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DCC System Selection

The Perfect DCC System

What is going to have the longest impact on your happiness with a given DCC system will be more related to how easy it is for YOU (the one buying it) to use it. Another way to look at this is the DCC systems learning curve. How steep is it? That is a decision that only you can make which is why the classic saying goes is: "There is no best DCC system, there is only the best DCC system for you".

I think a person may fall into one of 4 categories:

1) A person who is NOT intimidated by technology will not have much of a learning curve issue and thus free to choose a system based on it's technical merits alone.

2) A person who is not really technophobic and/or has access to a lot of help and fellow users can often afford to use a less intuitive system and/or a more powerful one as a good option.  Stated another way, you have a local support system to help you deal with the difficult stuff.

3) A person who is a casual operator or an isolated operator may find a system that is more intuitive to use is the best one to get.  Stated another way, if you buy a DCC system that forces you to constantly read a manual to use, it will not give one much motivation to use it.  In fact it may actually discourage your desire to run the layout which would be the worse thing that can happen.  The DCC system standing in the way of
your happiness as opposed to adding to it!....that is a crime!

4) A person who is technically challenged (A good sign of this: Clocks on VCR's or appliances that blink 12:00 all day long) may want to go for the simplest or starter DCC systems first.  Try DCC out before you make any big investment. 

Bottom line is you generally must look at your own abilities relative to the system's "ease of use" factor first, and then look at the DCC systems technical abilities second. Technical abilities will mean nothing if you cannot use the system successfully in the first place.

What do do:

The best way to choose which system to buy, of course, is to try them all first by going to a friend's house, hobby shop, or RR club.  You may be able to simplify the list if you have a strict budget, but trying some of the higher end systems can be educational.  

Look at the throttle and do the following:

1) Notice how throttle feel in you hand and control.

2) Select and run a loco.

3) Build, run and take apart a consist.

4) Program a loco.

Ask yourself, is this an easy thing for me to remember or easy to find in the manual in case you had to do a quick look.  Check out the manuals too.  Borrow one [or download from manufacturer’s website] and take it home to read and see if it all makes sense to you when you get back and try the system.  Be honest about your abilities.  For example, if you cannot set a digital clock, you may want to lean towards a simpler system with fewer features.  Another issue is the learning curve.  If you are going to run your layout once a month, a system that forces you to re-read the manual to use it is not going to be a very enjoyable experience.  Another factor is to look at what your friends use in term of support.  But if you think you're going to have to bug your friends every time you want to play with YOUR layout at home, then that system may not be a good system for you. 

If you want to look deeper, consider the following:

  1. Command station: List the features, and prioritize the ones you're care most about. Buy the best you can afford. Your selection of a command station will directly affect your choices of throttles, since it's the command station which sets your cab bus protocol.
  2. Documentation: Are you the type of person who reads the documentation? If so look over the manufacturers' offerings before purchasing. They are not all created equal. Thickness is not the metric. Quality, ease of access, good indexing, organization should be the metrics. Some manufacturers have put Acrobat PDF versions on the Web -- look at these and look at the paper documentation. Get input from existing users on their thoughts about the documentation on the DCC systems they own.
  3. Throttles: This is tied to item 2. Try to avoid purchasing any system until you have had a chance to use the throttles of the various systems, and in particular the throttles of your prospective purchase. Two minutes at a show or in a shop does NOT constitute 'use'. The choice you make here will be with you for a while. Consider the range of throttles available on each system -- low end to hi end.
  4. Wireless: Consider if you really need wireless cabs.  Wireless is the ultimate "walk-around" setup but it cost extra money.   Club layouts are obviously a different beast where wireless allows people to pass each other in the isle without having to trip over each others cab cords in the process.
  5. Upgrades/Expansion: Most systems are expandable to some degree. Also the market for used, working command stations & attachments (at a less than retail price) should be reasonable, so you can consider the option of purchasing something, using it a while, and then resale. Very few people buy 'used' decoders from what I can see, so this is probably not an option for decoders.
  6. Decoders: Don't be afraid to mix and match decoders with command stations. Despite some minor glitches in this space, inter operability in this arena is very good. Don't be afraid to buy a command station/etc. made by one manufacturer and decoders made my another manufacturer. I do it all the time. Pick each based on your needs/preferences/ability to pay/etc. Also decoder functionality/price performance is much like PC processor pricing -- if you wait a little bit you'll get more features at the same price, or the same features at a lower price. Competition is good :-) The moral of this story is don't buy decoders before you're ready to install!
  7. Dealer Support: Buy your DCC products only from dealers who offer support. There are excellent retailers & mail order sources for DCC products. Be very cautious about dealers who carry a single manufacturer's product. You may or may not get the best fit of a DCC product to your need if they carry only a single vendor's product. It is recommended that you find out why they carry only one line. If they start by saying it's the best on the market, it would be a good idea to drop them from consideration as a place to purchase DCC products. Would you be comfortable if a dealer carried only a single manufacturer's line of locomotives?
  8. Manufacturer Support: Overall, manufacturer support in this product space is excellent. Manufacturers are very responsive to customer inquiries, support needs, etc. However each manufacturer does have different warranties and support models. Check this out before buying. Make sure you are satisfied with the warranties & support models of the vendors' equipment you plan to purchase BEFORE purchasing. Make sure you ask about the support available when you screw up (e.g., smoke the decoder) and when there is a manufacturer defect. You may also want to inquire about their approach to product updates and bug fixes. Remember that much the DCC environment is software, and like all software there are bugs. What happens when you find one? What is their approach to 'critical' bugs and what is their approach to 'non-critical bugs'? As noted with decoders, manufacturers often evolve the software in their products (slip-streaming in the trade vernacular). The take away here is don't stock up DCC equipment for future use but instead buy when ready to use. One other note. The best support from the manufacturer is obtained by picking up the telephone and calling the manufacturer directly. Not whining on some list, calling a friend, etc. While friends and list members may assist you, you'd be amazed at the blatantly wrong info I've seen passed around about DCC over the years in these forums. Manufacturers are customer friendly, just call them. One exception to this is knowledgeable dealers. Some of these are very customer oriented. If you find one, stick with them.
Subpages (1): DCC System Comparisons