A short comment on the new “high tech” train items from the 2014 Nuremberg Toy Fair…


We’re getting there…

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.

Others are not getting there…

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:

ESU’s Mobile Control II: a modern Android touch device

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!

Uhlenbrock’s Daisy II: back to the future

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:

 ESU Mobile Control IIUhlenbrock Daisy II
ConnectivityWifiProprietary 868Mhz wireless link
Other device required?No (see below)Yes, you need at least a "Funk Master LN" to link the Daisy II to your command station
Command station from the brand required?No (open android device), although at first, only the ESU app for the ESU ECOS II will benefit from the physical speed controllerYes
Touch screenYesNo (what did you think?)
Screen size480x800pxAbout 4 lines of text/icons
Screen color depthUnknown (likely thousands or millions)1 color (yellow).
Open platformYes (Android)No
Physical buttons416 (mostly a numeric pad...because no touch screen)

Okay, I’ll stop here

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!

External links:

I preferred not to post any picture for copyright reasons, so please refer to the official leaflets/websites: