Sprog II and DecoderPro

I've been using the Sprog II DCC Decoder Programmer for over a year now.  I've hesitated writing a 'review' or much about this device as I don't feel I have much expertise to provide a completely accurate or comprehensive summary of how it works or its capabilities.

On the other hand, if you're looking for one guy's experience with a device, then I'm happy to share my opinions and thoughts!

What is it?
So...what is the Sprog II?  Quite simply, its a little device that connects to a piece of track on one end, and your computer on the other end (and fortunately, it seems to work with the latest versions of Windows and Macs!).  Using software from JMRI called DecoderPro you can read and write to your DCC decoder-equiped locomotives using your PC.  This is a nice alternative from using some of the less than perfect reading/writing capabilities of many handheld DCC systems out there (for me - and my frustrations with programming with my Trix Mobile Station-  this seemed like a good solution before I went and spent another $200 or a lot more for a whole new system!).

The installation instructions are really quite good, and it only requires 3 basic steps that I found to be very well documented: You need to install the latest version of the Java Runtime Environment (JRE); the JMRI DecoderPro software; and finally the USB drivers for the Sprog II.  That's it! Of course, its necessary to reboot after each of those steps, but its really quite simple and straight forward if you follow the instructions.

Where it gets a bit dicey is when you need to designate a COM port for the USB connection for the Sprog.  Although this is also fairly straight forward, its something that needs a little more thinking about than the previous steps.

So with your software and drivers installed, the power supply and connection to a section of programming track, and the USB cable connected to your computer, you should be ready to program some decoders!
Since I'm usually using this device primarily to set the address for a new locomotive, I usually place the locomotive (with decoder installed) on my programming track and then open up Decoder Pro to 'Service mode' and click on the "Read type from decoder" button (circled below, note extensive list of manufacturers in the table to the left).
If everything is working okay, DecoderPro will 'talk' to your decoder and tell you who the manufacturer is and (usually) which 'family' of decoders your decoder from that manufacturer belongs to.  There's usually several options that could be right, so its a good idea to be prepared to have the actual decoder model available so that you select the precise model before going to programming.  I highlighted the results of this in the below image (note the message at bottom and that multiple "Lenz Silver" types were highlighted):
From this point, the usual first step for me is to add all the information about this locomotive into the "Roster Entry" screen.  After saving this information, you can pull it up later to change other settings, etc...
Now the fun part....the below image shows all the CV's and color codes the CV value and its 'status'.  Best to read the documentation, but its really very simple and intuitive.  Yellow means that this is CV setting in your DecoderPro file (it may or may not match the setting in your actual decoder however), white is the current setting (after being 'read' from the decoder in your locomotive).  If I were to change one of the existing CV's (white color) below to another value, it would change from white to yellow, until I clicked on one of the 'write' options, once you click 'write' the 'yellow' change will briefly turn 'red' and then make the change, read it back, and its now 'read' as the setting in your decoder, and will show up in the interface in 'white':
There are usually many tabs for all sorts of programming fun.  The number and content of the different tabs are dependent usually on the decoder and its capabilities.  For example, you'll notice that the 'sound' tab is greyed out in my screens as this is not supported with the decoder I have on the programming track.   Some decoders will have a tone of options/tabs to work with.  Other decoders, particularly the Trix Selectrix/DCC dual mode decoders have very few options (mostly you can change basic addresses and some CV's, but that's about it).

Note also the below 'speed table' tab which you can use to adjust speed settings instead of using CV numbers.  Kind of cool!   Also note that the same color coding is used with these levers as is used in CV tables.
I won't show every tab, but tabs like the below make setting the functions for lights a lot simpler than most handheld DCC programming devices:

As you can tell, I'm using my Sprog on a Mac.  I was using it on an older PC that sits near my layout (Windows XP) but I had a lot of errors with the Sprog being able to 'read' locomotives on the track.  I attempted (sometimes with success) to 'update drivers' and the usual hardware/software trouble-shooting (COM Ports? Ugh!), but it was always a bit of a hassle - more than I wanted given that this is supposed to make programming easier!  Since I've moved my programming track to my Mac, I haven't had any of these problems.

You still need to have a 'load' on all decoders to program, read, write, etc...  The easiest way to do this is to program your function only decoders in the 'motor car', remove it after programming, and then place it back in the non-motorized location you need it.

Also, if your going to want to do a lot of programming with Trix's Selectrix/DCC dual mode decoders, the options are really limited as mentioned above.  Still, this is big improvement over the Mobile Station, but you don't get many options.  No surprise, but the decoders from Lenz and Esu have been the best performers and have the most options ot 'play' with.

Bottom line?  For about $100 USD, I was able to keep my Trix Mobile Stations for operations (where it works well enough for me now!) and use this for the more difficult task of working with and managing CV's (and never having to worry about CV 19 calculations again!).

At some point, I still need to do a better job of understanding how to use all these settings, but the good news is that there is at least a means to view and manage CV settings that is a marked improvement over what I was used to.


The almost complete (not so) simple skyscraper scratchbuild (Part 3)

Here is the almost completed 'paper' and 'plastic' skyscraper.  As explained in my first and second posts on this little project, the idea was to use simple materials to craft a skyscraper from scratch.  I've received lots of good suggestions in the comments about this, and I expect I'll be using them in my next 'build'.
The thing I liked best about working with paper is that it was easy to cut the "NTT" logo into the building at the top.  Backlit with some led's (and some red film) and...instant corporate presence!
Office floors and interior details were, again, a necessity.  I used black foam core for the interior floors (a technique which worked well enough on my first scratchbuild), and created some more of my 'home-made' office cubicles....
I also 'cheated' a bit and used some Kibri "HO" office furniture....most of the pieces had to be sized down a bit, and are still a bit over-sized even then, but I can't use park benches for office furniture, now can I?

You might notice a huge 'blue light' area above the ground floor...this was my attempt to be creative and add something 'artsy' or special to the facade.  I used some blue SMD led's and had them shine into a grid of plastic left over from another kit.  Not sure I'm crazy about how it turned out, however, the extra color will look good in the midst of the rest of the city, I think.

Overall, I'm not totally displeased with how it turned out.  The biggest failing is that it seems too narrow.  I seem to have got into a rut of having too many buildings that are about 3 inches or less wide, which is pretty typical for Kato and other structures, but don't have the realistic feel that a wider skyscraper would have. 


I LOVE Kato! - Cool, new modern buildings on the way!

Kato has outdone themselves...apparently.   I learned of these new structures from Kato over on the Japanese N Scale forum (worth a good look if you've never been there, there's a LOT of great stuff that goes beyond just Japan!) which came from a trade show in Japan.  Still too early to know when they'll be released, but the great news is that its these look different from anything else out there and its of course awesome to see some interesting looking modern buildings on the way!

Yeah, I'm excited!  This does mean I've already started planning where to place these buildings, which means that my so-called plans to move beyond structure and building phase and get back to trains are being challenged!  Oh no...more protests?!!


(Not So) Simple Skyscraper Scratchbuild (Part 2)

In my last post, the idea with this scratchbuild was to take easily available materials and make an N Scale skyscraper.  The basis is a window/floor framework printed on regular 11'x17' (tabloid) paper- generously coated with spray paint on both sides - and some clear acrylic 'baseball' display cases.

I switched colors from the brown I had previously, using "Euro Grey" from Model Master spray paints instead, and I ditched the baseball display cases as the 'foundation' since the edges didn't glue level and I knew the seams would be noticeable.  I substituted regular clear acrylic sheets as an alternative (these are available at the local hardware store and can be cut to the size you want generally).

The above photo also shows some trimwork I applied around the window edges with a black marker.  Simple and crude, but I think just the hint of a black edge will help.  More difficult to see in the above image is the "NTT" logo I cut into the paper.  This is one advantage of this method as its easy to cut letters (well, at least letters that don't have curves) to get that back-lit corporate logo effect that is hard to do without a laser cutter!

I also wanted the windows to be a bit darker, but not too dark.  I used 'Transparent Black Window Tint' from Model Masters, which turned out a lot better than I expected.  Below are 'before' and 'after' shots:
The below photos shows the surface after being applied using adhesive spray glue.  This was a less frantic experience than I thought.  There are just a few spots that there may not have been enough adhesive and the paper doesn't sit as flush as I'd like, but these are relatively minor.  Some of the initial lumpiness still shows in the below photo, but I was able to get most of this to flatten out.
And finally...need to fill in all those windows with something!  So I used the same method for creating floors that I used on an earlier skyscraper and carefully glued and inserted the floors into the appropriate spot.
Yes all those wires are, of course, the leads for all the LED's in this model-I think it will be somewhere around 40 or 50 LED's (lost count!).  My next post should have photos of this model all lit up!  Of course, now that its almost Summer, the time for model railroading is very limited, but I hope to get it done before the end of the month!


Simple Skyscraper Scratchbuild Concept (Part 1)

As much as I wanted to move onto the layout and be done with buildings(!), I was distracted by this idea I had for creating skyscrapers or high rises using relatively simple and inexpensive materials.

The idea I've been itching to try for some time was the idea of printing a simple pattern onto regular printer paper, cutting out the window areas, and then coating the paper with spray paint.  I'm not quite sure how this will turn out, but wanted to share the idea and my progress.

First, I created a grid of windows and wall surfaces on a computer (any program that allows you to create rectangles will work!) and then printed this out on 11" x 17" sized paper.
With my 'template' done, I then went about the tedious task of carefully cutting out the window areas.  This was more tedious than I thought, and my original concept of doing many individual window openings ended up as a shortcut.   I'm trying to prove the concept more than anything, and an easy solution to this may be the use of styrene (or paper?) vertical strips when the model is finished.
After cutting out all the openings, I then proceeded to paint....about 3 coats of black paint on the inside surface, and then another 3 on the outside surface.  I used a light brown spray paint from the hardware store for the exterior coat.  I was also careful to try and keep the paper from resting flat on the surface as I was afraid once it dried, it may dry and tear the paper when I tried to lift if off.
For the actual structure, I noticed some clear acrylic baseball display cases at a store that seemed about the right dimensions to make for a decent superstructure for a skyscraper, and would be another nice shortcut!  I used hotglue and some plastic cement to glue them together.
After both sides of the paper were painted, they were carefully folded along the edges to fit to my 'baseball display' structure:
The next step is to spray the inside with spray adhesive and attach to the acrylic 'cubes'.  Then I'll add trim, interior floors, lighting, details, and other stuff and see where this little project takes me!  The paper takes on a very soft 'acrylic' feel to it after all the paint has dried.  My biggest concern now is how flat I can get the paper to adhere to the plastic!

I'm also working on a similar version of this, a different window style and pattern, to see how diverse this approach can get.  This one is actually printed on normal 8.5" x 11" sheets.  I'll provide updates as I make progress!


Faller B-905 Building Complete!

 Well another large high-rise skyscraper kit complete, and I kid myself into thinking this will be 'the last building' project and I can move on to actually wiring and installing all my structures on my layout (I think I've said that before!).

So here is the Faller B-905 building.  Technically, its an HO structure, but only the first floor/ground floor is really HO scale...the rest of the building is really N scale. 
The project was pretty straight forward, only a couple of things to depart from the kit as advertised:
  • I used brick sheets from Evergreen Scale models instead of the supplied brick sheets. The reasons for this is that I actually stole a section of the high rise material from an HO hotel/restaurant model to add an additional 4 stories to the kit.
  • Given that the first floor was HO, and was pretty basic storefront material, I used more of the high rise 'grid work' to create a more open first floor, with a lobby for the offices and a 'Hypernova' retail area.
Lighting was pretty much the same method I always use...again a strip of the FX 12 from TrainAidsa for the interior office lights, and LED's for the back-lit signs (both a "Faller sign" and the Hypermart sign are ink-jet printed and mounted on a piece of transparent plastic and then supplied with 3x LED's to light them up), and an S12 strip from Tainadsa for the ground floor.

Here's the "Hypernova" on the ground floor (with protesters):
The entire ground floor, next to the "Hilton (Heljan) Hotel:
Some shots of the 'short side' where you can see the 'backlit' "Faller" logo I placed near the top in homage to the maker:
And a final shot next to the recently completed Hilton:
I really like the brick accents on this high-rise, which definitely give it a good 1950's/1960's high rise feel, and helps to complement the more neutral looking standard concrete buildings.  Its a farily difficult kit to find unbuilt, so I was very happy to get one, but its got some great lines and will look good on the layout! Someday!