Analog vs. Digital
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Scott's Slot Cars
Analog vs. Digital 

March 1, 2009
By Scott Lewis

Around 2004 the world of slot car racing was changed. The digital movement entered the slot car hobby. What does digital mean to slot cars? How different is it? Is analog still relevant? Will digital replace analog?

Those are a lot of questions. Yes, the digital revolution has joined our hobby. The most important "improvement" with digital slot cars is the ability to have more than 1 car on 1 lane. Classically each lane was all to itself. The controller would adjust the amount of power sent to the lane and the car would move. With digital the track gets full power all the time, and the control's job has changed to communicating with the digital circuitry in the car to tell it how fast to go.

By "linking" the controller to the car it does not matter which lane the car is on. You can have up to 8 cars (depending on vendor) on a two lane track. The most common is up to 6 cars. Along with having more that one car to a lane, you have control over changing lanes during the race. A digital controller will have a button that sends a signal to the car/track to switch lanes on certain lane changing sections. In the analog world sometimes one lane can have an advantage over another, particularly if you make use of guardrails. However, with digital each driver can run on the best lane. So, lane position, passing & blocking all become part of slot car racing.

With digital it becomes easier to implement other features not possible with analog. Pit stops with refueling is the most "realistic" enhancement to digital slot cars. Some systems can be programmed with the amount of fuel a car can carry requiring pit stops to refuel. Pit strategy now becomes a real part of the race. Do you "splash and go" to get in enough "gas" to reach the end of the race. Lap counting is much more accurate with digital than analog. Also, you can have times laps, ghost cars (pace cars), etc. All these things become possible with cars being controlled by a digital signal, not just power alone.

We are going to look at analog vs. digital in 6 areas to see how analog and digital stack up against each other. We'll start with the biggest concern... COST.

Cost

With all the advantages of digital why would anyone want analog? Cost! Many people complain about cost. I think this is a false negative to digital. I am going to pick on one vendor here... Scalextric. They have enough track sets in both analog and digital to help be make a point. Here are some sets I priced on Electric Dreams:

Analog

Scalextric C1141T LeMans race set - $199.99
25 ft of track

Scalextric C1233T Classic GT Set, T3, Ford GT40 v. GT40 - $209.99
25 ft of track

Digital

Scalextric C1186T Digital Ignition race set w/ Nissan 350Z cars - $199.99
13.5 ft of track

Scalextric C1189T Digital A1GP set - $249.99
22 ft of track

Scalextric C1201T Digital Super GT set - $399.99

If you are going to have more than 2 drivers at any given time you will need to go with 4 (or more) lanes of track if you use analog. I selected the two analog tracks above because they are designed to be put together to create a 4 lane layout. They each come with curve track that compliments the other. This will give you 25 ft of racing on 4 lanes.

The first two digital sets I listed are Scalextrics two least expensive offerings in the digital arena. Now I know that the two digital tracks cost $40 more than the two analog tracks. I am not denying that digital equipment does not cost more. What I am doing is showing if you are going to support more than two drivers than you will have to spend close to the same amount building a decent 4 lane layout with analog.

The two digital tracks above can be combined to create slighly more than 35 ft of track, a longer lap for each car, than the 25 ft you get with analog. Also, you will need both transformers and power bases to use all four lanes with analog. Each digital set contains a 4 car power base, so the extra power base is not needed, or could be useful if you expand your track even further.

If you just want to put three drivers on a track you can buy a set with 3 cars/controller and you are set to go. That is the third digital set above. It includes everything for three drivers. You could just add an extra car and controller to this set and have 4 drivers.

Yes, digital equipment is more expensive. But it is not that much more if you put it into perspective. When you have to support more than two people racing at once digital can be a very attractive way to go, even on cost.

We are going to give cost to analog though. The cars are cheaper, the track is cheaper, the accessories are cheaper. You don't get the features of digital, but you will save money in the long run.

Cost: Analog

Lanes

The example I used above showed an analog 4 lane track of 25 ft against a digital 2 lane track of 35 ft. However, if you want you can build a two lane track with the analog set up to 50 ft. You will only be able to race 2 at a time, but you have much more flexibility of the layout. Four lanes takes up a LOT of space. You might be able to squeeze a two lane 1/32 scale track on a 4x8 board (Ninco specializes in selling track sets that fit on a 4x8 board), but forget about 4 lanes on a 4x8 board. You are going to need a LOT of space to enjoy 4 lane racing. However, there is nothing stopping you from building four lanes in digital. In fact, you could build 3 lanes if you want. It all depends on how much you want to spend. Scalextric's digital track works with their analog track, so you could combine all the track above for 85 ft of multi-car racing on 2 lanes or you can have 4 lanes of racing with over 40 ft. I have to give digital the advantage here because you can race more cars in less space than analog.

Lanes: Digital

Features

Digital is going to take this one easy. Lap counters, racing modes, fuel management, pit strategy, passing, blocking, etc. All these are possible with digital slot cars. None of this is possible with analog slot cars. You can even have accurately timed laps on a digital track. Some manufacturers sell chronometers that can display the speed of the cars on the track. You can even hook up some of these systems to computers for larger displays and features not already programmed into the power base. Want a pace car that runs around the track and changes lanes randomly? You can use the old rubber band technique to have a pace car on an analog track, but if you have only two lanes then the pace car is using one of the lanes. Digital pace cars run on the same lanes as you. You have to pass them just like other drivers.

There is no comparison for features. Digital takes this round easy.

Features: Digital

Convenience

Here is the one area where analog smokes digital. Convenience. If the track is plugged in all you have to do it put your can on the lane (the correct lane) and pull the trigger and off you go. With digital you have to setup the car to the controller. This may only take a minute or so (see this video to see how easy it can be), but that is a minute less racing. More important is if you are racing a few of your cars. Most slot car enthusiast build up a collection of cars. Every time you switch cars on a digital track you must program the car to the controller. In analog you just take one car off and put the other on. Think of it like loading a gun. Analog is like the automatic with a clip ready to go. Digital is like a revolver with individual bullets to load. Which is faster and more convenient.

Any analog car can run on any analog track, regardless of brand. This makes buying cars easy since you at not tied to on vendor. Analog also has the distinct advantage of being useful at clubs and other public slot car environments. For instance, there is a place in a mall not too far from my house. They have three 8 lane tracks and we can rent time on them. We can bring our own cars... as long as they are analog. No digital here. In fact, some digital cars cannot even run on an analog track at all. Some cars can have there digital circuitry set to run on an analog track.

Analog is just far more convenient and takes this round without breaking a sweat.

Convenience: Analog

Compatibility

This is the most difficult to rate. Compatibility. What does that mean? Are digital cars compatible with analog tracks? Some yes, some no. Are analog cars compatible with digital track. Again, some yes, some no. SCX's digital system is completely difference from any analog system. The cars use an addition pin (or guide) to engage in the track for lane changing. Their track is also designed to be all digital. Rather than send the digital signal with the power, SCX has a separate supply line on the track to carry the digital signal. This has the advantage of making a lot of accessories easy to add to a track, but it makes it completely incompatible with analog track... even SCX's analog track.

The other makers use different ways of implementing the lane change. None of the digital cars from one track will work on any of the other brands. However, many of the vendors can use their older analog track in conjunction with their digital track. If you have older track you can use that to expand your layout.

You can buy conversion kits to modify analog cars to run on digital tracks. This "chipping" of the cars is different for each vendor. Scalextric seems to be the easiest. Their latest cars can even be switch from digital to analog by flipping a switch so you can take your Scalextric digital car to an analog track. In the end all this is just a mess of incompatibility.

Analog is as simple as putting your car on a lane and pulling the trigger. Any manufacturers car will run on any other's track. Simple. Analog wins this round.

Compatibility: Analog

Cars

What about the cars. Well, each manufacturer makes analog and digital cars. Each also makes a digital conversion to "chip" an analog car to digital. SCX uses a complicated second pin/guide as noted earlier. It is difficult to convert an analog car to SCX digital. The other brands are much easier. Since you can easily chip most analog cars I am going to call this one a tie. I love the selection of Carrera classic American Muscle cars in analog and digital. I can't hold this against them. I can hold it against SCX.

Since cost was determined in another section we cannot use that here. If you are a car nut, like I am, then you can build an amazing collection of cars in analog or digital (SCX Digital being the lone exception).

Cars: Tie

Conclusion

Let's check the scoreboard:

Cost: Analog
Lanes: Digital
Features: Digital
Convenience: Analog
Compatibility: Analog
Cars: Tie

By the scoreboard we are looking at 3 for analog and 2 for digital, with 1 tie. But the numbers don't tell the whole story. The features you get and the lane advantage of digital is hard to put into perspective until you try it. Even if you have only two "drivers" in your home you will eventually have guests over that want to race. Does someone sit out a race, or do you keep enough controllers on hand to allow guests to race along side the veterans.

In the end it comes down to personal choice. You can buy SCX's proprietary system and buy their cars to go with it. You will have a blast. SCX makes it simple to do all the fun aspects of digital. But then you are stuck with SCX. Cars are very difficult to modify to work with SCX. Scalextric has done the best job of bridging the analog to digital void. Their "chips" are easiest to install in analog cars, and their analog track works with their digital track.

However, if you do a lot of racing outside the home on other people's tracks then you need to stay with analog. If you have more than two racers in the house expect to use a LOT of space to setup a 4 lane layout. Even with two lanes analog can be very rewarding, so only go digital if you plan to use the extra features... more than just lane changing.

My Choice

Just so you know... I am going to go with digital. I want the lane changing and the fuel management with pit stop strategy. Since I don't have any existing analog cars or track to worry about I can go all digital easily. I have two boys who are getting into this with me and putting 3 or 4 cars on a two lane track is just too compelling for me to pass up.

Go Digital!

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