Closer Look: RF Explorer, Scanning The Wireless World

Newsflash: Wireless is all the rage. Phones, computers, tablets, and radios are all gobbling up frequencies quickly, and the available open bandwidth is shrinking. This makes for a congested wireless highway that can sometimes result in collisions or people getting radio frequency (RF) interference between their devices. It’s a wild and invisible world. Just imagine if you could see what was happening.

Well, as long as you had an expensive spectrum analyzer, you always have been able to see this world. But few of us ever hand an analyzer in our toolboxes, as they were expensive and bulky. With RF Explorer, the spectrum analyzer you’ve always wanted is perhaps here. It's a handy and affordable palm-sized box that scans a range of frequencies and tells you what’s nearby, friend or foe--as the developer calls it, a “Swiss Army knife for the specific needs of digital radio frequency communication.”

RF Explorer does just that: explores the radio frequencies in your area. And it does it in a way that is so easy, it’s enjoyable enough to really feel like you’re exploring. It looks at the radio spectrum of a specific bandwidth and graphs out what its adventure has found. It shows a spike on the graph that relates to a certain frequency and the amplitude (dBm…er, strength) of the frequency it’s finding. It will display full frequencies in the band, including carrier and modulated shapes, any spread spectrum activity, and any frequency deviation from the expected tones. It can look at a range of 600Mhz at a given time.

With this kind of data, you can accomplish several objectives. Let’s consider a production where you’re using wireless microphones. You can sweep the bandwidth(s) your working in to check for other frequencies in use that may interfere with the frequencies you plan to transmit on. You can troubleshoot an RF issue by seeing if a transmitter is transmitting on the correct frequency and with the appropriate power. And you can watch Explorer to see if adjusting antennae placement or transmitter position results in stronger RF signals. It will also work as a tone generator and generate tone on a given frequency. This could be helpful if you needed to confirm a wireless microphone receiver was working.

While all the RF Explorers are physically the same, the internal workings make the different models suited for different frequency ranges. This also means a range of pricing, where the wider the frequency range, the more expensive the model.

Four wideband models are available, each with varying capacities and pricing. Logically, the more frequencies the model covers, the more expensive that model is. The WSUB3G/3G Combo covers from 15MHz all the way to 2,700MHz; the ISM combo covers both the range of 240 to 960MHz and 2,350 to 2,550MHz; the WSUB1G covers only 240 to 960MHz; and the Model 2.4G covers only 2,350 to 2,550 MHz. In addition, three narrow-band models cover the following bandwidths: 430-440 MHz, 860-870 MHz, and 910-920 MHz. For theatre, most users would want the 240-960MHz wide-band, model WSUB1G, which usually sells for around $130, fairly awesome.

Last but not least, any RF Explorer can be connected to a PC or Mac via USB. On either platform, the RF Explorer becomes the antennae for your computer, and then you get much of the same information, only it’s displayed in an easier to work with format on your computer. You gain some increase in functionality, just in the fact that you can zoom in on the analysis graphs and copy and paste graphs or export them as graphics. But the actual data is all the same as what you get on the handheld device. The PC software is made by the developers of RF Explorer, while the Mac software is developed by a third party, In either case, the software is free and handy. 

What is potentially most exciting about the RF Explorer is that it seems to have a team behind it that is dedicated to improving it. With the already great product, the company constantly seeks feedback from users and comes out with updated firmware and better features. The developers also just recently worked with Stage Research to make the RF Explorer interface with Stage Research’s RF Guru software using its new software, RF Scanner. That’s a lot of RFs, but with an Explorer, a Scanner, and a Guru, something good is bound to happen.

Without a doubt, the RF Explorer unit would be a welcome addition to any production using wireless microphones. What you don’t know can hurt you.

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