Beginner DCC System

Discussion in 'DCC & Electronics' started by mrazz, Feb 1, 2009.

  1. mrazz

    mrazz New Member

    Hi, I am trying to decide what beginner DCC system I want to invest in. I know nothing about the world of DCC but I have it narrowed down to either the Digitrax Zephyr or the NCE Power Cab system. My HO layout is going to be 2 ft wide and built around the perimeter of my 12 x 12 room. I want to have a system that can handle 3 trains at a time and be able to run at least 2 cabs for my son and I. Can you give me some insight as to what would work best for me? I don't quite understand the comparison specs of each system. I do plan to expand my layout beyond my 12 x 12 room in the future, but not now. Any information will be helpful. Thanks, Mark
  2. Squidbait

    Squidbait Recovering ALCO-holic

    In my (not-so-humble) opinion, the only reason to go for the Zephyr is if you want to be able to run DC locomotives as well as DCC ones. It's inexpensive, but until you expand it with a DT400 or other throttle, it's not really very good at running more than one train at a time.

    The NCE Powercab is a very good system, but I would suggest you look at the MRC Prodigy as well. Both come with a walkaround controller, both are expandable, but I think you'll find that the MRC is the easiest of the three systems to use when it comes to programming your locos.

    The most important advice I can offer is: Try Before You Buy. Use each of the systems in the stores that sell them. Try reprogramming a locomotive's decoder address. Try changing some simple settings like accelleration, deceleration or start voltage.
  3. pgandw

    pgandw Active Member

    A couple of things I think you should consider before buying:

    - are you going to be happy with a fixed power pack form factor such as Zephyr, given that your layout goes around the room behind you? If you truly want walk-around control, then I recommend you price out your end-state solution with both NCE and Digitrax (and perhaps MRC, as well). That way, your first purchase should be the 1st step towards that end state, with little wastage along the way.

    - in thinking about your end state requirements - you state running 3 trains with 2 cabs. Is your layout truly set up for running 1 train unattended while the 2 of you focus on running the remaining 2 trains? Or, do you really need/want 3 cabs down the road? If there's only going to be the 2 of you, will you really run a 3rd train? Going to 3 cabs with NCE means you need a Smart Booster to handle the extra cab.

    - but digging a little further - walk-around means portable throttles that plug into plates mounted on the layout, usually in the fascia. Is that acceptable, or do you really want wireless throttles?

    If using walk-around control, the Zephyr isn't really functional as a throttle, but it does work well as a command station and booster with the throttles plugging in to the Loconet bus. So you would need a Zephyr and 2-3 throttles, plus 4-6 plug-in plates. Present Digitrax wireless requires you to plug in to change, acquire, or dispatch locomotives so some plates would still be needed even with wireless. Eventually, Digitrax will release a duplex radio system that should do away with the need for plugging in.

    In its base state, the NCE PowerCab cannot be unplugged - it shuts down the system as soon as you do. A Smart Booster is needed allow unplugging the PowerCab throttle, and permit the use of 4 throttles instead of 2. Of course, second and possibly third throttles, and the plug-in plates will be needed in the end state. Or go with the higher end NCE system from the beginning, which does not have the limitations of the PowerCab and/or Smart Booster. A wireless system is available from NCE should you prefer, and does not require plugging in (do away with the plates around the layout).

    MRC's Prodigy Advance2 or Wireless has basically the same capabilities as the NCE PowerCab without the expansion limitations. But it costs more to begin with, and the plug-in plates do, too.

    Finally, both NCE and Digitrax offer reasonably priced computer interfaces that allow you to program your decoders using the excellent open source (free) JMRI/Decoder Pro software. Decoder Pro is by far the easiest way to set, record, and test CVs in your decoders. MRC offers (coming real soon!) a wireless computer interface (many more $$) with proprietary software instead of Decoder Pro. Since it hasn't arrived yet, nobody knows how good the MRC interface software is/isn't, nor whether it will work with all makes of decoders like Decoder Pro does. If the computer interface is important to you (and it does help significantly if you have more than 3-4 locomotives), then I would stay away from MRC.

    By planning your end state ahead of time, you can get an idea of what total costs are for each system, and making sure you don't waste $$ on a dead end, growth-wise.

    my thoughts, your choices
  4. nkp174

    nkp174 Active Member

    I ruled out the Zephyr for me a while ago. If I want to run an analog locomotive, I switch to power from a conventional power pack as analog on DCC is bad news (it will ruin many fine, expensive motors).

    I didn't see any real advantage to the Zephyr...and I was most interested in the NCE. Having had conventional DC walk around before, there was no way I wanted to return the the world of fixed location operation.

    I recently nabbed a Prodigy Express for $90...I couldn't pass of the deal on it.
  5. steamhead

    steamhead Active Member

    Hi...I differ from Squidbait's assesment. I can run up to 6 trains on my Zephyr (if I had the space/inclination) to do so. I have run 3 at once, all independently controlled. I have also set up different control stations around the layout, so I can control whatever needs to be done up close, not controlling from the main station. My layout is a good medium size (14'X 17'), and the Zephyr handles it quite well.
    I only use the DC option to test a loco before installing a decoder. I wouldn't recommend extended use of the DC control for any loco.
  6. Squidbait

    Squidbait Recovering ALCO-holic


    You may be able to do it (run 3 trains) but I suspect it's a lot more work with the Zephyr than it is with either the Prodigy or the PowerCab.

    Unless you're using an accessory throttle, you have to reset the throttle and direction to whichever train you're about to change, whereas with the other systems, all you have to do is call it up and make whatever changes you wish. You don't have to worry about unplanned changes in direction and speed. :p :D
  7. steamhead

    steamhead Active Member

    Not being familiar with the other two systems, I can't say either way. The only thing I need do to run multiple trains is assign a throttle to an engine, and off I go....I can't see where the other systems could be simpler....Now this suits my operations quite well, as I operate alone, and can't see where more than three could comfortably operate the layout.

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