Recommendations for First DCC System Needed

LifeTrekker_ Feb 17, 2022

  1. LifeTrekker_

    LifeTrekker_ TrainBoard Member

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    Hey all, I have another DCC related question for you.

    Since I am brand new to the hobby after being out of it for 25 years, I need to pick up my first DCC control system. And as I like to do my research (half the fun for me), and only buy once, I'm hoping to get some recommendations from the group.

    My planned layout will be going into a 9 ft. X 6.5 ft. space in my basement, and as of right now I'm planning on building it on 2 36" X 80" hollow core doors layed out in an L. It will mostly be a rail fanning type of layout in the style of the original 5 ft. X 7 ft. DRGW layout designed and built by Mike Danneman and profiled in the March 1996 issue of MR Magazine, from which I am taking alot of inspiration. I may also add a switching yard to represent a small town or even a larger city like Pueblo or Denver in order to give me an opportunity to play around with operations.

    With regards to a DCC system, I want something that is reliable, flexible, expandable, and a joy to use. Any suggestions you may have will be greatly appreciated.

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  2. MK

    MK TrainBoard Member

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    Even if you are a Lone Wolf, find out what the nearby clubs around you are using. They can be a source of help if you have a problem with your equipment or eventually you might one to go and run with them.

    The two biggies are NCE and Digitrax with Digitrax pretty much the "standard" for N-Trak clubs. I'll let the champions of each camp espouse their benefits. :D Starter systems for each run about $200 and both are expandable with boosters (more power - may or may not be needed), throttles and even wireless operations.

    Then there are the various DIY systems that tend to suit the thinkerers and programmers. These can be a hobby within a hobby. :ROFLMAO:

    There are those who use DCC as a tool to run their trains and there are those who tinker with DCC itself. ;)
     
  3. Sumner

    Sumner TrainBoard Member

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    Look at DCC++EX and see if it might be for you.

    https://dcc-ex.com/

    A number of us are using it and love it. You can get into it for very little and use your phone as a walkaround wireless throttle and always go to something else if you wanted to later. You can basically do anything with it and in some cases more than you can do with a commercial system.

    Sumner
     
  4. jbonkowski

    jbonkowski TrainBoard Member

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    You shouldn't feel like you have to go with Digitrax or NCE, just because they are popular in America. I find Digitrax systems to be flaky, especially since they are essentially the "standard".

    For the same price, you can get the Digikeijs DR-5000, which has wi-fi built-in (don't have that with entry level Digitrax), letting you use any old smartphone as a wireless throttle. The DR-5000 works with most equipment manufacturers, so you can use throttles, power boosters, occupancy detectors, etc from lots of companies. You do need a computer to go with it, however. It doesn't have a display or throttle knob built in.

    You might say "But if I get something Euro-weird like that, who will I go to for help?" I think that if the product works well, you won't need to ask for help in the first place!

    If you are handy with electronics, you can save a LOT of money by going the DCC++/microcontroller route. It can seem daunting at first, but really it isn't difficult. Did I mention how cheap it is? You can get started for ~$20. At that price, you can try it and if you hate it, you are out almost no money. You can't say that about any of the other choices.

    Jim
     
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  5. LifeTrekker_

    LifeTrekker_ TrainBoard Member

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    Thanks for the link Sumner. I've started looking around at the DCC++EX website and watched a YouTube video or two, and it looks like a very cool option. And what a deep rabbit hole it is! Love it! That's why getting into a new hobby (or revisiting an old one) is so much fun. There's so much new stuff to learn and explore.

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    Last edited: Feb 18, 2022
  6. DCESharkman

    DCESharkman TrainBoard Member

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    You may want to look at the coolest one yet, CabControl from ESU, puts all the others to shame.

    I am junking everything that a the Digitrax name on it.
     
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  7. sidney

    sidney TrainBoard Member

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    ill second or third :D the dcc++ex system . very cheap to buy and is a great system . im not very smart on electronic type things but i was able to get a pretty good system up and running pretty fast. i was a big fan of NCE power cab , but the prices for those things are just crazy. ive ditched my nce power cab and now fully run by dcc++ex. i love it.. thats my 2 cents for what ever 2 cents are worth these days :ROFLMAO:
     
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  8. LifeTrekker_

    LifeTrekker_ TrainBoard Member

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    I'm assuming you're not including engine decoders in that list, right?

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    Last edited: Feb 19, 2022
  9. DCESharkman

    DCESharkman TrainBoard Member

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    That is correct for now. The controller is more important than the decoder! And I am not about to rip out hundreds of decoders to replace them either.
    Only in new locomotive installs or replacing failed decoders will I remove what is inside them and replace with the ESU or ZIMO decoder that fits the purpose. I have several Digitrax consists that run amazingly well, so I guess in a more simple approach, don't fix what isn't broken.

    The plan is to move to RailCom for automated running, and all I need to add to a Digitrax consist is a RailCom function decoder in the caboose or end car of the train.
     
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  10. drgwspup

    drgwspup TrainBoard Member

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    I was a late adopter of DCC. I went with NCE PowerCab because at the time it was the cheapest and easiest to use. For a small layout, you are up and running in minutes assuming you have a decoder installed locomotive. Programming is easy with the menu driven process on the throttle. Just looking at a Digitrax throttle makes my anxiety levels go up.

    Having said that, I am strongly looking at a self-built DCC++ex system. Check out Jimmy on the DIY and Digital YouTube channel. He walks you through the whole process.

    Mark
     
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  11. LifeTrekker_

    LifeTrekker_ TrainBoard Member

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    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I had previously found Jimmy's YT channel, and have watched several of his DCC videos already. I found them informative so far.

    I'm seriously leaning towards giving the DCC++EX system a try, especially as I'm learning more about it. It looks like an inexpensive yet powerful system that is not too difficult to put together and configure. And since I'm starting fresh and don't have any other equipment at this point, I'm thinking, why not?

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  12. Sumner

    Sumner TrainBoard Member

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    (y) exactly, why not :sneaky:. Lots of help out there if needed although as you mentioned it isn't that hard to setup.

    Sumner
     
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  13. Keith Ledbetter

    Keith Ledbetter TrainBoard Member

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    Ya worst case you don't like it and go commercial but it's so cheap to try why not. If you are at all computer/electronics savvy I think you'll never go back once you try. If your not then ya digitrax, NCE, starter systems are perfectly fine! And yes ESU is awesome but $$$$$$$$
     
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  14. CSX Robert

    CSX Robert TrainBoard Member

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    Why? What's anxiety inducing about a Digitrax throttle?
     
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  15. CSX Robert

    CSX Robert TrainBoard Member

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    The flexibility and expandability of Loconet is a big reason why I went with Digitrax. You can actually add Loconet to a non Digitrax layout, but I wanted that functionality out of the box. I also consider the ability to directly control two trains at once with their DT series throttles a big plus, and for me really adds to the "a joy to use" factor.

    DCC++ is definitely a legitimate option, I might even set one up to use on my Christmas tree train for the holidays. My only issue with it for my main layout is the throttles. I like physical knobs and buttons as opposed to a touchscreen. I know there are options for adding a knob to a phone and there are some DIY throttles out there, but at this time I don't think any of these options have the fit and finish ease of use of a commercial throttle.
     
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  16. CSX Robert

    CSX Robert TrainBoard Member

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    You can get started with Digitrax or NCE for around $200, and you can add smartphone throttles to Digitrax for less than $100, so compared to that the starting price of close to $400 for the ESU CabControl is expensive; however, it is wireless out of the box. If I'm not mistaken, it's actually currently the lowest cost commercially available wireless system that doesn't rely on smartphone throttles.
     
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  17. Sumner

    Sumner TrainBoard Member

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    That is a legitimate concern. I used a wireless NCE throttle at a club layout and loved it and was going that way (for a lot more dollars) but then thought I'd try the original DCC++ first. Liked it but it had bugs and I was going to have to build Dave's wireless throttle to have a physical throttle.

    Then Fred and the guys came up with a much improved DCC++EX and I started using the phone throttle but also didn't like the physical interface but loved everything else that it offers that the NCE throttle is lacking in.

    Then when I found you can add a speed/direction knob ....

    [​IMG]
    http://1fatgmc.com/RailRoad/DCC/page-3.html

    ... for very little and I decided I didn't need to build Dave's throttle. EngineDriver on the phone is fantastic as far as what you see on the screen (don't have to remember what the function keys do) and very easy to run multiple loco's at the same time with it.

    My guess is that someone is going to jump on the DCC++EX bandwagon and develop an over-the-counter reasonably priced physical throttle and probably a Command Station that holds the hardware and has one or two physical throttles and a screen to look more like DC and DCC throttles that people are more accustom to.

    Besides working very well with all of JMRI's features here are a few features that have been added to the latest version of DCC++EX:
    • EX-RAIL Automation and accessory control

    • JMRI and Engine Driver enhancements

    • HAL (Hardware Abstraction Layer) to easily add new types of input and output devices

    • Synchronize multiple throttles
    Sumner
     
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  18. Dogwood

    Dogwood TrainBoard Member

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    As mentioned earlier....DIGITRAX. An MU can be assembled relatively easily here. ESU it's very good too, but very expensive.

    Dogwood
     
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  19. BigJake

    BigJake TrainBoard Member

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    Okay, I'll throw another choice out there that has not been mentioned. I use a Pi SPROG 3 system (the current equivalent product is the Pi SPROG 3v2). The Pi SPROG 3 came as an expansion board, pre-assembled on a Raspberry Pi model 4b computer, in a custom enclosure, with power supplies for the SPROG and the Raspberry Pi, with all necessary software pre-installed and configured.

    Compared to other DCC systems, it is closest to the DCC++EX system, but already "put together" for you.

    The SPROG systems (they also have USB interfaced products that connect to whatever computer you have around) use JMRI (Java Model Railroad Interface) software for the user interface, when needed. If you are just running trains, no user interface, other than a WiFi throttle/app, is needed. But JMRI offers so much more functionality! Programming decoders in any other system is stone-age compared to the user interface provided by JMRI Decoder Pro. You need a monitor/keyboard/mouse for the user interface, or you can "VNC" (remote desktop SW) into it from another computer via WiFi when you need to. I use VNC from my laptop, but only when I'm programming locomotive decoders.

    One feature, which I don't know to be possessed by any other DCC system, is the ability to connect to and use your existing home WiFi network for access to WiFi throttles/apps. All other systems' WiFi interfaces create their own WiFi hotspot, without internet access, to which you have to switch your phone to use. This may or may not be important to you, but it is to me. Of course the Raspberry Pi can also be set up to run its own WiFi hotspot if you so desire. Note that a household WiFi router can support far more throttles simultaneously than any of the interfaces that create their own hotspot. Most of them are limited to 3 or 4 throttles max; your WiFi router can handle a dozen or more, and offloads a lot of overhead from your computer running JMRI.

    Note that if you have a computer running JMRI, connected to a WiFi network and to any DCC system (usually by a USB interface that may or may not be included), then you have the ability to run with WiFi throttles on that wireless network. You don't need a WiFi interface just for your DCC system if you connect it to JMRI on computer with WiFi access.

    SPROG's latest product, also an expansion board for Raspberry Pi models 3 & 4, is the Pi SPROG 3 Plus. It includes a secondary DCC bus output that can be a separate programming track, or a separately boosted power district. This extra district can also auto-reverse! I am probably going to get it without the Raspberry Pi (since I already have one) to run my new layout which will have a reverse loop.

    Note: The Raspberry Pi Model 4b currently is practically unobtanium due to both huge demand and supply chain issues for the parts used to build it. They are still producing 4b's, they just cannot produce them fast enough to keep up with demand. However, the Raspberry Pi model 400 is available, and has the same electronics as the 4b, less one USB port, the camera interface, and the display interface (it still has the two HDMI ports). But the 400 computer is enclosed inside its own full-size keyboard. The 400 still has the same expansion port, and so can still host any of the Pi SPROG hats. It just needs a little more room near your layout. The Raspberry Pi computer amazes me for what it can do, at a fraction of the cost and power of a windows or apple computer.
     
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  20. LifeTrekker_

    LifeTrekker_ TrainBoard Member

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    Thanks for the feedback everyone. You all are a virtual encyclopedia of model railroading knowledge. Thanks for being so willing to share all this hard earned knowledge with a newb like me.

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