Trains4Africa
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dcc brand Decisions

DCC INFORMATION & ADVICE

Which “controller” brands do we like, what are our “likes and dislikes” about the brands…. and why?

Now HERE I am treading on eggs – my opinion is guaranteed to 100% suit only one person perfectly, and that is ME – but perhaps my own preferences, which evolved based on hands on experience, PLUS feedback from many happy clients, have value in the same way that any other “users” opinion is useful.

Cannot review them all here so forgive me if your choice is missing… However I have chosen some of the most widely distributed and thrown in a couple that are worthy of note on either positive or negative issues for balance.

We stock some of these brands and not others…however I won’t define which here because I want you to read through this section as neutrally as possible.

I’m of course happy to explain in detail to you, quote you and recommend if that’s what you’d like, but first, PLEASE, lets go through the thinking process.

The comment order indicates nothing – they are arranged alphabetically.

BACHMANN DYNAMIS:

With some basic information released early there was a lot of excitement around the development of Dynamis. Bachmann Partnered with ESU for this product and so the anticipation was for something special, but it the reality is, it is clear it has been designed to a price and delivers far less than most expect!

I LIKE: The fact it is wireless at an entry level cost, I like the fact it has full addressing ability and I like its price point, but it stops there.

I LIKE: The ability to use alphanumeric addressing of locomotives

I DISLIKE: The fact that the infra red is affected by fluorescent tubes and it is far too directional for all but the smallest layout. For any larger or round the walls layout, it is necessary to mount repeaters for the IR sensors, or everything stops every time the handset loses contact with the base station!

I DISLIKE: The fact that it cannot read decoder information as that is important if you want to be able to get the best from DCC. (as with the Roco Maus 2, its necessary to spend a lot more on a bigger base station to get an important basic feature such as CV read-back, and I think that is wrong).

I DISLIKE: Its ergonomics and shape—very much like a “Play station” controller and needs two hands to operate. The large screen is very good and easy to read but it (and the IR transmitter) chews up batteries VERY fast!

If we now add the Pro Box & IR repeater to the Dynamis….

It becomes a very different product, and is becoming feature compatible with fully fledged systems, so a secondary set of comments are due.

I LIKE: The fact that the IR repeater, if mounted where it will give much wider coverage than the original Dynamis IR receiver, gets rid of the “dead spots” that cause layout shutdown and keep communications constant, making the wireless feature work properly for the first time.

I LIKE: The fact that reading CV’s is now possible

I LIKE: The fact that you now have a proper programming track ability

I LIKE: The fact that it holds all roster info in the Pro-Box so its available to all handsets…

I would strongly recommend any Dynamis owners to make the upgrade!

BUT

I DISLIKE: The limit of only 4 Handsets… other brands offer a much bigger flexibility in that area

I DISLIKE: the fact that the Pro-box has not been fitted with the promised computer interface, something that is a must for a full system these days.

So… as Dynamis + Pro-Box is now at the cost of a full system from major competitors, if you don’t already own a basic Dynamis and there is even the glimmer of a possibility that you may want some form of “added intelligence” to help you operate your layout… Then I strongly suggest that it’ll pay you to look closely at other “full feature systems” before investing.

DIGITRAX:

an earlier market leader in the USA, and one of the first widely sold brands. Digitrax has wide array of systems & accessories.

Digitrax is also an innovator; They have a good wide cross section of smaller manufacturers following their lead, so while their Loco-net bus is a proprietary way of communication between controller and accessories, it is widely supported. Widely stocked in US and Australasia, Digitrax has a good but base of users in UK, Australia and Europe.

I LIKE: The new “super chief” with the DT400 handset, and the excellent value “Zephyr” entry-level units. Both offer good feature levels, greatly improved operability and maintain good expandability.

I’m unsure about the DT400 handset: Its very clever feature wise, about the same as an NCE Procab, but all its buttons are the same size and shape and that makes it confusing—a real shame! I have to admit though that the DT400 handset, while technically good, is hard to use for most—all the buttons look the same. Even after many operating sessions owners are still confused!

I REALLY DISLIKE: – Digitrax manuals – They are famous for inclusion of techno-speak mixed with marketing hype, they can be “a very difficult read” and are often almost unintelligible until one has learned to “speak Digitrax”. In fairness newer products add hugely to the understandability of manuals by being very user friendly – the DT400 is a good example of this. New users often need a plain English translation – best provided by either a local user of the excellent Digitrax user group (see favorite links)

I SORT OF LIKE: Their willingness to add new features and test the waters with new technology. This is slightly tempered by their lack of cooperation within the industry as I feel it weakens the cross-compatibility of the DCC standards.

I’M AMBIVOLENT ABOUT: Their warranty approach… for decoders. They can be far less understanding than any other major brand, to the point that whilst dealers may be more understanding, the Digitrax factory attitude seems to almost say “be careful – we only warrant decoders until the day they are installed”

ESU “ECOS” system:

A console type system. This is a very, very good looking unit with twin controllers, touch screen and many very modern features.

ESU are the makers of the worlds most successful sound decoders, the ESU LokSound Series, and because these are used by most main European loco brands, ESU are now the largest single DCC producer world wide.

This system keeps upgrading itself via the very convenient direct software update facility so its hard to keep pace with what it can do – It is definitely one for the technophile who likes hi-tech toys!

I LIKE: Many, many things about this unit, including its ability to record names as well as numbers for loco’s, its very clever motorized knobs, its touch screen ability, its very competent computer-like operating system etc…

I LIKE: The ability to connect it via Ethernet to update software via the Web.

I LIKE: The “on-screen help” – Unlike the manuals, this provides good information and is easily accessed, just like the help button on a computer screen

I DISLIKE: The fact it is a fixed console type system. Radio control handsets are available, but are very “Play-station-like” and are also expensive, yet do not offer total control (some things must still be done via the console)

I DISLIKE: The manuals – Like Lenz, they are badly translated from German to English, and many owners have great difficulty with them.

Take your time looking over ECOS…. and read as much about it as you can, because its far from a low cost unit and a console type system isn’t every ones best choice when going DCC.…

However it is a very, very clever system, and if after looking past the fancy panels and design to its real abilities and wide feature level, it clearly fits your need, then don’t hesitate…. It’s a very nice product that is well supported by it manufacturer.

HORNBY Digital:

This brand had a disastrous start to its involvement with DCC and while it has gradually become better, we are afraid that to us, still has a very, very long way to go to before I can recommend it with any confidence at all.

No likes and dislikes here, just a comment on each controller.

HORNBY SELECT: A train-set controller at best. This was Hornby’s first digital controller and is still sold, however it has significant problems with its digital waveform and should be avoided. It is so far off specification that calling it DCC at all is drawing a very long bow!

This is not just my opinion – “Model Eisenbahn” who are one of Europe’s most highly respected professional model railway magazines reviewed this product in early 2008. The comprehensive review was in German of course, but there was no mistaking its conclusion, as it was entitled in plain English “Return to Sender”

Hopefully it’ll be dropped and replaced.

HORNBY ELITE: To be honest it looks and feels too much like a low cost version of a Fisher Price toy for me… Its initial release was greeted with positive anticipation but in its first few software versions, it had several significant problems.

Giving credit where credit is due, the current versions are NMRA Compliant, and most of the quirks have been taken care of, however the basic design operating structure makes it a really difficult control system to access and use functions on, so it is to be honest simply hopeless with sound equipped locomotives.

Overall, I look forward to a “new generation” from Hornby that will match the quality of some of their current locomotives… However until that happens, all I can say is that Hornby is OK as a basic trainset controller but not a competent base for a DCC system you will be able to get the best out of.

LENZ Set 100:

I really like the fact that Lenz have been a core part of the establishment of DCC standards, and so respect their products greatly.

They offer an open approach to new development to ensure that Lenz will remain a “flexibly applicable” product with a wide variety of compatible “after market” or “other brand” accessories to use with it. Whilst they have steadily lost the lead over recent years and have dramatically slowed any new development recently due to distractions within their business, Lenz remains a solid brand. Lenz also makes product for several European hobby brands, as well as Atlas in the USA.

I DISLIKE:The Lenz Compact and the Atlas Commander – I feel that for most they are very limited in potential, the “scrolling” needed for selection plus a very limited digital display means that the manual is needed all the time and “instinctive” use is difficult. The same comment applies to the set 90 – the spec reads fine but while the actually use of the hand controller is fine for driving loco’s, its really clumsy for function access and all programming operations.

Experience shows that Lenz set 90 buyers almost always end up buying a set 100’s LH100 handset to make operations easier and both the commander and compact are inevitably destined to be replaced quickly by many purchasers!

I LIKE: The Lenz set 100 V3.6 software – mid priced with excellent feature levels, a really usable handset that does it all, and few downsides other than lack of a “knob” on the LH100 handset. Having said that, you may think differently now but based on experience, after a few minutes using the up-down speed keys you will forget a knob was ever an issue in the first place.

I DISLIKE: Lenz manuals… These are to be nice, terribly hard to understand. Tech talk is already hard, and when German technical language is translated to English it takes several re-readings and clever interpretation to “get to the point”. This really isn’t just opinion – I receive far more “please help” calls from Lenz owners than most other brands.

I LIKE: The constant forward development of new ideas and the fact that RAILCOM, Lenz’s “Loco to controller” 2 way communication system is likely to become the default standard for the industry, as they are making it’s technology freely available to other brands. That’s how everyday things like the Cassette and CD quickly gained acceptance and dominated the world market, and lack of that “openness” is why other similar technologies failed quickly.

MRC “Prodigy advance” system:

(Also branded for Gaugemaster in UK) – MRC originally made DC controllers and branched into DCC some time ago. Early releases were less than impressive but the latest software release for this unit has made it quite a reasonable performer. (Advance squared).

MRC decoders are another thing altogether – less than great shall we say!

I LIKE: The fact that it has followed a similar route design wise and interface wise to the NCE system. The controller is easy to use and reasonably instinctive too (however while it IS a copy of the NCE style wise, it is not an equivalent product in any way)

I LIKE: The fact that is does almost everything as it comes, no need for added devices at all—even the power supply is in the box, unusual for a DCC system above “starter” level….

I DISLIKE: The fact that while they copied the shape of the NCE controller they misread its ergonomics, so it is a 2 handed controller. With just a little more thought, this could have been avoided!

NCE Power-House Pro and PowerCab systems:

I believe that NCE remains the benchmark for “Usable sophistication, User friendly control and most importantly comfortable learning in DCC.

Whilst it looks like it has as many buttons as an average Audiovisual system remote control, the control layout is actually very cleverly arranged so that it can be used with only one hand and ALL commonly used buttons and knobs are within reach of one finger whether you are right or left handed.

Additionally, the NCE ProCab (used for both PowerCab and PowerHouse Pro systems) has ability to control the maximum possible 28 separate decoder functions and it also has really readable super clear display, plain English approach and logical layout making it a snap to operate with, and even those new to DCC can operate it comfortably within just a few minutes.

I REALLY LOVE: The POWERCAB starter set: The NCE “POWERCAB” is without doubt the best DCC start set ever made – all the functions of a full Powerhouse Pro system and for only half the price! It is upgradeable to a full system easily too!

I LIKE: The extremely easy to read manual. There are still a few areas where interpreting “tech-speak” is hard, but in general a basic, logical approach and the constant help from the “plain English” programming and screen information makes NCE a pleasure to use and learn, whether the user is 7 or 70+.

I LIKE: The fact that for all basic programming, you can forget CV’s and simply make “yes-no” decisions… DO YOU want to enable DC operation – enter for no, press one for yes? Is forward normal or reversed for this loco – enter for normal, press one for reversed… etc…… dead easy, no interpretation needed!

I LIKE: The full “2 way radio” option, that means total wireless for all operations and programming. It works just like it is plugged in with no delay, has excellent range and can do everything without “plugging it in” to the layout. NO other brand offers such competent wireless performance.

I LIKE: The “Owner upgradeable” main processor, NCE regularly releases updates (about every 18 months or so) and that means an NCE owner can always have the “Latest” product and functions by simply replacing the “main Brain” of the unit.

I DISLIKE: Nothing at all about the NCE system.

SPECIAL ADDITION: NCE have now released their very clever “Mini-panel” which simply plugs in as if it were another handset, and has the ability to add lots of layout automation through very simple “on screen programming” with an NCE handset from either PowerCab or PowerHouse Pro.

This really low cost item will let you add loco by loco specific automation and in concert with simple detection, makes easy shuttle control and similar desirable automation accessible easily in DCC for the first time! If you need more than a single Mini-panel can do, you can just as easily add yet more Mini-panels!

For the ability to add and use this new item alone, you really should include NCE in your short list!

ROCO:

It is a “train-set brand” but I’ve included them because they’re widely distributed and have kept a sensible cross-compatibility with standards.

Roco is made by a third party for them but that means nothing – the spec is that of Roco… not the brand who makes it, so I remain consistent to my recommendation to avoid train set brands generally. (now also sold under Fleischmann by the way… same thing but in Blue)

Their pricing is generally good, making Roco a very popular choice among modelers as a “Starter pack” or “second handset” controller for Lenz. Be careful though – there are several versions and the more basic “Maus” very commonly seen on Ebay at tempting prices is quite limiting

I LIKE: the “MAUS” – sort of, anyway! It has some redeeming features and in its new incarnation is a very much more useful device.

I LIKE: Some of the newer generation Roco DCC products, but for the life of me cannot understand why they didn’t make it possible to read back information from the decoder with them at all levels instead of requiring the add-ons / amplifier to do so…. (read decoder CV’s current settings before you change them)

(Actually I can… like all train-set brands, the core objective is to sell multiple locos to less sophisticated users, so the core objective is just that, not more in-depth system uses)

It sounds a small thing but not being able to read back makes programming much harder especially for the novice. I always really dislike with any brand the fact that to get read back, you have to buy an add-on unit – its just a “crippling” of the software to add more sales for them later and it SHOULD be there in the first place!

I QUITE LIKE the Roco ACTION ITEMS: such as the coach with opening doors and sound, the excellent ROCO DCC controlled crane and similar – these add excitement and demonstrate potential directly, stimulating the future of DCC.

I REALLY DISLIKE: The fact that to get access to CV read-back with them… even with the new versions, you need buy yet more Roco gear to get what you should have in the first place!

ZIMO:

A definite Rolls Royce price and feature wise. It is extremely well made and does everything it claims to do very well – which is a quite lot as it is a very sophisticated DCC system.

If I was to change from my own personal favourite system at any time, this would definitely be on my shortlist!

I LIKE: Most things about the architecture and software approach of this system. It is really well designed in every way.

I LIKE: Zimo’s positive approach to evolving new things and in approaching things in different ways, whilst all the time remaining 100% NMRA compatible.

I DISLIKE: The price. Whilst it is clearly a quality product I cannot help feeling it is more expensive than it needs to be. To be fair, its development costs are high compared to most as ZIMO keeps evolving new things and those costs need paying for…. But money is money to most modellers and it IS expensive!

ZTC:

Originally a really nice, somewhat special system designed in UK, with a nice design, look and feel. Sadly, this brand has slipped further and further behind reality in the DCC world and is now both technically far behind the pack and well and truly overpriced.

(Since this was originally written ZTC has closed for business, passed on its stock to a third party who attempted to keep the brand going, failed again and now yet again, its in a new set of hands who so far as can be seen, are trying hard to resurrect it but have so far anyway… done nothing to improve its significant shortcomings or well out of date software!)

Having had to help many ZTC owners through many problems that should never have happened over the years…. I have to say that while I admire their courage and I wish the new owners of the brand name well but sorry, a simple “NOT AT ANY PRICE” still remains my opinion here…. ZTC should occupy the same place on your short list as Z does in the Alphabet….

SO…. How should YOU evaluate a controller for YOUR Needs?

In the end it is YOUR choice, and any decision needs to be based on YOUR needs. Here’s my idea for a logical and sensible bit of research.

FIRST: Read the next few pages in this section of the website, and bed firmly in your mind that it is NOT the feature list that is important—most competent systems will control more loco’s and do more things than you can shake a stick at

– it is whether your choice will do the FEW VERY IMPORTANT THINGS that YOU want it to do… that it fits with YOUR expectations and feels RIGHT in your hand!

THEN: above all: Keep it fun, whatever you do – I’ve seen so much agonizing about the DCC decision process that I’m sure some will never be happy because they are forever second guessing or juggling feature lists! It’s what it can DO for YOU, not how long the list is that’s important – unnecessary features are only useless clutter.

REMEMBER: When asking others what is best, they will ALWAYS recommend their own choice above all – that doesn’t make it right of course, nor does it make them wrong – it is just human nature.

RELAX & ENJOY: First and foremost, don’t worry as you go – take your time and don’t be afraid to ask questions. this is an important step but do keep in mind – Enjoy the process of thinking and talking it through and choosing your system!

You will soon forget that unless you remember that it’s not a life threatening issue – DO remember you are choosing how to IMPROVE YOUR MODEL RAILWAY OPERATIONS – NOT planning a trip to the tax office, dentist or proctologist.

I believe the decision process can be a pleasant journey of discovery if you follow the few simple guidelines in the next couple of website pages.