Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Improving the thermal management of the RX-888 (Mk2)

Figure 1:
The RX888 showing the "top" and RF connectors.  While
the heat sinks attached to the sides are visible, the large one
on the "bottom" plate are not.
Click on the image for a larger version.


If you are considering buying an RX-888 - or have already bought one, be sure to read the following BEFORE you power it up!

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The RX-888 Mk2 SDR is a USB3-based software-defined receiver that, unlike many others, is JUST and analog-to-digital converter (with a bit a low-pass filtering and adjustable attenuation and amplification) coupled to a USB 3 PHY chip.  With a programmable sample rate and a 65-ish MHz low-pass filter, it is capable of simultaneously inhaling the entire spectrum from a few 10s of kHz to about 60 MHz when run at 130 Msps - a rate which pretty much "maxes out" the USB 3 interface.

(Note:  There is also a frequency converter on board which will take up to a 10 MHz swath of spectrum between about 30 and 1800 MHz and shift it to a lower frequency within range of the A/D converter - but that's not part of this discussions.)

The purpose of this post is to discuss the thermal management of the RX-888 Mk2 which, in two words, can be described as  "marginal" and "inconsistent".

Other RX-888 articles:

After posting this entry I produced another article about understanding the gain and properties of the HF signal path on the RX-888 (Mk2) - including information that can also be applied to other direct-sampling "all band HF" Software Defined Radios like the KiwiSDR, Red Pitaya and others.  You may read that article here:  Measuring signal dynamics of the RX-888 (Mk2) - Link.

Using an external clock with the RX-888:  The 27 MHz external clock input to the RX-888 is both fragile and fickle.  To learn a bit more about how to reliably clock an RX-888 from an external source, read THIS article.

Please note:

Despite the impression that the reader might get about the RX-888 (Mk2)'s thermal design and potential reliability, I would still consider it to be an excellent device at a good price - warts and all.

Its performance is quite good and especially since it lacks the FPGA that many other direct-sampling SDRs use, it is quite "future proof" in the sense that support of this receiver - and others like it that will no doubt appear soon - will be based on code running on the host computer (typically a PC or SBC) rather than on an FPGA contained within that requires specialized tools and knowledge for development and is limited by its own capacity.

If you think that an FPGA is needed, consider this:  For a few "virtual" receivers using "conventional" DSP techniques (e.g. HDSDR, SDR-Radio, etc.) a moderate Intel i7 is sufficient:  If using an optimized signal processing program like ka9q-radio along with a modest Intel i5, hundreds of virtual receivers covering the entire HF spectrum can be managed - but these are topics for another discussion.

In other words:  If you need a fairly simple, modestly-priced device to receive multiple RF channels it is well worth getting an RX-888 (Mk2) and performing some simple modification to it to improve its durability.  We can hope that future versions of this - and similar devices - will take these observations into account and produce even better hardware.

What's the problem?

There are scattered anecdotal reports of RX-888 (both the original and Mk2) simply "dying" after some period of time.  For most of these reports there are few details other than comments to this effect in various forums (e.g. little detailed analysis) but this was apparently enough of a problem with the original version of the RX-888 that with the Mk2, "improved" thermal management is one of the new features noted by its sellers.  (I do not have an original RX-888, but I would expect that the same general techniques could be applied to it as well.)

In short, here are a few comments regarding the thermal management of the RX-888 Mk2:

  • DO NOT run it outside its case.  There is a compressible thermal pad that goes between the exposed metal pad below the A/D converter that is intended to transfer heat to the case and without this in place the A/D converter and surrounding components can exceed 100C at moderate ambient temperatures.  If you plan to shuck the case, you should be aware of this and make appropriate arrangements to draw away heat via the same method. 

Figure 2:
Showing the paper double-sided "sticky tape" used to mount
the heat sinks.  Despite improper materials, these work "less
badly" than expected, but it's best to re-attach them properly.
Click on the image for a larger version.

  • The heat sinks are held on by double-sided tape.  The heat sink on the A/D converter appears to be some sort of thermal table like that seen on Raspberry Pi heat sink kits, but  those on the exterior of the case (one on each side, another the top) are held on with standard, paper-based double-sided tape:  People have reported these falling off with handling.  Additionally, because both the case and heat sinks are extruded their surfaces are not flat and all of the RX-888 (Mk2) units that I had a gap between the heat sink and the case through which a sheet of paper can be slid meaning that the heat sinks should be flattened a bit and/or attached using a material that will work as a thermally-conductive void filler.
  • The thermal pad may not be adequate.  Unless the small-ish thermal pad is placed precisely in its correct location, it will not be effective in its thermal transfer.  Additionally, these pads require a bit of compression between the board and the heat sink to be effective and it seems that the spacing between the board and the case is somewhat "loose" in the slot into which the PCB slides and that thermal contact may be inconsistent - more on this shortly.
  • Other components get very hot.  Next to the A/D converter are the 3.3 and 1.8 volt linear regulators which run very hot.  While this may be OK, they are next to (what appear to be) electrolytic capacitors which - if run very warm - can have rather short lifetimes.  While it is unknown if this is the case here, many regulators will become unstable (oscillate) if their associated capacitors degrade with lower capacitance and/or increased ESR (Equivalent Series Resistance) and if oscillation occurs due to capacitor degradation, this is likely to make the device unusable until the components are replaced.

Figure 3:
The top of the RX888 board.  The ADC's heat sink was
removed for the photo, but glued in place later to improve
its thermal transfer.
Click on the image for a larger version.

  • The FX3 USB interface chip can get very warm.  This chip is right next to the A/D converter.  There are anecdotal reports (again, nothing confirmed) that this particular chip can suffer reliability problems when running near its maximum rated temperature:  Whether this is due to a failure of silicon or (more likely) a mechanical failure of a solder connection on its BGA (ball grid array) as a result for thermal cycling remains to be seen, but either one could explain one of the RX-888's reported failure modes of no longer appearing to be the expected type of USB device, making the unit non-functional even though it seems to enumerate - albeit improperly.

Several different people have made spot measurements of the temperatures within an RX-888 and come up with different results, further indicating inconsistency in the efficacy of the passive cooling and showing the inherent difficulty in making such measurements - but here are a few comments that are likely relevant:

  • Unless you need coverage >30 MHz, do NOT run a sample rate higher than 65-70 Msps.  As with most devices, more current (and higher heat dissipation) will occur at a higher sample rate so keeping it well below its maximum (around 130 Msps) will reduce heating and potentially improve the lifetime.  
If you do run at a sample rate 64-70 Msps, it is recommended that a 30 MHz low-pass filter be installed as this will prevent aliasing due to this lower rate and the fact that the RX-888 (Mk2) has only a 60 MHz low-pass filter internally.
  • At normal "room" temperatures (68F/20C) the thermal properties of the RX-888 Mk2 are likely "Okay" if run at just 65-70 Msps - but increasingly marginal above this.  On several RX-888s, the temperature of the A/D converter and other components was fairly high, but not alarmingly so, although this seemed to vary among samples (e.g. some seemed worse than others.)  Since thermal resistance can be characterized by a temperature rise, it makes sense that as the ambient temperature increases, so will the components by the same amount meaning that if the unit is in a hot location - or placed such that it will become warm (convective air movement across the heat sinks is restrictive or in/near the hot air flow of other equipment) then thermal stresses of the components also increase.

Again, the reader should be cautioned that the reported inconsistency between units (e.g. the efficacy of the thermal pad) may mean that the above advice may not apply to all units as some may have, say, a misplaced thermal pad or extra "slop" in the spacing between the board and the case which reduces the compression of the pad causing extra thermal resistance.

"Board slop"doesn't help: 

Figure 4:
Measuring the "board slop" in the mounting rails.  As noted
in the text, the board's looseness was nearly 1 mm - the far
extent of which exceeding the 5mm thickness of the pad.
Click on the image for a larger version.

On this latter point (e.g. "slop" in the board position) with the covers removed I measured a variance of 0.170-0.205" (4.32-5.207mm) from the board to the case due to looseness in the board fitting in the rail on one of my RX-888.  Of the three units that I have to measure, this was the worst - but not by much as the the photo (figure 4) from another unit shows.

Considering that the thermal pad is nominally 5.0mm thick, this means that the board MAY not be effectively conducting heat to the case if the gap is closer to 5.2mm.  Also considering the fact that the thermal pad will work better when it is compressed it would be a very good idea - if possible - to reduce this gap - more on this later.

I also observed that with the USB end plate fitted, it happened to push the board "down" (e.g. reduced the gap between the board and the case) by about 0.02" (0.5mm) and since this is the end of the board closest to the A/D converter chip, it likely reduces the gap by about 0.015" (0.38mm) owing to geometry (e.g. the fact that the A/D converter is located away from the edge.)  If desired, this fact could be exploited by adding a shim to the top of the USB connector and filing the bottom a bit to allow the end plate to push "down" on the board a bit, better-compressing the thermal pad and potentially reducing its thermal resistance. 

Figure 5:
The screwdriver tip points to where the end plate is pushing
down on the connector and board to reduce board-to-case
distance to better-compress the pad.
Click on the image for a larger version.
On the opposite end of the board, the RF connectors fit rather loosely in their mounting holes meaning that one could, in theory, move the connectors to the "bottom" of their holes and tighten the nuts on the SMA connectors.  This would not be advisable without adding a washer of appropriate thickness between the plate and the SMA connector as the connectors themselves are not right at the edge of the circuit board and firmly tightening the nuts would likely bend/break them loose.

Before getting out the file, however, I suggest considering the methods/modifications mentioned below to improve the thermal performance of the RX-888 (Mk2) in several other ways.

Ways to improve the thermal performance:

There are two ways to improve the thermal performance and reduce the temperature of the onboard components.

Add another heat sink and a fan

A "brute force" approach to this would be to move more air through and around the unit. using a small fan.  If you do this I would recommend two minor modifications:

  • Glue the heat sink to the A/D converter.  As noted earlier, the heat sink the A/D converter is held on by tape, but I would recommend that this be removed from the heat sink and the chip itself (using a bit of paint thinner or alcohol to remove residue) and it be reattached using thermally conductive epoxy rather than conventional "clear" epoxy.  This epoxy is readily available at the usual places (Amazon, etc.) but it should be noted that the gray (not clear!) "JB Weld" epoxy (available at auto-parts and "big box" stores) also has reasonable thermal conductivity and works quite well in this application.   Do NOT use an adhesive like "super glue" as it is not void-filling by its nature and it is unlikely to endure the heat.
  • Add a heat sink to the FX3 chip.  This chip - next to the A/D converter - should also be cooled and a small heat sink - such as that which comes with a Raspberry Pi heat sink kit - may be attached.  Again, I would recommend thermally-conductive epoxy rather than supplied double-sided sticky tape.

As for the fan mounting, several people have simply removed both side plates and fabricated the attachment for a small fan (say, 20x20mm to 30x30mm) on the side with the USB connector to blow air through the case on both sides of the board.  Others have temporarily removed the board from the case and put holes in "top" of the case (on the side with the labels) into which a fan is mounted.

Either of these will be quite effective - but since these are not passive cooling, the failure of a fan could result in excess heat if other methods are not also employed.

Improve passive cooling by using a much larger thermal pad

This is likely the favored approach as it does not depend on a fan which will have a defined useful lifetime, and the failure of which could result in immediate overheating in certain circumstances.  There are two parts to this approach:

Replace the thermal pad. 

At reasonable ambient temperatures I believe that the area of the external heat sinks on the RX-888 are of adequate size, provided that they are open for air flow and not placed in the heat exhaust of equipment and properly attached to the case - more on that shortly.

As noted, the thermal pad is seemingly marginal and it is only as large enough to draw heat away from the area immediately proximate to the A/D converter - an issue that may be exacerbated by the inconsistent board-to-case spacing mentioned above.  Improper placement of this pad will prevent it from conducting heat from the A/D converter - the major heat producer - to the case - and subsequent heating of adjacent components.

Figure 6:
A piece of 45mm x 65mm thermal pad on the bottom of the
board.  This piece is large enough to cover all heat-
generating components.
Click on the image for a larger version.
It is also likely that the thermal pad material supplied with the unit is of lower thermal conductivity than other materials that are available (to save cost!) so the use of better thermal material and a larger pad will draw more heat away from all of the heat-producing components on the board and conduct it to the heat sink.

A suitable pad material is the Laird A15340-01 which may be found at Digi-Key (link here ).  This material has roughly half  the thermal resistance (e.g. better thermal conductivity) of other common pad materials and it is suitably "squishy" in that it will form around components and help fill small voids as it does so.

Unfortunately, this material is somewhat expensive in that it's available only as a rather large piece - about $32 (at the time of posting - not including shipping) for one that is 22.8x22.8cm square - but this will modify several RX-888s - but even at the price of $32, it's still a reasonable price to pay for improved reliability of a $150-$200 device!  If you do this, it's recommended that you work with other RX-888 owners to split the cost of the pad - but be sure to keep the pad - or any pieces that you cut from it - in a zip-bag or clean plastic cling film to prevent its surface from being contaminated with dirt and dust.  If you post/mail this pad material to someone else, be sure to protect it between two pieces of cardboard to prevent it from being mangled.

Note:  Others have obtained 5mm thick thermal pad material from other sources (e.g. Amazon) and while it likely does not have as low thermal resistance as the Laird product mentioned, reports indicate that it works adequately - most likely a result of the larger size of this pad compared to the original, drawing heat away from the entire bottom surface of the board.

Figure 7:
The new pad, installed, as viewed from the
end with the USB connector, near the ADC
and FX3 USB interface chip.
Click on the image for a larger version.

A rectangular piece of thermal pad 45mm x 65mm will cover the bottom of the board where there are heat-generating components and ensure superior heat transfer to the case.  Since this material is a bit "sticky", it may be a bit difficult to get it installed as it will be resistant to sliding, but a very light coating of white heat-sink grease on the side of the pad facing the heat sink material will provide sufficient lubrication to allow it to slide as the board is inserted along its mounting rails.

Comment:  This process is fairly messy, so if you plan to add a connector for an external clock input, I would suggest that you do so at the time that you install the new pad as you will probably not to repeat the process unnecessarily.

Remount the heat sinks.

As noted earlier, the four heat sinks (two on the "bottom" side opposite the label and one on each side) are held on by double-sided paper tape.  It is recommended that these be removed - along with any tape residue (best done with paint thinner and/or alcohol) - and be reattached with thermal epoxy.

Figure 8:
An RX888 (Mk2) in the process of gluing on the side heat
sinks, using a vise for clamping.  Alternatively, weight may
be placed on the heat sink(s) while the epoxy cures to
compress it and squeeze out excess - but note that until it
cures that the heat sinks may slide slowly out of position
if one isn't careful.
Click on the image for a larger version.

As noted previously, the heat sinks do not fit flat with each other so  it would be a good idea to assure that the surfaces are reasonably to maximize thermal conductivity by drawing the case and the mating surfaces of the heat sinks across 800-grid sandpaper (using a flat piece of metal or glass as a substrate) - taking care to prevent metal particles from getting onto the board or inside the case:  It would be best to remove the board and do this prior to the installation of the new thermal pad and wash any such particles from the case before reassembly.

Once the mating surfaces have been flattened and cleaned, using thermal epoxy (or the gray "JB-Weld") reattach the heat sinks one-at-a-time - preferably by compressing them in a vice or with a clamp to squeeze out as much adhesive as possible.

It's worth noting that even if you don't go through the trouble of flattening the heat sink and the surface of the case, the use of a void-filling adhesive will certainly offer far more efficient thermal transfer than  the original double-sided paper sticky tape along with it s rather large air gap between the two surfaces.

Out of curiosity I measured the difference in temperature between the heat sinks stuck on with double-sided tape and the exposed portion of the case right next to the heat sink and it was found to be about 3-5F (1.7-2.8C) - surprisingly good, actually.

Before and after thermal measurements

Figure 9:
Two RX888 Mk2's with reattached heat sinks, ready for a 
bit of clean-up and final assembly.
Click on the image for a larger version.
Using a thermal infrared camera and verifying with a thermocouple, temperature measurements were made of various components with an RX-888 operating at 130 Msps at an ambient temperature of 74F (23C) after 10 minutes of operation.  The readings were as follows:

With the original thermal pad, end plates removed - heat sink cooling by convection only:

ADC:  175F (79C)

FX3 (USB interface): 155F (68C)

Capacitor near 3.3 volt regulator:  145F (63C)

3.3V Regulator:  170F (77C)

1.8V Regulator:  178F (81C)


With Laird 45mm X 65mm pad - heat sink cooling by convection only:

ADC: 145F (63C)

FX3: 130F (54C)

Capacitor near 3.3 volt regulator:  125F (52C)

3.3V Regulator:  145F (63C)

1.8V Regulator:  150F (66C)

Note:  There is another capacitor near the 1.8 volt regulator, but it is temperature cannot be readily measured while the board was installed in the case, but other measurements made outside the case indicates that its temperature was at least as high as that of the capacitor near the 3.3 volt regulator.

Results and comments:

The replacement of the original thermal pad with one that is 45mm X 65mm in size to cover the bottom of the board where there are active components has resulted in a very significant heat reduction:  As with all electronics, reducing the temperature of the components will increase the operational lifetime.

Considering that one can use - as a guideline - the temperature rise above ambient, we can make some estimations as to what will happen if the modified RX-888 (Mk2) is operated at a higher temperature.  

For example, if we consider 212F (100C) to be the maximum allowed case temperature of any of the components, we can see that with the original thermal pad, this limit would occur with the ADC converter at an ambient temperature of around 111F (44C) - a temperature that one could reasonably expect during the summer in a room without air conditioning.  In contrast, with the larger pad the ADC's temperature would likely be closer to 185F (85) in the same environment.

With a small amount of air moving across the heat sinks, their temperature rise would also be lower, further reducing internal temperature - and even though it isn't strictly necessary, it wouldn't hurt to use a small fan - even on a modified RX-888 (Mk2) to cool it even more, and feel confident that it will still survive should that fan fail.

Finally, I would again remind the reader that I consider the RX-888 (Mk2) to be an excellent-performing and extraordinarily flexible device and well worth extra trouble to make it better!

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This page stolen from ka7oei.blogspot.com