John's Musings

Yeah, Me Neither

Skywave Linux Mini Review

Are you a Software Defined Radio (SDR) geek? I am. To be a proper SDR geek you need a laptop dedicated to the art of SDR radio. Heck, actually you need two. One with Windows and one with Linux. Or one laptop with virtual OS's.

Any SDR geek worth his salt will tell you that as you progress in the hobby that every experiment or project you do has its own hunk of software. Wanna track aircraft? Dump1090. Wanna listen to the radio? GQRX. Wanna build your own stereo decoder? GNURadio. Wanna track satellites? GPredict. Wanna download data from weather satellites? WXtoIMG.

See where I'm going with this? In Linux it isn't always as simple as just installing a program. Some of this stuff requires you to compile and build the code or even worse some of the hardware does. Sure you can install Debian or Ubuntu and do it all yourself but this is where Skywave Linux comes in. Skywave seeks to have this configured and ready to roll saving you hours upon hours of building this all up yourself. And it succeeds wildly at this.

To my surprise the web page for Skywave shows it sitting on top of the Ubuntu Unity website but the latest download of Skywave has Ubuntu 16.04 using MATE as a desktop. I like MATE. Better than Unity so this is a plus.

It's pretty polished looking and even better there are icons for everything in the program menus. Let's look at the list of stuff here. WOW! Not going to mention them all, just going to hit the high spots.

Chirp - if you have ever owned a handheld analog radio such as a Baeofeng you know what Chirp is. Makes programming for an analog ham radio repeater a snap.

CubicSDR - I dare you to follow the directions and install CubicSDR on Ubuntu. Takes 30 minutes of cutting and pasting. If you use Cubic, Skywave is worth your while.

FLDigi - I use it for downloading NOAA WeFax.

GPredict - Best satellite tracker for Linux. You still have to customize your base station (geographical location).

GQRX - The Mac Daddy of all SDR programs. I'm sorry. I will forever prefer GQRX even to technologically superior programs.

OpenWRX - For remote SDR station tuning. Pretty cool.

QTRadio is another tuner style program.

SDRTrunk - Trunking scanner program for following trunked digital systems. Perfect Police Scanner.

WXtoIMG - Decoding of NOAA weather satellites. Fun, fun, fun. Try it.

Also they have script files for keeping everything up to date. VERY COOL.

I stated before that GQRX is my favorite and here it is in all it's glory. They even have the latest 2.10 version. I like the dark background color scheme as well.

Now, what don't I like about it? First of all I have an old Dell 5521 laptop that has Ubuntu 16.04 installed on it. I have almost all this stuff already installed on it. Skywave doesn't really do anything for me that I am not already doing. However, it would EXCEL as a live distribution for me to carry on a thumb drive and say "Hey buddy, let me see your laptop, wanna show you what an SDR radio is and what it can do".

Skywave Linux booted perfectly with an RTL-SDR v3. However the live version of the iso will not even boot with a PlutoSDR installed. It sees it as some kind of external device and just halts. Ok, I'll unplug it and plug it back in when it boots. Nope it doesn't see it. I'm sure an installed version of Skywave Linux makes all the difference but me not being able to use my Pluto is almost a deal breaker. Kind of the same story for the SDRPlay RSP1 or 2. Although I didn't try to boot it with my RSP2 installed I did try to plug it in after boot up. Nope. Nada. I no see you.

So with the Live CD you have to attach your device before you boot so it will load. Yuck. And like I said before that makes PlutoSDR unusable. Yeah, this is Linux, I know, there is probably a couple of good ways to load the drivers after it boots but I'm just not down with that.

So here's my review in a nutshell. I like Skywave Linux, I like it a lot and I want to love it, but I don't. I am the kind of guy who likes to build up my own set of SDR tools and what is on the computer is exactly what I want, nothing more, nothing less. All that being said I wish I took the time to get the programs in the Program menus all fancy and polished like they do.

Skywave's real power comes with the ability to run it as a Live Distribution but it has at least the one hardware restriction I noted and you have to know exactly what you want to do before you boot up. No changing devices on the fly, at least not without being all Linux-ey. Maybe I'll pick up another laptop and try to install it and do a proper installation review.

I slept on this review and decided to change the ending up a bit. I would imagine that once Skywave is properly installed that it mitigates most of the problems I had that I mentioned above. I have to admit that having everything ready to go is a big plus if you are in a hurry. I'm a huge advocate for owning a bug out computer that generally isn't connected to the internet and used with SDR's. I did notice that just because a lot of cool programs are installed that there are some things missing. For example I like to decode pager traffic. multimon-ng which is a popular program for doing that is not installed. I can give you multiple other examples as well. It's definitely NOT a big deal but Skywave doesn't have everything, and nor could it, or should it have everything.

Another omission for a decent bug out computer is the lack of a TV program. I know Skywave is designed for Ham Radio and SDR but a proper bug out computer might use a USB TV tuner such as the Hauppauge HVR-955Q (or any one of about a thousand tuners that Linux is compatible with). I use a TV program called Me-TV.

And lastly bear in mind with a Linux SDR laptop you're missing out on a few hunks of SDR software that are legendary. SDR#, SDRUno, and SDRConsole V3. Like I said, any SDR geek worth his salt has both a Linux and a Windows box. Having an Airspy without SDR# is almost a crime although Airspy with SDRTrunk is AMAZING for a trunking scanner because of its 10 MHz of bandwidth.

Having an RSP1 or 2 or 1A without SDRUno is really giving up some of its power user features and they really, really, really need to port SDRConsole to Linux.

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