Sunday, 5 March 2017
Could it be that we are finally there? The focus return issue between SSDR and N1MM+ was my finger trouble and I was helped by an flex elmer to get it working. The experience of using this functionality for contesting filled me with hope that there was a future where SDR would take over from conventional rigs for contesting. The automatic focus return functionality is essential in SDR contesting as this allows you to make adjustments in SSDR (such as RF gain) and then not have to point the mouse and click back into the N1MM+ call field before you can type in a call sign. This functionality seems fairly benign, but it is essential when under pressure to efficiently work through any pile-up. I'm using the current version of SSDR v1.10.16 (at the time of writing) and have completed several contests (including the ARRL DX CW as MM3T) with it, without being able to complain about funnies. Ok, that's not quite true, I reported a bug (lack of PTT in CW) about 5 months ago and then lost interest for a while. When I realised it still hadn't been fixed in a recent update, I went back and asked the question again only to be told it had been fixed (which of course it hasn't). Here's a quick resume of the bug - Using N1MM+ to pass PTT to SSDR CAT which then should apply PTT on the radio doesn't work in CW mode (whilst using SSDRs winkey emulator functionality). Instead, the Flex is in semi break-in mode and ignores the PTT command allowing the tx to rx switch-over after a predefined delay. To avoid this happening, you have to increase the delay which has the annoying side effect of holding tx on after the message has been sent (effectively masking the first letter of any fast returning stations). If you set up the delay to avoid tx/rx switch-over at a specific key speed (say 32 wpm) and you get a slow speed caller and you reduce the sending speed accordingly you are rewarded with tx/rx popping as it switches to tx on every letter. The practical solution for the meantime is to never play with the sending speed and just put up with missing the occasional fast return. You'd imagine this would be a simple bug to identify and fix if you were a radio ham and a developer of SSDR but alas no... After my last finger trouble (ahem!) I'm still hoping that some kind elmer will show me the error of my ways, but still no fix 8 months on). However, I have to honest with you, I am so much happier with the stability of the basic functions of SSDR (the NR, NB etc still don't function as well as the big three) I am beginning to enjoy the experience of contesting with the Flex. An opportunity came up to purchase a 6500 and in a moment of sheer madness (due to it being a bargain) I sprang the cash! The good news is that this is the radio I should have got in the first place. I'm very much happier with the receive performance during contests (note: not worth the price difference between the 6300 and the 6500 however) and the K3 now hasn't been out the box in a few months. I guess I would now have trouble going back to a conventional rig without a good panadapter. I still wouldn't trust SDRs in a multi-multi contesting environment with RF flying around, but for casual contesting from home, I recon it now could beat conventional set-ups.
Tuesday, 26 July 2016
A repeat review (last time 1/5) after waiting another 6 months for SSDR to evolve and after sending my 6300 for repair due a cpu fan failure. The main problem with the software (Smart SDR) is that it evolves very slowly. I'm not talking about new features, I'm talking about fixing bugs which have plagued users for years. The trouble seems to be that different hardware units behave differently with the same version of SSDR software/firmware mix. This means that sometimes the bug needs several fixes before being fixed for everyone. Different sets of users cry with every version of SSDR so much so I wonder about the quality of the development process. The time between a bug being reported and it being fixed is not dependant on the complexity of the bug, but rather on Flex's own internal development prioritisation. An example of this was the maestro being developed despite a long list of outstanding bugs in the original system. Of course the new Maestro SSDR version caused new bugs and these are being fixed now. New features are rare however, as the job (even after all these years) is still to get the original promised features working effectively. The main problem with the hardware is the racket of the fan which runs constantly. If you imagine putting this transceiver on a desk beside your operating position you'd better have a good pair of noise cancelling headphones ready. This is not just my unit (yes I do own one ;-)) but most other users I have spoken to on air agree. I feel the company are getting there and they definately care about the user base (being radio hams themselves), but they do not seem to have the development talent to get things right first time on time. I'm sure that given time (near future) new users will enjoy a fully working product (I'm still hoping to get an effective noise blanker). The receiver is sensitive, but the noise floor tends to bounce up and down covering weak stations during contests etc. The transmitter tends to output less than 100w and SSDR shows worrying large repeating off frequency spikes (admittedly of a low level) during cw transmission (this effect seems to grow with frequency, 6m being worst). The stability of the system is very much dependant on your desktop PC and home network and your knowledge of it's operation eg. CW transmission starts misbehaving, access your windows task manager and increase priorities for SSDR and decrease priorities of any other software running - of course!). If you are operating remotely, panafall freezing and audio "motor boating" are commonplace, due to latency/buffering, but be assured it is your faithfull wireless routers fault... However the architecture of the 6000 series would suggest these kind of problems are less likely than in some of the competitor products. I am gratefull to Flexradio for bringing us hams these cutting edge products and in the true spirit of ham radio buyers be ready and willing to learn new skills in computer operating systems and networking to get the most out of it. My score of 4/5 is based on an excellent transceiver performance for modest antennas setups (simple wire antennas) in non contesting conditions. It doesn't get a 5 due to the effectiveness of some of SSDR's facilities e.g. NB, NR etc all of which are bested by the big 3.
Sunday, 24 January 2016
Some findings from my first contest with the above setup: 1) No focus return to SSDR from N1MM+ despite have the having this set to N1MM,UDP port 12060 and 1000ms in radio setup dialogue box? I'm new to N1MM+ and SSDR (usually use K3 and WinTest, but the soft winkey doesn't work properly with it) so found it really frustrating having to use the mouse to constantly have to click in the N1MM callsign field every time I touched a control in SSDR. Learned the up/down arrow keys were RIT in N1MM which helped. This is mad as took a few Qs to know that up key was RIT down??? It occurred to me that successful contesting with a Flex really lies in knowing all N1MM+ key strokes to control the radio (need to look into this to see how much of the flex can be controlled from N1MM i.e. filter width etc). 2) The soft winkey seems to work 95% of the time. When it doesn't work it always seemed to have a glitch on the first letter of sending. Every 20 qs or so would mess up causing me to hit the esc key and send again. Setup shouldn't cause varying results? What I was hearing seemed representative of what was being sent as it almost always resulted in them sending their call again. This was hampered by the sidetone sounding distorted and gravelly during the switch from rx to tx (noisy contesting conditions) so it made it hard to determine if there was a sending mistake with the first letter. 3) Noticed on several occasions that I could see better than I could hear. I could see the blip on the screen but couldn't hear it (despite it being in the passband but slightly off center). After a while I noticed that small differences of RIT would then allow me to work them??? So without the bandscope I wouldn't have known something was there to alert me to fine tune RIT. I've never noticed this with the K3 and P3 combo, I could always hear what I could see in the bandscope....amazing/hole in hearing/problem with FFT taps not overlapping and factored properly???...I don't know! 4) One of the massive advantages of this radio is that controls in SSDR work during TX. This used to frustrate me with radios like the K3 who's implementation locked controls during tx. Its been a long and rocky road with the 6300 so far. The latest sw/fw has given me a working radio for the first time in my 4 months ownership (broadband tx splatter fault, hardware fan failure, sprung bpf filter board etc etc). There is no comparison with my K3 rx performance however, with blocking and noise level bouncing up and down evident on the flex with strong adjacent stations (contest conditions). I know its not a fair comparison, the 6300 was my toe in the water with SDR and I'd need to now move to the 6500/6700 so as not to compare apples with oranges? I think I need to do some reading on N1MM+ and determine its extent of control of the flex. This will be the deciding factor for me of whether or not I can use it successfully for serious contesting. Maybe also I need to purchase the flex control tuning whee,l but whether app focus works with that now worries me.
Saturday, 16 January 2016
Hurrah! After a 3.5 month wait for the sw/fw update v1.6.17, I now have a working radio! Not only that, the new sw has a winkey emulation function which works great with N1MM but is pants with Wintest (can't have it all). The cat port emulator is much improved except for the omission of having ptt and cat on the same port. I suppose this doesn't matter as all rs232 ports are virtual, so there are hundreds available (no cabling). I have eventually found an advantage to going down the SDR route, the back of my K3 is stuffed with cables and ferrites to such an extent that any alteration involves a full dismantle. The Flex however for the same functionality has only 5 cables attached which are well spaced out and easily accessible. I setup my 6300 for SO2R with N1MM+ and it thinks that 2 separate radios are attached (each slice has it's own cat and ptt port). The radio was nearly in the bin after the first 3.5 months of ownership including 2 separate hardware faults from new (missing screws/disconnected BPF board and a new cpu fan fitted) and crap sw/fw faults (cold startup problem leading to bad tx). It's been a rough road with Flexradio and I have to question the companies quality control, customer service and speed of debug/development of sw/fw when dealing with my problems. If you haven't got the patience of a saint, then I would not recommend the company (i.e. if you expect to buy a radio from them and for it to work out the box). The rx performance of the 6300 during a contest is predictable, the noise floor bounces around with various degrees of apparent blocking going on. In short the Elecraft K3 wipes the floor with it. Not really a fair comparison though as the 6300 isn't meant for contesting (6500 and 6700 will be better with their preselectors). So advantages: 1) Much less cabling 2) Brilliant for data modes 3) Simplicity of hardware (one set top box and a pc does it all) 4) SmartSDR is a visual treat 5) Great rx with typical small antenna setups (outside of contests) Disadvantages: 1) Poor selectivity for contests 2) Poor integration with 3rd party contesting software. 3) Poor company quality control 4) Poor customer service (Technical information flow from company to customer about hw/sw/fw faults are heavily sensored. Expect to ask technical questions and have them directly ignored. Instead the answer given will be that the fault is confirmed and that it will be fixed when it suits them. Your issue will then be promptly closed even although it has not been fixed). Very very frustrating! My experience was exactly the above and then a 3.5 month wait for the eventual solution.....poor! 5) Arrogant and stubborn attitude from the company (they are doing you a favour with their brilliant product). This isn't helped on the community by a band of american cheer leaders who won't stand any critism of the company.
Saturday, 2 January 2016
Still waiting for a firmware fix for the 6300, still having to do soft resets before operating every time I switch the radio on. Tried the radio out for contest and after 25mins running into a linear amp at 25watts received an on screen alarm about high temperature and it shut itself down. I contacted flexradio and they immediately recognised the fault as one on the fans for either the CPU or the FPGA becoming UNSTUCK! Turns out they just use a sticky pad to do this and they are having problems with them becoming UNSTUCK during transit. Mine was sent to Germany for service at their expense to a residential address of a German radio ham. He replaced the cpu fan and restuck it down. My questions about the quality/fragility of this hardware arrangement were ignored. This is the annoying thing about Flex they ignore questions that they don't want to answer. Anyway, the fix seems to have done the trick as not had an repeat of the shut down since. The German ham seems to have been in a rush and didn't have the correct tools as I could tell by the screw heads that he had been in the Flex.....not bad but noticeable. At this point I am so disappointed with flexradio as a company I didn't even bother to complain.
Friday, 4 December 2015
The customer experience manager from Flex has been in touch 4 weeks ago to say that the engineers at Flex have fixed the firmware problem and that my support issue would be closed. 2 weeks later Flex had still not issued their fix. I lost patience with Flex and asked on the community web page why they had not issued the firmware fix. If you want to read what ensued go here: https://community.flexradio.com/flexradio/topics/6300-7-weeks-old-ssdr-v1-5-1-dirty-transmit-all-modes-on-cold-start-fine-on-re-start Well today (2 weeks on again from the above mess) Flex have still not issued the firmware fix! I have now had it with Flexradio. As soon as they fix the firmware, my 6300 is up for sale. The sad thing is they do not believe they are doing anything wrong and that their customer service is fantastic...beggars belief.
Sunday, 1 November 2015
Well I waited so long for an Elecraft K3S review, I decided they couldn't be that much better than the original K3. No one and I mean no one to date has done a side by side comparison. I therefore decided to take a look at what all the fuss was about concerning the flex signature series of radios. I wanted to put a toe in the water to decide whether it was right for me, so decided against the 6500/6700 in favour of the more economical 6300. This transceiver uses a lower direct sampling rate at the ADCs, can only show 7MHz of band at a time, only has 1 spectral capture unit, only has 2 rx slices available, doesn't have an rx preselector, only goes up to 50MHz, doesn't have a split rx/tx transverter interface etc etc etc. Despite all this, I decided on the 6300 and took the plunge. I decided on Flexradio (rather than Apache labs) because they did the hardware, the firmware and the software, so if there were any problems with the radio there would be no dubiety about whose fault it was. Just before purchasing the radio I did ask the sales rep for Flexradio where they where going next in terms of hardware, his response was that the Xilinx Virtex 6 FPGA was state of the art and that this hardware would be be 'it' for Flexradio for the foreseeable future. If it were me I'd be looking at Virtex 7 Zync, with embedded dual core arm A9 processors, but if you believe the sales guy, this isn't on the horizon. I was worried that Flex would sell the usual 10,000 units then drop it like a hot potato by moving onto the next hardware platform kinda like they did with the 1500/3000/5000. The old series of radios were problematic due to the majority of the processing being left to your desktop processor (as per Apache labs). This meant that things would fall over for reasons only the desk top processor would know and if it could speak it would tell you that it decided it was a good time to go check the hard drive for viruses or update the operating system during CQWW....oooops! The new series of flex radios does front end processing in a dedicated FPGA to take the heavy lifting off the desktop PC. This now means you can have multiple apps running and there is enough overhead for it to decide to do housekeeping without motor boating your tx audio and falling over. The downside to all this is that if you buy, you are in the keep net, forever reliant on the good nature of Flexradio systems to develop extra software bells or whistles out the goodness of their heart. If you had decided to buy Apache Labs, the software would be being developed in the open community and would grow 'forever'. However it will be a while before anyone realises that the flex software (SSDR) isn't going to be developed forever as they are still trying to fix all the problems with the original bells and whistles (my findings are that Flex have a particular power line noise in the US that the NB can handle and apart from that is of no help what so ever, Elecraft (and every other manufacturer) rip them a new one in that department). IMHO basically no 'toys' in SSDR work as well as any conventional desk top radio. The purchasing experience so far: 1) Radio arrives direct from the factory, bottom metal panel covered in greasy finger prints, top panel had rubber feet marks from something that had been stacked on top of it. 2) Power led diffusing coating had score across it meaning it was unevenly lit up to annoy me every time I power the radio on. 3) 4 interior screws missing meaning that the band pass filter board became disconnected from the main PC board in transit. The radio powered on despite this and no fault indication was given to the user. No BIT? The only clue was that the antenna selection mechanism wasn't working. Flexradio support was "Do a hardware reset and if that doesn't fix it, return it" very helpful! 4) The FPGA firmware currently isn't stable with all 6300s. The firmware engineers have certain internal interfaces to the FPGA on a timing knife edge meaning that due the manufacturing variations in process, voltage and temperature some 6300s will calibrate on a cold startup and some won't. Mine is one of the ones that won't calibrate. In true Flexradio fashion there is no BIT indication to the user that calibration has failed and instead it relies on the user noticing that the radio transmits carriers all over the band (very embrassing!). If you know to power cycle the radio a second time this problem goes away and it behaves itself. So in short Flexradio failed to deliver on all fronts in IMHO: Design (FPGA timing issue. Absolutely no built in test facilities for the user) Manufacturing (missing screws). QA (failed to detect FPGA timing issues and missing screws). Support (Slow to respond. Didn't answer direct questions. Didn't fully read my answers. Not a patch on Elecraft). After having sorted all the above myself, I got down to using the radio (after re-starting the radio every time I want to use it of course). It does the basics very well and the audio from it is excellent. The radio plays very well for the casual operator, but I would run a mile before having to use one of these in a contest. Anyone who claims these are great in contests must be a casual contester who does't understand the need for 100% operability of the station. All sorts of funnies happen when you start up your 3rd party logging software (Wintest, the most widely accepted contesting software available? Forget it!). You can tell this isn't meant for serious contesting when only Writelog and N1MM have bothered to support it. Ok I'm maybe being a bit harsh here, but if I see one funny during a contest that is one funny too much. I use a K3 and Wintest for contesting and am used to that level of simplicity/performance, this is the benchmark I use against the SDR experience and it isn't pretty reading...sorry. Anyway thats it for now. I may be at the start of a beautiful friendship here, but it currently seems pretty far off in terms of contesting.