Getting Started With RTL-SDR

sdr_feat

The last few months have seen an explosion of activity in the field of Software Defined Radio (SDR), after it was discovered that cheap USB TV tuners based on the Realtek RTL2832U chip could be dialed into frequencies well outside their advertised ranges. What was designed and sold as a simple device for watching TV on your computer could be turned into a radio capable of receiving anything between 64 MHz to 1700 MHz with open source software.

Now, anyone with about $20 USD to spare can tune into everything from police and fire transmissions to the International Space Station.

Tuner Hardware

Before you can start exploring the airwaves, you’ll need a USB tuner supported by RTL-SDR, the software used to unlock the full potential of the Realtek RTL2832U chip. For best results, you’ll also want to get one that uses the Elonics E4000 tuner, as that will give you the broadest frequency response. The RTL-SDR project maintains a short compatibility list which can help narrow things down a bit:

Compatibility list from RTL-SDR project

I purchased the Ezcap EZTV668 from DealExtreme and can confirm it works perfectly with the latest RTL-SDR build. The only downside when ordering from DealExtreme is that shipping can often take a very long time; it was well over a month before the device arrived. You can try your luck on eBay, though it looks like the prices have gone up a bit since sellers are now realizing the market for these devices has just expanded considerably.

Antenna Upgrade

The proper selection, construction, and tuning of antennas is a very complex subject that is far outside of the scope of this document. That being said, the antenna that comes with your tuner is probably going to suck, hard.

In almost all cases, the pack-in antenna that comes with these tuners is just a little metal stick and a thin unshielded wire. With this antenna, the best you could realistically hope to receive is a strong local FM radio station (of course, to be fair, that’s more or less all these things were designed to do in the first place). For anything else, you’ll need to swap out the stock antenna with something a little less worthless.

Luckily, it doesn’t take a whole lot to improve on the situation. Even a cheap set of “rabbit ears” will work much better than the included antenna, and will give you good enough performance to start exploring the higher frequencies. Though you’ll still need a more robust antenna for long range reception, and satellite work will require its own type of antennas if you hope to succeed.

As a starter antenna I’ve had good luck with the RadioShack “Budget TV Antenna” (Catalog #: 151874), though cheaper versions of the same concept can certainly be found online. With this type of antenna you will be able to pick up broadcasts from the police and fire department, NOAA weather reports, and local ham conversations pretty easily. On the subject of antennas, depending on which tuner you get, your device may need an adapter to use standard coax.

Your tuner may have a Belling-Lee connector, commonly (though incorrectly) called a “PAL connector”. RadioShack sells an appropriate adapter as a “European TV Adapter” (Catalog #: 278261) for under $10. With this adapter installed, you’ll be able to connect your RTL2832U tuner to essentially any standard antenna either directly (in the case of a TV antenna) or through an adapter (such as F to SO-239).


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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  • Zilvinas Atkociunas

    Nice article!
    Just yesterday I saw linrad has got rtlsdr support too!

  • Joe

    Thanks for the article.

    Just a small grammatical error: “You now possess a software defined radio setup that would have costed hundreds of dollars” -> cost.

    http://www.verbix.com/webverbix/English/cost.html

  • http://profiles.google.com/plattypus1 Justin Nelson

    Ham isn’t an acronym, so it needn’t be capitalized. Thanks for the article, I’m buying one of these things right-the-hell-now.

    73 DE AE6YD

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  • en1gma

    this is fucking amazing
    the real DEVS never get mentioned in this at all

    where the fuck is SDRSHARP that is way better then GQRX!

    “To start the GNU Radio build process, simply download the script and make it executable:”

    hey you fucking prick the guy who made that is name Patchvonbraum

    “RTL-SDR Benchmark”

    fucking prick again
    the guys name is (I Believe) Steve|m

    do some fucking research you fuck and next time mention the devs names
    hackaday is really letting me down
    i cant tell if they are blatently not mentioning the REAL devs or if they are just fucking clueless

    • WTF?

      Yo…what are you even trying to say. You want the dev to be mentioned by name everytime their software is referenced in a guide or online? Are you serious???

      • jgm

        Yup, including 17 pages of LIbreOffice contributors every time that’s mentioned. :-) Actually, he wants their handles(?) mentioned, which is even more ridiculous.

    • Sue W

      Lighten up bébé…The idea of Hack-A-Day, Make blog, adafruit blog etc. is to showcase interesting links or ideas, is it not? We can all do the “research” if we are interested in the idea…

      As for being clueless, your complaint would be more readable with less invective and more links or content.

    • http://www.digifail.com/ Tom Nardi

      Listen, it would be one thing to claim that somebody ELSE was the developer of a piece of software. In that case, I could see how you would be upset that the proper developer wasn’t getting credited, and somebody else was grabbing the notoriety (such as it is). Certainly that would be a mistake that needs fixing.

      But to be this pissed off because each developer wasn’t named specifically in the article is absolutely ridiculous. If we had to call out the devs for every piece of software we covered here on the site, we wouldn’t have time to actually write the articles. You want us to include a list of 10,000 or so developers every time we mention Linux too?

      The fact is, people don’t write open source software for fame and fortune. In almost every case, they wrote the software because it filled a need for themselves (either practical, or just in the challenge) and they decided to share it with others.

      I can absolutely guarantee you that the developers of RTL-SDR are not sitting around worrying about whether or not all of their names are reprinted every time somebody mentions their project. They are just happy it’s being used and improved upon, which is the whole point of putting something out as open source.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/YEBNHQY6UK6EV45OHENQLN4KNU Alan

    en1gma has an abusive tone – but also a point.
    You don’t need to dump Windows to use SDR – SDR Sharp works fine.

  • Kilouy

    sweet! nice job

  • Falcon5nz

    Hey man, Thanks for the article. Just one point, isn’t gain closer to sensitivity? Wouldn’t “…which is essentially the sensitivity. Turn this up to hear more of the signal…” have made more sense?

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  • Big_James

    I don’t think all of those ezcap sticks are created equal. Your table says that the ezcap usb 2.0 stick has an E4000 tuner. Mine has an fc0013 in it and also says EzTV645 on the board inside the case. It was purchased from the link that you proclaimed worked (deal extreme). i have yet to get the drivers working properly but I’m working on it.

    J

    • http://www.digifail.com/ Tom Nardi

      Probably not, the suppliers DX uses are pretty well known for changing internal components as they see fit. Basically, they use whatever they can get the cheapest at that point in time.

      You got the exact same SKU as the one I used? DX sells three identical Ezcap tuners all with different price points, SKUs, and internals.

  • ErrK

    definitely going to solder in an F connector

    • http://www.digifail.com/ Tom Nardi

      Good idea.

      I plan on putting mine into a metal enclosure to try and cut down on outside interference. If you look on the RTL-SDR Reddit, there are a few good threads about hardware modifications to clean up the signal and improve sensitivity.

  • Kyle Hotchkiss

    Hey! Could you get that images content into an actual table with links?

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  • didiet radityo

    please i have an error

    $ rtl_test -t
    Found 1 device(s):
    0: Generic RTL2832U (e.g. hama nano)

    Using device 0: Generic RTL2832U (e.g. hama nano)
    usb_claim_interface error -6
    Failed to open rtlsdr device #0.

    if you have a clue to solve this let me now..
    thanx
    best regard

    • Guest

      Hi. Same problem. What now?

      • Darren

        Why not just blacklist the module?

    • dan__n

      Hi Didiet. Solution for you (and me :-):

      =============================================
      git clone git://git.osmocom.org/rtl-sdr.git
      cd rtl-sdr/src/

      echo -e ‘1056a1057,1058n> libusb_detach_kernel_driver(dev->devh, 0);n> ‘ | patch -i – librtlsdr.c

      cd ..
      mkdir build
      cd build
      cmake ../
      make
      sudo make install
      =============================================

      Enojoy!

      • Petter Gustad

        Which version of the source does this patch belong to? I think the line numbers have changed. It did not work for me with 5f88049c0.

        What part of the code should be patched? Is this available in the repo yet?

        • eMPee584

          The line numbers have indeed changed a lot, just look here for the context where to insert the line:http://lists.osmocom.org/pipermail/osmocom-sdr/2012-May/000105.html

          The problem is that the DVB-T driver registers with the kernel and claims the device, so it needs to be detached in order to reclaim it by libsdr. Why they haven’t included that patch in their current git code i have no idea?!

    • kurt

      Dear ,

      that’s the solution for me

      Running as an unprivileged user
      The rtl-sdr project comes with udev rules, so you can access the device as a regular user. To install the udev rules:

      ~$ cd src/rtl-sdr/
      ~/src/rtl-sdr$ sudo cp rtl-sdr.rules /etc/udev/rules.d/
      ~/src/rtl-sdr$ sudo service udev restart
      Stopping the hotplug events dispatcher: udevd.
      Starting the hotplug events dispatcher: udevd.
      Now if you eject and re-insert your USB stick, udev should set the correct permissions.

      • dan__n

        But this may not be enough and the patch is then needed.

  • Jay

    Nice quick start guide. Worked just as described. Only the QT piece could benefit from abit more detail for newbies like me. I ended up getting the QT Linux online installer from http://qt.nokia.com/downloads/ and then it was pretty straightforward. Thank you!

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  • http://www.peluzza.es/ peluzza

    Hi! thanks for this amazing tutorial!
    I live in Spain, Europe, so, i’m wondering what would happen if I plug the eztv to my tv home antenna, it has a tv amplifier and it cover 2200mhz range.

    Has anyone tried it?

    Regards!

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