MODERATOR NOTE: While this thread started out as a discussion about MRC's new DCC system offering, several people have chimed in, making this somewhat of a "DCC University" thread, hence the retitling of it. Several forum members have shared their in-depth experience and knowledge of the various DCC systems they own or have owned. The posts run the gamut of how they swear by or swear at their system -- or both! You'll find lots of good meaty discussions and friendly debate here if you're willing to wade through some rather long posts. Enjoy!
Saw an advertisement on the back of MR mag about their new system. They always had great DC transformers, any opinions how it stacks up against Easy DCC & NEC? Supposedly alot of F functionality and all the bells and whistles for less cost than others. Any info or opinions would be appreciated since I am in the process of choosing a DCC system.
Joined: Wed Dec 08 2004, 09:30PM Location: Stayton, OR Posts: 582
If the Prodigy Advance had 1. wireless throttles 2. computer connectivity I would have happily gone with it instead of EasyDCC. Other than tethered throttles and an inability to hook up DecoderPro I had no real complaints about my original Prodigy System. I'm getting definitely antsy waiting to add wireless to my EasyDCC CS2... Jeff Shultz Willamette & Pacific - Oregon Electric Branch W&P RR Photo Gallery
Jeff summed it up pretty well. The MRC system is not full-featured, and is not as expandable and scalable as the other systems, particularly NCE and Digitrax. They say the interface is like NCE, but then why not just get NCE? NCE has the wireless and computer interfacing, as well as different types of cabs and such. The MRC system is a system for one or two operators on a small layout. As far as I know, it does not support Zero stretching, although other systems like NCE don't support it either.
All systems other than Digitrax were not architecturally built for train control, they are based on an old serial computer interface, RS-485. Digitrax built Loconet for controlling trains, and as a result, Loconet can handle the command station, boosters, throttles, power managers, stationary decoders (so they are independent of the track power bus with a 12 volt power supply), signals, block occupancy detection, transponding, wireless, a computer, CTC panels, fast clocks, button inputs, and any combaination of those things without regard to any topology for the wiring, as long as there is not more than about a mile of it.
Digitrax is also the most cost effective system. These reasons are why I chose it, and why most large clubs, essentially all modular groups, and 55% of users choose Digitrax. It is simply an unparalelled system in terms of value, expandability, scalability, functionality, and installed user base.
As for the other systems, NCE has a good interface on the cabs, but is premium priced, and creates a ton of wiring, with separate radio, cab, and booster busses. CVP has nice wireless throttles, but their system is dated, as you have to go back to the command station to program and consist, unlike Digitrax, NCE, Lenz, and MRC, where it can be done on the higher end handhelds. CVP also sells their wireless throttles and base stations for Lenz and NCE. Lenz is a very European system, as it uses wireless phones for the wireless, so no matter what frequency a country uses, you can get a $10 cordless phone locally, and it is legal. Lenz's system is not terribly interesting, as there is not a lot of options as far as adding stuff on.
Digitrax is the technically superior system, and has a little bit bigger of a learning curve, but not that much. It require you to plug to acquire and consist on wireless, which is DUMB, but other than that it is an AWESOME system. If you are going to do signalling, detection, computer control, or anything like that, Digitrax is basically the only choice, and otherwise, it is the strongest system out there.
I have the Zephyr, a UR-91, and a pair of DT400R radio throttles. The DT400 throttles are awesome, and the Zpehyr is a neat little starter set at only $160. With Loconet, you can add whatever throttles you want, everything Loconet is compatible with everything else Loconet. Radio and IR are both options for wireless. If you need more, the Super Chief is a huge system used by many clubs that can handle 120 operators!
EDIT: yikes!, I needed some paragraphs for my rambling, discursive thoughts! spelling too.
MRC is realeasing wireless soon, but when? The NCE command stations all have serial ports on them, and have since 1999 or before. You are thinking of the smaller Powercab system, which does not have a computer interface (yet). The Powercab is a pretty limited product, with only one extra throttle being able to be added. The Powercab itself is tethered, as it is the booster. The Zephyr, on the other hand, can have up to 10 (realistically about 5).
The PA can handle 99 throttles, but if you look at thier product offering, the power of their boosters, the plug panels, and everything else, it is clear the system is aimed at railroads with one or two operators. I have never heard of a large layout or club using that system, although I have heard of/ seen clubs using NCE or Digitrax. Some larger home layouts use Lenz or CVP, although they are much less common.
Digitrax's user interface was updated in 2005 with the DT400(R) Super Throttle. These things are AWESOME! I find they are VERY easy to use, once you read the manual for a minute. For programming, just hit prog until Po shows up (thats ops mode), and then dial up the CV with the left knob, and the value with the right. For consisiting, just put the lead loco on the right, the second on the left, hit MU and Y+. They could not be any simpler or easier to use. To grab a loco, just hit Loco XX Loco (loco being the address, it can also handle extended addresses for clubs and such). Digitrax is the only throttle to have two throttle knobs, and they are AWESOME!. The UT4(R) utility throttles are pretty aweful, as they have like no functionality, but so are the basic cabs (cab 04E(R), Cab04P(R), and Cab05(R)) from NCE. On NCE, you can only have a certain number of each type of cab, and a certain number of radio cabs, in certain address ranges, whereas on Digitrax, you can just plug in up to 120 throttles, all could be DT400R Digitrax Radio Super Throttles!
I like the UT4s. They are simple and easy operation throttles. Just before christmas a friend of mine operated my yard - and so did his children, age 3-7! Even if they just could run the trains a few feet, they quickly got the hang of it. And they loved testing my only sound equipped loco - which for now is set up with manual notching. I can operate the up and down with F5 and F6 with one of my fingers while operating the throttle knob and direction/stop toggle and still use just one hand!
The MRCs look great and may be simple to use. In their add on the backcover page of the february 2007 issues of ModelRailroader (which I got here in Norway a couple of days ago) they write: "these systems can be upgraded to wireless and computer interface operation" So MRC are definitively into something.
But why is the throttle knob on the bottom of the throttle? For me it seems like you have to use both hands when using these throttles, if not you have 5 thumbs on every hand.
I find it is very pitty that the LocoNet has not become a NMRA standard for the throttlebus - and the acsessorybus.
It is too bad that the NMRA didn't include the throttle bus as part of the DCC specification. Although, to that same point, if they had, they probably would have used the old RS-485, so maybe it is good that they allowed Digitrax to take it to the next level the Loconet.
I'm not sure what MRC is trying to do. I think they feel left out of the market, as they used to have the uber-popular TechII back in the DC days. Now that DCC is pretty much standard, and for any layout that still uses DC, a train show bargain gets you a used TechII for like $12, they probably have smaller sales. Their DCC system just seems late to the game, and it doesn't have all of the random accessories that Digitrax and NCE have. While they are just getting wireless and computer interfacing, Digitrax and NCE had those features like 10 years ago! MRC really doesn't bring anything to the table that NCE or Digitrax doesn't have.
As for the UT4 throttles, what if an operator wants to consist? Program in ops mode? They are SOL with a UT4. The UT4 also uses the dated potentiometer form factor, while the DT400 uses the awsome digital encoders. I suppose the UT4s are cheaper than the DT400s, but I still see a lot more value in the DT400s, with all their capabilities. I would never get a UT4, when I can get all DT400 throttles. If the budget is tight, you could always get DT100R or DT300R throttles off of Ebay. Bad for programming, fine for running.
Among the problems that I have with Digitrax is the price and that I just can't stand their controllers.
Joe's DCC reviews describing the object>action paradigm that Digitrax uses vs. the more natural action>object paradigm is another big factor for me.
Aside from the actual mechanics, the MRC looks much more professional. The Digitrax looks very much like a home-made kit type product. Granted, that doesn't mean it's not, but appearances to mean a lot in the marketing end of things.
But what I think MRC brings to the table is a strong brand, strong product placement, and a very approachable system for the casual model railroader. Let's face it, the majority of model railroader are one person operations, and most of them are probably ameteurs compared to enthusiasts like us. The Prodigy express system is affordable, and has all the basic features that a new modeler needs. It's easily upgradable, and the forthcoming wireless and PC connections pretty much complete the package in regards to what has been missing.
I honestly believe that their market share will be steadily increasing. Not necessarily because it's the best (the Prodigy Advance is really a better match against the Power Cab, but is priced much higher), but because their packaging, marketing, and brand recognition will make it the most common 'basic' set. Think about it, Dad, who's used MRC for decades, is helping his kids pick out their own train set - the pick up a new DCC locomotive, and need to move to DCC. MRC has exactly what they're looking for.
While it only took a 'few minutes with the manual' for you, to somebody not all that up on DCC the manual can be pretty intimidating. the MRC is simple enough to use without picking up the manual, and the instructions are printed on the back of the controller if you do feel the need to check up on something.
They are definitely behind the development curve, and because of their target market they have oversimplified a few things. But 99% of the people that get DCC would probably never max out the capabilities of the most basic DCC controller on the market. The limitations on the Prodigy are very minor for the majority of modelers.
Besides, from what I can tell, DCC is really just starting to come into its own. I'm not sure what generation DCC we're in, but the Prodigy Advance and NCE Powercab both seem to be hitting on that magical combination of power, ease of use, mainstream design, and price. I think that MRC should drop the price for the Advance to $150, and the Express to $50-$75 and they'll give everybody a real run for their money. In fact, I think they should be working on getting the wholesale pricing low enough to put it in train sets.
And large clubs are some of the early adopters that have basically been the beta testers for what's to come. Digitrax is in a strange position because they do have a large base of installed users that are accustomed to their way of doing things and so they don't need to change it (or changing it may cost them some of their existing base). On the other hand, I don't think they have the system that is right for the masses (the 4'x8'ers). That market is far more lucrative than the clubs and large layouts, since it seems to me that once the system is in place it's not being replaced for 10 years or so. So new customers is the way to go.
Also, while the couple of clubs in my area use Digitrax, I don't know of any hobby shops within my state that actually stock the Digitrax systems. But the MRC and Powercabs are right there on the shelf to pick up now.
As for the throttle on the bottom - that's one of the things I've wondered about. I just got a Prodigy for Christmas (haven't even taken it out of the box - I need some decoders first). That's one of the design features that I like better about the Powercab - the placement of the throttle. On the other hand, I really like the knob better than the dial.
As I'm sure we all know, the 'best' isn't always what sells. Windows, VHS, mp3/AAC vs lossless audio formats (or high definition audio for that matter), etc, etc. It's all about marketing, and looking at the Feb 2007 MR - Digitrax has a 3 sentence, 1/2-page ad on page 11. On top of that, the ad is for the Zephyr which looks clunky, and is not a walk-around form-factor. MRC has the back cover with a lot more information, and the product looks great, and it's a hand-held unit.
Anyway, the real answer is that there is no one system that is perfect for everybody's needs. But I suspect that MRC will be one of the bigger players in time, although NCE has just raised the bar a few notches. I think that Digitrax has been leading the way, and has some great technical advantages, but they need to come out with a true mass-market product (for the ametuers) to stay on top. The company that will have the greatest impact will be the one that gets their starter system into the most hands as long as the starter system is fully upgradable/expandable into their full-featured system. I think MRC is closer to that than anybody.