Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Review: Nooelec Nano 3


First RTL-SDR dongle made for on-the-go mobile use: tiny metal case, R820T2 chipset with TCXO, 2 year warranty, bundle with four OTG cables, heatsink and antenna to fit everything in your pocket.
Got two review samples from Nooelec for testing for free, honest opinion below as always.
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In the box


Brushed black aluminum case like a SMArt, size comparison, giant metal object in background is a Zippo lighter:



Supplied heatsink with two-sided self-adhesive pads, sticks onto Nano 3 case straight away.



MCX connector antenna is really small, 88mm collapsed and 227 mm fully extended from antenna connector to top.


MCX to SMA female 90-degree barrel connector is also supplied, more on that later.


OTG adapters


OTG means On The Go, certain micro-USB equipped touch devices (practically everything this side of an iPhone running a recent version of Android) can use external hardware, such as USB hard drives, or RTL-SDR dongles.
Will your device function? No clue, google OTG compatibility and device specs, generally, if it's less than two years old it should be OK, I use a Samsung 2016 J5 smartphone in this post and for daily chores.
Adapters in the bag function not only with dongles for radio, but with any other USB device and any RTL-SDR dongle, such as thumb drive in the image on the right.

1. Straight adapter


Tiny metal bit, comes inbetween phone and dongle:



2. Angled


Dongle 90 degrees off, adapter offers the possibility of external power in.



Looks very 21st century.

3. Pigtail with one USB port


Length 16 cm / 6 inches, plug in dongle and good to go, but without external power option:



4. Pigtail with two USB ports


One for receiver, length 20 cm / 8", other for external power 30 cm / 12":



OTG cables conclusion: Nothing new under the sun, similar or identical OTG cables are available from eBay for ages, prices vary between 2-10 dollars each. Not a fan of, correct that, strongly advise against using any straight OTG cable with any device which you hold dear or not insured, as strain on connector might be excessive during daily use. Data connector is also where phone / tablet is charged, and if that's damaged you'll cry.
Of the four adapters in the pack, the last one is clearly the winner due to length of cables and external power in capabilities. RTL-SDR dongles, or any connected device will drain batteries faster than Candy Crush, Youtube and online messaging at the same time, so you need external power.

Take it apart


Four screws, smallest in comparison with other dongle screws, nearly spectacles level.
Case is completely new design, two side panels hugging central hollow containing PCB with two thermal pads:



Blue pads are not just between case and PCB, melted onto chips, thinner one is like removing dried-in chewing gum from a Persian rug, thicker one comes off more or less in one piece, do not ever remove them, look at PCB below:


MCX connector standard


Supplied antenna when angled vertical puts considerable strain on the connector, SMA adapter is the same, antenna will not stay upright with either.
Issue: after a few day's use, center pin simply broke into dongle - might be down to my clumsiness, never happened before, thought I've never use angled adapters for this very reason.
Wonderful. For $28 dongle should be supplied with SMA connector as a minimum just like SMArt family, v.3, ProSticks, or practically all higher-class receiver. Seen that Noolec constantly improves products (e.g. Ham-It-Up), next version will probably feature SMA, and whilst at it, throw in the SMArt's three antennas as well, competing products ship with lots of antennas and cables for the same money.

Heat


Official product page highlights the fact that dongle will get hot, for people who sue McDonald's that coffee was hot warning sign on dongle reaffirms what's to be expected.



Plain, unsinked dongle with a smartphone quickly gets so hot that non-PC expletives left my rosy lips in a quick and rapid fashion, then I added supplied heatsink to be able to 1) find the damn thing in the dark, larger blob in the bag or on the dashboard, and 2) be able to unplug dongle without resorting to oven gloves or various parts of worn apparel.
Constructive moaning: painting heatsinks black will limit heat transfer capability and soak up sunlight (but agree that looks the part), pure aluminum is better and easier to see in reflected or limited light conditions.
Or, maybe, the option to order better heatsinks would be appreciated.

Software and hardware compatibility


Not an issue. Nano 3 is an R820T2 chipset based dongle, like many others, so will function as such.


TCXO


Those four words mean temperature-controlled oscillator, entered frequency will be received frequency.



Spot on, 100%, cold or warm, no ppm adjustment required.

Waterfall cleanliness


Important as noise showing up (white speckles in blue) can hide a signal.

Versus Nooelec SMArt, find where I've swapped dongles:



Go full-screen on a 24" or larger monitor, then it's visible - they're close, edge belongs to SMArt, thought Nano 3 used adapter, so not a clear-cut case.
Versus rtl-sdr.com v.3:


Khmm.
Versus Nooelec Mini 2+ in aftermarket Nooelec case (bottom part of image), a notoriously noisy and capable dongle:



Versus Nooelec Nano 2+ on top, which is as close to apples to apples as possible :


Metal case and (cannot confirm) improvements clearly show.

Receive performance


Supplied antenna receives signals, such as strong local stations or transmissions originating in the vicinity will show up on screen - for example, useful to test whether a walkie-talkie actually transmits when it's within your sight. I haven't really tested it extensively as antenna broke into dongle after a few days.
On a pro discone, Nano 3 was essentially the same as any other R820T2 based dongle, no drawbacks due to small size.
Airband:



Upper VHF, AIS lines on the left, local taxi on the right:



Comparative performance versus other dongles was more or less the same, be it shortwave (needs upconverter as no direct sampling hole, standard on $8 generic, guide here to go below 30 MHz with a piece of wire) or any other frequency in the sub-GHz range.
ADS-B at 1090 MHz: side-by-side versus other dongles was bottom performer in the 19-dongle ADS-B test. On its own with a Cantenna at a good location had numerous aircraft locations and details on smartphone:



Moaning in pointless


Nano 3 is built and marketed for a clear and substantial customer base - new generation of users with a smartphone only, more than 500,000 downloads for SDRTouch alone, nerd universe on Reddit for RTL-SDR close to 60 thousand and steadily increasing, need I say more?



Days of big and expensive is over, for those who want to hear the world, or randomly explore signals just because they can with an RTL-SDR dongle, Nano 3 fits the bill.
Those who understand concepts such as SNR and wavelength and noise floor and 8-bit might choose something else or chastise connector standard and antenna (my two main gripes), but the majority of under-25s, or any interested teenager will just connect bits and pieces together, download relevant apps, and be merry.
Who cares about performance shortcomings or lack of features when there's no other dongle on the market which shows airplanes, ships, or the radio spectrum out of the envelope on a phone or tablet using two braincells and an index finger in 10 minutes?

Value for money


4 OTG adapters are 2 dollars each off eBay with lots of possible waiting, premium dongle with two-year warranty is never less than $22, one heatsink costs $2, therefore $27 spent is well spent. Think of antenna as a bonus.

Alternatives


$28 dollars for the full bundle. What does that money get you?



Same deduction from account buys a SMArt bundle, which is not that much larger, looks and feels a million dollars, comes with SMA connector and three proper antennas, not just a back-scratcher.
Apex predator of the RTL-SDR world called v.3 bundle with the best antenna package and more features, costs less ($28 vs $26), but remarkably larger, less warranty and altogether plays in a different (its own) league.

Conclusion


Nano 3 is a fantastic little dongle with many forward-thinking features.
However...
Day-to-day handling experience is marred as it's way too hot to touch without supplied heatsink, and whilst the receiver itself is excellent breathtaking considering its size, it's let down by supplied antenna, which is great to physically poke people (not just on Facebook), and I don't want to mention again the broken-in antenna due to outdated connector standard once more as bundle comes with 2-year warranty, and Nooelec is renowned for customer service.
Would I buy or recommend it? No. Not now. Nano 3 should come with SMA connector, SMArt's large magnetic mount and three antennas, and at that happy moment, this little gem will conquer the hearts and wallets of anyone this side of three large X.

3 comments:

  1. Just wanted to say thank you for all that I have learned reading your blog and ebook. Great to have such a source of practical sound advice. Cheers!

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  2. I have one and I have NEVER used the angled MCX-to-SMA-adapter. It is of bad quality and does not securely fit and clamp into the MCX jack. I ordered a 5" MXC to SMA pigtail from China and use this pigtail for adaptation. It stays inside the Nano3 at all times. The MCX plug clicks and fits perfectly into the Nano3. And the flexibility of the pigtail guarantees some strain relief. You can also order MCX-to-BNC pigtails if BNC is the connector of your choice. Now I am very happy with my small Nano3. I use it for antenna measurements in combination with a noise generator and a return loss bridge.

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  3. Her is a picture of the Nano3 with the pigtail, it says more than 1000 words, of course: https://flic.kr/p/ZEyuaA

    ReplyDelete