Tearing down the Xiegu GSOC
The Xiegu GSOC, marketed by Chongqing Xiegu Technology Co., Ltd, under the retail name Radioddity, gets billed as a “Universal controller” for ham radio. It boasts some impressive hardware, including a high-resolution touchscreen, dual-core processor, two different audio processors, and a custom-engineered control wheel smooth as butter. So naturally I had to tear it apart.
For those of you not surfing the airwaves of amateur radio, you might be surprised to see how far along radio technology has come. These days, a Software Defined Radio (SDR) is capable of processing an entire chunk of spectrum all at once, and displaying it as a colorful scrolling “waterfall” display. So unlike, say on Stranger Things where you’d have to know in advance exactly what frequency to listen on (or to manually scan across the bands) you can instantly see exactly where transmissions are happening, and tune in to them with a click.
The general idea of a product like this is to add the spectrum view to a radio that otherwise lacks that feature. It also supports a number of amateur radio digital formats–essentially a modem–as well as various levels of useful audio processing and noise reduction. A cool gadget. But I wanted more out of it than the manufacturer as been able to deliver (so far).
Make no mistake, Xiegu has been regularly releasing firmware updates with progressively more features. Still, there’s a larger community out there of folks writing radio-related software, and it would be far better for customers to be able to run whatever they want. (Incidentally, this would also make the hardware product useful to a wider swath of customers.)
So I launched a GitHub project, gsoc-contrib. There were rumors of the company releasing hardware? software? something as open source, eventually. Instead of waiting, I started this project quietly, slowly gathering information about the device’s internals. Eventually I cracked open the case and published a teardown, which revealed the inner core as something akin to a Linux tablet. Shortly after I was able to get root access and start looking around the software. I won’t repeat the whole teardown here…go follow the link and read it for yourself. It’s surprisingly entertaining.
Especially in the USA, there’s an uneasy relationship between device manufacturers and hardware hackers. Some companies are more enlightened than others, but for many it’s somewhere between pretend-hardware-hackers-don’t-exist and cease-and-desist. Chinese culture is different. Bunnie Huang, who has probably forgotten more than I’ll ever learn in my lifetime, has some fascinating insights in this area.
So I was quietly chipping away on this and hour or two every week or so–learning embedded Linux as I went–and not planning to make any grand announcements until there was more to show. Then one day I visited Radioddity.com, checking for new firmware updates. What I saw there shocked me.
I was not expecting to get name checked this way! Beyond the front page, the Radioddity blog had essentially reposted an older version of the entire teardown wiki page. (The Github project and wiki are all released under the permissive “unlicense” so republishing is totally kosher–though I’d prefer to keep all the latest information in one central location.) I guess this answers the question of the company’s attitude toward my little side project. I later found another reference on an Italian Facebook page:
I’m honestly not sure what to make of this, especially the implication that it’s a project “from” Xiegu GSOC. I’m curious to see if they talk about it at the QSO Today ham expo this coming weekend.
Next steps: If you find this interesting and you have any knowledge about Embedded Linux, hardware hacking, QEMU, or ham radio software like WS-JTX, reach out on Github. The issue tracker there is live and taking requests. See a bit more info in the video presentation. I have no financial stake in any of this (other than getting my money’s worth out of a device I saved up for to buy at full retail)–the goal is purely to get information out there.
If you think that’s a worthy goal, I hope you’ll pitch in.
Connect with me, and get more “behind the scenes” info and pre-release video in my micro-community at Micahcosmos.