I was reading amateur radio blogs and for the third time or so in a month, I was treated to what amounted to a diatribe against software defined radio. When I read these, I can’t help but sigh in frustration.
I understand nostalgia. We all like the cars we wish we could have had when we were teenagers. We like the music that we learned to like as young people. Heck, I still have the first computer that I bought at age 14. In moderation, nostalgia can be a good thing. It reminds us where we came from. It gives us context. It gives us history.
But I think we always have to temper a sense of nostalgia with perspective and vision. Our first cars were our loves, but they were (let’s face it) often gas guzzling, unreliable death traps. Some of our music was probably brilliant, but a lot of it was (let’s face it) crap. And my first computer, while enabling me to explore a world of computation, which eventually led a rich and rewarding career, was by any modern standards less powerful than an alarm clock.
Which brings me to software-defined radio.
I’ve seen lots of people write negatively about software defined radio. Often it’s just pure nostalgia. “Real radios glow.” “Real radios have KNOBS.” “Real radios don’t require your laptop.” “My old radios just sound better.”
I think we as hams should be more visionary than these statements. Software-defined radio is enabled by the remarkable evolution of computing hardware. The speed of computation has in the time that I’ve owned computers increased by a factor of about 200,000. The cycle time of most desktop computers is now low enough that an inexpensive computer can execute dozens of instructions for every cycle of an HF signal. This enables the traditional features of radios like mixing and filtering to be done in software, instead of being cast in hardware. This means that we can have unprecedented control over these processes. And, potentially we can even change many aspects of operation even after the soldering of our radio is complete. Software isn’t a panacea, but it is the source of such great power it can’t and should not be ignored.
Most of the criticisms I see about radio interface seem curiously misplaced. I agree that using your laptop as an interface is often sub-optimal. But if you’ve played with any radios at all, I bet you had some criticism about the conventional radios that you had as well. Modern radios are complex, and this complexity is not often controlled by careful user interface design, whether in software or in conventional hardware front panels. Even if you thought that some radio you had in the past was perfect, I would submit that it would still be beneficial to use software defined radio technology inside.
But even beyond that, I have been playing with an SDR-IQ for the last couple of months. Its ability to monitor all signals on an HF band is enormously compelling. Using digital displays, we can give the user a perspective on the entire band which is undeniably useful. Technology like CW Skimmer can track dozens of Morse signals in real time. Programs like HRD and fldigi can do the same with multiple PSK signals.
I’ve seen a few people abandon the idea of software-defined radio simply because they aren’t adept at software design or have no knowledge of the mathematics and algorithms that underly software-defined radio. They fatalistically claim that they will never or can never understand or learn how software-defined radios work. I am kind of flabbergasted by this attitude. It’s not that it is easy: far from it. Studies show that to become expert in a subject takes the better part of a decade. But as hams, we are supposed to be about self-training and experimentation. Sure, there is no mandate for you to do so, but let’s not be so fatalistic and condemn it merely because it doesn’t coincide with our own abilities or interests.
There is no reason to forget the past, but let’s not worship it either. Let’s look at the best of what was, the best of what we have now, and the best that we can imagine, and experiment, design, build and use the radios that we have yet to invent.