In which I finally get my hands onto some of the new Powered Up components and find myself dealing with a system full of immense potential. I compare the Powered Up system with the old Power Functions system for driving the train, draining the batteries in the process. And I start to wish for a little bit of magic…
Movement is good. It adds life to an otherwise static model. Trains move people around cities, and so LEGO trains move minifigures around, and add life to many LEGO city layouts around the world.
I have been enjoying BOOST, and adding a bit of life to my models- both sets and MOCs over the years. The arrival of keenly awaited Powered Up system brings us some new options. Over the next few months I will look at some of the options currently available, in different settings: Boost, and it’s ongoing integration in current sets; the new Powered Up Bluetooth/ App enabled platform and also some third party solutions.
My first attempt at a LEGO train in 1975 was wireless, based on set 112. This is because the blue battery box had terminals on the bottom that would make direct contact with terminals on the top of the motor brick. Controls were not so mobile: we only had one- flicking the switch from side to side (forward, stop, reverse).
Now, I have played with a couple of train based systems since emerging from my Dark Ages, a little more that a decade ago. While I completely missed the 12V and 9V eras, I got on board in time for the short lived RC system ‘7898 Cargo Train Deluxe’, and also picked up a copy of 10194 Emerald Night – and the elements required to make it motorised. I have not picked up any of the subsequent train sets apart from the 10254 Winter Holiday Train, which remains mint in box, looking for an opportunity to be built.
But now, we have a new system, and new trains. At least they use the same track! The new Powered Up City train sets were released in July, and introduce a new paradigm for LEGO Controls for model trains: Bluetooth Wireless, either through an app or dedicated controller. We have speculated about the new system during the course of the year as we awaited the opportunity actually play with the system in the plastic.
The NEW 60197 Passenger Train
I picked up a copy of 60179: Passenger Train from a local retailer, who was already incorporating it in their standard Toy Sale Cycle. In Australia, this set compares favourably, pricewise, with the previous high Speed Passenger Train, which used the older Power functions system. (That set, 60051, had a RRP of $AU229.99, the new one $AU199.99, but is frequently seen retailing for around $160). Individual markets may vary. The set has 677 parts.
On opening the box, we have a bag with large elements, a bag containing the manuals and sticker sheet; and a further five bags, as well as the track elements – joined together with pins through the holes in the track.
The Passenger train comes with four mini figures: two passengers, a driver and barista/ dining car attendant. One passenger has a messenger bag slung over his shoulder. The other has a lime green wheel-along suitcase which opens to reveal a printed tile with a LEGO Set printed on. We will meet them later.
On starting construction, we build the railway platform and a railside signal, before progressing onto the train itself.
We move onto the engine – and this is where we tuck away the smarts of the train. The front of the engine has a distinctive orange curved element, with a space for a windscreen: a speed champions Windscreen fills the available space nicely, and tilts up to allow the driver to get into his seat. I will talk about the Powered up Components shortly. The overall design of the train is similar to that seen in intercity trains around the world, with a sleek curved front, extending to the back of the train. This train features a flame yellowish orange, earth blue and dark stone grey colour scheme.
The sides of the engine are covered over, to disguise the inner workings of the train – which is subtly different different to the real life equivalent – where the passenger seats begin just behind the driver’s cabin. We have two carriages included: a car for seated passengers, and a dining car. Of the details which are perhaps unimportant for significant play, but of concern for those who are sticklers for realistic details is the absence of any door. Of course, this is only really an issue for actual people, as minifigures are able to have exit through the easily removable roof.
Once assembled, we have a sleek looking passenger train. With one issue: it looks a little incomplete: perhaps a degree of symmetry is required for the train to return from where it came. This might mean a need for a second set, to extend the train, especially if looking for a longer train as part of a public display. Perhaps I’ll just add a driver’s cabin to the lounge car. If the train becomes so long as to require a second motor, this could pose some challenges, but more on this later.
We mentioned them earlier, but let’s take this opportunity to look at the included figures: There are four: a train driver, dining car attendant, and two passengers. One, a lady, has a reversible ‘sleepy’ head.
She looks pretty happy: she has just found a copy of 60082 Dune Buggy Trailer from 2015
Powered Up Elements
The Powered Up system provided for the train consists of several elements:
The common element is the Battery Hub: This is the battery box and bluetooth receiver all in one. Like the Boost Move Hub, six AAA batteries are required. It has the same dimensions as the Power Functions battery boxes: 4×8 studs x 4 bricks high. There is a button on top, as well as a multicoloured LED. There are two sockets on the opposite end to the LED, One of which which the motor cable plugs into. This is the same socket that is present on the Boost Hub. The manual teases us with the imminent arrival of LED lights compatible with the new system as well – they can plug into the second socket, when it arrives. Unlike power functions, there is no opportunity to piggyback connectors.
For the purposes of this set, the next most important element is the motor: The new train motor is almost identical in appearance to the old unit available for Power Functions ( and similar to one for the 9V train system, which drew its power from the rails.) Externally, the wire is now six stranded rather than four; and the connector itself has been updated to suit the new battery box.
Now that we have our battery box/ bluetooth receiver combo and the motor, all we need is a controller to bring it all together. Here we have a choice: we can use the Powered Up App, available for iOS and Android, or we can use the controller supplied with the set.
The remote is perhaps the simplest option to use. Turn on the controller and the hub at the same time. The LED on both devices should glow the same colour. The colour is indicative of the channel they are paired to. With the hub connected to a train motor, the remote is able to incrementally increase the speed: there are ten speeds forward and back. The train will continue to run until you press the red ‘stop’ button.
The App provides the opportunity to control either the App-Powered Batmobile or a Powered Up Train. As well as controlling the sets, it also plays sounds (through your mobile device’s speaker). I had no difficulty pairing it quickly with the train. The system has sufficient intelligence to only run the hardware expected: By Selecting the train, it will only drive a train motor connected to the hub, but no other motor. You can, however, run with either the passenger or cargo programs: they offer different sound sets. At present, the Batmobile program requires 2 medium motors to be connected to the battery box before any movement happens.
So, we have an receiver/power source and we have mechanisms of control. It is apparent from what we have can observe that the hub can identify the nature of the motor attached. This is great for using the powered up system for driving the purchased sets, or simple variations, with identical functionality.
Let’s take it for a test drive.
In real life, I didn’t buy this train for the build experience, or the minifigures (admittedly, however, that new suitcase and tile is pretty neat).
Switching on the Battery hub and the remote at the same time sees them pair quickly and easily. You can press the button on the back of the hub to affect which channel the motor and remote run on. The controller automatically changes channel with the motor (the main channel is indicated by the colour that the LED glows.
With a train motor, you can incrementally increase the speed of the train, up to 10 steps. Stopping is quick and simple: press the red button between the increase/decrease speed buttons. At full charge, the train starts moving on 1. As the batteries drain, you need to turn crank up the power a bit before motion commences.
Testing the range of the remote: I found I was able to maintain control up to two rooms and over 10 meters away from the train. As I reached the limits of the range for the remote, the LED on the control began to flash. Once I stepped beyond the range of remote, the train stopped.
Using the app to control the train worked much as it said on the box: we can control the speed of the train and get a graphical representation of the train’s speed on the screen. There are sounds you can trigger, and they are played through the phone speaker. Using a bluetooth speaker, I found that it was possible to get sounds closer to the action, although the Powered Up team at LEGO do not recommend this. When I received a telephone call, the train stopped. Likewise when it went into standby mode.
The train ran smoothly, picking up a little speed on the extended straight on my test track, and slowing a little during continuous curves. I managed close to two hours of running on a single set of AAA batteries, at a moderate speed.
There is no doubt that the passenger train offers a smooth ride, and the shape of the train is reminiscent of many intercity and suburban trains in use around the world. As a set which introduces us to the new Powered Up Paradigm, and provided a nifty train as well, It does this job well. I give it three and a half out of five Arbitrary Praise Units
Comparison with Power Functions
There are some obvious differences between the Powered Up and Power functions Hardware. The Infra red remote system, the colour scheme (white/light bluish grey) vs light bluish grey/dark bluish grey. The stackable connector in PF, while the Powered Up systems use a plug. I actually prefer the new plug, because it is much easier to plug in and remove than the PF connector is.
The Battery Box has some differences in structure: it looks like it might be possible to produce a rechargeable Powered up battery unit to drop into the unit:
I modified the train to run using the power functions rechargeable battery, infrared receiver and train motor, in conjunction with the infra red variable speed remote and set the train running. After >3 1/2 hours it had slowed down to such a rate that it would not be practical. Using the AAA battery box, it ran for. During this time, I was able to answer my phone, change the batteries on the IR remote, and perform some other tests on the Powered up Hub, with some other motors…but more on those next time.
So, how does Powered Up compare with Power Functions for Day to Day usage?
At the end of the day, I have tested the new train with: Powered Up Hub and Motor; Power functions AAA Battery box /IR remote and motor; and Power functions rechargeable battery box/ IR Remote/train motor. Please note, the Varta AAA’s I used might be considered ‘budget’ alkaline AAAs. Note: when I tried running the train using the App on my phone, it stopped when I got a phone call, or when it went into standby. I certainly preferred the remote, personally. Here are my results:
A Person’s Got To Know Their Limitations
At this stage, the Powered Up App has two functions, and the one I have tested seems to run well. The train app will only drive a train engine at a single time. It works reliably, and has a significant range However, if the train moves out of range with regards to the controller, then the train will stop. Likewise if the app is interrupted by other activity on the device ( for example, a telephone call). I suspect this is likely to be the case with the App powered Batmobile, too. I have not had the chance to test this however.
The remote will run the train motor at incremental speeds, but the ‘m-motors’ used in the Batmobile are an all or nothing affair at this time.
The Powered Up Team recently answered some questions put forward by the community – there were some useful answers, and some not so useful ones. Certainly they were playing their cards close to their chest, as far as unannounced future releases were concerned. And the Tech specs for the components are not readily available
But they have clarified a few technical aspects that have not been clearly defined in the documentation included with the sets:
How can one single BT remote be used to control multiple receivers or switch among them? Will this be possible in the App?
You can link up to 5 devices (Smart Hubs or Smart Controllers) together.
To create a network you first need to connect a Samrt Hub and a Smart Controller.
First Hub connection
Turn Hub and Controller ON by pressing their green buttons and they will link. The LED will blink white and then shift to same channel color e.g. blue. You can now change the channel color by pressing the green button on the hub and toggle through the 5 channel colors. When turning OFF the Hub or Controller the last connection is remembered and re-established when turning both ON.
Adding Hub to network
With the first Hub and the Controller ON and connected you can add extra Hubs to the network by turning the new Hub ON and then press both green buttons simultaneously on the new Hub and one of the components in the network (Hub or Controller). The new Hub is now added to the network with the same channel color as the currently selected channel. Again toggle to another channel by pressing the green button on the Hub. When more Hubs on different channels are added to the network you toggle between the different channels by pressing the green button on the Controller.
At this stage, the App only supports one train.
However, there are a number of things I would like, that are not easily achievable with either the App or remote at this stage. I would love to run a motor until the batteries go flat, to drive my amusement park rides. I might like to run a train driven with the new system… but more on that in the future.
This is probable the most relevant question dealt with here:
Will all different Powered Up components (Boost, WeDo, Train, etc) be able to communicate and control each other, e.g. running a Boost program sequence using a Powered Up hub or using sensors with Powered Up hubs?
· Can I use the Powered Up remote with the WeDo hub?
· Can I use the Powered Up remote with the Boost hub?
· Can I use Boost/WeDo sensors with the Powered Up hub?
· Can I use the Boost/WeDo/Powered Up app to control (any of) the other platforms?
It is the aim that the Powered UP platform will work together across both with the wired and wireless connection.
Some of these connections are not implemented yet and will come through firmware and app updates.
So, for now: Powered Up does what it needs to very well, but we will need to wait for a full system that will do whatever we can imagine. In between, there are a lot of questions waiting for final resolution. And so we wait!
This is my first experience with a LEGO Passenger train, and while simplistic, it allows getting down to business quickly, and was easy to adapt to alternative technologies. I suspect I will try plugging in a PFx brick and S brick in the future. So many Bluetooth options. I quite like the new system, and for this train set, it offers several advantages over the old system. I give it a three point five out of five Arbitrary Praise Units. If I didn’t already have extra track however, I would probably be looking for some pretty quickly to make the ride a little more interesting.
For domestic use, I think the new system is a distinct improvement over the Power Functions: the improved range, better performance in sunlight and reliable remote are a huge improvement. However, more needs to be explored with regards to how smoothly things would perform in an environment where there are dozens of trains in use, such as a train show, or major expo where there are several train layouts in operation. If you have had actual experience with this system at this type of event, I’d love to hear from you.
What are you hoping to be able to achieve with the new Powered Up system? Have you had a look at the trains (60197/60198)? How about The App Powered Batmobile? Are you going to stock up on power functions components? Will you write the global Bluetooth – LEGO Powered up control app that we are lacking at this time? Leave your answers below, and follow the Rambling Brick as we start to get things Moving.
**Dont forget out great Scaling up /Scaling Down Building contest: there are 2 copies of Quantum Realm Explorers up for grabs. Entries close August 31, so get building and submit your entries!
Until Next time: