What system is best for me?

For the next couple months I am going to be preoccupied with wrapping up the final chapters of my new book on wiring projects for model railroads. As of today I have submitted 5 of the 16 chapters and my final deadline is December 31, 2017. The good news is I already have written the text and just need to shoot another 150 or so photographs and do some final text edits. On the downside there are two chapters that I haven’t actually done any physical construction on and they need some real work. Consequently you probably will only see one post a week from me until this thing is done. In the meantime here’s something for anyone new to DCC or considering a system purchase.

I am constantly being asked what’s the best DCC system for me? However that is a question I really can’t answer–I can only make some suggestions. First let’s talk about which brand to get. Most of the DCC systems available today offer pretty similar, basic capabilities so that really isn’t an issue. My suggestion is to go with the brand most of your friends or local club use. Why, well if you are going to operate on their layouts then you’ll need a compatible throttle. Also, if you need help with something you’ll have a better chance of finding a local DCC expert to answer your questions and help debug problems. In my area 99% use the same system, primarily because the local club uses it. Of course if you are a lone wolf out by yourself somewhere then go with the system that offers the best support capabilities in your area, which probably means a knowledgable local dealer.

Another consideration is the size of your layout and scale. Bigger layouts usually mean more trains. Bigger scales usually mean locomotives that need more power. So if you are building a basement empire make sure you can get all the power and accessories you will need for it. At the very least make sure additional boosters and throttle plug-in panels are available. The more accessories a company offers, the easier it will be to expand in the future.

Choose a system with a throttle that is comfortable to use and instructions that are easy to understand. Throttles vary in size, shape, and capability so it is important to find one you will be comfortable with. This may mean visiting some layouts and asking some questions but do it, you don’t want to choose the wrong system and have to start over. You might think that inline forums are a good suorce of information but that may not be true. Often the folks on these sites are either proponents of a specific system or are there with a questin or complaint. So take any glowing recommendations or overly negative comments with a grain a salt.

Finally, go to the website of the manufacturers you are considering and download their manuals. Also be aware of whether or not they address questions like whether a system ground should be used, or how to deal with special wiring situations. If you understand one system’s manual a lot better than another then maybe that is telling you something. Keep in mind that a lot of this stuff may seem very technical at first, but a lot of that comes from a lack of familiarity with the terminology involved.

3 comments

  • I also am sort of a “lone wolf”, in that the club I belong to uses NCE, but I model European prototype ( I grew up there), and after talking to several others as well as our local hobby shop, I chose the ESU system. I love the large screen, with icons for each function, programming is a breeze, having pictures of the locomotive you want to run, being able to run two locomotives simply by selecting them as the control panel has two throttles. Most of all, I like the Railcom feature, which most European decoders employ. I hope you address Railcom in your new book, its a great feature, and ESU decoders have it. Its just too bad most current American systems don’t have that feature. I understand that NMRA has been s looking into this.

  • I’m also am lone wolf, operating my medium small layout by my self. I selected Digitrax not only because it was a well known and respected brand, but because I often run two locomotives at once. The Digitrax higher end throttles have two separate throttle knobs. It is easy to switch from one to the other, no switches to flip, just turn the other knob, and you are now controlling the other loco. Couldn’t be more simple.

  • This is all good advice. I am one of those who is not part of a club and wanted to choose a system for a small 9 x 5 layout running at most 3 trains and usually one or 2. For this reason, the lower cost complete systems offering about 2 amps were all good choices. I focussed on Digitrax at first because they seemed to be the most popular overall. I also considered NCE because they were obviously popular as well. But I started to think seriously what kind of throttle I wanted. Both Digitrax and NCE offer starter systems with throttles that would be next to a control panel. They wouldn’t be simple to pickup and move around. While this is what I had as a child, I knew that I would want to walk around the layout with the throttle especially to debug track areas where there were problems. So I chose the NCE power cab.

    My installation and use confirmed this decision. The throttle which contains all of the DCC system iss large by throttle standards but it fits well in the hand and being wider at the top is less likely to slip out of the hand. There are several indicators for various functions and the LCD display is 2 lines. I like having both the thumb speed control and the up down buttons. I like it so much that when I’m ready to buy another throttle, I may go for the Pro cab even at the extra cost. But I may go for another PowerCab so that I can have an extra set up at a remote workbench.

    Although one can add boosters and radio control to the NCE system, someone anticipating a much larger layout than mine would find NCE and Digitrax comparable. One concern I had in starting was that NCE had no sound decoders. Would the two manufacturer’s equipment really be compatible. So my first loco conversion used a Digitrax 8bit with equivalent of keep alive. Both the NCE PowerCab and Digitrax started right up with no programming from the get go. 3 cheers for DCC standards.