NEW DCC System! (or why would I spend big $ for ugly technology)

"Intellivision DCC" To Be Released Soon
Check out the new DCC system ..errr.... not. For those of us that remember, the product above is actually a Mattel Intellivision. From the early 1980's. What's my point? Simple, in the age of the iPhone, Wii, Xbox 360, etc... why is it that Digitrax, MRC, and NEC (to pick on the big 3 US makers anyway) make products that would have looked like telecom utility gear even 20 years ago? Are my fellow American industrialists just completely clueless when it comes to product design? Case in point, here are representative samples of their cornerstone products in the marketplace today:

Now I realize that this will offend some users that will point out that these systems are state of the art and a 'pretty box' is no substitute for easy operation, reliability, etc... Point taken, and I agree. My point is not that we should have 'pretty boxes' with crap functions, etc... but why is it crazy to expect both? By profession, I am a marketer. I'm not an industrial designer, but as a marketer I know that design communicates (sometimes dishonestly) attributes that the product would be expected to have. The 'message' I get from the product design of the above big 3 US manufacturers is that this DCC stuff is 80's technology and does not look fun at all.

Compare, if you will, the new Marklin Central Station 2. I can't speak for the technology or its capabilities (that's not my place and there are plenty of other places online to get that perspective. Its beautiful, is it not? For those of us that like technology and its sexy design, Marklin hit the ball out of the part (as we say in the states).
Marklin is not alone. Roco, while somewhat 'toy-like' in appearances, at least avoids looking like nuclear power plant testing equipment. Viessmann's Commander and ESU's Ecos also do a great job of making the appearance of their systems attempt to communicate something about the capabilities of their product in a way that is contemporary and stylish.

There certainly are some other companies whose products almost make it, I am thinking of the Hornby Elite and Lenz systems, which, only look about 10 years out of date versus the Digitrax, MRC, and NCE systems.

In sum, this post is really about my frustration with the offerings that are available. Despite their competency, I can't seriously consider any of the above products. Is that shallow? Maybe. I am considering the products that I mentioned have design elements that appeal to my sensibilities.

I hope this post resonates with others in this hobby. Again, its not a criticism of the systems themselves, but it is a call for our US (and other?) manufacturers to not be as lazy when it comes to the hobby. After all, the benefits of products and systems with more mass appeal are obvious to anyone in this hobby.


  1. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Yes.

    One day, some model railroad company will hire their own Jonathan Ives, and the world will be a better place for it. But I'm not holding my breath.

  2. Sorry for not being original, but : LOL

    You couldn't be more right.
    I just took my 10 year old N models out of the box a year ago...meanwhile, things have evolved: Digital and so on, i'm thrilled by the new possibilities...but...

    Design is just awful, it seems the model train industry (already in great trouble) makes everything possible to scare off children, the potential customers of tomorrow.

    If I may add, however, design isn't the only issue, it is also often user friendliness. You quote the Märklin Mobile station, how about the mobile station? (I'm using the trix mobile station, just as you do I think)
    Well, design is pretty ok and let's forget the 1990's like LCD screen...but the menu structure is awful, and not consistent with the few buttons onboard!
    I am now pretty comfortable with it...but a simple improvement on usability (buttons with clear function...) would clearly be a post-sale satisfaction argument.

  3. Thanks Pierre. Its funny, I think that there are more of us that feel that way than the model train industry realizes. I went to a train show over the weekend, just north of Seattle, and there were thousands of people there, from all age groups, etc... I was actually quite surprised. Everybody loves a good layout! But we are own worst enemy when it comes to the main thing you use to interact with the layout...the controller!

    I am with you, I've come to 'adapt' to the Mobile Station. I would probably upgrade, but at this time, there is nothing that makes the expenditure worth the money!

    Thanks for your comment!

  4. Hi Jerry,
    Just a comment a bit out of the line. I thought I'd stick to my Mobile Station, and then I just found a cheap second hand Viessmann Commander.

    Wow! This thing is amazing. Color touch screen, pictures of the locs, PC updates, automatic recognition of locs on programming track, on screen touch track layout(s) with turnout/accessory control, automated, semi-automated or manual traffic...

    To remain in the theme of your article I would add two things:
    - Design is somewhat "end-1990's", not ugly really, I actually like it...but the beast also integrates modern turn and click buttons which is a more positive point.
    - The interface looks a bit like an old Linux interface, but the logic of the panels is incredibly well done, I got used to it in 5 mins (it was way more for the more limited Mobile Station).

    I am changing my mind on what Electronic companies can do, this thing is incredibly powerful, easy to use and (this is not ironic at all) just 2-3 years late in terms of tech specs (resolution...).

    If you get your hands on one of these in the US, be sure to give it a try...
    The drawback? The manual is not yet fully translated other than in German... nothing is perfect ;-)

  5. Pierre,

    Thanks for your comments on the Viessman Commander. You are correct, I use the Mobile Station, and agree with your sentiment that its very difficult to understand and 'master'. At some point I want to add a post that helps explains some of the functions or how to use the Mobile Station as its clear the manual is far too limited or not clear on a lot of steps!
    I have been looking at the Viessmann Commander, in addition to the EsU Ecos and the new Marklin CS2 (which reportedly now handles DCC, and may allow me to continue to use the 'mobile stations'...of course, if Marklin ever releases a remote control mobile station as was advertised but now cancelled, that makes this a very compelling choice!). I am pleased to hear of your experience with the Viessman, its hard to tell from the photos and catalogs how it will work and I have not had a 'in person' demo yet! It seems priced decently - somewhere between the 'black and white' Ecos and the rich colors of the CS2, and Viessman seems to have the technological know-how and focus to do DCC controls correctly! While the design is not perfect, its hugely more interesting and appealing than any of the offerings from Digitrax, MRC, etc... And since I am getting close to 16 locomotives (which is some sort of limit for the MS!), and thinking of adding in DCC control of switches, Viessman is probably at the top of the 'short list'!

    I think it will come down to whether or not I feel there is need to for a 'handheld' or 'remote' type of controller or not. If that is important, I may just wait to see what happens with Marklin.

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  7. I fully agree with your post. More that one year later, the same ugly and unfriendly controllers are on sale.

    Let's hope that the companies introduce better control systems soon (like an ipad, iphone or android that connects to a "box" and that directly to the rail).

    Unit then, I'm sticking with my small DC layout and RS.

  8. Totally agree with you. I have the Digitrax Zephyr station and it looks...well, like an old-timer calculator (minus the solar cell). Digitrax should use the same amount of time and effort for its hardware design as they do for their boxes and catalogs.

  9. Jerry-
    I AM an industrial Designer and I find it a little insulting that not only is zero thought put into the cases that we hold in our hands or interact with to run our trains(Digitrax blatantly swiped the Zephyr's throttle from Kato), the instruction manuals and guidebooks are often written in a way that seems to assume that you already know how to use the system!
    My NTrak club uses Digitrax DCC and it works fine, but I've only been in model railroading for a short time and the learning curve is pretty steep when trying to use the provided books. The programming seems overly complicated, too. Maybe that's just my inner artist coming through...
    Our club system uses the RF module so we don't have to stay plugged in at shows which is nice (mandatory), but the high-end throttle is so poorly designed and unwieldy that I have opted for a lower end model, just because it sort-of fits my hand when I run trains. I could design an ergonomic case in an afternoon that would contain the circuitry, and make people want to hold the throttle and run trains!
    Personally, I think the problem is that the companies are run by well-meaning nerds that don't realize that style matters. Maybe we should let them know...


  10. Hi Richard!

    Thanks for sharing your point of view and, as I'm sure you can tell from the other comments, we are not alone in expecting better design in this area! This is one the post's I'm most proud of (its almost 4 years old!) but yet, not a whole lot has changed, which seems a bit strange (although the economy has not been particularly good anywhere for the past 4 years, so maybe that's understandable), probably the most notable advancement has been the appearance of the use of Ipads and Smartphones as train controllers. This is an interesting development. For me, I'm still not sure the 'form factor' is very good, so not sure this works for me.

    Anyway, thanks for your interesting comment!

  11. Hi Jerry,
    The economy may very well be a factor, but I stand by my feelings that design doesn't even cross their minds. As far as using smart phones and tablets to control trains, I think this is probably the future of our hobby, but I'm not sure how well the flat screen tactile interface will work for guys like me who run trains at shows on large NTrak layouts and walk around with our trains. I prefer a throttle knob, and would like a comfortable case that fits in one hand. I'll probably have to get used to running trains with my iPhone in the end, but at least design is important at Apple!

  12. Have you checked out WIThrottle for the iPhone/iPad (and Android too I think) It sounds like it might be what you are looking for. It works with most computers (JMRI) and WiFi. There are some good videos on YouTube.