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Initial review of new NCE Smart Booster (SB3a)

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Initial review of new NCE Smart Booster (SB3a)
Posted by tstage on Sunday, July 25, 2010 4:54 AM

New & Improved NCE Smart Booster (SB3a) - An Initial Review

A few weeks ago I sent in my old Smart Booster (plus a $60 check) into NCE to exchange it for the new and improved Smart Booster (SB3a), which I received in the mail July 12th.  Since I reviewed the original SB3 way back in Nov. ’06 and posted it on the forum, I thought I would do the same with the upgraded SB3a.

Packaging & Contents

The box the SB3 came in was well packed and included the following:

  • (1) Smart Booster (SB3a) – Software v 1.28D2
  • (1) SB3a manual
  • (1) 4-socket Molex connector

Items not included (and must be purchased separately):

  • 5A power supply (NCE P515 pictured on right of SB3a)
  • RJ12 cable – For making connection between SB3a and a UTP panel)

Manual contents

The SB3a manual includes the following sections:

  • Update information
  • Power supply requirements
  • Front & rear panel features (diagram) – Terminals, buses, status light, and ground screw
  • Diagram – Grounding the SB3a to other NCE DB3 (or dumb) boosters using the ground screw on back panel
  • Short Circuit protection (including #1156 bulb short detection diagram)
  • Diagram – Connecting the SB3a
  • Connecting extra boosters
  • Layout wiring
  • Electrical specifications
  • Available connections
  • Indicator light
  • DCC specifications of the SB3a
  • Resetting (rebooting) the system
  • Extended Function control
  • Using a Programming Track (including setup diagram)
  • Diagram – Advanced Layout wiring 
  • SB3a Booster mode (or disabling the SB3a in order to use it in booster-only mode)
  • Power Cab and SB3a accessories

New Face/New enclosure

Front panel: (From L –> R):

  • (1) 4-socket Molex connector – 2 slots for power; 2 slots for track bus
  • (1) Control bus port (RJ12) – Used to daisy-chaining additional "dead" boosters (e.g. NCE DB3a) to an SB3a
  • (1) Status LED – On when working properly; flashes when short detected
  • (2) Cab bus port (RJ12) – For connecting the SB3a to UTP panels and/or additional throttles

Externally, the redesign enclosure is very nice and the front panel is clear and understandable.  However, the one thing I would have done differently was to put all the connectors and connections on the backside of the unit rather than the front so that wires and cabling are more hidden from view.  I would have then left the red Status LED on the front side of the SB3a because that lets you know whether the unit is functioning properly or whether it has detected a short.

Upgrade improvements from SB3 > the SB3a

Feature changes made to the SB3a:

  • Redesigned enclosure – Maybe 10% bigger in size than the original SB3
  • Total amperage output increased from 3A to 5A
  • Recall stack* increased from 2 to 6 per cab – (See *Recall stack default set at "2" below for details)
  • Works with auto-reversers and circuit breakers
  • The command station portion of the SB3a can be disabled in order for it to be used as a separate 5A power booster with another manufacturer's DCC system – Pg. 7 of the manual uses the term "dumb booster" when setting the SB3a to booster-only mode.  I'm assuming then that it functions just like a DB3a when hooked up to a PH Pro or to another SB3a.  I will get clarification on that.

Features that remained unchanged between the SB3 and the SB3a:

  • Maximum number of cab address slots; total 4 – The Power Cab only has one additional cab address slot, for a total of 2

*Recall stack default set at "2" In order to increase the recall stack, you must specify the number of recall slots for your Power Cab or Pro Cab throttles using **Programming Mode.  To enter Programming Mode, follow the directions below:

1.  Press PROG/ESC 5 times – LCD screen will display “SET CAB PARAM[eter]S”
2.  Press ENTER – LCD screen will display the number of recall slots programmed into your throttle(Default: 2)
3.  Press “3”, “4”, “5” or “6” to change the recall slot number to a value other than “2”
4.  Press ENTER
5.  Press ESC to exit Programming Mode

**NOTE: Because the SB3a does not come with a programming track output, you will still need your Power Cab and PCP panel for programming in Programming mode.

Cost

  • SB3a (w/ trade-in/upgrade) $60, plus your old SB3 mailed into NCE
  • SB3a (w/o trade-in) $159.95 (MSRP); $124.76-$127.96 (discounted)

Additional comments

Although I haven’t had much of a chance to take my SB3a through its paces, apart from my earlier comments on (and preference of) the Control bus and Cab bus connector locations, I’ve liked what I've seen so far with the redesign.  I think the improvements make sense and, as I have mentioned in other threads, NCE has wisely taken a page out of Digitrax’s design book and made the new SB3 a non-dead end system this time. (A glaring shortcoming of the original SB3.)

Should you decide at some point to upgrade your Power Cab and SB3a combo to a Power Pro (PH-Pro) or PH-Pro R "wireless" DCC system, the Power Cab will continue to function as a ProCab throttle and the SB3a booster can be integrated into your layout as an additional power booster.

Also, although not mentioned outright, the diagram on pg. 3 of the Smart Booster manual seems to indicate that an NCE RB02 Radio Base station can be hooked up to an SB3a so that radio throttles can be added.  (I believe this was also capable on the original SB3.)

Anyhow, as usual, I hope this review serves as an aid to others who either want to know more about the new SB3a, or who may be contemplating whether the SB3a (or upgrade from their SB3) is right for them and/or worth the added expense.  I also hope to make further comments to this thread as I have additional opportunity to utilize my SB3 on my layout.

Initial overall rating and satisfaction: A-/B+

Tom

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Posted by fender777 on Sunday, July 25, 2010 7:04 AM

Thanks Tom for your review.I use the power cab and really like it.No problems with it at all.I would like to have the option of being able to have more than 2 loco recall that the power cab offers.Will the SB3a add more locos that can be used with the recall button.And besides more amps what does the SB3a offer that the power cab does not.Thanks bob

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Posted by fender777 on Sunday, July 25, 2010 7:07 AM

Well aftyer reading over your review I see that the SB3a will do up to 6 reaclls.Sounds great.That alone would be worth the money plus the extra amps would be more than enough for any layout at home.Thanks Bob

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Posted by simon1966 on Sunday, July 25, 2010 10:20 AM

Nice review Tom, I know that many folks on this list appreciate your honest appraisal of things. 

Simon Modelling CB&Q and Wabash See my slowly evolving layout on my picturetrail site http://www.picturetrail.com/simontrains and our videos at http://www.youtube.com/user/MrCrispybake?feature=mhum

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Posted by locoi1sa on Sunday, July 25, 2010 10:22 AM

 Bob.

 The SB3a will also let you unplug and walk around with your Power Cab to follow your train also. 5 amps and 6 recall slots are just the basic upgrade. Allowing it to be used as a dumb booster is a very big plus to a lot of people upgrading to a larger system.

 Tom.

 How many throttles can be operated from it? With the Power Cab you can have 1 additional throttle.

  Pete

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Posted by simon1966 on Sunday, July 25, 2010 10:43 AM

locoi1sa
How many throttles can be operated from it?

I believe it is a total of 4, but you have to be a bit careful as things like the PC interface count as a throttle so reduce the numbers, at least that is what I seem to recall reading somewhere.  However, I can not seem to find that reference right now after a quick search.

Simon Modelling CB&Q and Wabash See my slowly evolving layout on my picturetrail site http://www.picturetrail.com/simontrains and our videos at http://www.youtube.com/user/MrCrispybake?feature=mhum

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Posted by spidge on Sunday, July 25, 2010 10:59 AM

I have an original SB3 protected by a CP6 with the layout devided into 4 districts. To keep costs at a minimum when I upgrade to the new SB3a will I be able to keep the CP6 for short protection until I decide to spend the extra for the more robust short protection?

Thanks for starting this review. I was wondering what took you so long. Big Smile

John

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Posted by locoi1sa on Sunday, July 25, 2010 2:45 PM

 

simon1966
I believe it is a total of 4,

I wonder if you add a wireless base station if it would count as one throttle no matter how many wireless throttles you have. Our clubs Lenz system is capable of 32 cab addresses but we added a CVP wireless base that can take 99 cabs. The main issue is the cab addresses. Having a visitors throttle addressed correctly before plugging into the cab buss is the most important thing.  The number of cabs is not really an issue. Most home operators would have less than 4 cabs at any one time. Lets say my Power Cab/ Pro cab is addressed to the clubs address of 30 would the smart booster recognize this address or simply plugging in would cause a malfunction?

    Pete

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 I started with nothing and still have most of it left!

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Posted by spidge on Sunday, July 25, 2010 3:09 PM

locoi1sa

 

simon1966
I believe it is a total of 4,

 Lets say my Power Cab/ Pro cab is addressed to the clubs address of 30 would the smart booster recognize this address or simply plugging in would cause a malfunction?

    Pete

The older SB3 would only run throttles assigned cabs addressed 2-5, and I would think it would be the same for the new SB3a. I hope its different.

John

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Posted by tstage on Sunday, July 25, 2010 7:49 PM

John & Pete,

Yes, cab addresses for the additional throttles must be in the 2 thru 5 range for both the SB3 and SB3a.  So, Pete, you would need to change your Power Cab/Pro Cab throttle to address 2, 3, 4 or 5.

If you did plug in a throttle set to an address other than those four numbers, the only thing that would happen would be that the throttle would not respond to anything.  So, no malfunction would take place.

spidge
I have an original SB3 protected by a CP6 with the layout devided into 4 districts. To keep costs at a minimum when I upgrade to the new SB3a will I be able to keep the CP6 for short protection until I decide to spend the extra for the more robust short protection?

 

John,

Pg. 3 of the SB3a manual indicates that - like the original SB3 - the new SB3a will work with either a CP6, EB1, or EB3 circuit breaker.

Tom

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Posted by tstage on Sunday, July 25, 2010 7:53 PM

For those interested, here's a link to my original SB3 review posted on my web site.

Tom

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Posted by CSX Robert on Sunday, July 25, 2010 8:32 PM
simon1966

locoi1sa
How many throttles can be operated from it?

I believe it is a total of 4, but you have to be a bit careful as things like the PC interface count as a throttle so reduce the numbers, at least that is what I seem to recall reading somewhere.  However, I can not seem to find that reference right now after a quick search.

Yes, the PC interface does take a cab address. If all you use the PC interface for is programming, then it shouldn't be an issue - just unplug it when running trains and you can use all four addresses. Where it becomes a major issue is when you want to use the computer for running trains or controlling turnouts.

Another important point is the Mini Panel also uses a cab address.
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Posted by CSX Robert on Sunday, July 25, 2010 8:38 PM
locoi1sa
I wonder if you add a wireless base station if it would count as one throttle no matter how many wireless throttles you have...
Each cab on a wireless system still uses an address, but the base staion does not, so adding wireless will not increase the number of cabs you can use, but it will not decrease it either.
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Posted by CSX Robert on Sunday, July 25, 2010 8:46 PM
One possible workaround to the cab address limit is the use of the throttle software available for the iPod/iPhone and Droid that works through JMRI.
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Posted by selector on Sunday, July 25, 2010 8:54 PM

I think you will have helped a lot of people with your efforts here, Tom. Thumbs Up  I like hearing that you are still pursuing development in your own DCC experience, and that you continue to be reinforced for your early decision to purchase NCE products. 

About the location of the receptacles for the cables...personally, I don't really care for that feature as well, and in my meager experience in DCC, and that is with the Super Empire Builder's DB150 (which has been a wonderfully reliable soldier for me), it too has the cables running into the front panel.  I don't know about routing them into the rear of the unit, because that could be a distinct pain for older users or those in tight spaces, but how about into the bottom surface?  The cables all have positive locks on them, or detents, so it isn't like they will want to slip out over time.  That way, they aren't sticking out up front, but they are still accessible with a gentle reach under the unit, or a squat and reach.

Just a thought.  But, I see yer all growed up and using 5 amps now. Cool

-Crandell

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Posted by tstage on Sunday, July 25, 2010 10:16 PM

selector
About the location of the receptacles for the cables...personally, I don't really care for that feature as well, and in my meager experience in DCC, and that is with the Super Empire Builder's DB150 (which has been a wonderfully reliable soldier for me), it too has the cables running into the front panel.  I don't know about routing them into the rear of the unit, because that could be a distinct pain for older users or those in tight spaces, but how about into the bottom surface?  The cables all have positive locks on them, or detents, so it isn't like they will want to slip out over time.  That way, they aren't sticking out up front, but they are still accessible with a gentle reach under the unit, or a squat and reach.

Crandell,

I took a look at the pictures I took of my SB3 when I originally got it in Nov '06.

It had three (3) cab bus connectors on the front panel

and the power, track, and control bus connectors were all on the back panel.  That, at least, allowed you to utilize both panels for routing purposes.

Tom

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Posted by rrinker on Monday, July 26, 2010 6:38 AM

 It wouldn't be easy to 'flip' a Digitrax booster/command station - the main output amplifier is at the back of the circuit board as is the heat sink for said amplifier. There really isn't room without enlarging the case.

 The new SB3 though - once the warranty is up, get a red LED and some small wire, like decoder wire. On the 'back' side drill a hole for the LED, and use the wire to hook it up to the existing LED's legs, and then cut off the existing LED above the solder points. Voila! Indicator LED on one end, wire connections ont he opposite.

 Edit: kind of surprised it can actually do 5 full amps, looks like the case is completely enclosed with no vent slots? Or is the back open?

                                                     --Randy

 


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Visit my web site at www.readingeastpenn.com for construction updates, DCC Info, and more.

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Posted by tstage on Monday, July 26, 2010 8:42 AM

rrinker
 The new SB3 though - once the warranty is up, get a red LED and some small wire, like decoder wire. On the 'back' side drill a hole for the LED, and use the wire to hook it up to the existing LED's legs, and then cut off the existing LED above the solder points. Voila! Indicator LED on one end, wire connections ont he opposite.

Randy,

You and I are thinking along the same lines. SmileThumbs Up

rrinker
 Edit: kind of surprised it can actually do 5 full amps, looks like the case is completely enclosed with no vent slots? Or is the back open?

No, the back is not open.  The back panel of the enclosure is metal.  I'll check tonight when I get home but I do not remember seeing any ventilation slots.  Easy enough to add, if I need to.

Tom

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Posted by selector on Monday, July 26, 2010 2:47 PM

Wow...no venting?  Yikes.  I would definitely drill about 10 or more on two opposite faces if I could.  Actually, Tom, a Dremel cut-off or thin stone might make some good slots for you.

-Crandell

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Posted by tstage on Monday, July 26, 2010 4:58 PM

Well, I just checked my SB3a for ventilation slots.  Nothing on the top or bottom.  The only holes in the metal back panel are: L -> R (picture added)


  • (1) ground screw - for grounding the SB3a to other DB3s
  • (2) screws, ~1-1/2" apart c-t-c - I'm presuming they are affixing something on the inside
  • (1) countersunk "non-threaded" hole - ???

 

The NCE P515 5A power supply is well ventilated and uses the identical enclosure as the original SB3: (picture added)


Would not the power supply be where most of the heat would be generated anyhow?

Tom

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Posted by rrinker on Monday, July 26, 2010 5:15 PM

 If the back plate is solid metal, it might be a heat sink. I wouldn't drill into that! Have to open it up to see if that is the case. WHile a flat plate isn't as good as a finned heat sink, it's certainly better than no heat sink. Or maybe NCE uses a part good for 10+ amps IF PROPERLY HEATSINKED so with no heat sink it's still good for 5 or something - though I'd seriously doubt that as the higher current version of a part would typically cost more than the lower current part + the cost of a heat sink.

 You'll get plenty of heat in the SB3 is it's cranking out 5 amps - the entire current draw of the railroad goes through whatever they use as an output amplifier, so that part will get plenty warm at higher loads.

 Finding pictures of the insides of any of the systems is tough, but it looks like the PB-105 and PB-110 boosters also are not ventilated, but the output stage tranistors do have individual heatsinks and they might also be attached to the backplate, allowing the entire metal chassis to be a heat sink. Obviously it works or there's be a lot of people complaining.

                                       --Randy

 


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Posted by simon1966 on Monday, July 26, 2010 6:23 PM

After what some might consider to be a bit of a false start with the first Smart Booster, I have a real hard time that a company of NCE's reputation would not be very sure that the replacement was going to be just fine?  Surely heat dissipation would be a prime consideration of any booster design, so I would be really surprised if the new model needs drastic modification by the owner.

Simon Modelling CB&Q and Wabash See my slowly evolving layout on my picturetrail site http://www.picturetrail.com/simontrains and our videos at http://www.youtube.com/user/MrCrispybake?feature=mhum

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Posted by maxman on Monday, July 26, 2010 6:40 PM

selector

Wow...no venting?  Yikes.  I would definitely drill about 10 or more on two opposite faces if I could.  Actually, Tom, a Dremel cut-off or thin stone might make some good slots for you.

-Crandell

I just went down and looked at the enclosure for the NCE PH-Pro 5 amp command station/booster combination and there are no ventilation slots there, either.  I have not heard of any owners of this system complaining that a lack of ventilation has resulted in a failure of the unit.  So if NCE can manage to build one of those systems and keep it cool, what would lead me to believe that they could not build the Smart Booster and accomplish the same thing? 

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Posted by tstage on Monday, July 26, 2010 7:42 PM

The thought had occurred to me that perhaps the metal enclosure panel might be some sort of heat sink.  I believe the original SB3 enclosures did need to be modified by adding 1/2" OD holes because of the need for additional heat dissipation.  This is how mine came:


When I sent that one into NCE for repair in December '08, they sent back a brand new replacement FREE.  The issue was a faulty board which, according to Larry Larson @ NCE, were "problematic".  The replacement came with no additional holes drilled into the enclosure and I never had a problem with it.

Tom

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Posted by Hamltnblue on Monday, July 26, 2010 7:49 PM

I had problems with my 2 sb3's before switching to the procab.  Looks like they fixed the problems with the SB3a and are trying to get the old units off of the street with the discount upgrade. Good move on NCE's part.  Wish I kept my blown SB3's but they wen't to the trash dump in the sky. Wink

Springfield PA

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Posted by tstage on Monday, July 26, 2010 11:23 PM

I added these pics to an earlier post but here they are again for clarification:

NCE P515 5A Power supply

Back panel of SB3a

Tom

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Posted by rrinker on Tuesday, July 27, 2010 8:10 AM

 The metal back is acting as the heat sink. Those two screws no doubt screw the output amplifier to the metal plate. The metal tab on such parts is often the ground side of the connection, hence a screw in the plate for ground connections. The other hole looks like a mistake or a design change. The drill bit marks above it and the slightly sloppy bottom edge leads me to lean towards 'mistake'

                                    --Randy

 


Modeling the Reading Railroad in the 1950's

 

Visit my web site at www.readingeastpenn.com for construction updates, DCC Info, and more.

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