ESU ECoS II connectivity

What can you do with an ESU ECoS II DCC command station, apart from controlling trains? Let’s have a look at this station from another point of view: connectivity.

ESU ECoS II startup screen

ESU ECoS II startup screen

I haven’t had time to post lately, so I decided to write on a “classic” topic. The ESU ECoS II command station has been around for more than 3 years now. On my layout, it has replaced the Viessmann Commander, which I personally found buggy and very limited.

Its age doesn’t mean that the the ESU ECoS II isn’t able to evolve, or can’t be “connected”. This is why I am going to review all  of its “connectivity options”, notwithstanding the actual “train control” possbilities.

Connections

The command station from ESU has quite a lot of “plugs”. Most of them are directly related to train control, and thus fall out of the scope of this article:

  • Track, programming track
  • DCC booster
  • S88 feedback system
  • ESU proprietary bus system (ECoS Link)…

As opposed to the Märklin Command station, it does not have a USB port or a “card slot”. The most important and versatile plug on the ECoS II is simply a classic Ethernet (RJ-45) network port.
The ECoS can thus be connected to your home network, along with your computers. Although there is no integrated WiFi, a €20 adapter can be connected to the Ethernet port itself. This is what I did, with a TP-Link TL-WR702N in “client” mode.

Now, armed with our Ethernet connection, let’s see what we can do.

1) The web interface

The ESU ECoS II, once on the home network, can be access through a standard web browser (you need to know its IP address):

The main options are:

  • Update
  • Picture upload
  • Backup
  • View screen
ESU ECoS II web interface

ESU ECoS II web interface

Firmware updates

We’ve entered the “everlasting beta” era. No device is considered reliable if it can’t be updated regularly. I have had the ECoS for more than 2 years, and it seems ESU is indeed still actively developing their firmware (about every 3 months).
Those updates have been free (until now). Most of them are “improvements” and “bug fixes”, but they do add some functionalities sometimes. An update a year ago for example, introduced “Railcom Plus” (see my post here).

The only small caveat: the update process is not automatic. By that, I mean there is no button “search and install updates”. Manual firmware updates are however easy for anyone with basic internet knowledge: go to the ESU Website, download an update file (if any), then go to the ECoS interface and upload the update file. The process takes about 5 minutes, and though the browser may appear to freeze temporarily, I have never had any problem.

ESU ECoS II update

ESU ECoS II update

Picture uploads

Another neat function of the ECoS that was added with the first upgrades, was the ability to upload custom pictures of your engines or cars. The small caveat here is that the ECoS is very strict about the image format (BMP, 190×40 px, 24 Bits colour).
Another (often forgotten feature) is that the background should be gray with an RGB colour code of 182, 182, 182. This is not a requirement, but looks way better: this gray colour is used as a “transparency mask” by the command station when displaying the pictures.

ESU ECoS II image upload

ESU ECoS II image upload

Another neat and “social” feature that ESU launched, is the locomotive picture library, on the ESU website. Users upload their pictures to share with others. I have been able to find pictures in more than 50% of the time (sadly many users upload their pictures without the correct gray background), I have been happy to modestly contribute in other cases.

ESU ECoS II example of custom images

ESU ECoS II example of custom images

Backup

This is self-explanatory. This function allows you to save a backup file to your computer, containing all the configuration (including custom pictures). I love backups, so this is an important function to me.

ESU ECoS II backup

ESU ECoS II backup

Screen view

This produces a still picture of what is currently shown on the screen of the command station, a simple image file that can be saved on your computer.
I’m not really sure this is useful for many people. But in my case, it surely was: all screenshots in this blog are made thanks to this function.

2) The network connection

The web interface is one thing, but that’s not what you may be using the most. The most important functionality of the network interface are the protocols that you cannot see. They allow you to control your layout by computer or mobile devices, via the command station.

PC Control

The ESU is one of those many command stations compatible with many train control software packages.

This includes commercial software such as:

And open source and/or free software, such as:

Now, one thing should be clear: PC connectivity is not an exclusivity of the ECoS. Most command stations support a standard protocol for PC connection, which can take the form of a USB or a network connection.
One should note however, that the Viessmann Commander (also in the “high end” range) does not offer any connectivity at all.

Another note as well, is that the protocol used by ESU does not seem to support decoder programming (at least with TrainController). So you “only” have access to train and accessory control.

Mobile devices

This is a gadget for most people…but I like gadgets. Controlling your layout with a smartphone or a tablet always makes a good impression (seriously, especially on people who don’t care much about model trains).

The ECoS was not “designed” for mobile connectivity, as opposed to Roco’s newer Z21 (which basically focuses on mobile connectivity). But the standard protocols are here, and leave us two possibilities:

  • Indirect mobile connectivity, through a PC software

This is what I use most of the time: the ECoS only really speaks with a PC software (TrainController in my case), and the PC software has a mobile connectivity option. In that case, mobile control is only indirect: the PC software is just using the devices as additional interfaces, and relays orders to the command station

  • Direct mobile connectivity

Since the ECoS supports a connectivity protocol, it is possible for a mobile software to directly speak to the command station through your home network. ESU has not developed an official App, but I have used TouchCab without a problem. This independent app costs less than $8 and allows you to control engines and switches directly from your smartphone. Unfortunately, you don’t have access to your layout map though.

ESU ECoS II & TouchCab

ESU ECoS II & TouchCab

 

ESU ECoS II & TouchCab

ESU ECoS II & TouchCab

ESU ECoS II & TouchCab

ESU ECoS II & TouchCab

Why would you want to do such a thing? Well, for one, it’s fun. Secondly, and that’s what I find extremely practical: it can be used for testing purposes on a large layout. When I am working on a layout section and I want to test how an engine runs goes through it, I just use my smartphone, while still seating under the layout.

I am sure there are Android alternatives out there as well.

Update: 24-AUG-2013:
A reader in the French version pointed out this Android app to control the ECOS, thanks!
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.ecos.train&hl=fr

Update: 26-NOV-2013:
A reader pointed out a corresponding Windows Phone app, thanks!
http://www.windowsphone.com/s?appid=9b1c8c98-9041-497b-9c5b-40002ad629c8

Conclusion

It was important for me to write something about the ECoS’ connectivity. The command station is upgradable, usable with PCs and mobile devices, while still being an advanced colour touchscreen device for local control. It has been around for a while, but I don’t think that should  be a deterrent.

Of course, other options are out there. Cheap command stations, that you connect to a PC via USB; or even now the fancy Roco Z21, which totally gets away of “local control” by offering no buttons whatsoever, being designed only for PC/mobile connectivity.

All in all, the ESU ECoS may not be for everyone. But as a customer, I am happy to see that ESU stands by their product with regular updates, and by developing “social” functions such as the shared locomotive image library. ESU is an important actor in the DCC world, so their command station will likely be supported by most (if not all) PC or mobile control solutions out there.

External links