Say hello to the new DCC system

 photo Spock-Controls_zpsptcybhhl.jpg
(“These are my controls!”)

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…

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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

 photo ECoS-02_zpsgu9lxd2p.jpg

… 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!

16 thoughts on “Say hello to the new DCC system

  1. Of course, most of us knew this is the system you were purchasing. I have been intrigued with it myself. I was concerned that it is base station centric, and the hand throttles would be limited in features. That now seems not the case. I’ll be interested to hear how you get along with it as you learn more and more, and settle into using it on your system. Also what visitors reactions will be.

    Bart

  2. Trevor:

    In reading your reasoning for your upgrade having easy access to functions above F9 was one criteria. As an operator I question how often some of these (up to 28) added functions are really used and how an operator remembers when to utilize them given the scroll screen and icon “button” depiction. I am also wondering how the ECoS enables use of JMRI/ DecoderPro for decoder programming and documentation. Seems like a tablet or notebook would still be required.

    Rod Jensen

    • Hi Rod:

      Good questions. Thanks for asking.

      “As an operator, I question how often some of these (up to 28) added functions are really used and how an operator remembers when to utilize them given the scroll screen and icon “button” depiction.”

      I’d argue that in this case, “Your milage may vary”. On my layout, where the operating scheme involves one train per day with a two-person crew, we do try to remember to use the various functions correctly.

      My locomotive decoders are set up so that most sounds that would be generated by an action of the crew are manual, on function keys, as opposed to occurring automatically/randomly. So, for example, I have programmed the injectors to a specific function key and I try to remember to use them when appropriate. (I learned about how and when injectors are used by volunteering for a couple of Christmas seasons on a steam team at a museum, so I like translating that knowledge onto my layout.)

      Another example is lighting effects: on my CNR RS18, I have separate function buttons for the headlights, the class lights, the number boards, the truck lights and a cab light. That’s five functions right there. (The ones that are rarely used – for example, the class lights and number boards tend to be turned on at the beginning of a run, and left on – are set to higher numbers so that the lower function numbers can be used for things I want to access regularly, like the horn and bell.)

      With this type of set-up on the decoders, it’s easy to quickly run out of the basic 0-9 functions that a typical keypad supports – and while Lenz has a way to access those higher function numbers on its throttles, the ESU throttles make it easier. If it’s easier, my friends and I are more likely to take advantage of them.

      Not everybody wants to do that. Many hobbyists will be content with having the decoder automatically generate sounds, for example. For those, the upper registers aren’t as important – and they may not care about easy accessibility to them. For for me, it’s a welcome feature.

      “I am also wondering how the ECoS enables use of JMRI/ DecoderPro for decoder programming and documentation. Seems like a tablet or notebook would still be required.”

      Ah – I didn’t make myself clear here. What I intended to says is that ECoS has the built-in hardware, connections, etc., to connect to a computer so that it easily supports things like using JMRI – not that it actually runs JMRI on its own system. It’s also very easy to export configuration files from the ECoS to a computer, for backing up your settings, etc. I hope that clears up the confusion.

      Cheers!

      • As a further follow-up to this, the ESU system allows one to replace function buttons (e.g.: “F1”, “F2”, and so on) with icons (e.g.: a bell, a whistle), so it’s easier for operators to keep track of what button does what. Operators don’t have to remember that F2 is the long whistle – they just need to press the button with the whistle icon.
        A few other software-based systems do this – for example, TouchCab – and they’ve all be quite easy to use*.
        I can’t speak for other software-based throttles but the ESU system allows one to map buttons to individual locomotives – so, for example, I can add a whistle icon to F2 on a steam engine, but a horn icon to F2 on a diesel. And if a certain function is not available, or used, on a given locomotive, I can “delete” that button so operators don’t need to worry about it. Any changes made on the ECoS command station are propagated to the Mobile Control II throttles, although not every icon translated across – I note this has been discussed in the ECoS owners forum (did I mention there’s a forum?) so I assume it’ll be addressed in a future upgrade of the firmware.
        Cheers!
        (*And of course some hardware-based systems such as NCE have created dedicated buttons for the bell, the whistle/horn, and so on.)

  3. Trevor;
    Thanks for sharing your choice of DCC system. I am happy right now using my MRC Prodigy Advance2 on the switching layouts I’ve built. I have been looking into a roll my own solution using various embedded controllers to make it go.

    But that is off in the future. Thanks again for sharing.

  4. Interesting.
    I’m not sure how to explain my thoughts on this…
    Although I have not operated your railroad, I do like the analog(?) feel. Telegraph keys. Real switch stands. Paper schedules.
    Moving to touch screens (digital?) seems to create a technology gap that could disconnect the operator from the environment(?) of the layout that you worked very hard at to mimic Port Rowan.
    I’m sure Spock would have a problem with my logic.
    Again, another thought provoking posting. Thanks!

    • Hi Charles:
      It’s a great observation. Thanks for sharing it.
      I hear where you’re coming from – but let’s face it: a real “analogue/retro” feel would be to use straight DC operation, perhaps with toggle or rotary switches to assign “Power Packs” to blocks. But I’m not going there.
      DCC is the way to go. That said, I want my DCC system to combine power and flexibility with minimal distractions. I want people to run their train, not their controller. What I like about this system is the power and flexibility of the soft throttle – the touch screen – with the tactile engagement of a big throttle knob (which also doubles as a direction switch, so one doesn’t have to go looking for that) plus a few physical buttons on the side of the box. I’m still figuring out what those are for – but I’m hoping to put bell and whistle on two of them so one can operate those two common functions by feel as well.
      Cheers!

  5. Trevor,

    Great blog post and it really speaks to concerns I have been trying to solve myself. We share a similar vision of the hobby, the biggest difference is i have been on hiatus for decades and now getting back involved with my young sons. This would be my first dcc experience, and I generally like to make one, well educated decision, do you believe this is a good fit for someone who is in the planning stages of layout construction and railroad building with no dcc experience?

    Would you share your initial ESU bundle? What did you absolutely have to have included with the command center? And if you wouldnt mind, where did you purchase?

    • Hi Jamie:
      Thanks for getting in touch and welcome to DCC!
      While I certainly like this system, and it has many advantages for the beginning user, I’d suggest that you talk to your local DCC supplier, model railway club, friends in your area, or those exhibiting at a local train show to find out what others in your area are using. DCC is a rewarding way to run a layout, but there is a learning curve. When I started down the DCC road, in the mid-1990s, I went with the system that a friend supported as a manufacturer’s rep, and that was the best decision I ever made because it gave me a friend with experience upon whom I could rely when I needed help.
      All the systems are fine – some have features that more experienced DCC heads will appreciate, but every system will work to run a layout. But when you have a question about what you’re doing, or you need some hands-on help, there’s nothing like having a bunch of friends who can say, “Yeah, I ran into that too with System ABC, and here’s what I did to solve it.”
      As for my initial ESU bundle, what I absolutely needed to have was the ECoS 50200 command station. That’s it. It would give me two-cab control. That said, the main reason I went with the ESU system was the Mobile Control II wireless throttles. I’d played with them at train shows, and really liked them. So I bought two of those. They come in two packages – one of which includes a Wireless Access Point to allow the mobile throttles and other wireless devices to talk to the ECoS 50200. So, I bought one with the WAP and one without.
      There are a number of retailers. IF you decide to go the ESU route, I’d get in touch with ESU to find a dealer near you. But as someone venturing into DCC for the first time, I’d encourage you to check with your local dealer to see what they sell, and check with hobbyists in your area. Providing you take care of your system, you can always sell your first one if you decide you want to upgrade or switch manufacturers. DCC systems in good working order should retain a lot of their value…
      Cheers!

  6. Thanks for the quick reply and very informative advice, Trevor! I appreciate the sharing of not only your experience but also expertise dating back a number of years. I understand the logic of sourcing things locally and the benefits of having a resource like a buddy, club or local shop to help through those times when facing a challenge. However, its been my experience (limited at best) that clubs make decisions for reasons different that mine and the same can be said for the local shop. This is why i was compelled to comment on your blog, it seems to me that we both share similar technical interests and cost isnt always the deciding factor. To me, i’d prefer to invest in a system that is beyond my capability rather than outgrowing a lesser choice. When is comes to resources for help, again i lean heavily on individuals like you and the power of the web and the ease in which we can communicate. I like being an early adopter and enjoy higher tech than most.

    • Well then, I’d certainly say that the ECoS 50200 has a lot going for it – including the fact that it has an OS you can update via the web, the ability to add custom icons for DCC-equipped models, an intuitive user interface, and more. There’s even an online forum just for ECoS owners: You use your unit’s serial number to register. That’s really nice because it filters out all of the “experts” who know nothing about the ECoS system: the answers to your questions will come from ESU, or people who own an ECoS and have already figured out the issue you’re trying to solve.
      The ECoS will get you started on a layout: As the images show, it has two built-in throttles so you can run two trains simultaneously without adding anything else. That said, once you’re comfortable with that you’ll want to expand the system – as I did – with one or two (or more?) wireless throttles. They don’t have to be purchased all at once, of course…
      If you’re in the United States, then you might want to look at Tony’s Trains for this equipment. They’re a reputable dealer and they have a good price on the ECoS 50200.
      Cheers!

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