The iPhone as controller?


> main > modelling > control > iPhone

The iPhone may be the world's most popular portable computer. It's not only a mobile phone, but much, much more. It's built-in WiFi makes it very suitable as a hand-held controller to control anything you would like to, such as your model railway. This article investigates what's available. More software, supporting other smartphones and/or DCC systems is likely to appear in the near future.

What's needed?

At first an iPhone or iPod Touch with the WiFi switched on, suitable software on the Apple device, a WiFi access point and an interface to the model railway control system. There are 2 appraoches to achieve this. Both methods work only with digital command control systems (DCC).

1. Direct access to the DCC system. A WiFi access point is connected to the DCC command station directly (ESU) or through a purpose-built interface (Lenz). TouchCab employs this method
2. Access to the DCC systems through a PC. The iPhone acts as some kind of keyboard and interacts with the model railway control software running on the PC.  RocRail and JMRI prefer this method. The RocRail and JMRI software is Java-based and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems.


TouchCab


TouchCab is an "app" running on the iPhone that directly connects with the DCC command station. The iPhone becomes a hand-held train controller as if it was a controller made made the DCC system manufacturer. Drawback is that this only works with specific makes of DCC equipment as the software is made specifially for certain equipment. At the moment TouchCab only works with ESU 'EcOS' and Märklin command stations. The TouchCab software will be updated to control Lenz command station through a special interface, that will be available later this year (2010). The biggest advantage is that you do not need a computer to control your trains, thus making TouchCab suitable for simple setups. Of course it's possible to use more than one iPhone to control trains. TouchCab is available through Apple's AppStore for only € 5,99. More information at the TouchCab website.

touchcab 4 iPhones running TouchCab (photo: TouchCab)


RocRail


RocRail is a DCC control software that's based on Java and distrubuted as an open-source software. Rocrail can control a wide range of DCC systems, nearly all manufacturers are covered. The software could run under all popular operating systems (Windows, Mac OSX and Linux). The biggest drawback is that you will need a computer (Windows, Mac or Linux) to control your layout. The computer could be used as a CTC-centre controlling the points and signals, with functional interlocking. The iPhone connects with the PC and the control software, the control software drives the trains and accessories. RocRail has an option to display small control panels on the iPhone's screen. Touching a point symbol on the screen results in throwing the point. More information at the RocRail website.

rocrail hor RocRail point & signal control panel (photo: RocRail)
rocrail verRocRail in loco control mode
(photo: RocRail)


JMRI / WiThrottle


JMRI is similar to RocRail, but of different origin. JMRI also supports a wide range of DCC systems. The iPhone application to control JMRI is called WiThrottle and is supplied by a seperate vendor and is available through Apple's AppStore. WiThrottle connects to the PC running  the JMRI software. The approach is similar to RocRail, but the user interface has a rather different look and feel.
withr  WiThrottle on an iPhone (photo: WiThrottle)

WiThrottle is purely meant as a model train controller and has an option to control accessories (can anyone provide a screenshot, please?), like points or signals, an option that's available on both TouchCab and RocRail as well. An interesting option of WiThrottle is the dual controller, offering simultaneous control of 2 trains as per the Digitrax handhelds. WiThrottle is available through Apple's AppStore for US$ 9,99.

dual WiThrottle's Dual throttle screen (photo: WiThrottle)

JMRI / Engine Driver

Another app for use on your Android smartphone. Engine Driver offers almost complete control of your layout (locos, routes and accessories). Engine Driver is issued free of charge (isn't that good news?) and is an alternative for WiThrottle when yo have an Android smartphone instead of an iPhone. More information on the Engine Driver website. You need a PC (or Mac or Linux) running the JMRI layout control software, which is an extensive software package issued free of charge.

ed ed2 Engine Driver screenshots (photo: JMRI Engine Driver)



Other smartphones


Some of the software mentioned in this article is available on other smartphone platforms, Android in particular. RocRail has an Android client that could be used on any smartphone running the Android operating system. Samsung has announced a portable music player running the Android OS and with WiFi access, so this particular device could be of interest as well. RocRail's Android client offers the same functionality as RocRail's iPhone client.

rr-android Android mobile phone with RocRail (photo: RocRail)
 


Plusses and Minusses

As always, there are plusses and minusses for each software / hardware combination.

TouchCab

Plus: clear layout, works without PC, affordable cost at € 5,99.
Minus: works only with ESU, Märklin CS1 and Lenz systems

RocRail:

Plus: works with many DCC systems, available for Android smartphones, free of charge (freeware, GNU license)
Minus: PC (or Mac or Linux) needed

WiTrottle:

Plus: clear layout, large buttons and sliders.
Minus: PC (or Mac or Linux) with JMRI needed, relatively high price at US $ 9,99.

Engine Driver:

Plus: Extensive loco, route and accessory control options, free of charge
Minus:  PC (or Mac or Linux) with JMRI needed.

Z21

Roco and Fleischmann have introduces a DCC control system that is directly controlled by your smart device (smartphone or tablet) The Z21 system comes in a starter version and an advanced version with more powerful power stage and more connections.  At the moment of writing there are control apps available for iPhone, iPad and Android devices; when you use a tablet (iPad, Android) you can install loco vcab layouts that are based on real locomotives, with a choice of german, dutch and swiss prototypes. The system also ingegrates with PC software.

Conclusion


Modern mobile phones, also known as smartphones offer a new way to control your model railway, precluded that it is DCC controlled. At the moment, Apple's iPhone offers the widest range of available software, but Android phones are catching up. Smartphones running under other operating systems, such as the popular BlackBerry are not that well supported, the developmenrs strongly depend on support by the phone manufacturers and the willingness of software developers, which are often amateurs with good programming knowledge.  Budgetwise, usuing a smartphone with dedicated software may be cheaper tha buying a dedicated handheld controller from a DCC-system manufacturer, even when you buy the device only to control your layout. Example: a 2 GB iPod Touch costs about € 150.-, where a Lenz LH100 handheld costs about € 140.- (at Lokshop, prices may differ). One other issue is availability: smartphones and personal music players are available from many shops, both on the high street and on the Web, where the number of model railway shops is declining. The option of controlling points and signals through a mimic panel on the portable device would benefit of a larger screen, as with the iPad from Apple and the tablet systems running Android, like Samsung's Galaxy Tab. (other Android tablets are also available).

iPhone, iPad,  iPod and iPod Touch are registered trademark of Apple Computer
Android is a registered trademark of Google

> main > modelling > control


butrood Modelling butgroen Layouts butgeel Modeller's Corner butblauw Train Simulators butzwart Various

newball The model news page. A quick overview of everything that is announced by the various manufactures plus site updates etc.