Tony's Off the Cuff DCC Comparison
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
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
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
For a full power output use an MF615 transformer
in place of the transformer supplied with the system.
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.
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
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
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
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
Finally, we guarantee your satisfaction so don't
DCC System Comparison
||MRC Prodigy Advance
||Digitrax Super Empire Builder
||Digitrax Super Chief
|Max No. of Cabs
|Type of Speed Control
||2 Knob or Key
||2 Knob or Key
||Dial or Key
|Wireless Cab Options
|No of Loco/Consists
|Max No. Loco Addresses
|Total Function Keys Note 1
|Program Track Read/Write
|Output Current in Amps
||5 (Note 2)
||5 (Note 2)
||5 (Note 2)
|Operate Accessory Decoders
|Power Boosters Available
||Yes (Note 2)
|No. Decoders Included
|Basic System Price (MSRP)
Complete DCC systems comparison is available
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