A short comment on the new “high tech” train items from the 2014 Nuremberg Toy Fair…
The 2014 Nuremberg Toy Fair is over. For those who don’t know, it is a German (and reasonably international) event, where many German, Austrian and worldwide “toy” manufacturers present their new items. The model train business still has its place there, and as always, there is much to say.
I’d rather talk about what I like the most: tech gadgets in the model train world. 3-5 years ago, manufacturers in Europe started to understand that if they want to survive, they need to attract kids, and keep adults interested. The smartphone/tablet/Internet world is of course a main target. Roco and Fleischmann were the first to fully embrace this new world with their Z21 command station, that basically requires smartphones because it has no physical buttons of its own. I haven’t tested the command station myself, but most online comments seem to agree that – after a few initial firmware updates – the device delivers.
Today, I want to discuss something that really bugs me. I often quote a great post from Jerry’s Quinntopia blog about train devices being ugly. This is a similar rant.
In short: it seems that some brands are in 2014, while others are stuck in the 1990’s. To do that, let us compare two novelties:
I tweeted about this novelty as soon as I heard about it: the Mobile Control II from ESU is a device I already like, although frankly I probably won’t really need it. The product description page is only available in German for now, but google translate will help.
It is basically a full-fledged Android smartphone (although without actual phone capabilities), with a touch screen, and above all: a real speed controller knob. It connects via Wifi to the ECOS II from ESU to control trains, through the official ESU android app (not yet released I think). Everybody who cares about tablet/smartphone control for model train layouts knows one thing: a touch screen is great, but when you want to control a train’s speed, a good old physical button is always best. Some people may think this ESU product is an unnecessary gadget. I personally think it is the perfect tool for anyone who likes modern devices, and yet longs for a real speed controller. That means you can control and look at your layout at the same time.
More than this, ESU clearly states that this model will be a completely open android device. For example, they mention the possibility to use Skype (discussion between members controlling trains in a large fair). But above all: they will open the API to anyone, which means other model train firms will be allowed to develop apps that can actually access (use) the physical controller. What does that mean? It means for now, as a regular android device, you could install the Roco Z21 Android app on the ESU Mobile Control II. It would probably work immediately out of the box, BUT the physical speed controller would remain unused. If Roco was smart, they could spend an hour of their time to use ESU’s API. This way, the physical rotary switch on the ESU device could control trains even more intuitively with the Z21. Will it happen? I don’t know. But open strategies in Germany are rare enough to mention, so thumbs up to ESU!
Now, spoiler alert: I am going to be nasty about Uhlenbrock. Don’t get me wrong, I know it is a respected brand in the model train business. Many of their products are sturdy and very good. I am very happy with some of them (like this one), and was disappointed by some others (this one for example).
But no matter how good some of Uhlenbrock’s products are, there is obviously something wrong. Especially if you compare with ESU. For starters, just compare the websites (ESU vs. Uhlenbrock). You may begin to understand: Uhlenbrock has a real problem staying up to date. Their website (although it was redone 2 years ago), still looks like an early 2000 web presence, and doesn’t even have a full English translation. But that’s a nasty attack form me: a bad web designer doesn’t mean the company delivers outdated product…so behold: the Daisy II, Uhlenbrock’s attempt at a modern wireless remote control…
The Daisy II is everything you would have wanted 10 years ago. For now, please go and check on page 5 of the Uhlenrbock new items (in German only, but look at the pictures…). Yes, you are seeing correctly. While all manufacturers are switching to Wifi and Smartphones, Uhlenbrock is trying to sell you another ugly black and white device (IB-Com command station anyone?). That’s not all, no no no! For the Daisy II to work, you will first need to attach a “Funk Master LN” to your network (I am NOT kidding, although to be fair “Funk” means “airwave” in German). This will allow the Daisy II to control your trains, through your usual Uhlenbrock command station. As for the Daisy II itself? Well, look at the pictures! It has a wonderful 1 color screen. Yes, ONE SINGLE color! And you know what, why not brag about it: “High resolution display with yellow text” as Uhlenbrock says. It also displays on about 4 lines, which doesn’t deserve a mention apparently.
I will stop complaining here, but you get the picture: in my very humble opinion, Uhlenbrock has lost it. I am fine with “proprietary” solutions, there are many in the model train business, but this one is about 10 years too late!
Let me finish, just for fun, with a comparison table:
Uhlenbrock vs. ESU, this was the model train business opinion of the day: if you are looking to control your trains from the palm of your hand, stay the hell away from Uhlenbrock for now, and look at the companies actually living in the 21st century (ESU, Märklin, Roco…pretty much anyone else).
I hope I didn’t hurt any feelings, remember this is just a personal opinion. Also, this is all based on pre-release information, I have not had any of those devices in front of me. In any case, I have bad feelings for the future of Uhlenbrock if they continue on that road. I am sure they have excellent engineers, maybe they also need people with good ideas now…. Do you think I am wrong? If so, please don’t hesitate to comment!
I preferred not to post any picture for copyright reasons, so please refer to the official leaflets/websites:
Agreed. I’m using the ECoS, and the touchscreen is one of the old resistive kind, but it’s still pretty good for running trains. It’s just really fun to use. Not to mention, the Ethernet port on the back is extremely handy, all you need is a cable and a spare plug on a router nearby, and you can already start using your smartphone with it (there’s an app on Google Play called “ECoS Controller”, not made by ESU but decent nonetheless), or hook it up to JMRI or whatever else you want. Not to mention, I haven’t installed it yet, but the 4.0 update is looking pretty sweet…
Thanks for the comment Trainman, I agree the 4.0 update seems to bring interesting functions!
You forget that a large segment of the MRR community is 60+. For this segment radio control cars and infra red TV remote control are high tech. I bet they are most pleased by Daisy&Co. would look at WiFi Zillion color display with a very sceptical and anxious eye. This is of course not an excuse for Uhlenbrock to explain the fate of Dinosaurs by a live example, but probably this mentality dominates the decision making level of Uhlenbrock.
I thought it was just me! For years now, I have been attemting to get an update for an uhlenbrock 65000 Intellibox! I bought this unit from a hobby shop at the “Drei-Eck”, the town where the Rhein joins the Mosel River. It wasn’t cheap, even though it was an “auslaufsmodel” (obsolete). I have the English version of the “Handbuch” for this control box, but this was no help getting an update either, although I sent e-mails to their websites in Both English and German.
Strangely, I met the Herr Doktor designer of the Intellibox at a meet of the Maerklin Enthusiasts Association (MEA) at the Holiday Inn off New Jersey Turnpike, around the early 1980’s. I was excited about its multi-functionality, thinking “now here’s a device that won’t soon become obsolete”. In all fairness, I can still use it to run NMRA’s version of DCC locomotives on this version of the Intellibox. Ironically, I never tried to run Maerklin trains with it because their decoders were (still are) ridiculously expensive.
I looked at my Intellibox with renewed interest after a recent purchase of a Maerklin Big Boy, p/n 34900, circa 1981. It only has a little 4-dip switch Delta motor-only decoder, no sound, and runs beautifully on a Mobil Station, model I. Naturally, I started looking for a replacement sound decoder, or a sound-only decoder, to install in the tender. Any ideas here? Any help would be appreciated. For now, I have stopped short of trying the old Intellibox to run this fantastic loco. Herb
Thanks for the comment Herbert! I’m more of an N-scaler myself. Maybe someone here or in a model railroad forum would be more helpful?
Yes indeed the ESU Ecos is light years ahead of the Uhlenbrock product which I purchased recently to use with my Roco Z21 in Kuwait . Unfortunately, the Uhlenbrock is SO outdated that the supplied radio master which is supposed to link the hand throttle controller to the track via the Z21 is not compatible and will only work when connected by cable ….. The ESU is the logical choice which although expensive sets the the way for modern model railroad layout control . Uhlenbrock is proceeding towards a dark future if they keep offering such outdated products and I am taking my set back for a refund or exchange .
Note: It is rare to come across someone from the Arab world with an interest in model trains . Best wishes Aziz
There are more railway fans than what you imagine in our region. However, I agree they/we are too few…. The reasons are clear…. Rail transport is not promoted in the region, and is doomed to vanish even in countries with long history of rail transport like Egypt, for example, due to corrupt incompetent policy, or Syria because of more than obvious reasons. As for the MRR hobby, the reasons are equally clear: It is an expensive hobby,…. perhaps not expensive for the generally wealthy gulf countries, but if you consider the price of a sound decoder relative to the average monthly income elsewhere in the area you will understand what I mean. Secondly, miniatures are automatically (and falsely) classified as toys. Interest in miniatures is classified accordingly as childish. Thirdly, we, the Arab, are sadly not interested in delicate, time consuming activities involving hand work and fine craftsmanship. We would rather give away tons of money for objects made by others and proudly show, but never care to appreciate the products of our hands…. I can go on on this point for another week but I hope you understand what I mean.
Of course one may argue (I, to be precise), cost is not a point especially when many others spend comparable sums in smoking, video games, expensive cell phones (well, the most expensive Samsung is not much more expensive than a Brawa locomotive), fancy designer cloth…etc…etc…. However, this is the way it goes in our region: miniatures are for children.
Back to central control units…. frankly, I find them all overpriced…. These things are nothing but a microcontroller with some accessories to generate a DCC signal, something you can do in a couple of days, but nevertheless people pay ridiculously high prices for them. I paid 120 EUR for my Roco (small) Zed 21, and I would have remained with start set mice if it would cost a single penny more. Intellibox and similars ESU things are out of question.
Thank you both for your comments! I think it’s great that the hobby is still alive also in the Arab world. What we must not forget, quite frankly, is that model railroading is not doing very well, nowhere in the world. This may change, but for now, any hobby requiring to “build something of your own” is not fashionable, and not just in the Arab world. Look at Legos: it used to be about building machines and buildings, now the most success comes from ready to use Star Wars figures, where the kid just arrange things around.
Rail transport as a whole is doing well: many Arab countries are introducing trams, high speed lines, renovating freight line; same thing maybe in the US. So who knows, maybe MRR will get better soon!
In the meantime, yes, digital model train equipement is expensive. It’s up to us to make sure the hobby lives on! More customers=cheaper prices 😉
“More customers=cheaper prices”
I would love to… but when I started in this hobby, I mean when I started buying to be precise, in the mid nineties, a large DC steam locomotive used to cost 125 EUR, E-Locs were about 100 EUR. I remember a discussion in a shop where the seller was trying desperately to justify the price of a TRIX Bavarian Gt 2×4/4, 250 EUR at that time. Now I would be very happy if I find a second-hand at this price. I know, 15-20 years do not mean nothing, but bear in mind that except a DCC socket nothing has been added to these little machines over the years. And if we may understand the rise in rolling stock prices, how should we understand similar rise in building kits dating back to the sixties? Another example, Faller used to market Testor/Model Master’s weathering set around this time. All they had to do is to pack six bottles of grey and brown shades inside a plastic bag. For that they sold the set for double the cost (including shipping) of import from USA.
I agree with you on keeping the hobby alive, but manufacturers should do their part too.
As for the general attitude towards MRR in most Arab countries that they are looked upon as nothing more than toys I agree entirely with Mr. Walid . However, I must add that people in the gulf region are wealthy by birth is simply not true and as a Kuwaiti my only source of income is my retirement pension with a bank loan and kids studying in college not to mention trying to construct a house with un limited obstacles and soaring expenses . Enough of that anyway and back to MRR which I have to say it is not costly to get into this fine hobby as anyone can start at their own pace and available budget & space plus there is nothing wrong with going with analog controllers as even that will allow a tremendous potential for further future expansion . I only started my DCC layout last year and had been running analog since 1975 . Getting into DCC can be as costly as buying an ESU Ecos or as cheap as getting an old Roco digital center with a multimaus handheld controller for well under a 100 Euros . And I must not forget the American DCC equipment which are in many cases affordable as well as functional .
Still, I feel that having the ability to control several trains with total freedom of movement using an iPad through the Z21 ( I just traded in my white starter set unit for the black full feature Z21 ) is a worthwhile investment especially for someone like myself due to limited vision in one eye .
Happy MRR to all Aziz
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