Review: FlightAware Pro Stick Plus


Nov 11, 2016


The Pro Stick Plus is an RTL-SDR based receiver primarily for ADS-B signal reception. Say again, this is not like its predecessor or any other dongle, the Plus is entirely designed for ADS-B use.
And boy, it's great. I firmly believe that the Plus is the best value for money ADS-B receiver at the moment, but let's see why.
Please read the Pro Stick review for an in-depth look at its older brother as its main competitor referenced in this review, the main difference for the Plus model is the addition of a filter.
Note: This post contains affiliate links (you pay the same price as with a direct link) and feature review samples. Full disclosure by clicking here.


Pricing and availability


Ripoffs already exist, buy with confidence from the following sources, they're the official FA outlets:
Around 21 dollars in the USA on Amazon with free shipping:


International customers can order on eBay from Wifi Expert for $29.99 plus shipping. To Ireland, total would be $42.



Currently (mid-November 2016), unavailable on Amazon sites in Europe, so the only way to get one here is via eBay - that also means 30 day warranty only.



Software compatibility



Most ADS-B fanatics already run a Pi3, and the Plus is a direct replacement: simply swap any dongle out with blue (no adjustment was necessary in PiAware), rejoice with more position reports and better range.
For Windows use, first-time users will require the usual Zadig driver installation, but after that, behaves just like any other RTL-SDR dongle.


Minor changes







Dongle and preamp and filtering on the same dongle is so much less headache than separate components - I hate connectors coming loose.
LED has been removed to make space for the filter.


Still no supplied antenna - I'd get a Nooelec 5dBi ADS-B antenna for 5 dollars as an easy screw-on solution, or simply use an existing magnetic mount with a telescopic antenna extended to 13.76 mm / 5.41 inches.
Nearby ports are still partially blocked on a Pi3, so two side-by-side receivers for Stratux use is not possible (the Plus' filter officially filters 978 MHz, couldn't test this). Use an USB hub for multiple receivers.





1090 MHz only



The Plus won't really function as a general use RTL-SDR receiver, despite the onboard LNA: even local broadcast FM required 10-15 dB gain in SDRSharp. The same values simply overloaded a regular Pro Stick.
The Plus comes with TCXO with an observed 0.5 ppm. This makes no difference for ADS-B use.
Built-in filter only passes signals (manufacturer figures) between 1075 Mhz to 1105 MHz; I can't test these claims, but filter seems to be quite effective. For example, Broadcast FM imaging is significantly less with the Plus than with a regular Pro Stick:


The same story for other strong stations: DVB-T, Tetra, and pagers do show up, but nowhere near on the same level as with a regular Pro Stick or with a non-filtered dongle.
99.9% of buyers will get the Plus for ADS-B use, which is its intended application.


ADS-B Performance



Previous tests revealed that no other RTL-SDR based dongle comes close to the orange Pro Stick for ADS-B performance; therefore, the main and only question is whether you should upgrade from a Pro Stick and FA filter combo.



Identical Raspberry Pi 3 ModMyPi Starter Kit as back-end computing in image, no user involvement, same antenna via splitter, receivers are the only variable.



Edit Nov 15, 2016: I've used a half-wave antenna on a metal plane for this tests, as it comes with nearly all dongles or easy to construct at home. Some users on FA forums experience problems with FlightAware antenna and Pro Stick Plus - I'll do a comparative test in the near future and post results here.
Edit Nov 21, 2016: More comparative tests against rtl-sdr.com v.3 on half-wave antenna, and versus Pro Stick with Filter on FA antenna here.
18.45 percent more position reports, 5.4 % max range difference. For my location, that's a huge improvement. The $21 Plus is better than the $17 Pro Stick with a $20 filter.
Theoretically, an LNA at the antenna with long coax runs will be better, but then we're not in the same price bracket, preamps cost $25 or more.
Readers will surely point out that filtering might not be necessary, that the Plus is not as usable for general signal reception, and $42 delivered to Europe without any antennas and 30-day warranty are a bit steep. I totally agree, but the RTL-SDR and ADS-B scene is USA centered, and for $21, ADS-B enthusiasts will hoover up stocks in the States.
I hope that shipments for Europe will be available on Amazon at the end of November.


Alternatives



None. Not for max performance ADS-B signal reception for $21.
For general radio signal reception, not just ADS-B, I still recommend a v.3 from rtl-sdr.com or a Nooelec SMArt for many reasons. You lose 50% or more position reports, but get HF to Gigahertz performance in return.



Add-ons



Broadcast FM filter from rtl-sdr.com: in a previous test, improved ADS-B figures by 2.7%. Won't hurt, $15 from China, screws right onto the Plus.



FlightAware antenna: hugely popular in the ADS-B community, had the best performance in a previous test comparing four antennas: 22% more reports than a half-wave on a magnetic mount. For $45, or thereabouts.
If you want the best performance, minimize any coax cable between receiver and antenna, and place antenna as high and as free of obstructions as possible. Remote power with PoE is kids' play, and totally eliminating coax is possible:



The setup above costs around $120, but it'll pull in the most ADS-B signals from any location. A Pi 3 kit and Plus totals ~$80, and homemade antennas are always an option for the DIY types.


Conclusion



If you want the best ADS-B receiver and best value for money at the same time, the Pro Stick Plus is the only choice.

2 comments:

  1. I maybe a bit thick and missing something here but can't one use a normal PC for ADS-B - why use a Raspberry Pi? I see a lot about using a Raspberry Pi with this (and other) dongle, is it not possible to plug the aerial/dongle combination directly into a PC and cut out all the Raspberry Pi hardware?

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  2. Of course you can use a PC. Pi is not necessary, better/cheaper for 24/7 use.

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