So you are in receipt of a shiny new Realtek RTL2832U+R820T SDR dongle and I understand the first thing you want to do is start decoding ADS-B, ACARS or some other exotic data format. Maybe you just want to listen in to some local comms? Well we really need to get some software loaded up.
There are two popular SDR tuning programs and both are freeware: SDR# (SDRSharp) and HDSDR. I’ve tried both, but highly recommend SDR# as its more user friendly – especially for newcomers so we’ll stick with that.
There are numerous SDR# versions available (stable/nightly builds) and a degree of experimentation is required to get the program up and running. Installation worked flawlessly on one PC but was a total nightmare on another. Eventually I got it working on both (funnily identical Windows XP platforms!). SDR# requires .NET Framework to be installed prior to running and the problems I had installing SDR# on my laptop was because I had 4.5 installed and not 3.5. To be on the safe side I ended up installing .NET Framework versions 1.0, 2.0, 3.5 and 4.5 (overkill or what?!).
I had my first real taste of radio decoding back in the 90’s. Things were a little different then though. For starters you needed a scanner or HF radio (or both), a demodulator (from Pervisell), leads to connect the radio audio output to a computer soundcard and of course software (or just plain old DOS) and a PC to process everything. At the time I had a subscription to Shortwave Magazine (sadly no longer in print) and the decode section was a godsend.
Each decoding practice had different protocols and often things didn’t work out as planned. Many hours (or days) were spent tinkering with leads, interface settings (bloody COM ports!) and antenna locations. If you were unlucky the Windows blue screen of death would make an appearance every now and again!
Now this is a very interesting bit of kit and will appeal to anyone with an interest in radio. I’ll go into more detail when I complete the review on this one, suffice to say it is an extraordinary Software Defined Radio (or SDR for short) with the capabilities of a receiver many times its actual cost (which is about a tenner!).
It’s original purpose and one that it performs effortlessly is as a DAB/DVB-T tuner (digital radio/TV), but some clever chap discovered its tuning chip could be manipulated via software to perform the role of a high end monitoring device.
The model featured here (Realtek RTL2832U+R820T) has a frequency range of 20.100 MHz to 1.7660 GHz (all mode via software) and is the number one choice for new comers to the wonderful world of ADS-B aircraft monitoring/tracking on 1090.000.
The receiving qualities don’t stop there though. Coupled to the right software (I’ll compile a list of the best freeware examples in the review) all sorts of things can be decoded such as AIS, ACARS, trunking systems, weather satellites, APRS, and POCSAG/FLEX pagers. Of course if you just want to listen in like a conventional scanner you can do that too!
I heard about these a while back, but only recently picked one up. I read the hype, but are they really that good?