US as well - I got 2 RTL sticks from them recently through their Amazon storefront for $9.75 each although the price does fluctuate and typically is about $17. I don't know why I got mine so cheap but in December that's what the price was so I bought one, got it, then ordered another one 2 weeks later for the same price. I got lucky in that respect and for a roughly ~$23 investment I can now actually monitor 12 channels at the same time using both sticks if I really wanted to go that far (courtesy of info I just got from another thread - THANKS SCOTT!!! :D)

Biggest piece of advice: get two and get pigtails so you can attach real antennas when you get them - the tiny little 5" thing they call an antenna that's included is almost a disgrace. Sure, it'll allow you to get up and running, test the hardware and tune in a few things in the upper frequencies (UHF and higher) but it's nothing to bother with if you find yourself seriously interested in this new way of doing things.

And of course it goes without saying that you need good antennas, whichever one(s) you find most useful whether they're commercial/retail models or coathanger 1/4 wave ground planes you make yourself which is what I did and it works fantastic. RTL stick (or sticks, as noted), pigtail(s), and good antennas coupled with the great software we've got available and it's a win-win-win. ;)
Good luck...
 

N0IU

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The other thing I would add to this list is to get a USB extension.Depending on how much space you have between your USB ports on your computer, you may not be able to fit the dongle between other connectors.
 

br0adband

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The other thing I would add to this list is to get a USB extension.Depending on how much space you have between your USB ports on your computer, you may not be able to fit the dongle between other connectors.
Excellent addition and one that I keep forgetting to mention. Also, with a USB extension cord (6 feet at least, 12 feet is about the limit without a "repeater" of some kind inline) there are two options to help improve things:

1) use some kind of tape or even a small piece of paper wrapped around the USB end of the RTL stick before you insert it into the extension cable so there's no direct metal on metal contact on that end (the inside of the plug has all the necessary data and power connections), or...

2) remove the USB shield housing on the USB extension cable itself (the "jack" end, not the side that goes into the computer's USB port) so it's simply not there anymore

It might sound crazy but, considering we're dealing with a lot of noise-generating hardware like our computers and other devices, believe it or not there's a lot of credibility to what I just recommended and here's a page with more info and some test results (which I ended up verifying on my own RTL sticks in exactly the same way using option 2 above):

Software Defined Radio for Mariners: Reducing electrical noise

That guy went way overboard (just kidding, but pun intended considering his site is "SDR For Mariners") during his testing processes and attempts to cut down on any potential RF interference between his RTL stick and the computer. It's easier to just read that article than me offering up my own interpretation of it, suffice to say that yes you can reduce and nearly eliminate a ton of electrical/electronic RF interference in your quest for more signal and less noise, so read it and take heed to everything he's got there to share.

And one last thing I just remembered too: the suggestion about either wrapping an RTL stick (or some other chipset based stick as there are others) in aluminum foil or putting it inside a metal can or metallic enclosure of some kind works too but the caveat is that to ensure the maximum amount of noise cancellation/reduction/etc you have to make a connection between the aluminum foil or can or enclosure and the metal on the USB plug itself - when doing that (which you can test out yourself without making anything permanent) you will immediately notice a rather sharp drop in the noise level aka the noise floor. I was pretty stunned at it even though he states clearly that it makes a 15-20 dB difference which is rather significant, and it really does work.

Good luck...
 
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Token

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I have began playing with a Realtek RTL2832U marked under the name Digital Energy. Someday I will invest in a deluxe, better constructed SDR but in the time my question is; What is the best thing going in the <$100 range? Currently I have been using SDR Sharp in Win7/XP, is there other easy to use software which runs on windows out there??
Best thing for what purpose?

If you mean VHF and up then the RTL Dongles are pretty much the only game in town for under $100. I have 5 or 6 of them here and with small differences one brand is pretty much like the other. I like the R820T in general. The Funcube Dongle is a better performing SDR with VHF/UHF, but a narrower IBW (displayed bandwidth). It is over the $100 mark though. And those two are about it for SDRs with VHF/UHF until you start spending real money.

However, if you mean for HF monitoring there are several SDRs in the ~$100 range that are a good bit better performers than the RTL Dongles and an upconverter. People sometimes forget that there are other SDRs out there, and most of them are better than the RTLs, but do not have the RTLs frequency range or the RTLs low price tag.

The Soft66LC, and the SoftRock Ensemble II are generally better than an RTL+upconverter on HF, and both are under $100. But both display a smaller chunk of spectrum (width dependant on your sound card, but 190 kHz or less). There are a few similar devices on the market that are just about as good but less well known.

The following is not a slam at all, just a statement of fact. Frankly, RTL SDRs are not all that good, however they bring tremendous value. For the cost you get fantastic bandwidth and performance, but it is important to remember the first part of that sentence, “for the cost”. They are dirt cheap, the best thing (only thing) in their cost range, and as long as you are realistic about the expected performance they are an excellent deal. But don’t expect them to compete with an AOR AR-Alpha or a WinRadio G39DDC and you will stay happy.

T!
 
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