Sunday, December 29, 2013

API access, more testing, lots of fun

Long time, no post (... real life intrudes on my fun, unfortunately).

However, recently Flex have been kind enough to grant me access to their API program, so I have been learning and experimenting with connecting to the radio over ethernet.

This is every bit as fun as I had hoped, not least because it brings together some of my biggest passions: radio, digital comms and functional programming (the latter because I'm creating a Flex 6x00 Haskell API as I go).

Visibility into what Flex have done in regard to the radio as an internet appliance further reinforces my positive impression of this product and the company.  Clearly, the 6x00 is a product resulting from a remarkable amount of combined intellectual capital.  It continues to be very exciting to contemplate the opportunities afforded by bringing together the technologies in the 6x00.  Without a doubt this was a very ambitious project, especially for such a small company, but I really respect what they have accomplished already here, especially 'in the box'.

As an aside, it's clear that the SmartSDR client has a long way to go to fill out features and ergonomics, however even there I would commend Flex for making a great start - the UX is clean and uncluttered, emphasizing the signal visualization in the panadapter(s).  SmartSDR does not semi-permanently surface every single control a la HF radio front panel, which I think is a big mistake of many SDR interfaces.  Doing a 'genuinely digital', simple, yet efficient UI for an SDR is far more intellectually challenging than just sticking controls everywhere on the screen (even if they are organized in different panels).  There is of course always a 'matter of taste' involved in UX and naturally also a large degree of hysteresis due to experiences that users become habituated with.  In Amateur Radio it's certainly true that many operators prefer hardware front panels with many options immediately available via dedicated controls.  However, I feel that the default views for software controls should be clean as possible, even if there are options for pinning additional controls in the UI so they are available with fewer clicks or keyboard interactions.  One thing it's hard to argue with concerning SmartSDR today is that the basic panadater view is awesome, affording such an amazing real-time, high-fidelity view of the received signals.  It's wonderful to have a realtime frequency analyzer as your view on the world (and from experience with my son, it's also an amazing learning tool). That's not unique to SmartSDR of course, but the emphasis and fidelity of this feature is the best I've personally seen.

Back to the API, unsurprisingly my initial goals are to get signal data streaming from the radio.  Hopefully I can send audio out without too much trouble and then move onto some of my ideas for scanning the band and deducing signal locations and modes.

Finally, Adam has run a fresh barrage of tests on my 6700 with the possibility of doing even more.  The reasons for the number of test runs are twofold:

  1. The radio is evolving with features and fixes that have a bearing on the testing
  2. There's a lively discussion ongoing regarding appropriate and effective metrics for SDRs given their entirely different modus operandi compared to analog radios.   This discussion is converging on some methodologies and metrics that should be a better fit for meaningful comparisons across SDRs (in particular) and additional test runs are collecting relevant data.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Another test session with Adam Farson, putting V1 under the microscope

I spent another five hours, thereabouts, at Adam's place with the Flex 6700 on the bench.

We did a full set of NPR tests, IMD tests and some quick TX power and phase noise tests.
We ran out of time for further TX tests, so another session is scheduled for next weekend to complete those.

Adam will of course be preparing and releasing a report in due course, now that the radio has reached V1.

Monday, September 30, 2013

V1 is out!

Flex Radio put V1 of the Flex 6x00 SmartSDR and firmware up today, so the radio is now available for purchase to non-preview customers and fully supported in its intended initial form.

I have a new date at the weekend to drop the radio around to Adam's place again for some new testing.
It's open season to see just how the 6700 will fare - and this time we'll be publishing the results.

I'm sure the guys at Flex will be trying do get some much needed post-push rest, although the business of commercially supplying and supporting the radio has just started in earnest!

I still haven't heard from Flex Radio regarding the SDK/API.  That's probably because they've been completely swamped in getting V1 out... but I really hope to hear something soon about this!

Friday, September 27, 2013

v0.16.4 lookin' good

0.16.4 was released this week and seems to demonstrate that Flex are nicely closing on their goal of a solid V1 in a few days.

Aside from simple UI bugs, there were clearly a few important issues with the prior builds.  One of the most obvious for me had been the ineffectiveness of the noise DSP features.  With 0.16.4 these seem to be functioning as I'd expect in terms of actually having the expected effect.

The radio is a pleasure to use and really seems to pull signals off the air.  Once V1 has dropped, I shall attempt to perform an A-B comparison with the IC-7800.  That will also be the time for another test session with Adam Farson.

SmartSDR is very easy to use, if still a little vanilla in terms of features and convenience options.  For instance, the obvious dragging of a receiver slice to tune it has no snapping feature.  So you typically have to drag then twiddle the scroll wheel on the mouse a little (which does have a snap) to get the 'whole number' frequency that the transmitting station is invariably using.

Of course, we're not getting a number of fairly 'basic' radio features until January, with a completion of the originally specified feature set delivered through the balance of 2014 - but Flex appear to be doing the Right Thing - consolidating the core functionality to an acceptably high quality before building out new features.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A little wait for the next preview release (and the next NPR tests)

The next preview release of the SmartSDR and 6x00 firmware was due out about now, but apparently this will be a little delayed now due to some quality issues detected in this cycle.

Flex operates several phases of development and testing.  Each cycle will produce builds that are sent to 'alpha' testers, then to a wider set of 'beta' testers if a build looks solid.  Finally, if the beta testers are happy then a good build will be released as the next preview release.  Thus, preview releases are supposed to be somewhat stable and usable (modulo a set of supported features).

While I'm chomping at the bit to test the next version, especially if it has the signal path optimisations we've been promised since our initial testing, I'm glad they're making sure we are moving forward with solid releases and not just letting releases 'escape' that have significant issues.

Flex are currently saying that they're on track for an end-of-September release of the V1 software.  That's good news, but as far as I'm concerned I'd rather they continue the prerelease incremental developments until V1 is completely ready.  By that I mean fully delivering on the expected level of receiver quality for SSB, CW and AM and generally solid in terms of the client UX.  Anyway, we'll see what happens soon enough I suppose.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Aspirations for the Developer Program

While I wait for Flex's Developer Program manager to make contact with the details, I confess that I'm very curious as to what Flex Radio have planned for developers.

A developer program can have a lot of moving parts, but maybe not all from the get go.
To begin with there's the simple issue of access to the APIs, or if any tools are required to the SDK.
In due course, APIs need documenting.  I gather that's not fully done yet, which is fine for me and probably a lot of seasoned developers - so long as there are ways to at least get summaries or infer functionality from samples, sources or notes.

Often vendors will want to express certain limitations, frequently commercial, as to what a developer can actually build and what they are permitted to do once they would like to ofter a derived product to others.  This is where there may be distinctions between for-free and for-profit offerings and in the latter case whether there are royalties/fees due to the platform vendor.

What I'm hoping for minimally is free access to the APIs and at least the ability to distribute free apps/extensions depending on the API functionality.  This seems fully in keeping with the spirit of Amateur Radio, experimentation and the encouragement of an active developer community in what is otherwise quite a niche.

I do also hope that Flex will allow developers to charge if they want to.  That could encourage people to invest even more time and energy into projects that could help to fill out the 6x00 ecosystem and amplify the value proposition of the radio.  To begin with though the market isn't exactly going to be large, and it may never be in any real sense.  So, I doubt there's any real money to be made here, only the advantage to Flex of being seen to have a community of developers and add-on products around it.

A much less preferable option would be for Flex to want to charge extra for their API, probably via a paid developer subscription.  That's a shame because it's counter-culture for hams IMHO, but also just because it's a barrier to entry.  I doubt there's a very practical model for doing this anyway, both because of the logistics, but also because I can't think what an appropriate price would be (both meaningful to Flex but also low enough to work in a tiny community).

With APIs come the very real possibility of deeper tech support.  This isn't going to be an issue when you have a handful of dedicated well-chosen early access developers.  Both the number and type of queries will initially be limited and if the API is still early, then direct contact with the API developers is actually a good thing.  As the developer community grows however, you can quickly move into another regime where this direct support becomes impossible.  At this point you can try to automate 1st line technical support with tools like wikis and forums, but at some point a paid scheme becomes necessary, if only to act as a bit of a limiter on the demand, but also a way to help pay for the overheads.  Again, I hope that this can start off very light-weight and free.  Better to prequalify developers and then offer free online informations and occasional direct support, than to require payment for any access.

Anyway, I'm raring to get going with learning and experimentation if there are no impediments.  So hopefully I'll find out how I can get started very soon.

Friday, August 23, 2013

SmartSDR Roadmap

In a bold move Flex Radio have published their development roadmap for the Smart SDR software through to October 2014 with 25 keynote features.

If you're a Flex Radio Support Community member you can get this here.

This roadmap provides interested parties with a much clearer picture of when certain promised features are to be delivered.  It's bold of course because it can immediately cause reactions related to the relative priorities of features and it also sets up external milestones on which they will be judged.  Nevertheless, this is a good move to keep the early adopters faithful and confident, particularly as they start to build a solid history of delivering on or before time.

No doubt they have thought quite hard about these commitments and will have tried to build in some buffers and a chance to over-deliver.  Even though "road map" can often mean 'provisional plan, subject to change', in this case I think they understand the need to build and maintain confidence with their existing customers and the market.

For their Signature Edition customers (essentially their 'kickstarters'), Flex have committed to two years of SmartSDR updates for free - these software updates normally being subject to an annual subscription after the first year.  This published roadmap essentially indicates to the Signature customers how the software for which they have arguably prepaid will be rounded out in the first year, delivering all the key promised features.  At the end of this period, with all the essential features in the bag, Signature customers will then have a single year of included support remaining - hopefully to see lots more exciting developments that transcend the foundational features and really confirming the value proposition.  This is certainly the time that I'd expect to see Flex really hitting their stride with the sheer potential of the platform as a "radio appliance" and learning how to leverage even more from the considerable hardware assets in the 6x00 series.

It's difficult to guess at what sort of headroom might exist in the radio itself for the key signal processing and control logic that must reside there.  We're told there's some designed-in headroom and it's invariably true that engineers learn how to be more efficient and performant with given general-purpose hardware resources.  So no doubt some capacity will be recovered with optimisation over time, and there's also the possibility of features being swapped in and out dynamically (e.g. overlays, modules) when certain mutually exclusive or combinatorial choices exist.

While we've yet to see how this openness will play out, I'm very happy to see that Flex seem to be serious about continued dialogue with their customers and having as open a development process as possible.  Although SmartSDR is not itself an open source product, this is the next best thing.  Actually, coupled with at least an open API, this could be the very best thing (open source isn't a panacea when it comes to fast, directed, innovative development).  Letting Flex concentrate on producing a superlative radio core and appliance 'operating system', while allowing others to integrate with and extend this externally, seems like it could be a great recipe once the software reaches its 'minimum viable product' level.  Flex's open roadmap concept, if it is continued and made meaningful by reliable deliveries, could be a huge differentiator.  Once the delivery of the foundational features is done, this would be radically different to the experience of being a customer of one of the big established radio manufacturers - where there are seldom any real feature upgrades to a radio and certainly never any discussion of future plans.

In other news, we're told to expect another small software bump soon.  It seems like the one after that will contain some important changes to signal processing that Adam and I are interested in ahead of the next set of bench tests.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Developer program

Apropos my last post, Steve Hicks N5AC has already responded to my request for API access with information that the company is gearing up with a Developer Program.

Apparently oversight of this program is now delegated to a specific manager within the company and I shall be hearing more soon.  That's exciting!

Plans for 6700 based software projects (hope to access Flex 6x00 API)

The idea of the 6x00 as a radio appliance, to which software can connect to provide a range of functionality is extremely appealing to me.

I can imagine software to operate (possibly on currently unsupported platforms like the Mac and Apple's iDevices) of course, but also scanning and monitoring software.  As is often the case, imagined possibilities will be practically bounded by engineering constraints, but this should be a huge step up from what is possible with the last generation of radios.

Commensurately, I'm really hoping to get early access to the 6x00 API.  I gather that Steve Hicks N5AC (VP Engineering at Flex) has already provided access to a few lucky external developers.  His posts on Flex's new Support Community suggest that he is open to the prospect, though I gather there are caveats about the changing nature of the API and the fact that it is, as yet, undocumented.

I have an email into Steve enquiring whether he would be willing to provide API access.

Separately, another community member Stu Phillips K6TU has had access to the API for a while and has been working on an iPad app for operating the radio.  As part of that project he has allegedly created Objective-C bindings to the API with some nice class wrappers representing major entities.  This sounds awesome and he is claiming to be close to being able to release these in some form for the community at large.  As a Mac user this is music to my ears.  Hopefully a library package of this sort would make getting started extremely easy and convenient.  Assuming reasonable coverage of the API capabilities, I could see myself being quite happy to get started with this and maybe this would be the basis of some app projects.

However, as competent with Objective-C as I am, I am hoping I can still get access to the native API as I have plans to write Haskell bindings and then create apps with the cross-platform GTK+ GUI library. This will allow apps to run on Windows, Mac and Linux and there are even builds of GTK that absolve the need for X11 (not historically a problem on Linux, but not so great on Windows and the Mac where you'd like the app to appear as native as possible).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Flex Radio beavering away feverishly in the run up to V1

Flex Radio were kind enough to respond to Adam's report very quickly.

As expected, they indicated that there's much afoot to bring the V1 software completely up to where they want it to be for V1 performance, but also that their own internal development and testing is producing results that should be remarkable.  Besides other key functionality and usability features, a lot of effort is going into important optimisations in the signal chain that should be able to really 'move the needle' in terms of the kind of parametric testing we did last weekend.

We understand that we'll be able to retest the 6700 with new software in 2 or 3 weeks that will include this next important cycle of improvements.  So, I'm really looking forward to that.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Mini report prepared

Adam Farson (VA7OJ) has prepared a report which has been sent to Flex Radio in the first instance.
As noted, this is of course for the PREVIEW software that is currently available (0.13.10).  We expect to perform the same tests on subsequent releases, including V1 when it is released, naturally.

The scope of the testing, as detailed in the report is:

1.       NPR (Noise Power Ratio). Test setup: Wandel & Goltermann RS-50 and RS-25 noise generators (fitted with the following filters), MCL 75/50Ω transformer, DUT ANT1. DUT set to LSB for all test frequencies except 5340 kHz (USB). 2.4 kHz channel filter selected.

Table 1. NPR test filters.
Bandstop kHz
Bandpass kHz
Equiv. J3E channels

2.       RMDR (reciprocal mixing dynamic range). Test setup: Marconi 2018A signal generator, 20 dB pad, DUT ANT1. HP 339A distortion meter at DUT phones jack as level meter.

3.       DR3 (IMD3 dynamic range). Test setup: Marconi 2018A and 2019 signal generators, 20 dB pads, MCL ZSC-2-2 combiner, 0-50 dB step attenuator, DUT ANT1. HP 339A distortion meter at DUT phones jack as level meter.

4.       ADC clip level. Test setup: Marconi 2018A signal generator, DUT. Clipping observed on spectrum scope and headphones.

We may share these initial results in due course, but we're interested whether Flex Radio feel they are representative and/or likely to change much in the near term.

I gather many of the folks at Flex Radio may be traveling to shows at this time and they're probably crazy busy in order to close out V1 features and performance, so we're not sure when we'll hear back from them.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

First testing of preview Flex 6700 with Adam Farson

I hooked up with Adam today, as planned, to put the Flex through its paces with a number of tests.  These included a full suite of NPR measurements, reciprocal noise tests (despite this being a direct conversion receiver), IMD tests and finally some strong signal clipping tests.

Now, the 6x00 software is of course still in prerelease/preview and there are likely to be further significant changes in the signal processing chain, so we fully expect to see some improvements all round when the V1 software arrives at the end of September or beginning of October.  Nevertheless, it's interesting to have done a 'baseline' survey of how things stand now and we'll repeat the exercise in due course with the V1 software.

Adam will be writing up the measurements and findings this week.  We want to share these results with Flex first, especially as the radio is 'unfinished' at this time.  There were certainly some highlights and unsurprisingly also a few lowlights too.  Adam was fresh from testing the Apache Labs ANAN SDR, so naturally comparisons were made between these two.  He has also tested the Perseus receiver, for which the results are already published on his web site.

Dave Shipman VA7AM was present during most of the afternoon and John White VA7JW dropped in for an hour or so.  As I haven't been to an NSARC meeting for quite some time now it was great to see them again.  There's clearly some real interest in the Flex 6700 and as we're all long standing Icom HF rig operators (including 7700 and 7800), there are obvious comparisons to be made with these too.

After the lab testing, we hooked the 6700 up to Adam's R8 antenna in his shack and had a tune around on 20m (which was rapidly dying around 9pm) and on 40m.  I'm increasingly of the opinion that the 6700 has good ears in practice and there were a lot of copiable 40m nets and QSOs ongoing.  The 6700 seems to bring signals nicely out of the noise.  However, the as yet unfinished Noise Reduction does leave a lot to be desired.  Tuning and weak signal listening could be pretty tiring with the lack of noise suppression currently available - but we know from quite explicit comments from Flex Radio that improvements are coming.

I like the SmartSDR UX (user experience) and it's really awesome to operate the radio with such a direct visualisation of the received signal.  The scales are spot-on too, as validated by Adam's test gear (although there's a known issue with the new rollover dbM value shown on the receive slice gauge).  The radio's own operating interface essentially formed a useful part of the measurement instrumentation. Below are a couple of screenshots from the afternoon:

Friday, August 16, 2013

First 6700 testing with Adam Farson coming on Sunday

For my first weekend with the 6700 I've arranged to take it to my good and learned friend Adam Farson VA7OJ for some NPR testing.

Adam has an awesome lab and spends a good deal of his time testing and reviewing transceivers.

While it's only fair to take the results of the "V1" software seriously, we thought that it would be interesting to test with the current preview release and then repeat the test in October with the advent of the GA release.

Adam has just finished testing the Apache Labs ANAN and has previously looked at the Perseus Receiver, so the 6700 will be a nice addition to his 'collection' of SDRs.

Also present when we test the 6700 will be David Shipman VA7AM, who has followed Flex Radio for some time (the North Shore Amateur Radio Club, to which we all have an affiliation, has a Flex 3000 in the club station).  He has expressed an interest in seeing the 6700 in the flesh.

So, Sunday afternoon should be very interesting and I'm personally very curious to see how the 6700 fares against the ANAN even with its unfinished software.

Tomorrow (Saturday), I'll finally plug the microphone in the front panel and see if a QSO or two is in the offing for the first time!

SmartSDR V0.13.10

My first weekend with the 6700 is here and Flex Radio have rather handily released an update to the software: V0.13.10.

This version has a number of optimisations and fixes, but nothing radically new in the way of features.  The consolidation is good.  While Flex Radio have quite a few more promised features to make available yet in the wider preview software ahead of a V1 release, I'm glad that they are continuing to make the bread and butter work well before branching off into new features.

General preview customers are effectively being given fairly stable software.  I'm sure Flex Radio have other alpha and beta cycles that the general preview testers are not seeing yet and these builds invariably are starting to see some of the missing V1 features.  Flex Radio are starting to converge the V1 feature set at this point, according to the company, and they have also indicated an end-of-September release date for V1.  Personally, I'd expect a little more slippage - so maybe into October - but we'll see.

So far, with only a few workday evenings of Rx under my belt, I'm very much liking what I see.  The user experience is very clean and although it's obvious that there are features missing, you can see the design philosophy in the user interface and where various controls are likely to end up.  Although I never used PowerSDR in anger, that UI always looked extremely busy.  Of course, hardware radio control panels are often pretty busy, but that's no excuse for a software interface.  It's nice that controls 'get out of the way' when you're not actually using them and for there to be a well thought out "progressive disclosure" or priority hierarchy with regard to the prominence and permanence of displays and controls.  The 6x00 with SmartSDR has the added need to allow for a vast amount of spectral information to be displayed concurrently.  With (eventually) 8 receiver slices over multiple panadapters, most of the screen needs to be available for displaying spectrum, rather than showing static controls.

On return home from work this evening (Friday), I was quickly able to download the new preview software and install it in my Parallels Windows 8 VM.  Whole upgrade process to the radio is super-slick - well done Flex.  The computer software upgrade however was just a little bit more involved this time as this release needs to remove and replace some driver-level components.  We were asked to uninstall, reboot, then reinstall the CAT software in order for things to work right.  Nevertheless, everything was nice and easy... and rebooting is rightly or wrong something I strongly associate with Windows ;-)

I'm not sure how stable this link will be, but details of the V0.13.10 preview release can be found here.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013



With a bit more time to play today I was able to ascertain that my previous SmartSDR connection issues seem to be down to some vagaries of the Parallels 8, Windows 8 stack that I'm attempting to use to host SmartSDR.

From the Flex Radio community forum it was already quite clear that people had managed to get SmartSDR working well on Parallels (or Fusion) with Windows 7.  One of the bits of lore there was that you should use what Parallels call their "bridged networking", which associates a physical network device on the Mac directly with the virtual ethernet device that Windows will see simulated.

Despite some attempts yesterday, apparently I had never actually ended up with a bridged ethernet configuration that worked.  I had previously used these Windows installations using the shared networking, which is fine for outgoing requests (e.g. browsing).  It turns out that switching the networking to bridged can leave the stack a bit confused.  In this state Windows claims that a network is connected but that it is "Unidentified" - but in fact even a browser doesn't work.  Initially, I had left the wifi turned on for the Mac to use.  It was certainly working for the Mac, but come what may I couldn't get the Windows networking to behave.  However, when I tried turning the wifi right off, suddenly Windows indicated that its network was reconfiguring and indeed eventually displayed the network as "Network 6" instead of "Unidentified".  At this point Windows networking was up and running.  The browser browsed and, joy of joys, SmartSDR connected to the radio perfectly.

At that point I was naturally drawn right in to SmartSDR so left off further experimentation.  It's quite possible that turning wifi back on for the Mac would have been fine at this point and left the Windows VM happily using the Thunderbolt device that it was bridged to, but that's an experiment to try in the future.

What I did try after a bit of tuning around and listening to various ongoing QSOs was to set up bridging over wifi exclusively.  That all worked fine too.

With wifi turned on, I went for a bit of a wander around the house and noted that SmartSDR kept running happily.  When I got back to the 6700 (which had a speaker attached) I did however notice that the panadapter was actually lagging behind the sound.  I suspect that wandering around (I have multiple 802.11 base stations configured as repeaters to cover the house) had caused longer latencies that were reflected in this panadapter lag.  I'm guessing that eventually Flex Radio might handle more networking  conditions by being adaptive and resyncing as necessary.  For now though, all I had to do was disconnect and reconnect when back near the radio (only one wifi base station hop) and everything was back in sync just fine.

Here's my first screenshot of a SmartSDR panadapter.  I was curious about zooming right out to see the glorious huge bandwidth of the 6x00 'front-end':
It really is so cool how you can see the resonance peaks and troughs of the antenna across the entire HF spectrum.  Awesome.

Listening to a few QSOs on 20m I was struck by how great the audio sounded.  At some point I need to compare with the 7800 some how.  Tuning SSB just right on the panadapter was a little tricker than I expected, but I daresay that's mostly down to practice.  I didn't buy the optional FlexControl tuning knob, so I was just dragging the receiver slice about to adjust it on the SSB signal.  Perhaps I'll get more in the habit of zooming in for fine adjustments, or maybe there are fine tuning controls I haven't discovered just yet.

Anyway, the excitement pretty much starts here.  I shall now properly set up the 6700 for operations and attempt a for SSB QSOs.  After that I'll look into whether PSK operation is practical yet.


Well, so far I'm afraid I'm not having a great time (yet).

With limited time to spend, I decided to see if I could get things set up well enough for me to tune around on 20m and hopefully hear a bit of SSB or PSK.

I connected the DC power, the antenna (to Ant1), the ethernet (to my LAN switch) and plugged in some headphones.  Then I turned on the 6700 and launched SmartSDR on my computer - admittedly Win8 running in a VM under Parallels 8 on my Macbook Pro retina.

The radio went through its boot cycle and after a few light relay clicks it displayed "Flex-6700" on the front panel.  The light that was blinking green during boot, immediately went to solid amber when the radio had completed booting.

On the computer, the 6700 was discovered on the network, but sadly attempting to connect to it resulted in a short pause and then the UI appearing, but with no signal apparent and no controls actually working as such.  You can click around, the band selectors appear to jump frequencies, you can scroll, move volume controls etc, but really nothing actually works.  Also, there's absolutely no sound from headphones plugged into the front panel - not even a little noise.

Apart from the evidence that the network was working well enough to get the radio discoverable by SmartSDR, I watched my LAN DHCP service provide an IP address to the radio and there's an amount of activity in the ethernet lights on the back of the 6700.

This could certainly be some oddity having to do with either Windows 8, or the Parallels VM.  I shall have to borrow a PC tomorrow and try with that so I can rule out the Mac as a factor.  Nevertheless, the Mac runs an awful lot of software perfectly in Windows in Parallels and there's absolutely no sign of network issues in general.  There are also plenty of reports of SmartSDR running just fine for people on Macs under Parallels and Fusion, and my Mac Pro Retina has plenty of oomph.

Obviously, I'm hoping for this to be something niggly.  There's no outward sign that the hardware could be damaged or faulty (from physical evidence and the apparent success of power-up self-tests).

Anyway, I shall hopefully learn more tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


The 6700 arrived double boxed and festooned with the usual waybills and stickers:

To be honest, it looked like the package had been opened (one presumes Canada Customs) due to some loose tape.  While that's far from conclusive, more about that later.

Inside the outer box, is the product carton itself:

...and inside that of course we have all the goodies...

...including the Signature Editon jacket lying on top.

With the jacket removed, one finds a welcome letter and release notes for the, as yet, prerelease software.  The radio is clearly well protected in a custom foam packing with accessories at the side:

The Signature Series jacket is quite nice.  At least the front looks like a reasonable balance between Flex Radio branding, personalisation and just "being a nice jacket":

 ... sadly though, I can't really say the same about the back:

That probably limits the amount of 'wear-time' that the jacket will get, except in the hammiest of ham radio circles :-)

Unpacking the 6700 itself seems to suggest again that the package was opened in transit by customs.  The plastic bag containing the radio has been rather crudely taped back up:

I'm not certain of course, but it looks like the bag is designed with perforations for opening and that these have already been torn.  Perhaps electronics from lesser known outfits have to be opened sufficiently to be 'sniffed' by some detector.

Otherwise, the unit seems perfectly fine.  The signatures on the underside are a nice touch.  I remember when we used to sign the boxed products of our software when I worked at Crystal and the software had been released to manufacture.  It's a great way to have the team celebrate an achievement that probably took months, if not years, of feverish and sometimes quite pressured work.

The complete manifest of items in the box:

  • Flex 6700 radio
  • Power cord
  • GPS antenna and double-sided sticky pad
  • Short ethernet patch cable
  • Microphone
  • Quick Start Guide
  • Personalised Signature Edition letter 
  • Pre-release software welcome and release notes
One thing I hadn't realised was the design of the status light, which is obviously mounted behind the opaque panel so that no light is visible when the unit isn't powered:

Overall, the radio looks very nicely designed and built.  Still, the proof of the pudding is in the eating...

It's here.

So, to be fair to Canada Post, I'm sure most of the delay is indeed customs processing.  That certainly took days based on the tracking data.   My only minor grumble is that Canada Post's tracking data is pretty minimal for this level of service... you just get "Arrived at Post Office" a few times.  Anyway, just for fun, here's the tracking data as it was available an hour after receiving the package:

Arrival at Post Office                 August 13, 2013, 8:03 am  CANADA
Arrival at Post Office                 August 13, 2013, 1:31 am  CANADA 
Customs clearance processing complete  August 11, 2013, 12:37 pm CANADA  
Customs Clearance                      August 9, 2013, 10:07 am  CANADA
Processed Through Sort Facility        August 9, 2013, 10:07 am  CANADA
Processed Through Sort Facility        August 4, 2013, 11:43 pm  ISC CHICAGO IL (USPS) 
Depart USPS Sort Facility              August 2, 2013            AUSTIN, TX 78710 
Processed through USPS Sort Facility   August 1, 2013, 9:03 pm   AUSTIN, TX 78710 
Dispatched to Sort Facility            August 1, 2013, 3:30 pm   AUSTIN, TX 78728 
Acceptance                             August 1, 2013, 3:21 pm   AUSTIN, TX 78728 
Electronic Shipping Info Received      July 31, 2013

Unboxing and subsequent blogging of my experiences to follow...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Still waiting...

Well, we're not talking about an expedited shipping service here, but even so, here's the tracking data so far for my package:

Customs clearance processing complete  CANADA            August 11, 2013 12:37 pm 
Customs Clearance                      CANADA            August 9, 2013 10:07 am 
Processed Through Sort Facility        CANADA            August 9, 2013 10:07 am 
Processed Through Sort Facility ISC    CHICAGO IL (USPS) August 4, 2013 11:43 pm 
Depart USPS Sort Facility              AUSTIN, TX 78710  August 2, 2013 
Processed through USPS Sort Facility   AUSTIN, TX 78710  August 1, 2013 9:03 pm 
Dispatched to Sort Facility            AUSTIN, TX 78728  August 1, 2013 3:30 pm 
Acceptance                             AUSTIN, TX 78728  August 1, 2013 3:21 pm
Electronic Shipping Info Received                        July 31, 2013

The package appears to shoot across the states and then stops dead at what one presumes to be the border.

It would be so awesome if the US and Canada, being essentially sibling nations and sharing rather more values and culture than ever separates them, could actually get their act together and make that "longest land border" go away.  Almost unbelievably the Europeans have managed this.  Who would have thought that possible after having been multipartite enemies for most of recorded history?  Even today, the complexities of European politics strike me as fare more fervently protectionist than I'd expect between the US and Canada, but I guess I'm wrong about that.

Mutter, mutter, grumble, grumble.

Oh well, the wait continues...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

On the slowness of Canada Post

Well apparently the 6700 has been sent via USPS.

What this means to a recipient in Canada is that it gets dropped at the border somewhere and then Canada Post pick up the responsibility for the transit across the country to Vancouver.

This could also mean that the package sits in a customs holding area for some arbitrary amount of time before being cleared and released for the remainder of its journey.

Whatever the relative balance between the logistics and bureaucracy I have always perceived shipping in Canada as being really slow.  Before the year 2000, I lived in the UK and some deliveries there seemed almost miraculous.  Several times I ordered items from companies on the East coast of the US, and they would be on my doorstep in England by morning of the second day.  I have never once had that experience while living in Canada or anything like it, even if you allow for the size of the country.  For instance, I have purchased stuff from California and Washington state and it has taken a week or more to arrive, despite sometimes using expedited services.  Somehow, getting stuff out of the US, across the Atlantic, into a cargo facility and then out for delivery can be super-slick, compared to shipping within the same continent or even just 'up the coast'!

Anyway, Flex Radio provide the 'label number', from which it is possible to get a form of tracking information from USPS and Canada Post.  USPS show that the package was collected on Aug 1, and then veritably 'raced' to Chicago.  That's where it has been since Aug 4 and I'm writing this on Aug 8.  Of course, it's probably not actually there any more, but that is the last scan.  I suspect it has been dropped at the border and is now in some long queue for customs processing, but who knows!

Friday, August 2, 2013

On the reputation of FlexRadio

I've come to purchase a 6700 largely from a position of ignorance regarding how FlexRadio are as a vendor with post-sales customer/product support.  The big draw for me was the sheer potential of the architecture.  However, with V1 not even released at the point I'll receive the hardware I'm placing a bet on FlexRadio - that they'll as least live up to the expectations they have created via their marketing and that they'll stand behind their product and support their community of users.

I've only recently taken any real interest in Flex.  Their prior designs/products in the Flex 5000 and 3000 caught my eye but never really appealed because they weren't radio appliances that you could say were 'true to themselves' in design.  Rather, the design resulted in a collection of compromises and while a number of club members (and then the club itself) owned a Flex, there was a constant litany of complaints that seemed to be have their roots in these compromises.

Nevertheless, I wasn't expecting to find just how badly some prior Flex customers (of course the vociferous ones that choose to emote on web forums!) regarded the company given their perceived treatment and their judgement of the extent to which Flex delivered on its promises in prior product generations.  Clearly, in these peoples' minds, the 6x00 series of products represents just another cycle of hype to be followed by a lacklustre product with missing features and defects that will never be fixed.

At the moment, I have no way to get any objectivity on this issue.  I have no problems believing that a small company like Flex have had their fair share of issues and 'project bombs' over the course of their 10 years of operating.  From what I've gathered from club members getting a PC environment configured to work well with Flex/PowerSDR has been a big challenge - particularly for those with only marginal experience with PCs and Windows (and I'm no fan of Windows myself, with all its vagaries with IO, devices, registry etc., let alone trying to get pseudo-realtime processing done!).  Clearly, the 6x00 is a completely different beast to the 5000, 3000, 1500 etc.  The whole point of the 6x00 is that it's a radio and signal processing appliance, with the PC merely providing command and control, with perhaps a 'breakout' for other interfacing capabilities too.  So, I would expect that a whole slew of problems emerging from the old architecture would simply not be present in the 6x00 - but of course, there's still a huge amount of software that has to work well in order for the result to be a great experience, let alone being a game changer.

Personally, I'm in no hurry for Flex to deliver every possible feature that might be possible or muted for this radio.  I'm quite happy to own a radio that starts off doing basics well and then grows better in depth and breadth over time.  To me, V1 represents the "doing basics well" mark.   At this point I'd expect a very good receiver and solid reports on my transmissions.  Post V1, I'd expect further improvements in signal processing and more operating features.  Implicitly, I'm hoping that Flex consider this new radio to be an important product and one that they're motivated to grow out to its fullest potential.  Presumably, they will continue to have radio projects beyond those intended for amateur use (e.g. government and commercial contracts) and their continued investment in the platform will be somewhat dependent on their own measure of the upside potential of the product with continued investment.  If this platform is as good as it looks and they see growing market traction as they move through a solid V1 and onward, then I hope things will continue on the right side of the curve and we should see a remarkable product.  Indeed, if I'm honest, I want this to be continually evolving and improving device, in contrast with classic 'black box' radio products where some defects might be fixed but the feature set remains essentially static.  I'm hoping for near continuous refinement and enhancement of the product up until it becomes clear that a step-change in the hardware power is fundamentally required to go any further.

Of course, if naysayers are right and for whatever reason the product putters forward with a lack of pace and a waning commitment from Flex, then this too will likely be my last Flex purchase - but for now I'm untarnished by any prior experience and of course naturally at this point I'm very much looking forward to being delighted and turned into a 'raving fan'.  Flex have the advantage of my confirmation bias for a little while anyhow ;-)

Coming soon... my Flex 6700

This is a blog to capture my experiences with the Flex 6700.

As noted in my general VA7LWE blog, I've had my eye on this rig from Flex Radio for over a year now and I have finally been notified that the radio is on its way to me.

I have to confess that my blogging goes in fits and starts... 'other life' presses in!  I'll try to make updates as I get news and interesting observations.  I suspect that will be more frequent in the early days and it will probably taper off over time.

For some reason, Flex Radio seem to have created quite a polarisation of opinion in the market - going from comments on eham.  It's difficult to get an objective handle on the comments, but the negative comments appear to be from a mix of ex-owners of Flex radios, people who object to high-prices, people who just don't like Flex Radio for some reason and maybe a few who don't consider the technical direction to be 'legitimate radio'.  The fact that the product release has clearly been delayed, compared to early statements from the company seems to have exacerbated negative sentiment.  Having worked in small tech companies, this alone does not signal certain doom to me - I'm well aware of the difficulties and tensions in developing and marketing products in a small firm.  I'm certainly one of those prepared to keep the faith, but that doesn't change the fact that Flex Radio have to deliver on their promises.  I'm also quite happy to use the radio while the software is still pre-production.

I've already noted my own motivation and attraction to the ideas imbued in the Flex 6700.  To me, a high-quality, highly configurable interface between my computer and the 'RF environment' is something of a nirvana.  As a software guy I understand the value in more general purpose hardware and the flexibility and power of doing more in software.  However, the RF components and raw signal processing in such a set up have to be exemplary if this box is to actually reach the full potential of Flex Radio's vision, with which I'm aligned.  Hopefully, they've got the fundamental architecture and the immutable hardware engineering right.  After this, it is 'just' programming: FPGA, DSP and CPU software.  If they have right-sized the hardware for the demands of the software that will be required, with hopefully some nice headroom for future additions, then a great radio should eventually arrive even in the event that the current development software is still a little rough.

Anyway, regardless of all the speculation, I'm about to get to see where the state of development actually lies.  The first few updates thereafter should provide some idea of the development inertia and a clue as to whether this will end up being meeting my hopes and expectations.

Now, this radio is defined by software (ha!).  So, assuming, as I said, that they got the hardware right, the basic performance of this equipment as a radio and its operational ergonomics are going to be all about the prowess of Flex's engineering team and their mastery of the hardware for high-quality signal processing, along with the design of a highly usable user interface.  Invariably, there will be a first pass for many elements of the system to get them into an acceptable level, then I'd expect stepwise refinement to improve qualitative and qualitative metrics, including responses to feedback from the market and users.

Naturally, I'll be making my own subjective assessments right from day one, mostly in comparison to my Icom 7800 in terms of basic radio performance.  Aside from the fact I'm a Mac user, I expect to take to the control UI very quickly and unless it's actually broken in some way I can see this being absolutely the way I'd like to operate.  Of course, I'm hoping that Flex Radio or some partners will eventually release a native Mac or iPad client - allegedly that should be a much more practical proposition as in the 6700 this software is only for command and control - but in any case that's very much a 'nice to have'.

Aside from my own subjective assessments, I intend to take the 6700 over to my good friend Adam Farson VA7OJ.  Adam is a retired telecom/RF engineer par excellence and continues to actively test transceivers when he can get his hands on them.  He has a well equipped lab and has recently been busy performing Noise Power Ratio (NPR) tests on a range of commercial amateur rigs.  He has expressed interest in testing the 6700.  While published results will have to wait until an official "V1" software package from FlexRadio, nonetheless some early data will be pretty interesting.  At the very least a comparison with the Perseus receiver, which Adam has already tested, will be fun.