[CQ-Contest] Flex Radio Question

Jack Haverty. k3fiv at arrl.net
Wed May 7 02:49:06 EDT 2014

On Mon, May 5, 2014 at 9:16 PM, Tod Olson <tod at k0to.us> wrote:

> What do you suppose are
> the considerations that seem to be slowing the adoption of the technology?

IMHO, it's all about software, especially the immaturity of the software.

I've been using my Flex-3000 for contesting since 2009, and I've had a lot
of fun with it.   So my comments are from the perspective of a
Flex-3000/N1MM contesting experience.

The hardware of today's SDRs are pretty consistently excellent in the
traditional metrics of sensitivity, selectivity, etc.  Yes, some models are
somewhat better in the specs than others (a Flex-6700 vs my Flex-3000), but
either hardware would make a fine contest radio.   I suspect any SDR (Anan,
Perseus, etc.) has the radio capability to be a fine contest rig.  Yes,
there are differences, but I don't think that's a dominant factor in
"slowing the adoption" of SDRs for contesting.

The downside of SDRs is that they are unfamiliar to most hams.  Instead of
twisting knobs and pushing buttons, which you probably have been doing for
years, you need to learn to work the mouse.   It can be done; it took me a
year to get myself trained for contesting with my SDR.

The ergonomics of using an SDR, with today's software, are a bit unwieldy
for contestng.   Contesters today already use a computer, with some
"logging" program(s) like N1MM or Writelog, and in contests that's what the
operator focuses on most of the time.   SDRs of course also use the
computer as the user interface - typically the same keyboard, screen, and
mouse.   In contesting, you're continuously trying to control two programs
at once, but with a single mouse and keyboard.  This is confusing at times,
but you can learn how to do it.  Some people have attached extra hardware
to add knobs/switches to their SDR to partially avoid the problem.

So, there's a barrier to adoption simply from the unfamiliarity.  But there
are also ergonomic limitations of the computer's human interface.   With a
"knobby radio", you can do common things, for example turning up the audio
gain, by reaching a hand over to that familiar knob your fingers recognize
by touch, and you can continue to use your logger software with one hand
while you adjust the audio with the other.   With my Flex-3000 SDR, you
need to reposition the mouse, and you have to look over at the SDR window
on the monitor to get the cursor into the proper location.  That's simply
harder to do, even after you learn to do it.

I think the biggest consideration is that SDR software is in its infancy.
Yes, it has fancy DSP algorithms inside which do unbelievable magic.  But
the user interface - what you interact with during a contest - is very
primitive and not at all "tuned" for contesting.

An analogous situation occurred when computers were first introduced to
contesting.   People used Excel spreadsheets (or was it Visicalc...) to
replace the paper log sheets that were the mainstay of contesting.  What
you saw on the screen looked a lot like what you had previously seen on a
big sheet of paper.   Over time, that has evolved enormously.  Software
like N1MM (which I use), Writelog, etc. now look nothing at all like
spreadsheets.   They are highly tuned, efficient machines that are very
very good at presenting contest-relevant information to the human,
efficiently getting input from that operator, and controlling the radio in
powerful ways.  It took a while for computers to be adopted as a mandatory
technology component of a contest station, and I think a large part of that
depended on the various "logging" software evolving to the point where it
is today.

In contrast, SDR software, specifically the human interface part of it, is
still at the "spreadsheet stage".   It's simply a younger technology.  When
you look at the typical SDR program, what you see often looks like a
picture of a traditional knobby radio, with all of the expected buttons,
sliders, meters, switches, etc.   The difference of course is that you
manipulate those controls by use of the mouse/keyboard/screen.

There is much much more that could be done to make the human interface of
SDRs more "tuned" for contesting.  One aspect of that is the ergonomics of
using the computer for both SDR and other functions (N1MM et al) at the
same time.   But another aspect is having contesting software that takes
advantage of the underlying capabilities of SDRs to do things for
contesters that can't be readily done with non-SDR hardware.

One example --- Even the simpler and cheaper SDRs like my Flex-3000 or the
-1500 are continuously receiving a wide chunk of spectrum (50 to 100 KHz).
  The newest radios are in theory capable of continuously receiving *all*
of the HF bands at the same time.   So everything that any station sent on
any frequency is inside the computer sitting on your desk. Operators today
can pick out one or two signals from that spectrum and listen to it.  But
*all* of the signals are inside the computer, all of the time, and the
computer has enough memory to keep them there for minutes or even hours.
 What could contesters do with that?  More specifically, what could
contesting software do with that capability?

Here's one idea.  Imagine you're contesting and trying to watch 10M to
catch an opening.   With your non-SDR radio, you go there once in a while
and tune around, or maybe you put your second radio on that band and spin
the dial occasionally to see if there's anything going on, or maybe set it
up to CQ if there's nothing better to do with it.   If you're lucky, you'll
catch an opening if it's long enough and you remember to look.

With an SDR radio, your radio could be constantly watching the 10M band -
even the whole band with appropriately capable hardware - including the
beacon subbands.  It could monitor the spectral energy in the band, and
alert you when it crosses some threshold indicating increased activity.
You could then go to that band, and see the signals that have been received
over the last minute or more.  You could even select one of them, tell the
software to "rewind" that signal 30 seconds, and listen to what was said.
 Was it a new mult popping in because propagation changed?   Or was it the
guy across town who CQs occasionally to fish for contacts?  if the latter,
maybe you hit a control to set a notch filter on that particular frequency
so it won't alert you again on his next fishing excursion.  You could do
all of this in a few seconds, while still working Qs on the other band.

Would that capability be helpful in a contest?  I don't know, but it would
be fun to try.

There are lots of such examples of what advanced "contesting SDR software"
could do.

So, IMHO, the primary obstacle to "adopting the technology" of SDRs in
contesting is the immaturity, or non-existence, of the human-interface and
contest-specific SDR software.    SDRs have upper-echelon specs for radio
performance compare to traditional radios, and in many cases are arguably
superior.   But the software involves a learning curve and the ergonomics
of using it, at least in contesting, are still pretty rough.  So adoption
is slow.  But most importantly, much of the potential power and capability
of SDRs isn't really visible to the contester today, because the software
isn't there to apply that power to contesting.  So there's little
enticement to switch just to get a little extra sensitivity or whatever.

IMHO, as SDR software matures, I think we'll see the technology get adopted
more and more, and eventually it will be mandatory, just like computers are
today a standard component of a contest station.   How fast that happens
will depend on how fast the software evolves.

Meanwhile, I'm having fun with my Flex-3000 and a dipole.  I don't expect
to win any contests, but it's a lot of fun to play.

/Jack de K3FIV

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