Prior to my layout hiatus, one of the constant sources of annoyance was the need to be "trackside" when wanting to explore the decoder settings of my fleet of locomotives. As I have stated before, I use NCE for the layout operation and with Cobalt point motors and panel mounted Cobalt decoders I am able to either utilise the panel or the NCE handpiece for layout control and all works well. On the locomotive/rollingstock front, I have a mix of QSI, Tsunami and ESU or Loksound decoders, and given the advances with DCC/Sound decoders I would imagine that this variety will grow. I certainly have grown to favour Soundtraxx Tsunami for a number of reasons but feel reticent to pull a perfectly brand new loco or railmotor apart just to change the decoder.
While it is perfectly reasonable to assume that a factory fitted DCC/Sound loco purchase should work adequately straight from the box, and some people are quite happy to do so...I like to constantly learn about and tweak the performance and attempt to have my locos performing and sounding in a fashion that satisfies ME. I do think at times that this holy grail of operational/sound perfection is an "urban myth" but nonetheless the upside of all of this reading and tweaking is that I have a better understanding of just what makes my locos tick and now have the confidence to at least attempt to exploit the seemingly endless possibilities that DCC can offer.
Some years ago, following the successful conversion of an Austrains 442 to Tsunami, I took the plunge and downloaded JMRI Decoder Pro and Panel Pro software. As an aside, in this increasingly commercial world... it still baffles me that this brilliant software is free...but I digress. The software loads beautifully but connecting the PC ( via serial cable ) to an NCE system can be trial and error and dependant on the serial cable being configured correctly. Once successful configuration is achieved...a whole new world of DCC awaits...
Now that I am forging ahead with the layout, the ability to programme locomotives has again become a necessity and as alluded to in the first paragraph of this post, I needed a more convenient method that allows the programming to be carried out quite separately and untethered to the NCE system and train room.
|Existing Layout Computer with NCE power supply and command station tucked away at left...|
Enter the SPROG!. Apart from a slang terminology for a child, I have no idea why the name SPROG was chosen for the DCC command station....maybe the fact that the unit is so small is why it was coined with that name. While it may be small, it is a brilliant piece of equipment, easily setup and configured and quite portable...all the attributes I had been looking for.
As can be seen from the above shot, connections are quite simple. Power in x 2 and Track out x 2 (on the left) and USB connection to PC or laptop in this case ( on the right ). Installation of the PC drivers is very straightforward unless utilising Windows 8 or 8.1 which required a bit more juggling about...but still relatively easy...even for this scribe.
As much as the unit ships with an installation disk...this does not assure the latest incarnations and updates of all software...so my advice is to download the latest releases of DecoderPro and PanelPro directly from the JMRI site prior to installation of the SPROG. I also took the opportunity of downloading the user manuals and supplementary notes on installation to a PC operating under Win8 or 8.1.
|The SPROG II User Guide gives the bulk of the info and is supplemented with the SPROG 3 user guide..|
The only other piece of equipment required is a power supply for the SPROG. The requirements suggest a regulated power supply 12-18V, 3 A. There are several "solves" available but I elected to also purchase a Cobalt PSU2+ power supply with Dual 9 V regulated or bridgeable 18V supply at 5A. This unit may be overkill and there are plenty of cheaper wall plug type power supplies, but I have wanted one of these for a while to try out as a dedicated point motor supply..so the decision was a convenient no brainer.
I guess it is timely to mention that the SPROG3 and Power Supply were both purchased from DCC Concepts in WA and were delivered to regional NSW within 48 hours of ordering...In comparison it took around 9 working days to receive my Traino 48 Class from Sydney...so hats off to the guys at DCC Concepts...
I have also fabricated a test track and base that is 1.3 metres in length and houses the SPROG unit and associated wiring. This test track is also portable, so coupled with a laptop computer, research, learning and programming can be carried out almost anywhere.
In conclusion, the SPROG's ease of installation, ease of use portability and seamless integration with the JMRI suite of programmes has been a complete game changer for me. I have no idea why I did not purchase the earlier versions of the SPROG...but better late than never. Those bitterly cold late night trips to the layout room in the dead of winter, to spend some time loco programming are a thing of the past and I will be spending some more time looking closely at the offerings of the PanelPro software as well... While SPROG and DecoderPro are not cure all panaceas for all brands of decoders...they certainly offer a high level of easy programming and an unrivalled way to learn the secrets behind the dreaded CVs...
Of course the SPROG is not new...and many DCC-ites will have availed themselves of it for a great many years...but I will post another instalment of the SPROG and JMRI software in practice... if readers would like...We will learn together!