Poor Spock: Not only is his track plan completely illogical, but he’s still using a control system that looks like it was designed in the 1960s. All those toggles and buttons to learn – and his friends keep messing up and shorting out the layout. No wonder he’s holding them at bay with that phaser!
What Spock needs is an upgrade.
I know how he feels. I’ve had a Lenz DCC system for 20 years now, and while I’m happy with it, the 1990s approach to technology is really starting to feel dated. To provide just one example, equipment that was defined – and constrained – by its hardware has evolved into more flexible, scalable, upgradable systems that are defined by their software. Yet DCC has, for the most part, remained built around “the box”.
So, for a couple of years now, I’ve been keeping an eye on the evolution of DCC. And as reported previously, I’ve taken the plunge on a new system. It arrived this week and I’ve finally had a chance to hook it up to the layout and get it running. Say hello to DCC in a drawer…
For those who aren’t familiar with this (and many North Americans will not be) you’re looking at the ECoS 50200 and two Mobile Control II wireless throttles from ESU – the folks who bring us LokSound decoders.
This is a pretty powerful, console-based system that uses a high-resolution touchscreen to good effect. It makes programming pretty darned simple and intuitive. It has a pile of features (many of which, frankly, I’ll likely never use – at least not on this layout). Many operations are done graphically, although one can also access CVs.
The ECoS 50200 is also designed to allow hobbyists to take advantage of their legacy systems. In my case, I’ll be able to take my Lenz equipment, and wire the track output from the Lenz command station into a special port on the back of the ECoS. The ECoS will then pass through commands from the Lenz system. So, I can still use my Lenz throttles and the XpressNET throttle plug-in panels if I desire.
And since the unit can be easily connected to a home network, one can take full advantage of JMRI. But in addition, ESU can deliver firmware upgrades over the Internet. If ESU wants to add a new feature, it can be written in, and the touch screen interface updated accordingly.
An example of this is the Mobile Control II wireless throttles, which were not available when the ECoS 50200 was first introduced. When ESU launched the throttles, the company simply updated the firmware for the command station to allow it to connect to them: Now, the ECoS 50200 can also act as its own router, connected to a small WiFi access point (the little black box to the right of the command station in the photo above). Cool!
The Mobile Control II is an open source, Android-based throttle. It’s basically a specially-designed tablet computer, to which a few welcome hardware features have been added, such as the large throttle knobs. Overall, the throttles have a hefty, high-quality feel to them. The knobs are motorized, which gives them a nice tactile feel and allows the system to automatically zero the speed so that when one is acquiring a locomotive one doesn’t accidentally start running it randomly. Another nice feature is that the direction switch is built into the knob: turn it to the left past zero until it clicks, and the direction is reversed, even as the knob returns itself to the zero position.
Since the throttle is Android-based, one can customize it with apps from the Google Play store – for example, by adding a fast clock app, or even another throttle app. And since the throttle hardware is open source, developers can create new interfaces to work with it. So far (as far as I know) the ESU app is the only one available that interfaces with all features including the throttle knob. But those developing WiThrottle or other throttle apps can get the information they need from ESU to enhance their apps to make them fully compatible with the Mobile Control II. And of course, ESU can update their own throttle app by posting to the Google Play store.
The two built-in throttles remind me a bit of my Troller Twin-Pack days, and in normal operation on my layout they’ll note be used. But I’ve located the command station in the top drawer of one of my recently-built rolling stock storage cabinets…
… and I plan to rewire the front track on the sector plate to serve double-duty as a programming track. One of the nice features in the ECoS 50200 is that one does not need to add a mechanical switch to the programming track: an internal relay automatically puts the track into programming mode when that mode is selected on the console. Otherwise, the programming track is treated as part of the mainline.
I’m still learning the many features on this system, but so far I’m really pleased – and very excited to be working with a state of the art DCC system!