Nice DSA815 Upgrade

I know that quite a few of you are, like me, owners of the Rigol DSA815-TG. It's been a reliable workhorse in my lab since I've acquired it, but the one thing I believe that I've wanted to most from it is a an RBW minimum of 10 Hz instead of the specified 100 Hz. That would allow for better characterization of narrow filters like crystal ladder filters and would let you better see fine details about signal.

Well, it looks like today is our lucky day. I've received an email from Rigol that indicates that a new firmware update is available that will turn on 10 Hz RBW! Quoth Rigol:

Improved RBW -- We have improved the RBW spec on the popular DSA815 to 10Hz. This improvement provides users with greater frequency resolution and lower noise floor. 10Hz RBW is now specified on all of our DSA800 Series (1.5GHz, 3.2GHz, 7.5Ghz)

...

Existing DSA815 owners at 1.09 FW or above can upgrade to the latest 1.18 FW version to activate the 10 Hz capability.

Download new Firmware.

I believe that the link provided at the end of the email was a custom tracking URL for me, so I'll direct you to the Rigol NA DSA800 product page, which has a link for acquiring the latest firmware. Make sure that you are getting the 1.18 version of the firmware. The installation is a snap and the RBW improvement is an exciting new feature to get for free. Thanks Rigol!

Wideband Transmission #9

Arduino in the Cloud

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I saw a recent post on the Make blog about the new cloud ecosystem for Arduino which has been dubbed Arduino Create. Since this will most likely be the future of Arduino, it seemed wise to get an early look at the platform. It includes quite a few features, but the most notable ones in my opinion are the Project Hub, Arduino Cloud (IoT infrastructure), and Web Editor. Arduino Cloud will allow you to connect your network-capable Arduino to the Internet to allow sharing of sensor data, remote control over the net; your typical IoT applications. The Web Editor gives you access to an Arduino IDE over the web. Your code is stored online, and a cloud compiler builds your project, so you don't have to worry about configuring that on your machine. However, you still have to install an OS-specific agent program on your PC in order to get the complied firmware from the Web Editor onto the Arduino's flash memory. The Project Hub is a project-sharing space, similar to hackaday.io, Instructables, etc.

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I don't have much to comment on regarding Arduino Cloud, since I don't have any of the supported devices and cannot try it out at this time. The Web Editor gives me mixed feelings for sure. No doubt that this was created to compete with the mbed platform, which sounds awfully convenient from what I have seen. I like the idea of being able to easily save and share code with others, as well as having a standard set of build tools for everyone. However, the environment is obviously still in early stages, as there is no support for libraries to be added through the official Library Manager JSON list, nor for external hardware definition files to be used. I had some difficulties getting the Arudino Create Agent talking to my web browser in Linux Mint, and once I did, uploading seemed a bit flakier than it does on the desktop IDE. Of course, this is all still in beta, so rough edges are to be expected. Once they get the features of the Web Editor up to parity with the desktop IDE, it should be a very useful tool. Finally, the Project Hub looks nice, but I wonder if we aren't starting to see too much fragmentation in this type of service for it to be useful. Still, the one-stop shopping aspect of it all is very spiffy.

Something to Watch

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Ham radio seems like a natural fit with the citizen scientist movement, so it pleases me to have discovered that some hams have created a platform to advance citizen science in an area where we are well equipped to do so. The new HamSCI website states its mission as:

HamSCI, the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation, is a platform for the publicity and promotion of projects that are consistent with the following objectives:

  • Advance scientific research and understanding through amateur radio activities.
  • Encourage the development of new technologies to support this research.
  • Provide educational opportunities for the amateur community and the general public.

HamSCI serves as a means for fostering collaborations between professional researchers and amateur radio operators. It assists in developing and maintaining standards and agreements between all people and organizations involved. HamSCI is not an operations or funding program, nor is it a supervisory organization. HamSCI does not perform research on its own. Rather, it supports other research programs, such as those funded by organizatons[sic] like the United States National Science Foundation.

They already have three listed projects that they are helping with: the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse, ePOP CASSIOPE Experiment, and Ionospheric Response to Solar Flares. The 2017 eclipse is of special interest to me, as totality will be seen at latitude 45°N here in Oregon, which puts it squarely over Salem; a place I will have easy access from which to observe (which also reminds me that I need to build some kind of solar observation device like the Sun Gun before August 2017).

I wish these folks the best and I hope they are able to make a useful contribution to science.

A Challenger Appears

A EEVBlog video popped into my YouTube feed yesterday that was of significant interest to me, and will probably be to you as well. Most of us who are into having a home test & measurement lab are well aware that the Rigol DSA-815 has been the king of spectrum analyzers for the last few years, due to the very reasonable cost paired with the decent amount of bandwidth and load of useful features that are included. Rigol seemed to own this market space since the DSA-815 was released, as the big boys of T&M didn't seem to care too much about serving us little guys with our small budgets. However, those days are probably at an end, as a new SA to rival the DSA-815 is on the cusp of release. Dave Jones gives a cursory review of the new Siglent SSA3021X, which looks like it will cost only a few hundred dollars more than the DSA-815 but may be significantly better in the performance category. I'd recommend watching the video below, but here's a summary of the points that interested me:

  • User interface seems to be heavily "inspired" by the Rigol DSA-815
  • The Siglent has significantly better DANL
  • 10 Hz RBW available on the Siglent vs 100 Hz on the Rigol (I've seen hints that the Rigol was supposed to have a 10 Hz RBW option, but they never released it)
  • Reference clock and PLL in the Siglent look better
  • The Siglent has a waterfall display available, which is missing from the Rigol
  • Dave spotted some potential unwanted spurious signals in the Siglent, but they were low level and his machine wasn't a release version either.

Also, don't miss Dave Jones in typical Dave Jones-style refer to a signal with unwanted sidebands as a "dick and balls".

My impression is that if Siglent can tighten up the fit and finish of this spectrum analyzer, it could give the DSA-815 a real run for its money. This is nothing but good news, as more competition in this space will mean even better products for us in the future. I'll be watching this one.

Fun with Marbles & Magnets

Finally as a palate cleanser, enjoy this clever kinetic artwork contraption built to play with marbles and magnets!

 

Si5351A Investigations Part 4

I've got a lot of project ideas rattling around my head. Got even more of them in my notebook. One of the projects floating around in there for years that seemed pretty cool, but not urgent, was an automated thermal chamber for oscillator stability testing, roughly based on the one seen at the end of chapter 7 of Experimental Methods in RF Design.

My interest was renewed a few months ago when Jennifer brought home some free Styrofoam containers from the vet's office from Baxter's annual checkup. They were nice and thick, as well as having straight interior walls, unlike the typical cheap beer cooler you find at the supermarket. Of course, Jennifer was thinking of using them for food, but naturally I had more nefarious purposes in mind for one of them.

The real impetus to build the thermal chamber was the realization that it would be extremely helpful in characterizing the behavior of the Si5351A. Taking mental stock of what I had on hand, I realized that I already had almost everything I would need to do the job. So this last weekend, I decided to build the chamber and put it to use characterizing the Si5351A. In these tests, I used the Si5351A with a cheap garden-variety crystal: the ECS-250-8-30B-CKM.

I don't intend to do full write-up of the thermal chamber here (that will be coming in a separate post), but I will cover the basic design here briefly. The physical chamber is that veterinary Styrofoam cooler with rough dimensions of 25 x 30 x 30 cm. The device under test (DUT) sits in the bottom of the chamber. Over the top of that sits a shield constructed from pressboard and legs made from 2x2s which raises the shield to a height of about 9 cm from the floor of the container, and keeps the DUT from receiving much direct radiant heat. A 12 V PC cooling fan is mounted over a hole in the pressboard. There are also three other large holes on the outside edge of the pressboard, which allows the fan to circulate air between the upper and lower partitions of the chamber. The heating element is a 60 watt incandescent light bulb. A porcelain light socket is secured to the lid with a large cable tie, allowing the light to drop down into the top of the chamber. The weight of the porcelain light socket also helps to weight down the lid securely onto the container.

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On the electronics side, I chose an Arduino Uno clone (the Sparkfun Redboard) as the controller platform. Fortuitously, a little while ago I also happened to win a Seeed Studio Relay Shield, which worked perfectly in this application for switching the lightbulb and the fan. There was also a DS1821 One-Wire temperature sensor in my junkbox, which interfaced with the Redboard with a little bit of code I found online. An old two-conductor power cord and inline ATC fuse was used to provide power to the light bulb. Simple firmware was written for the Redboard that allows it to be commanded via the serial connection. The light and fan can be switched on or off via a single character command sent over the serial connection. Likewise, the temperature can be queried and sent to the PC via the serial connection.

The shack PC ties everything together via a Python script. My Rigol DSA815-TG spectrum analyzer is used as the frequency counter, since I can control it remotely via USB with the Python usbtmc library. My control script reads the temperature and frequency on an interval (I've been using 15 or 30 second intervals) and has logic to control the light and fan based on the readings. I will post the code to GitHub when I write a full post about the chamber.

Now that you know how the system works, let's look at what I found with the Si5351A as the DUT. After doing some initial tweaking of the system to get it working the way I expected, on my first true run, I set up a simple temperature profile. After a 4 minute idle period, the light and fan was commanded to turn on until the temperature reached 60C, then the light was turned off, and I cracked open the lid of the chamber a bit so that it could cool off relatively quickly. The most noticeable thing is the double-humped response in the frequency. You can see the typical frequency reduction as temperature increases, but then around 52C, the trend reverses! I'm not quite sure what to make of it. But I must say that total frequency excursion of about 70 Hz over 35 degrees of temperature change looks pretty nice to me.

5351SecondRun

Next, Thomas LA3PNA suggested in the Etherkit IRC channel that I do a long run with no extra heating so I can get an idea of the warm-up drift and the long term stability of the oscillator in a temperature stable environment. That's a very useful thing to know, so I reconfigured the Python control program to do that. As you can see from the plot below, after a small amount of drift in the first 10 minutes or so, the Si5351A is extremely stable. Those excursions that you see from the main trend line are only 1 Hz, so those may be due to the oscillator or to error in the frequency measurement, but either way I'd say that's rock-solid. You can even notice that the temperature of the chamber was a bit high from the previous run and settled down slowly to ambient, but that had no noticeable effect on the stability.

5351SelfHeating

After that, the Python program was rewritten to ramp up temperature to 40C, then try to hold it there by toggling the light on and off if the temperature deviated more than +/- 1 degree. I wasn't completely happy with the control loop in this one (I used 30 second intervals, but it should have been shorter) but the graph was still instructive. This time, the frequency response looks about how one would expect with this type of temperature profile.

5351-40C

Finally, I again tweaked the control algorithm in order to tighten up the measurement interval to 20 seconds and the maximum temperature excursion to +/- 0.5 degrees. The hold temperature was set for 50C, which is close to where that odd inflection in the drift appears. You can see that the control at 50C is much better here. You will also notice that blip where the positive temperature coefficient appears to go negative. Still, it holds relatively stable at 50C.

5351-50C-2

There is not a lot of data out on the internet to use for a comparison against this data. However, I believe it's fair to say that the Si5351A looks pretty solid from a stability standpoint. It's doubtful one will be operating a radio under such extreme temperature excursions in almost any case, but even so, <100 Hz of drift seems tolerable for almost any application where one is using a conversational operating mode. Of course there is still some more data which could be collected, such as performance at low temperatures, but from this initial investigation, I would say that things look very promising for the Si5351A.

11 January 2015 Update

I finally received a small supply of the TCXO that I have been planning on using with the Si5351A for a while now: the FOX924B-25.000. In the interest of comparing the performance of the TCXO against the standard crystal, I ran the same thermal chamber temperature profile as the last one above, although I removed the lid at the end of the 50C cycle to get a steeper cooldown gradient.

TCXO-Run1

As you can see, the TCXO stability is approximately an order of magnitude better than the crystal. The maximum frequency deviation is 9 Hz, although that occurs at the point where the lamp is turned off, so the frequency response is somewhat like the first derivative of the temperature curve. Once temperature is stabilized near 50C, the TCXO control loop does a great job maintaining frequency only a few Hz higher than the room temperature frequency. This TCXO should be suitable for nearly all but the most demanding applications. Certainly it would be excellent for WSPR/QRSS work and for portable outdoor ops like SOTA.

Quick Impressions of the Rigol DSA815-TG

Needing to upgrade my spectrum analysis capability, I recently sold my trusty boatanchor HP 8558B to help finance a portion of a new Rigol DSA815-TG spectrum analyzer. Last week I was able to order the 815, and today it finally showed up on my doorstep. I first came across the 815 last year, at the 2012 Dayton Hamvention. I believe that it had just been released at that time, and I don't recall hearing any buzz in the ham radio world about it. I was very intrigued by it, and vowed to look into it further. A bit later, videos of the 815 in operation started showing up on YouTube, which got me even more intrigued (there's lots of very good, detailed videos available via search). The final nail in the coffin was the product review in a recent issue of QST, which was quite favorable.

A quick overview of the banner specs include a 1.5 GHz bandwidth, standard preamp, DANL of -135 dBm, 100 Hz minimum RBW, and the -TG option includes a built-in 1.5 GHz tracking generator (an absolute must-buy). It comes in a compact, yet solid, portable enclosure; about the size of a larger portable oscilloscope. The LCD display is clear, ample, and well-backlit. The unit also has a nice variety of connectivity, including LAN, USB host, and USB device, as well as 10 MHz reference in and out.

I had a chance to briefly run it through some measurements this evening, which I'll share with you below.

This first image is a capture of a local FM broadcast station on 100.3 MHz. You can see the standard FM modulation, along with the very blocky digital HD radio subcarrier.

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The next capture is a tracking generator sweep of a narrow CW filter that I had lying in my junkbox. It only has 3 crystals, which you can tell by the fairly shallow skirts. I was concerned that the 100 Hz minimum RBW might be too limiting for measuring narrow CW filters, but by all appearances it seems to do a good job in conjunction with the tracking generator. You can also see the very handy automatic 3 dB bandwidth marker measurement, which makes the process quick and simple.

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Here's a sweep of a 6-crystal SSB filter that I also found in my junkbox. Again, you can see how useful the 815 can be with this type of measurement. It only takes a few moments to get this result once you get familiar with the basic functions of the 815.

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Finally, I paired the 815 with a homebrewed return-loss bridge so that I could make a wideband sweep of my main station ZS6BKW antenna. Here you can see return loss plot from 2 to 30 MHz. The resonances in the ham bands are quite obvious (some are indicated with markers). I never did any trimming on the antenna since I use it with an autotuner, but you can see that it came in pretty closely on the first try.

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Only having used the 815 for a few hours, I'm already quite addicted to it. It's going to be a hugely useful addition to my stable of test equipment. I'm sure you'll see many measurements from the 815 in the years to come on this blog.