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Tony’s Off the Cuff Digital Command Control (DCC) Comparison

Posted by on Dec 16, 2014 in Product Compare, Tony's Tips |

Also available in PDF format.

Which System is for you?

The increased number of DCC systems on the market make trying to determine which system is right for you a bit harder. You can think of this like buying a new car. Many people lean toward one brand or another. Same is true with DCC systems. Making a decision on which DCC system or car starts with how is it going to be used. Is the DCC system for a large club with many members or a casual user with a small shelf or 4X8 layout? You may be a member of a club that needs a system at home to test out locomotives or small layout. Cost is also a big factor. You should also think about future expansion of your layout. All DCC systems will operate with any manufacturers decoders. Regardless of the system you buy, it will run any DCC equipped locomotive. The only exception is the number of function keys.

There are a some items to consider when making a system selection. Recent DCC sound decoders have added many new sounds and increased the number of function keys used to activate these new sounds. Check the number of function keys you will need. Most systems allow programing, but some only in the OPS (on-the-mainline) mode and lack the program track function. (The program track allows a system to both write and read back the CV values in a decoder.)

All of the systems that we sell have shown to be very reliable, or we would not sell the products.

Which features do you need

Originally a few function keys were all you needed. Sound decoders are expanding the use of function keys. If you are using sound F0 to F8 is the minimum for sound control. Most of the DCC systems have added more function keys to their cabs or throttles. It is best to have F0 thru F12 with sound . Some systems have F0 thru F19 available.

Some modelers are intimidated by all the keys on some of the handheld cabs. These are the same people that have no trouble operating a TV remote with just about the same number of keys. Once you start operating a DCC system you will find that only a few keys are used for locomotive and accessory control. Just like the TV remote, you only end up using a few keys. The wireless cab and throttles have become popular. These allow you to walk with your train and not bother plugging in the cord every few feet.

The number of operators that will be using the system and the number of locomotives that will be operating are also important. Knowing this will help to determine the number of cabs or throttles and power boosters needed.

Systems at a Glance

We will start at the low end systems and work our way up in price and performance. All systems support 14/28/128 speed steps and can address stationary or accessory decoders.

Atlas Commander
This low end system is built by Lenz for Atlas. This system works best for a casual user on a small layout. The function keys are limited to 8 and addressing limited to 2 digits and only up to 99. The Commander can support up to 7 cabs. Walk-around throttles are available. It has a 2.5 amp output, can be software upgraded, does not have OPS (on-the-fly) mode programing.

Zephyr from Digitrax
This is a small step up in cost. The Zephyr is a stationary DCC system that has a network connection. It has a keyboard with 0 to 9. The Zephyr is a very flexible system and has an output rating of 2.5 amps. Ample for a small layout and a few locomotives. Although limited in power, and best for Z to On3 locomotives, it is capable of running a couple of newer O scale locomotives. Comes with a 2.5 amp transformer. One very novel feature of the Zephyr is the two “jump” ports. These two ports allow your old dc power packs to be connected and used as throttles. The Zephyr also supports a feature that allows you to operate a single non DCC locomotive. The display uses decimal values. The Zephyr is full featured with features that makes it a bridge between the world of dc and DCC. The Zephyr can be connected to a computer thru the LocoNet with the Locobuffer II.

Prodigy Advance from MRC
This is a new system and comes with a handheld and transformer. The Prodigy Advance is the system some call “NCE lite”. (Not compatible with NCE cabs.) It has a rating of 3.5 amps, but the transformer is only rated at 2.5 amps. The command station/booster has a fan that only turns on when needed. The handheld cab has function keys F0 to F19. This is more function keys than any other DCC system. Only one type of handheld controller is available at this time. The system has full 2 and 4 digit addressing and can recall previous locomotive addresses. It has a program track output. Extension panels are available to extend the cab bus to other locations on the layout. This system has a network interface using an 8 wire telephone type connector. There are no provisions for a computer connection or wireless operation.

For a full power output use an MF615 transformer in place of the transformer supplied with the system.

Lenz Systems
Lenz has two systems, the intermediate Set-90 and the advance Set-100. Both of these set provide the LZV100 combination command station and 5 amp power station. The difference between the two sets is the handheld cab. Set-90 has the LH90 cab and Ser-100 has the LH-100 cab. The LH-90 cab has a knob and the LH-100 uses push-buttons for speed control. The Lenz system can have up to 31 cabs on the XpressNet. Supports program track and on-the-fly programing.

Lenz has a very unique wireless control. The XPA adapter plugs into the Lenz XpressNet on the LZV100 and then uses a standard wireless telephone as a remote control.

NCE Power Pro
NCE offers systems with either 5 or 10 amp boosters. It also has a variety of smaller handheld cabs using either a knob or keys. The command station is combined with the 5 amp booster. The 10 amp system comes with a separate booster and command station. This system uses an easy to read two line display for feedback. A wireless version of either the 5 or 10 amp system is available. The wireless is duplex so information can be transmitted in two directions. The command station has a built-in serial port for a computer connection.

This system comes without a transformer. The MF615 will work for the 5 amp and the XFR12 for the 10 amp system.

Digitrax DCC Systems
There are two Digitrax systems available, plus the Zephyr covered earlier. They are the Super Empire Builder and the Super Chief. The Super Chief is available with either a 5 amp or an 8 amp power booster. Add to these the choices of a system with wired or wireless (radio) throttle. Digitrax has a number of different cabs available from simple to the more full function. The Super Chief supports a program track, Super Empire Builder does not.

This system comes without a transformer. The MF615 will work for the 5 amp and the XFR10 for the 8 amp system. For a computer connection the Locobuffer II is available.


Off The Cuff Comments

If you have been reading all the magazines and surfing the Internet trying to decide which DCC system to buy, here is a non-serious evaluation for your consideration.

The Atlas Commander is an introductory DCC system that is perhaps best used or intended for the recreational user. It is both performance and power limited. Max power out is 2.5 A DCC, about three average HO locomotives, 99 DCC addresses, 7 throttles. The Commander has only one accessory function therefore is not viable to operate the DCC sound units that are available. If you think you’re going to be in Model Railroading for the long haul then you should consider other DCC offerings.

A step up from the Commander in both price and performance is the Digitrax Zephyr. The Zephyr features a 128 speed step control, a 2.5 Amp DCC output it is a stationary throttle that can address all locos and a system capability of 10 operators. As a starter set, the most beneficial aspect of the Zephyr is its upgrade potential to the other Digitrax systems. The Zephyr has a list price of $199.95 and is the lowest level system a long-term user should consider. The Digitrax Zephyr does have ability to operate DCC sound and program decoders. If you step up to one of the larger Digitrax DCC systems the Zephyr can be programed to be used as 2.5 amp booster. The Zephyr uses the LocoNet and can support up to 10 users. It can be used with wireless throttles. This is the best bang for the buck in the low end DCC systems. The intermediate level for DCC offers great price and performance for the average user.

The next step up is the new MRC Prodigy Advance. This system comes with a full function handheld cab. There are 20 functions available, more than any other system at this time. No booster has been announced for this system, I do expect they will add one to the line. The system can be expanded up to 99 cabs, but only the larger hammerhead type handheld is available now. The system uses an 8 wire connector for cab connections. The 8 wire connections and cables are not as easily found as the 4 and 6 wire and connectors. This is a full featured system, but the lack of a booster and only 2.5 amps power can limit the number of locomotives that can be run at one time.

The Lenz Set-90 and the Set-100 Starter sets use the same command station/power station. The difference between the two is the throttle that is supplied. (See the previous page for more info.)The Set-90 has the knob control and the Set-100 the push button operation. The Lenz operates up to 31 throttles. This system can be set to respond in either German and English. Lenz has the unique wireless operation using a conventional wireless telephone as a throttle.

The Digitrax Super Empire Builder and the Super Chief use the same DT400 throttle with the LocoNet. They do have a different model command station/booster. The Super Empire Builder comes with the DB150 command station and the Super Chief comes with DSC100 command station. The DB150 supports 22 throttles, the DSC100 support up to 120 throttles. The 120 throttles is the highest number of operators allowed on any DCC system. The DT400 throttle has 32 keys and two knobs. It has a custom LCD display using both icons and alphanumeric characters. There are smaller utility throttle available for operators. One limiting item on the Super Empire Builder is the lack of the program track feature. Digitrax systems can be interfaced to a personal computer through the LocoNet with an adapter.

The NCE Power Pro has one basic command station that comes in two versions. One is combined with a 5 amp booster and the other is stand alone used with the 10 amp booster. The command station has a built-in serial interface for connecting a personal computer. The system can support up to 63 cabs. The NCE system has been called the user friendly system because of the information displayed on the cabs two-line display. Smaller cabs without the LCD display are available for operators. The wireless cabs uses duplex two way communication.

System Comparison
When you are comparing the systems the most important aspects of comparison are the throttles or cabs. The newer models of the Digitrax throttles are comparable with the NCE cabs. The NCE and Digitrax systems are about comparable in price. The operational format of the NCE cabs are significantly different from the Digitrax throttles. The NCE ProCabs are larger and feature an eighteen character LCD display and about 20 operational buttons. These cabs are often described by users as dog bones, because of the shape. Ironically, the complex appearance of the cabs ultimately provides for an easy, intuitive operating format.

These systems are generally comparable and they offer some specialized features not found in the intermediate systems.

Use of a personal computer to work with the DCC system is becoming popular. There are a number of programs available and work with most systems that can connect to a computer. The free Decoder Pro (over the Internet) is used by many.

One word of caution. Sound is contagious! Once you have run a sound equipped locomotive you will have a hard time living in the world of silent locomotives.

If you would like more information on a DCC system most of the DCC system manufacturers have the system manuals available on their website. You can either view or download and print out the manual.

Most prospective DCC users I talk to seem to want a specific recommendation. Our job is to tell everyone the facts and then help them to make decisions based on those facts. The most important aspect to consider is the system master throttle/cab, that’s what you as the user are going to be spending the most time operating. So, based on the pictures, the descriptions, and what you may have had the experience to work with, and whatever you feel you’re going to be the most comfortable with, is what you should choose! Many of the clubs that have converted from dc to DCC only say “Why did we wait so long!”

My experience has shown that all the major systems are good systems and that the respective manufacturers are dedicated to their products and provide good product support. I also think those manufacturers are stable enough so that your investment is protected.

Finally, we guarantee your satisfaction so don’t sweat it.

DCC System Comparison

Atlas Commander Digitrax Zephyr MRC Prodigy Advance Lenz SET-90 Lenz SET-100 Digitrax Super Empire Builder Digitrax Super Chief NCE PowerPro
Max No. of Cabs 7 10 99 31 31 22 120 63
Type of Speed Control Knob Knob Knob/Key Knob Knob 2 Knob or Key 2 Knob or Key Dial or Key
Wireless Cab Options No Radio/IR No Yes Yes Radio/IR IR/Radio Radio
No of Loco/Consists 99 10 Unlimited 256 256 22 120 250/ Unlimited
Max No. Loco Addresses 99 9000 9999 9999 9999 9000 9000 9999
Total Function Keys Note 1 8 10 20 10 14 14 14 12
Program Track Read/Write Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Output Current in Amps 2.5 2.5 Note 3 5 5 5 (Note 2) 5 (Note 2) 5 (Note 2)
Operate Accessory Decoders Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Warranty 1 Yr. 1 Yr. 1 Yr. 10 Yr. 10 Yr. 1 Yr. 1 Yr. 1 Yr.
Power Boosters Available Yes Not Yet Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes (Note 2)
No. Decoders Included 0 0 0 Coupon Coupon 0 0 2
Basic System Price (MSRP) $149.95 $199.00 $289.98 $290.00 $349.00 $349.00 $449.99 $499.95

Complete DCC systems comparison is available here.

  • Note 1: At least 8 function keys are needed to control sound functions. Newer sound systems use up to 19 functions.
  • Note 2: For O and G scale a 10 amp (8 amp on Digitrax)unit is available at an additional cost.
  • Note 3: System unit rated at 3.5 amps, supplied transformer rated at 2.5 amps
  • Note 4: Prices can vary, please check the web site for the latest price.