Radio Surfing In Style For Cheap (Or Getting Started with RTL-SDR)

Software Defined Radio is one of the coolest things to happen in the field of electronics since the personal computer. Instead of requiring lots of expensive single-purpose hardware, SDR does most of the work in software meaning that all you really need is an antenna, a special box, and a modestly powerful PC. These boxes such as the USRP by Ettus Research typically go for hundreds of dollars, which is cheap for hobbyists and researchers but not for broke-ass guy like me. Needless to say, when I heard about a $30 “el cheapo” TV dongle that could be used as an SDR, I quicky bought one.

Setup

Now that you have the dongle, what do you do with it? There are a few programs out there that can make use of the RTL-SDR hardware such as HDSDR, SDR#, GNURadio, and Gqrx among others. This guide is written to get you up and running as soon as possible with as little hassle as possible.

Windows

For Windows, I recommend the SDR# (pronounced SDR-Sharp). It is fairly powerful, and very quick to get up and running. The complete setup guide can be found here, but here is the abridged version:

  1. Download the install package here, unzip it and double click on install.bat to download the necessary files.
  2. If you haven’t plugged in your SDR dongle, do it now. Windows will install some drivers, but they will be replaced soon. DO NOT INSTALL THE SOFTWARE FROM THE DISC THAT CAME WITH THE DONGLE!
  3. Open the folder sdrsharp, and run zadig.exe.
  4. In Zadig, click on the “Options” menu and select “List All Devices”
  5. From the drop down list, select “Bulk-In Interface (Interface 0)”
  6. In the Driver box, make sure the Target is set to “WinUSB” and press the Install (or “Replace”) Driver button.
  7. Once installed, close Zadig and run SDRSharp (Note, there is a file called SDRSharp.exe.xml, that may show up beneath it as “SDRSharp.exe”, The one you want has a type of “Application” not “XML Configuration”
  8. At the top left of the screen, next to the Play button is a a drop down menu, select “RTL-SDR / USB”
  9. Now you are ready to Party! Type in the frequency you want in Hertz under “Center” and select the band you want (Generally it will be WFM for Commercial radio, NFM for walkie-talkies, and AM for Weather Radio and airplanes and airports)
  10. Feel free to move the sdrsharp folder to wherever you want it “installed.” Just don’t forget to make a shortcut to the program on the desktop.

For example, My favorite radio station is 89.5 FM. To Tune in, I would select WFM and then under Center, I would type in “89500000” for 89.5 MHz (Make sure Frequency matches Center). If I wanted to, say, monitor Channel 8 on those multi-channel walkie-talkies they sell at pretty much every department store, I would tune to “467562500” (Though there may be some frequency drift)

MacOS X

For Mac 10.6 or better, I recommend the Mac port of Gqrx. Just download the Disk Image, copy the .app bundle to the Applications folder, insert the dongle and run the program. There is a Mac port of HDSDR but unfortunately it is for OS X 10.7 only. To get started:

  1. Insert the dongle and run Gqrx.
  2. At the top left of the window, there should be a green icon that looks like a PCI card with the mouseover text of “Configure I/O Devices“. Click it.
  3. At the top, there should be a drop down menu with the label Device. It should say something like ezcap USB 2.0“. If it doesn’t, select it from the drop down list. Select OK.
  4. Select the power button at the top left corner to start.
  5. Select the mode from the side bar (Generally it will be Wide FM for Commercial radio, Narrow FM for walkie-talkies, and AM for Weather Radio and airports)).
  6. To tune the frequency, hover your mouse over the number you want to change and press the up or down keys on the keyboard.  For example, My favorite radio station is 89.5 FM. To Tune in, I would select Wide FM (Stereo) and then tune “89.500 000 MHz”

Notes:

  • The frequency range is only from ~52MHz to 2.2GHz. Don’t expect to get shortwave, commercial AM radio, or CB radio.
  • It is also recommended that you invest in a cheap powered VHF / UHF antenna (i.e. “rabbit ear” antenna) as the stock antenna is woefully inadequate.
  • To do anything more advanced than just listening to various radio transmissions, you will probably want GNURadio. However, outside of Linux, installing it is a bitch-and-a-half. I would personally recommend installing it on a Virtual Machine with Linux rather than try to install it on Windows or MacOS X.

Useful Links:

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