Thursday, 3 March 2016

Review: Ham-It-Up v1.3 Upconverter

What is it?


A circuit board adding 125 MHz to the received signal, so you can receive below 30 MHz.

How much?


$44.95 (plus $5 shippingtracked worldwide) from the manufacturer.

Disclaimer


I bought the older version (called "Old v1.2" in this review), and received the updated version (called "New v1.3") for review free of charge.
The older version has been previously tested here against a now-unavailable upconverter, then once more against a portable shortwave. Due to advancements in technology - new R820T2 tuners and the updated Ham-It-Up reviewed here - those posts are outdated, but will provide background information.
The old version is in almost daily use for over two years, and the upgraded version is tormented for nearly 3 weeks.

First impressions


Upconverter arrived in proper signed-for and tracked bubble wrap envelope, in a sealed antistatic bag.
- This board would be at home in a ballistic rocket. Lots of thing to see and wonder at.
- Blue PCB is full with components, technically inclined enthusiasts can spend hours reading the different values for resistors and capacitors; the average user gets easy-to-understand "Antenna Input" and "Output" markings. What goes where is evident due to legible markings.
- LED lights mounted on the board look and feel extremely flimsy, a half millimeter gap between bottom and mount. You can move the lights left and right, so far didn't break off. Feels like it's a matter of time.
- No instructions on how to use your 50-dollar purchase. The video on the product website shows installation instructions for the older version.
- No USB-B power cable. This is not available in the webshop, nor mentioned on the order page that you need one. Go and hunt for "USB printer cable" if you don't have one, costs around 4 dollars on Ebay, ~ 6 dollars in any electronics shop, comes for free with any printer. Nooelec advised via email when this issue was raised that they sell power cables, quoting "10cm version SKU 100583 and a 3m version with dual ferrites, SKU 100580". Dual Ferrites are good for you, order one.
- Golden and USB power connectors are easy to see, fixed solidly, do not move even with excessive force.
- Passthrough switch is the same feel as older version, massive and audible, like kicking a motorbike into first gear.

Obvious differences compared to old v1.2 version


Info here will be only meaningful to someone thinking of upgrading, roll down if you don't have one.

- No separate oscillator, everything is mounted on the board. Looks like I wasn't the only one criticizing this.
- Power In changed place, so everything is reversed by look.
- Passthrough switch still next to output, Upconvert / HF mode setting still toward antenna out connector. No mental or finger recalibration needed.
- Much more mounting holes (eight versus two), same M4 metal screws can be used. Golden ring around holes much bigger, better contact for metal enclosures via screw head or washers.
- three LEDs inferior to old version: plastic holder move alarmingly when plugging in power cable. Repeating myself here, but it's terrible.
- What's it, a traffic light? With the old version, green meant good to go; the same green with the new one means that the board runs in upconverting mode. Yellow is power, and red is low battery.
- Clearly marked battery GND and V+ holes. Breadboard jumper cables fit the holes perfectly. This is a godsend if you use a Raspberry Pi as a dedicated RTL server  - less cabling in the enclosure without soldering.
- Noise source is ready to go, old v1.2 required components available separately for 10-plus dollars and soldering.


Performance


Much less conducted noise with phone or tablet chargers: the difference is hearing a weak AM broadcast station or listening to annoying buzzing.

Better commercial FM signal reduction: strong local station could be picked up even in Upconvert mode with the old board; new version is mute and clean as it's supposed to be.

Battery banks work: no 12V-to-5V downconverters needed for mobile / mains-free operation, simply plug the Ham-It-Up into a mobile phone battery bank and it will work. Batteries are the preferred power - less noise.

No bias-T. Powering a preamp at the antenna via coax cable from the Ham-It-Up not possible. RTL sticks sold by Nooelec do not come with bias-T, but even if you have a dongle with bias-T enabled, the LNA at the antenna in passthrough mode will not work.

For HF reception, the Ham-It-Up works as advertised: helps the RTL dongle to receive radio signals below 30 MHz. Used it for shortwave broadcasts, found radio amateurs beeping greetings in CW mode, listened to Approach -- Ground instructions moments after enjoying morning news on shortwave.
The key selling point for the Ham-It-Up is versatility for beginners; use the same discone for monitoring local action, then lay back, flick a switch and get a surprise broadcast with unfamiliar tunes from the other side of the world.
Experimenting beginners will revel in the possibility of chasing weak HF signals, adding preamps and erecting increasingly larger and complicated wire abominations "just to <enter unjustifiable reason here>".
Advanced users will love the populated noise source, easier battery operation and integration into a dedicated HF-only setup.
For 50 dollars shipped, it is good value considering the feature set, but don't forget add-on expenses:
- power cable,
- $22 for metal enclosure,
- $10 for Balun One Nine
- $3 for SMA to use noise source (it's a matter of time before you'll think using it)
- $30 for a HF preamp,
- $5 for my book to know how to get the maximum out from all the gear,
- toroids, dedicated RTL stick  with Raspberry as RTL server, enclosures, the list is long.

Competitors


The Spyverter has been found in other reviews to have better ultimate performance, but it is 15 dollars more expensive and does not come with a passthrough switch. For people with lots of letters after their name it's not a disadvantage, but for newbie Joe and Jane, it means that the shiny new discone will be less flexible. Of course, throwing out a longwire is preferred for HF signals, but what if you can't or don't want the hassle?
The HF driver mod, courtesy of Oliver Jowett, is a free software mod and requires no money on the table - download and extract files from the link, cut and paste necessary files into the SDR# folder and hope to find something below 30 MHz.



Strong broadcast stations usually come in, but sometimes don't, stations occasionally pop up as low as 6MHz, but it's rare. It's a great introduction to shortwave signals during the day, but incomparable to a purpose-built device.
[Knowing how long it takes to put a post like this together, I can't imagine the amount of work that went into developing those drivers. Kudos and deepest respect to Oliver for making the drivers available for free, but I had to point out they are not a replacement for hardware]

But I need a long wire (or something large) to listen to shortwave


That's not true. The "you need long wires" myth is archaic, outdated and does not take the power of software enhancements into consideration.

Check this out, old vs new Ham-It-Up:

That's a broadcast station on 7350 kHz with an RTL-SDR.com Silver dongle, Ham-It-Up upconverter and a 20" / 50 cm extendable antenna. Not the best, but listenable.
With the stock antenna and some clever mods, the old v1.2 and a cheap RTL stick has been used extensively to listen to shortwave broadcasts during my travels. You won't copy hams on CW, nor I ever felt inclined to do so six timezones away from home after a 10-hour flight. Your mileage, and long-haul resistance may vary.

Combine it with ...


... the Silver dongle from RTL-SDR.com.
The supplied large antenna extends to 5 feet / 1.5 m, the SMA connector is compatible with the ones used on the Ham-It-Up, add a SMA Male - SMA Male pigtails when you place your order for a good to go package.
Use the smaller antenna to explore local signals, put the huge one out fully extended to listen to civilization.
You won't get better value for money or convenience this side of 100 dollars for radio reception.

If you enjoyed this article please pre-order my RTL-SDR
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