Thursday, 25 February 2016

Review: 5 RTL-SDR dongles


Update Nov 22, 2016:


This is an outdated post due to technological advancements, please see the following reviews for current flagship products:



Review: 5 RTL dongles


An RTL-SDR is a small USB dongle, used you to listen to the invisible world of radio communications. From as little as 7 dollars you get a noname USB stick, or spend 26 and select from one of the top products reviewed here.
Best value? Ultimate performance? Greatest spouse acceptance factor? Which RTL stick to buy?


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Thought seemingly the same, RTL SDR dongles differ in the chipset (the brain responsible for radio reception), how temperature changes affect them, and what type of connectors they use.
The most common chipset available is called R820T, offering reception from 24 MHz to 1766 MHz. An improved chipset called R820T2 covers the same frequency range, costs the same and slowly taking over due to better performance. The older type is still available, but is the new one really that much better?
TCXO: RTL sticks need time to properly warm up, and during this period the tuned frequency changes. Once warmed up, the tuned frequency stays the same, or possibly wanders around the little, which is not really the end of the world for most applications.
A few experimenting users thought otherwise, and replaced the brain of the RTL stick with a temperature-controlled one. Nooelec jumped on the bandwagon as the first major distributor to offer temperature controlled oscillator (TCXO) versions of common RTL sticks. As of now, adding TCXO costs an extra 4-5 dollars.
To make matters even more complicated, several connector options are available: PAL (which some dismiss as inferior to other standards), MCX (hated for being so tiny and frequently coming out) and SMA (the standard on pro gear).
At the top of the heap, two companies offer the best available configurations ($25 vs $26 for a full package), newcomer RTL-SDR.com and established Nooelec.

Which one? R820T vs R820T2, TCXO vs non-TCXO, PAL vs MCX vs SMA? The best from Nooelec or the best from RTL-SDR.com?

RTL dongles tested

Quotation marks are "names I call them" in this review.
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Terratec R820T ("Terratec"): win / buy the same or an identical version under a different name on Ebay for 6-7 dollars, entry-level cheapest option. Used frequently for two and a half years, MCX connector.
Nooelec R820T: ("Black Nooelec"): Used for two and half years, manufacturing date of 05/2013 on sticker. Available brand new, cheapest Nooelec at $17.95. MCX connector.
Nooelec Nano ("Nano Nooelec"): Second cheapest Nooelec, costs $19. Included to check whether reduced size and PAL makes any difference. PAL connector.
Blue Nooelec R820T2 ("Blue Nooelec"): Costs $26. With TCXO, MCX connector. Brand new, one of the top-spec sticks.
Silver R820T2 ("Silver stick"): with TCXO, in a metal housing from RTL-SDR.com, costs $25. Direct competitor to Blue Nooelec above.


Update: Read "Avoid Rip-offs" if you want one of these, or an RTL dongle in general.


Why no cheap Ebay sticks?

I don't have a working one. They all failed.
I'm not affiliated with companies mentioned here, nor receive payment for this review. Nooelec and RTL-SDR.com provided dongles, pigtails and a shortwave upconverter used here free of charge, no strings attached. Both companies answered questions in connection with this review - thank you. I bought other two sticks and equipment from my own funds.
Manufacturer's responses in purple.
I recommend brand-name vendors in general and in my book, because two out of three sticks off Ebay stopped working after a few months, third one giving up after a year. The price difference between noname and Nooelec/RTL-SDR.com is 10 dollars, you get someone to talk to if you got a problem, warranty (see below), and when I bought an upconverter from Nooelec and it's gone missing, they simply sent a new one out. Peace of mind for $10 extra.
Screenshots open full-size by clicking on them.
Nuance testing setup and technical details at the end of review for those interested.


In the bag


Both companies are USA-based, shipping to Europe took a week in both cases, safe signed-for delivery, proper bubble-wrap envelopes.
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- Both the Black and Blue Nooelec come with a 9.2 cm - 31.2 cm collapsible antenna with angled joints. These feel sturdy and well-made.
- Silver dongle comes with non-angled 6cm - 20 cm, and 20 cm - 1.5 m collapsible antennas. Huge antenna is quite flimsy. "Huge" as in you'll keep wondering how big is it gonna get when you pull it out.
- All magnetic mounts contain the same magnet, regardless of size. This will be only suitable to pick up screws from awkward places, with any antenna screwed on, a butterfly in anger will tip it over. Larger magnet found in old bases will be interchangeable with more power - swap the magnet into the silver dongle's large base if you want to use the huge antenna for mobile use.
- Silver dongle's coax is inferior in comparison with Nooelec coax.
Bases and coax are only an issue if stick is used for traveling, most users throw them away.
RTL-SDR.com added the following:
Just to clarify, we ship internationally (outside of the USA) from a fulfilment warehouse based in China. This helps us avoid unnecessary import fees and taxes that come with importing to the USA and then overseas again and lets us leverage cheap Chinese shipping. All US orders are shipped from local USA based Amazon warehouses.

Feel and first impressions

Silver stick looks and feels like an upmarket product, SMA connector shouts "radio gear" to the world - I wouldn't want to answer questions at an airport bag search, especially that the markings rub off easily. Same price blue Nooelec uses soft grip plastic enclosure, identical to black one bought two years ago, and other blue cheap Chinese RTL sticks I had since.
Terratec case is black, probably made from recycled toothbrushes - hard, slippery plastic, same as the Nano. The Nano will not get you into trouble, DVB+DAB+FM and a familiar PAL connector will be understandable to even the most irritated third-world customs officers.

Cases 



Performance decreases with increasing temperature, so efficient air circulation or other measures to keep the chips cool must be implemented.
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Silver stick has heat transfer pads between chips and metal case, as a result, it has the lowest temperature by hand.
Its direct competitor, the blue Nooelec uses the same proven case design as its predecessors, so despite being plastic, feels only slightly warmer by hand. For some unknown reason, ventilation holes are on the opposite side of the main heat-generating elements. Nooelec offers a metal case for an extra $10, suitable for all full-size sticks.
The case design on the Terratec can be still seen, with less holes than the Nooelec design - again, opposite the main chips, on the non-populated part of the PCB.
The R820T Nano has no ventilation holes whatsoever. None.

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Bias-T


The silver dongle offers the possibility of powering a preamp directly over the coax cable. You'll need to open up the dongle and do some soldering, so this is strictly aimed at the enthusiast crowd. Furthermore, DC short (continuity meter beeps) antennas like a QFH will not work without a preamp, it will void the warranty, and did I mention you'll have to do brain surgery on an electrical circuit with components smaller than a starved ant?
If you succeed and need a suitable preamp, Adam's LNA4ALL can be modded, or bought with the T-Bias mod already done, connect him directly for details.

Warranty 


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Most Ebay purchases offer free replacement, buyer pays return postage - more than the value of the dongle to Shenzen or Hong Kong. 
RTL-SDR.com's dongle offers 6 month warranty, Nano and Black Nooelec: 1-year, Blue stick comes with 2-year warranty.
Opening up the cases, Nooelec has two extra electrical components inside. The Terratec lived in an oil-cooled enclosure for most of its operating life, that might have also contributed to its longevity.
If you deliberately organize family holidays to remote villages just to enjoy a lower noise floor, always carry two backup sticks.
RTL-SDR.com added the following:
We will usually offer a free replacement or refund if a manufacturing fault occurs within the first 6 months without the need for a return. 


Frequency Drift and Case Efficiency



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All dongles had 1-2 dB higher signal to noise ratio once warmed up, so always warm up RTL sticks for best performance.
Values for relative comparison only, simulating regular operating procedure, gain at 32.4 dB, receiving shortwave with upconverter.
Nano: Quickly drifts, then settles, -6 ppm. Quickest to warm up (no ventilation holes on the case), reaches operating temperature in 3-4 minutes, then happily stays around the 30 degree mark.
Silver dongle: 0.5 ppm at startup, - 0.5ppm after warm-up. Warms up really slowly, reaching the 28 mark in 20 minutes, then stable at a maximum of 29.7. 
Blue: 0 ppm at startup, 0-0.5 ppm after warmup. Warms up quickly, 28 mark in 4 minutes, then stable at 35. Handy hand warmer on colder nights.
The silver dongle's case is the best, heats up really slowly, metal surface allows a massive heatsink (or two) to be placed on top for additional cooling. 

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FM broadcast and electrical noise pickup


All but the silver stick were in plastic housing, and as expected, with gain on maximum and no antenna connected, it had the lowest electrical noise and commercial FM station pickup.
Uniform blue is what we want, less signal in center, and less speckles in the image.
FM station on Nano Nooelec barely audible, rest of the sticks with equal noise pickup, indiscernible differences.


Airband


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Back to back between silver and blue, blue dongle is louder by ear and less clear voice, less noise with silver but also somewhat muffled sound.
Fiddling with Audio Noise Reduction and IF Noise Reduction, and volume up on speakers resulted in a "someone is in the living room, talking to me" situation. Using the same noise reduction settings with the R820T sticks: guy sounding as someone with a sumo wrestler sitting on his face.
I'm using this frequency for years to check local weather conditions, and the first test with an R820T2 was eye-popping. If you postponed upgrading 'cause you thought the difference only manifests in lab conditions - get the credit card out.


Low UHF



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Nano audibly better than the other two R820T sticks, also less noise visible on screen. Silver stick 4dB better than worst R820T, chirping booming in.

High UHF


451 MHz, sound like a data signal. Relevant frequency as European PMR 446 walkie-talkies and American FRS are found around here.
No audible or visible difference in performance between R820T chipsets. 
Blue and Silver dongles with R820T2 chipsets clearly better.
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Round one results


All dongles could also receive AIS signals; all worked for ADSB signals. Listening on my staple frequencies for taxis and personal businesses, both on VHF and UHF and quickly swapping dongles mid-conversation reaffirmed that newer chipsets are better. Deciding between Blue and Silver was impossible, but that's what weak signals on shortwave are for.
Out of the three R820T versions, I observed better performance with the Nano Nooelec on shortwave, on VHF and UHF signals. Less frequency offset, better sound quality. Different architecture due to Nano design? Other two sticks at the end of their life? Can't answer why, end result remains the same: the Nano is better.

R820T vs R820T2?
R820T2. Audibly better performance. A noname R820T2 on ebay costs around 6-7 dollars - question is whether it will actually contain the newer chip and when will it fail. Price difference at Nooelec is 3 dollars ($17.95 vs $21.95). Go for the R820T2 chipset, the difference is huge.

PAL vs MCX vs SMA?
Frankly, it makes no audible difference. Or visible. I can't agree or disagree with engineers toting the benefits/disadvantages of either, from a practical point of view after using them with pigtails:
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PAL: massive and secure connector, easily identifiable. A cro-magnon corner shop will have adapters in stock, and above kindergarten level anyone can plug them together.
MCX: I loathe this for being so tiny and impractical: a hair-width center conductor only.
SMA: Second easiest to use, one type of pigtail covers connections to LNA or upconverter. Can use transceiver antennas with barrel connectors.
Wishlist: please bring back F-type (Sat TV) connectors. Place antenna connector in-line with USB connectors, e.g. as on Nano and Silver dongle. Provide a second, spring loaded antenna connector (like one:nine balun) for shortwave wire antennas - better still, integrate a 9:1 balun on the dongle board. 


Shortwave listening - Broadcast AM performance


Silver and Blue remained for evaluation, tried the Nano a few times, but performance is not comparable. The old workhorse,
Black Nooelec was too much hassle with ppm corrections and a disappointment altogether compared to the two latest and greatest.


Silver stick makes tuning a station a joy, less noisy than the blue, so signal is much more visible, click and enjoy. Check the image full screen - more noise is clearly evident with the Nooelec stick.
Back-to-back, blue is louder and noisier, using the blue on strong station powerhouses such as government propaganda, and some fiddling with Audio and Noise reduction settings results like you're listening to a local radio station. Changing over to the silver stick with same settings results in weaker audio. Tweaking performance to find the sweet spot, then changing over to the blue stick again yields better audio, louder and more understandable.
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For weak stations, Nooelec's blue stick proved to be better, requires careful gain, contrast, noise and audio reduction tweaking. For strong stations, RTL-SDR.com's offering was easier to use.
CW around 13016 kHz: Noisy, but easy copy with blue stick on computer speakers, barely discernible with silver stick. With decreased gain, blue is still a consistent and continous 3/5 copy, silver stick much weaker.
For a comparison click on the image on the right to see with different stations: "Silver stick" is RTL-SDR.com R820T+TCXO, Blue Stick is Nooelec's R820T2+TCXO. Warning: large image, taskbar personal info removed from printscreens, no other image mods.
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Overall Best RTL-SDR dongle

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Silver Stick from RTL-SDR.com, newest chipset, no drift, a pleasure to look at and pick up, huge supplied antenna, metal case. A docile labrador bringing back the ball, middle ground and no hassle: get this for all round use, listen to shortwave broadcast with clear voice.
Advanced users enjoy T-bias with LNAs, SMA connectors, the easy possibility of air cooling. A good present, easy to use on shortwave, nice and clean. Impressive looks, anyone asks: as of February 2016, this is the RTL dongle to buy. 

Best Performance RTL-SDR dongle


When the blue is not in a metal case, comparison is unfair from absolute performance point of view. But even without a metal case, Nooelec Blue offers the best performance. 
If you want to hear it, reach for the blue. On paper, this and the silver are identical, in real life slightly different.

Will rip your head off like a pitbull when you get it right: silver is good for casual listening, better package altogether, but blue will get the maximum. Noisy, a challenge with gain settings (especially on shortwave), better on weak signals. I was surprised to see myself choosing the blue first during testing, then checking with the silver if I can receive same signal.
I'm confident that I reached my present location's limits due to environmental factors and antenna with the Blue.
I'll receive a metal case for the blue in the near future and do a no-limits ultimate shootout with LNAs, T-bias mods, using a 100-foot T2FD at the countryside. Bookmark the blog.

Should I buy a TCXO version?


Yes: No hassle with frequency corrections, if stick lives outdoors diurnal temperature variation will not effect it, it's the latest technology. Shortwave listening. Or because you want one.
We will usually offer a free replacement or refund if a manufacturing fault occurs within the first 6 months without the need for a return. No: You can wait 5 minutes, or only use one stick.

Best value RTL-SDR for beginners


Any R820T2 off ebay, yours for less than $10. Set up frequency drift once, wait 5 minutes for stick to warm up and you're there.
For the money, you can't beat a cheap (and cheaply made) RTL-SDR stick from an online marketplace - if you're paying more than 8 dollars including shipping, you're ripped off. 
If the bug bites, buy a brand-name RTL stick and relegate the original to backup duties. Just don't expect a 6-dollar RTL stick to work as reliably as a 20-dollar one.

Best R820T stick


Nano Nooelec is clearly better than other two versions, this could be either due to 1) newer architecture, 2) different components or 3) the other two has been beaten like a dead horse over the last two years. I suspect it is better. I like the large PAL connector, 1-year warranty, the incredibly small form factor and the looks; passes inspection as a TV tuner. Negatives are R820T chipset, no TCXO and $19 price tag.

RTL-SDR.com R820T2 TCXO vs Nooelec R820T2 TCXO


Direct competitors on price ($25 vs $26, I doubt this is a coincidence). Go for the RTL-SDR.com R820T2 TCXO, see why above in the overall winner section. If you don't want the antenna package, the silver dongle is yours for 20 dollars. 6-month warranty only.


Which one would I buy?


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Nobody really cares, but these are details I can see, which starts me wondering about the reasons for only 6-month warranty. Make no mistake, it is a groundbreaking product and certain elements are the way ahead (T-bias, inline SMA, metal case with heatpads, build quality).

Testing setup


City center location, electrically very noisy. Commercial discone antenna, 9m of coax, USB extension cable, electrical noise reduction measures in place. Only the sticks were swapped - what you see is purely down to individual performance. If applicable, testing details are provided - check for yourself if you doubt the results.
Shortwave testing with Ham-It-Up v1.3 and One:Nine Balun (separate review here). Broadcast AM, CW signals, listening impressions in text - printscreens are only half the tale.
All dongles tested with connector-specific pigtails, courtesy of Nooelec. Changing between sticks took less than 10 seconds, so I sincerely doubt large atmospheric changes could influence results.
SDR# v1.0.0.1433, all receivers immediately recognized and usable. 
Black Nooelec and Terratec have been used, both working perfectly, whether this influences results or not is up for debate. Silver and blue sticks are within $1 in price, so direct competitors on the market, performance-wise the silver dongle is theoretically at an advantage due to metal housing.


Temperature testing


Using a Raspberry Pi 2, some code and a DS18B20 Digital temperature sensor taped to the dongle, maximum gain with 2.4 MSPS, commercial FM station at 96.4 MHz, sticks tested from cold to maximum temperature: checking heat-up rate, maximum temperature, SNR change.Temperature figures in degrees Celsius, for comparison only! as ambient air temperature effects measurements, probe wrapped in tape to prevent thermal conductivity with metal case of silver dongle.
Final note: 
The difference between the two top dogs is there, but really small. Consider the following screenshot: Blue's somewhat higher noise and better reception is evident for the trained eye, especially on a Full HD screen or with studio earphones.



Viewing the above image on a smartphone or tablet is pointless, especially surrounded by text. View the supplied screenshots fullscreen, then draw your own conclusions. 

Manufacturer's responses:

This review has been sent to both manufacturers to check for factual errors - like warranty etc. Their responses are copy-pasted below, word for word.


Nooelec:

Hi Akos. We try to avoid commenting on reviews, as we believe impartiality is of utmost importance.  Outside of egregious testing errors, or problems with core methodology, we usually do not provide any feedback.  Hopefully this is understandable.  


That being said, if you have any specific questions about the products in the review or their functionality, please contact us any time and we will be happy to provide you the information required.


RTL-SDR.com

Thanks for the great review! Just wanted to say that we're a small company and our goal is to improve the RTL-SDR dongle into a product that is more "SDR" than "DVB-T Dongle" whilst keeping the price low enough so that anyone can afford one and have fun with SDR. We don't price on any sort of competition basis, we price simply based on a profit that it takes for the company to continue running. We also have some new SDR/radio related products in the works that may come out later this year so keep an eye out!

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