Flex Radio Systems SmartSDR 1.4.3 review
With the highly anticipated release of SmartSDR 1.4 now available I wanted to do a review of this software package. Then the review was pushed back just a bit because of the recent upgrade to version 1.4.3 with even MORE features. I decided to wait and just do one comprehensive review on version 1.4.3. This is my review of the features from an average DX’ers point of view. Let’s go over the release notes of version 1.4.0 first for new features and changes:
SmartSDR version 1.4.0
The highly anticipated release of version 1.4.0 came exceptionally late as the original target release date was supposed to be October, 2014 according to Flex Radio Systems road map for SmartSDR releases. There were a bunch of cranky Flex signature series owners that were really clammering for a new release to hopefully address problems, and also to give them the new features that were promised. Let’s take a look at the features released in 1.4.0:
LAN Remote: With this feature you can now operate your Flex radio from anywhere within your local network. For example, if your shack is downstairs in the basement, you can now use your laptop upstairs over a wireless network using a cheap headset plugged into your laptop.
This feature works very well indeed, even over wireless. I have found that you will need a descent enough Windows laptop however to have the best results. I tested the remote with an older Core2 Duo laptop with 4GB of ram, and there was some audio cut-outs and lag using that laptop with 802.11n wireless network in my home. Overall though, it still worked very well.
I had much better results using my Intel Core i7 laptop with 8GB of RAM on the same 802.11n wireless network with no noticeable audio drop outs. I really believe that the drop out were due to the poor disk IO on the Core2 Duo laptop (it only has a 5400 rpm HDD. The Core i7 has a Solid State Drive).
Since most likely you will be using a laptop headset for your audio, quality could vary quite a bit between different types. I used a Logitech USB headset. This was easy to setup as the default headset and I had excellent audio reports from various stations on the 40 and 20 meter bands. I would not recommend using the built-in speakers and microphone on the laptop for obvious reasons as the microphone will pickup keystrokes, wind noise, and other sources of noise close to your laptop. Also
Network quality is a huge factor for good performance of the remote feature. You really must use either a cabled network in your home or a higher speed 802.11n wireless network. The bandwidth requirements are simply going to be too high for older 802.11b or even 802.11a wireless networks. Make sure that your wireless network is setup well and working properly BEFORE attempting to use the LAN Remote features of SmartSDR 1.4.x. You will have far less headaches if you do so.
Being in the computer business, I am very well versed in various computer networks, such as wireless and VPNs. And although it is unofficial and not directly supported by Flex Radio Systems yet, I have tested SmartSDR over a WAN link using various VPN methods. I would like to state now however that using SmartSDR over a WAN link is heavily dependent on having enough Internet bandwidth. Because most home consumers will have asynchronous Internet connections (asynchronous means having a different speed for downloads than uploads), you must know ahead of time what your Internet speed is for uploads as well as downloads. DSL Internet connections with only 1MB uploads will not work using SmartSDR using a VPN, so forget about even attempting it. You will need a connection with at least 5MB upload speeds, and even then you may experience trouble with broken TX audio.
I tested 3 different types of VPN connections using my Flex 6500 and my Internet connection. My ISP is Metronet and I have a 200MB download with a 25MB upload speed over fiber optic cable. It is by all accounts a better than average speed connection than most consumers seem to have at this time (well at least in my area). I tested 3 different types of VPN: PPTP VPN (using Windows Server 2012 host), OpenVPN (Using a Linux host), and Cisco Secure VPN (using a Cisco ASA 5520 firewall host). Going through the setup of VPNs is WAY beyond the scope of the review I am writing on this blog and there are differences for just about any network people use, so I won’t go over how I set it up here, but I had great results with all 3 types of VPNs. If you would like to try to access your Flex 6000 series from over the internet securely, VPN does work well if you have adequate Internet bandwidth at both sites.
One criticism that I would have is that when you choose remote, and “PC” as the microphone to redirect your mic audio, these settings seem to be remembered by the transceiver and not by the SmartSDR software on the individual machines. For example, when I am in my shack, I want to use my fancy Heil PR-781 mic and JBL Control 2P monitor speakers. But when I use the laptop upstairs I need to click the “REMOTE” button then select “PC” for the microphone input. But if I forget to turn off the “REMOTE” button before I exit SmartSDR, then when I go back into the shack it will still be selected. It would be nice if it would store the preference for these settings in the SmartSDR client software instead of in the transceiver just to make it more intuitive to use. Not a big criticism, but hey I gotta be thorough!
Overall Flex Radio Systems did a great job with the implementation of the LAN remote feature, and it even works using a VPN over the Internet (WAN) quite well if not supported by them at this time. Eventually they plan on releasing their own way of connecting over the Internet for WAN operations without the use of a VPN. But this will not be available until a future release.
FM Mode: Finally, Flex Radio Systems has included FM on the Flex 6500 for those that want to chat up their favorite 10m or 6m repeater, not to mention for Transverter use. I know that several Flex customers were really livid about this not being included from the get-go, and I really agree with them about that. The Flex 6000 series was advertised with having FM mode, but when people bought the rig, they got NO FM!
The implementation was very good, with narrow FM mode (NFM) that uses 2.5k deviation and standard FM (FM) that uses 5k deviation. There is also a Digital FM (DFM) mode that has no pre-emphasis applied which is nice for digital modes such as packet over FM.
The FM mode implementation has a CTCSS tone encoder, a nice squelch control, and adjustments for offsets. It would also be nice however if the included full CTCSS decode for RX as well, but alas we don’t have that. Boo… Note that the offset is set in MHz and not kHz so you will have to use 0.5 for a 500 kHz offset. Not a big deal, but interesting to note.
I did try to access a 6m repeater using my Flex 6500, but unfortunately I couldn’t access any repeaters in my area on 6m or 10m. They all seemed to be not functional in my area. I know that the 6m repeater that my club runs is currently offline due to a horrible lightning strike, but has been repaired and as soon as it is placed back in service I can test it out. I have used the Flex FM mode on 10m simplex with another ham here in town where I live just to try it and it worked well.
Memories Feature: This is a great feature so that you can store your favorite frequencies and modes. It is quite detailed so that you can name the memories, and even crate memory groups to group them all together. I typically do not use memories, but I put a few in to try it out and was quite happy with the implementation. I kind of wish however that there could be a small right side dock-able window with memories instead of a new pop-up window. It would just be nice to streamline the interface a bit better.
I really like how they also added a column to set TX power, and also you can put a custom name description in. This has been done very well.
CW Enhancements: If you are a CW guy (or gal) you will love the new QSK improvements for better CW break-in! This was somewhat broken in previous versions of SmartSDR but now has been fixed quite well. No more popping sounds between CW characters. Thumbs up!
SmartSDR Software Client Optimizations: Flex Radio Systems really retooled SmartSDR so that it uses a fraction of the PC power it once used. I did notice a quite significant decrease in CPU (computer processor) utilization and WAY lower RAM (memory) usage! The spectrum display is much smoother and more responsive and the software itself is way more stable. I never had too much of an issue with stability with SmartSDR in previous versions, but I know that several users had a lot of SmartSDR crashes.
Some users experience crashes however because of the configuration of their individual computer systems. I don’t believe I have ever had a proper crash going back to SmartSDR v 1.2, but I did notice it was a bit heavy on system resources.
Overall another welcome change, thumbs way up for this! My PC fans thank you…
DAX Enhancements: Ok, this has got to be the best single improvement to SmartSDR! In prior SmartSDR versions DAX has simply just been broken. The drivers were awful (especially the 64-bit drivers), and users reported having to re-install DAX every so often just to get it to work. I too was one of these folks, and have been really angry about using DAX. As a matter of fact I have avoided using digi modes in the past using my 6500 because DAX was so problematic.
Well, I am happy to report that the drivers seem stable now, and you no longer have to continually re-install the DAX drivers to get DAX to pass audio! YEA FLEX!!!!!
In addition to the stability fix with DAX, there have been changes to the DAX control pannel to provide you with more information so that you can understand which DAX channel is being used on which slice and even on a particular computer. Since DAX can be used on multiple computers now with the remote feature this is handy information to have!
Note the slice is displayed next to the DAX channel number, and for DAX IQ streams it displays the frequency of the slice that you are using.
DAX IQ streams are totally awesome for use in other SDR applications, keeping everything in the digital domain. For example you may wish to use another SDR applications to record a chunk of the spectrum (on a Flex 6300 that is 7 MHz of bandwidth, on a Flex 6500 and 6700 that’s 14 MHz of bandwidth!) and then play it back later for analysis. For SDR noobs, this is not recording just audio, this is recording the radio spectrum of several transmitting stations and saving it and or playing it back later! A truly awesome feature of modern SDR technology! Tell that to the guys who tell you that they don’t like SDR radio because their are no knobs. SDRs can just do way more. Period. And it is the future of all things radio!
Finally DAX works like it should! Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, FLEX!
SmartSDR CAT Improvements: Can’t say too much about this really. The folks at Flex Radio Systems added some more CAT commands to the signature series of radios so that 3rd party applications can access more of the the 6000 series hardware features. These include, but are not limited to, several significant fixes for interfacing with slice B and support for the CWU/CWL tuning modes. In addition to the CAT protocol enhancements, improved diagnostic capabilities and virtual COM port driver modifications have been incorporated to improve SmartSDR CAT usage with CAT enabled programs. Good deal.
FlexControl Improvements: There have been improvements to the COM port driver so that the FlexControl is better identified by the computer when you plug it into the USB port. Some Flex users out there have had a lot of problems where when they turned on their PC the knob was not recognized properly and didn’t work, and they had to fiddle with port (COM) settings to get the FlexControl knob to work. I personally never had this issue, and the FlexControl knob has always worked just fine for me, so I am not sure if this has been totally resolved or not.
EQ Modifications: The 8-band graphical EQ has been modified for the 2 kHz, 4 kHz, and 6 kHz frequencies to increase bandwidth around the center point frequency to ensure a smoother transition between these EQ bands. This is nice so their isn’t such an abrupt change now between adjustments of the 2 kHz, 4 kHz, and 6 kHz sliders. Not that this was a huge problem for most folks, but the audio quality of the Flex is one of its most redeeming qualities. We should all want it to be the best it can be.
TX Profiles: Flex added some default transmit (TX) profiles for the RadioSport model of headsets by Arlan. A nice addition I would say.
Expanded X/RIT frequency range: The X/RIT frequency offset range has been increased to 99.999 kHz to accommodate very wide splits when operating digital modes. Awesome.
Now on to the version 1.4.3 specific additions!
Binaural Receive Audio Mode: SmartSDR for Windows now has the capability to receive audio in Binaural mode. Enabling this option will produce a virtual 3D spatial depth of field listening sensation by shifting the phase of the recovered audio relative to one channel of the speakers or headphone channel. The effect may enhance weak signal reception. If any of you out there have been PowerSDR users with the Legacy Flex 5000A, 3000, or 1500 then you will be familiar with Binaural audio mode. This is a really great feature, however Flex chose to put the button that enables in in the “Radio Setup” menu under the “Receive” tab. This is really lousy since you have to access two menus to get to the darn thing. They really need to change this to a button in the audio menu on the slice where it is intuitive for users to find and use. After just installing 1.4.3 I had a hell of a time trying to find out how to enable the Binaural mode since the button was not in the location in the SmartSDR GUI where I thought it should logically be.
Transmit Monitor for DIGITAL Modes: You now have the ability to monitor the transmitted audio while operating in DIGU and DIGL modes. This is especially useful for 3rd party digital software setup and troubleshooting. This is great because it allows you to hear the sound of your transmission to better identify over driven audio, or perhaps problems with the transmitted signal when using 3rd party sound card digital mode applications.
Actual Transmitted Audio Record and Playback: The slice RECORD function now records actual audio being transmitted over the air. This includes transmit audio bandwidth, equalization, and other audio effects. Once the audio is recorded, the PLAYBACK function will transmit a faithful reproduction of the recorded signal without adding any additional processing.
Additional Function Button Options for FlexControl: Flex finally let folks with the good ‘ol FlexControl knob to be able to use one of the programmable buttons as a transmit switch. This switch does not however operate in a momentary fashion. Meaning that you push it once to transmit and then you need to push it again to stop transmitting (toggle function). It would be really nice to allow folks the option between the on/off (toggle) style of button versus the push and hold ability. But I am guess that pushing the button simply is just sending a CAT command stored as a macro to the radio, so it was simple for them to implement. It’s OK, but I would still rather use my Heil hand-switch, or foot-switch instead of clicking that button. I’m just sayin’. The other button addition is the CHANGE ACTIVE SLICE function allows you to step through all of the enabled slices, making them “ACTIVE” for tuning.
Well that about covers all the features. Now for a list of the GOTCHAS that I experienced.
After installing SmartSDR ver 1.4.3 I had problems getting my amplifier working. At first I suspected a problem with the amp, but after troubleshooting a bit more I noticed that the TX relay was not engaging. This was because there is now a button to enable external TX through the RCA jack on the rear of the transceiver. Sneaky!
So, if you have an amplifier and it doesn’t seem to want to transmit anymore, check to make sure RCA TX1 is ENABLED. Perhaps this button has been here in other versions, but was enabled by default or something, I am not sure without researching it, but I thought that was quite interesting that my settings were not passed on from one version of SmartSDR to another.
That actually seems to be a big problem for most users that when they upgrade SmartSDR, or upgrade computers and re-install the software that various settings are not retained. I did backup my global profile and transmit profiles, but some settings are obviously still not part of either those two profiles yet.
The bottom line: Overall the version 1.4.0 and version 1.4.3 SmartSDR updates are really great! Until DAX was fixed in version 1.4.0 I would not have recommended a Flex 6000 series to hams that were big on data modes. This was really because DAX was so sketchy. Also I should state that there have been many other improvements made to SmartSDR other than what I covered here. I just stuck to the main bigger picture type features and problem fixes. For more information please see the release notes for the the version of SmartSDR that you wish to update to. The guys at Flex Radio Systems do a great job with documentation.
As a Flex 5000A user previously, I do remember versions of PowerSDR that were a bit wonky and features did not work well. The thing is with Flex SDRs are that the software is a fluid, living entity of its own that is always evolving. If you have not yet taken the SDR plunge, that is a major consideration from changing from a traditional radio to an SDR like the Flex. But the power that SDR technology delivers cannot be denied. SDR radios are far more flexible, configurable, and powerful than a comparable traditional radio in a desktop box with knobs on the front.
I hope that you have found this review useful. It took a lot of time for me to test various features of these software releases, but I had a blast doing it. A new release of SmartSDR is almost like getting a new radio. As soon as Flex announces a new software release, I always get excited to see what features have been added and what bugs have been resolved. It adds to the enjoyment of owning an SDR transceiver.
If you have any comments, or questions submit them in the comments section below!
73 de Nick N9SJA