19 RTL-SDR Dongles Reviewed

Blogger [radioforeveryone] set out to look at 19 different RTL-SDR dongles for use in receiving ADS-B (that’s the system where airplanes determine their position and broadcast it). Not all of the 19 worked, but you can read the detailed review of the 14 that did.

Granted, you might not want to pick up ADS-B, but the relative performance of these inexpensive devices is still interesting. The tests used Raspberry PI 3s and a consistent antenna and preamp system. Since ADS-B is frequently sent, the tests were at least 20 hours in length. The only caveat: the tests were only done two at a time, so it is not fair to directly compare total results across days.

The author points out that differences under about 2% don’t mean much. However, the article does draw a series of conclusions at the end. For instance, you can buy an $8 dongle and build a coketenna and have less than $10 tied up. You could also spend $150, but you won’t get 15 times the data nor 15 times the enjoyment. There is also quite a bit of info about heat dissipation, antennas, and other factors that will come into play no matter how you use the dongles.

If you want to know more about ADS-B, we covered that back in 2014. For a more modern take, you can always ask Alexa.

44 thoughts on “19 RTL-SDR Dongles Reviewed

  1. I wonder why there isn’t a single RTL-SDR dongle that has a micro USB plug.
    There are a ton of other DVB-T dongles with micro USB, meant to be connected to an Android device, but nothing that would work with RTL-SDR.

    I even asked NooElec to build one, pointing out that a lot of people, including me, are using Android phones and tablets with RTL-SDR, and that there are a lot of apps now, both for raw mode and DAB+, but they weren’t interested.

    Why is that so?

        1. Well they make those tiny micro receivers that have the RTL chip and can be used for SDR, so they should make one formed to conform to the standard phone shape and use a micro USB on that, maybe with a pass-through for charging.
          They make some that are even smaller than the small ones in the picture I think.

          1. Mind you you would still need an antenna, but maybe for general fun mobile use a small bit of wire is enough.
            Or you steal that FM-radio-in-phone idea and use the headphone cable as antenna somehow?

        1. To be honest, the only pressing issue I have with USB is when I use very cheap connectors and they lose contact and I have to replug them to detect again.
          They actually break less for me than say HDMI plugs, or headphone cables.

          It’s mostly the connection between the device and wire where the wire goes bad with any kind of wire in my experience, regardless of the type of connector really.

          But it might be the way I use them though, perhaps others have genuine reason to be upset with USB specifically.

          1. just last week I had to swap ‘original LG ‘ usb micro charging cable for my nieces phone because one of the bendy bits in the plug got less bendy – phone would only charge when plugged at weird angle. My first reaction was just like yours, must be the cable. I desoldered the plug, cut last 10cm, soldered it back in place and … gave her another cable :) Now imagine if that phone shipped with spring part inside the socket.

        1. Or buy a micro-USB cable and solder the cable instead of the connector to the dongle, to keep flexibility. Because as I said earlier, you also need to use an antenna with SDR and having it plugged straight in a device might cause unwanted stress.
          But if you want to use SDR on the go on a phone or tablet having it dangle is annoying though, so you need to find a way to secure the whole dongle to the device with not just the connector, attach it to a case or stand or something to take the strain.

          1. Oh and they advise anyway to have the dongle near the antenna and to use a longer USB cable I believe to reduce losses and have the receiver away from interference. But then you need to wind the cable through ferrite coils though, don’t forget.

      1. I’m just starting to simmer down from the annoyance of all the USB-C connectors which are really USB2.0. Because initially it really annoyed me, but now it’s so ubiquitous I sort of get the ‘more power and reversible at least’ concept.
        I do think it should say so with big letters anytime it’s mentioned though ‘USB-C BUT USB2.0 SPEED!

      1. Well not to be a nag but for SDR you want a shielded cable really and not the super cheap ‘thin, possible aluminium, wires in plastic with no shielding whatsoever’ 99 cents stuff.
        But it’ll work anyway of course, just with more noise.
        Also you want goldplated contacts for USB to not have constant issues., the gold is super thin and on tiny pins and dirt cheap so it’s not like it’ll raise the price more than 2 cents, but you have to watch out though because plenty Chinese outfits will try to outbid competition with saving 2 cents by using non-goldplated connectors.

  2. I own several E4000 based dongles, they are all shielded internally with kapton+copper-foil tape, and they work fine at 1090MHz with dump1090. These are no longer being made, are hard to find for obvious reasons, and the new clones are not as good.
    They do have a few blind spots, and rx_power will skip over some 1100 to 1750MHz bands.
    Note, I still use these before exposing a limeSDR’s amplifiers to an unknown signal.

    Note the R820T is known to get better reception at 1090MHz, but without a band-pass filter all these tests are anecdotal.

    You run kalibrate-rtl to scan for a GSM tower, pick a strong channel, and calibrate after warming up the XTAL for 10 minutes.
    I find it is stable within 2 ppm/ 24 hours with an error offset of around 15 to 18 ppm for these units.

    Nooelec has some really rude people working there… and the products are not great.

    1. Second on the Nooelec guy being rude. I had an issue with shipping damage and when I wrote he went absolutely insane when I wrote to them requesting assistance. I’d spare yourself any potential drama and find a different vendor. Easily done since his stuff is just rebadged aliexpress offerings anyway.

  3. The latest kid in town is now ADALM-PLUTO SDR, a SDR demo board from Analog devices with full duplex Rx Tx, a Zynq 7010 ARM+FPGA, from Xilinx, and an AD9363 RF Transceiver in the 325 MHz – 3.8 GHz range, from Analog Devices.

    The nice part is that it’s designed by Analog Devices as an evaluation/educational board, but it has a case, cables and 2 antennas, it’s only about $100, it runs Linux, have open source SW and published schematics, compatible with Vivado, Matlab/Simulink or GNU radio, and it can be hacked to unlock both ARM cores in the Zynq FPGA, and the range can be hacked too so it can tune to an extend range, from 70 MHz to 6 GHz with full duplex Rx Tx.

      1. They are both (ARM cores and extended frequency range) only software hacks.
        No hardware modifications required.

        Of course, the AD9363 will not be in spec, but it can be tuned to the extended range of 70-6000 MHz for Rx and 48-6000 MHz for Tx, exactly like the more expensive AD9361. Also, AD9363 and AD9361 are very similar, so most probably AD9363 is just an AD9361 that didn’t met all its datasheet specifications.

      1. Indeed, they are so appealing that they are ordered months in advance, like Rigol DS1054Z was.

        Last batch was in stock in August, but I forgot to order. Now it’s zero stock everywhere, and the next lot will be available only at the end of November.


      1. AFAIK the RF chip can not be tuned lower than 47 MHz at Tx, and 70 MHz for RX.

        If you want to use it for HAM bands, please be adviced that the internal Osc is not very stable (big ppm, but can be compensated in software assuming the temperature is stable), also the Tx is almost square wave and there are no filters, so it has lots of harmonics, unusable for HAM without external filters. The good side of this is it can be used to Tx at 10 GHz or higher. One more thing, the enclosure have no shielding.

    1. I currently have a LimeSDR and think it’s great, but I’ve had some trouble getting it set up. It’s (I think) 10MHz to 3.8GHz, two RX two TX, with three ports for each (High/Low/Wideband). It was $300 (same as HackRF but much more capable) and is based on a Lime Microsystems chip and an FPGA. It has USB 3 and can do MIMO, with one well-defined use being as a 4G LTE repeater (base station?).

      I’m going to college in the fall starting a degree in (more or less) RF Hardware Engineering. Would it be helpful to get this? I’ve used some Analog Devices stuff, and at $100 this seems like a good deal with example software and guides. I’m trying to learn to use SDR with GNU Radio, GRC, and some other programs So I’ll be able to snoop (mostly digital) transmissions and do neat things like trying to do basic interception a la Rolljam. The LimeSDR has mostly been going well, but good God the supplied software is dense. Hundreds upon hundreds of vaguely labeled check boxes, sliders, direct register setting, lots of stuff. I like that it has an FPGA, and I hope to work up to the point where I can utilize it to do things.

      Would this device just be redundant, or could it help me to learn things?

        1. Most probably the school will have all the tools and equipment for their students to learn. LimeSDR should be more than enough to learn and practice, and yes, an ADALM-PLUTO will be redundant.

          Anyway, most probably you won’t need an SDR until year 2 or 3, so don’t worry. In 3 years from now, for sure some other more powerful boards will be available, and what you already have will be old news. Keep in mind that the first 2 years are the hardest, and don’t expect any RF in the first years. Best luck with the school.

  4. I bought generic DVB-T dongle, looks like 5th one on the title picture, but it’s not branded, about 7 bucks on eBay. I also bought 1090MHz antenna on eBay for around 30 bucks. Quick balcony test gave me around 400-500km range, i intend to put system on more elevated and clear location so I believe I will get even better results. I think if you intend to make ADS-B receiving station your choice of cable and antenna is much more important then choice of USB dongle.

    1. Noooo!!!
      eBay sellers are still peddling FC0012 (which doesn’t even get close to covering the 1090MHz band) equipped dongles as being R820’s. If you end up with an FC0012, it doesn’t really matter how good your antenna and cable combination is. You don’t have to ask why I know this. :-(
      The NooElec stuff is still low cost, but at least you know what you’re getting (ob disclaimer – no connection other than being a satisfied customer).

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