OTTAWA, ONTARIO — Take an Android tablet computer, a wideband RF tuner that covers from 100 kHz to 2 GHz, and two audio speakers. Integrate them in a rugged ABS plastic carrying case. What do you have?
Well, if you are the engineering firm PantronX, you have the Titus II software-defined radio. And when you plan to sell this ultimate receiver for less than $100 each, you hope you have a consumer sensation for the worldwide broadcast market.
|The front of the Titus II SDR resembles a 1990s-style boombox.
Unveiled by the Panama-based company at an international broadcasting meeting in Miami in August, the Titus II SDR is not yet shipping. But it is described as capable of receiving and playing analog and digital radio transmission formats including AM, FM, shortwave, HD Radio, DAB+ and Digital Radio Mondiale. The company is considering adding a DRM+ decoder.
The initial market is among worldwide broadcasters, particularly those serving countries where listeners may lack internet; a secondary market is individual listeners, hobbyists and others. PantronX will not supply all decoders for all formats but add them preloaded as needed.
Looking much like a 1990s’ boombox except that the central section is entirely occupied by a touchscreen Android tablet, the Titus II’s software-controlled capabilities, ability to receive new transmission formats through software upgrades and proposed price tag of about 90 euros wowed HFCC delegates.
“We have been following this receiver development with great interest based on the fact that it is hand portable, less than $100 initial cost and utilizes an Android tablet platform, has wide potential reception frequency range of 100 kHz to 2 GHz, and is Bluetooth-capable,” said Tom King, president/CEO of manufacturer Kintronic Labs and an interested observer of the international radio marketplace.
“Best yet, the Titus II can be easily updated and improved with time by virtue of software upgrades,” he said. That’s something that cannot be done with a hardware-based consumer radio receiver.
The product was shown at the HFCC/ASBU B16 Coordination Conference, and the HFCC website is promoting the receiver. It said the product was developed in consultation with international religious broadcaster TWR and that the first regular-production batch is expected by the first quarter of 2017.
The HFCC is an association rooted in frequency coordination for international shortwave broadcasting — its acronym comes from High-Frequency Coordination Conference — but it has broadened its mission into other platforms and seeks a role in shaping the future of international broadcasting delivery.
Up until now, the vast majority of consumer radios have been hardware-based. The physical components that make up their assemblies define what they can and cannot do. This is equally true for unpowered crystal radio receivers, tube-based superheterodyne radios and modern computer-based digital radio receivers.
The Titus II SDR breaks this mold, relying on its preloaded or downloaded software to define what this consumer radio can and cannot receive. As a result, “We keep on saying that Titus II is not a ‘radio,’” said the product’s developer Mike Stone. “It is a computing device that happens to incorporate a very nice wideband RF receiver.” Or, as he wrote in a subsequent email, it was designed “around the needs of broadcast listeners, with hacker undertones.”
The onboard applications that enable the unit’s Android core to receive various radio formats can also let the Titus II operate as “a streaming video player, web browser or just about anything imaginable,” Stone said. “For instance, we can use an Android like-OS called Remix that would also allow Titus to become a rather nice desktop computer.”
Stone is chief engineer of the company, which was founded by Nekelda Badillo and Juan Borrell. It specializes in custom-designed, exclusive products and has done most of its work in commercial and industrial control. It has approximately 15 employees in-house plus a number of contractors and subcontractors, including large manufacturing suppliers in China.
“PantronX was formed several years ago by an international group of engineers, suppliers, business and marketing people with the task of supplying a worldwide market for innovative electronic products,” he said. “When one of our potential customers brought to our attention the needs for a universal receiver to decode digital broadcast as well as analog, we researched the technology and market to come up with a unique solution taking advantage of current technology and our worldwide supply chain and manufacturers.”
A Radio World article detailing the advent of a radio technology requires specifications to be listed, so here they are: Built into a handle-equipped plastic case measuring 11.4 x 6 x 1.8 inches, the Titus II’s Android core uses a 1.2 GHz quad-core ARM A53 processor running one of the Android 5+/6+/Remix operating systems (users can choose which they prefer). The Android core has 1 GB RAM and 8 GB flash memory; it is controlled using a 7-inch, 1024 x 600 TFT display with a five-point capacitive touch panel.
The Titus II SDR comes with demodulation software to process and playout AM, FM and digital radio broadcasts. Through a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, it also has the ability to access open source software libraries for upgrades and new apps, and the web for more content and media files.
“Part of what we have done is to incorporate an API/plug-in standard to allow others to roll their own apps on the Titus II,” said Stone. “We are doing this for the ‘RF geeks’ and professional app writers to take advantage of our flexible hardware platform. For instance, with an app and some calibration, a Titus II could become a nice spectrum analyzer.”
Physically, the Titus II outputs 5 watts of stereo audio to its two speakers, and is powered by a rechargeable high-capacity Li-poly battery. The unit is both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-capable. It has HDMI and USB OTG (on-the-go) output ports and an SD slot for loading in externally-sourced content; it can be fitted with an optional camera.
On the radio side, the Titus II’s 100 kHz–2 GHz wideband receiver is highly sensitive yet generates little noise, according to the company. (Early digital radios often suffered from audible processor noise that degraded their audio quality.) The unit has an internal balanced tuned ferrite antenna for AM (MW)/shortwave reception, a built-in whip antenna for all other bands, and a jack to allow an external antenna to be connected.
|The Titus II’s fold-out base doubles as a protective cover, with slots to allow audio to pass through.
Stone declined to try to predict how many units might be sold; he considers the potential market “huge” and said the company’s manufacturing partners could handle as many as 500,000 pieces per month. “Titus has been designed to take advantage of most possibilities, not only as a SDR but also as a piece of hardware.” Nor have its methods of distribution been finalized. HFCC, Stone said, is helping PantronX assess the market among broadcasters and other potential customers. “Sales channels will be as unique as the product is.”
But though it is not yet shipping, reports of the unit’s capabilities, upgradable nature and proposed cost are winning positive responses.
“We’re really pleased to see information about this new radio and particularly the approach taken to use a standard tablet,” said Nigel Fry, head of distribution for the BBC World Service Group. “This could well be the future for radios of a certain price point. Tablets/pads provide an ideal user interface and of course access to internet services through Wi-Fi.”
“Combining a DRM receiver with an Android tablet is a good idea,” said Kim Andrew Elliott, audience research analyst with the Voice of America. “Decoding DRM requires processing power, and good Android tablets should have the necessary processing power. Because of that processing, the present generation of DRM receivers deplete batteries more quickly than analog portable radios. Owners of Android devices have realistic expectations about battery depletion.”
However, pioneering internet radio manufacturer Grace Digital isn’t so upbeat.
“Frankly, I have a hard time understanding the product, which means the average Joe won’t either,” said company co-founder Greg Fadul. “Customers want content and want it via a phone or PC/tablet/laptop or dedicated device. I believe the (internet radio) solutions that are out there now provide that. They certainly need to improve — better audio quality and faster buffering — but I think we are on the curve to make them better.”
But Stone said Titus was designed with an eye on users who lack internet in less-developed parts of the world and who don’t have any computing device, and it most likely will be preloaded with presets and apps for their particular needs. The user interface, he said, can be changed to reflect local desires and configured to behave like a “dedicated device” where necessary.
As with most consumer technologies, the market will decide whether the Titus II SDR will take off.
“Our first production run will be before the year is out,” said Stone. “We have several broadcasters that are on the initial ‘waiting list.’ As it all comes together, we are sure announcements will be made in the media as well as our website that was setup for broadcasters at http://titusradio.com.”
James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario.