Friday, October 12, 2012

A review of Model Railroader's 75-year collection, part 1

For my birthday, Debra gave me a copy of Kalmbach’s Model Railroader magazine 75-year collection DVD set. It contains a copy of every page, of every issue of Model Railroader magazine since its first one was published in January 1934 up to December 2009, the end of its 75th anniversary year.  For a long-time Model Railroader reader, and a guy that loves pre-1994 model building magazines, this was a great gift: all of the old-school stories and information, and none of the musty, space-hogging magazines that upset domestic bliss :-)

This is a big collection and a major product, so I didn’t think I could do a good review based on my initial contact with it, so I’m going to spread this out over a couple of posts. Here’s my rating so far: A for the content; B for the user-interface, and C for the installation procedure. I’ve had an initial look at its search engine, but I need to investigate it some more before I comment.

Installation procedure: I should emphasize that if you follow the instructions in the leaflet enclosed with the DVDs to the letter, everything will install just fine. I gave this part a C because without those instructions, the onscreen feedbacks are misleading, and make it hard to understand precisely what is happening – as is mentioned in the leaflet. It’s a personal thing with me that the on-screen prompts and feedback should be clear, accurate and provide the user with all they need to know about how to proceed without extra instructions.

In my case, I installed the disks on my 2010 Mac laptop running MacOS 10.6. I chose the option of installing all the content on my hard-drive so I didn’t have to swap DVDs in and out while surfing the collection. During installation, my DVD drive refused to read disk #2 for some unknown reason, and the installation process got all out of sequence. Just as mysteriously, after a few attempts, my drive eventually did recognize the disk and I was able to get everything loaded. The installation software had the nice feature that it could figure out what had been previously loaded and, when I had the disk issue worked out, only then loaded in files that were missing from my hard-drive.

User interface: A proprietary user interface is installed on your machine for reading the magazine files, which are indicated as being pdfs. I assume the publisher created this special reader so that they could lock down their intellectual property - the magazine files – in order to try their best to prevent it from being copied or transferred to others who hadn’t paid for it. I can respect that, but I’d say the reader is not as full featured or as polished as a regular Adobe reader. It’s ok, and I’ve gotten used to it, so I ranked it a B.

This product is made for PC and Mac computers; not for tablets or smart phones. I’d encourage the publisher to release at least a tablet version – iPad comes to mind – as those devices seem to me like the ideal vehicle for reading this material.  As well, those devices are certainly on track to be the dominant devices, and supplant desktops and laptops, in the near future. I would guess that the lack of tablet support has something again to do with securing intellectual property.

I also have a concern about whether I’ll be able to use this collection when I inevitably have to upgrade my computer. I’ll let you know what happens if I’m still blogging when that happens.

Content: I give this an A. But, then again, I like this old stuff. They’ve done a good job of scanning the old magazines, and the resulting images are clear and readable. I like the fact that the user can print pages they’re interested in. Although this may seem like a small thing, to me it transforms the product from being just a digital copy of relics from the past to something that can be usable. Back in the ‘70s, I’d often build projects that were published in its pages and use the printed plans to take measurements and layout parts. I’m glad this aspect has been preserved in this 21th century version. Now, although I like this, I haven’t tried its printing capabilities with my printer, so I’ll report back once I’ve done so!

Factoid: One thing I found while surfing was that the first article to appear in Model Railroader on how to scratch-build some sort of complete lineside building or structure was called Building Wayside Structures: Plans and Construction Description of Station and Coal Trestle as Built on the Southern Model Railway System, by Albert F. Waymeyer, and appeared in the October 1934 issue.

2 March 2013 update: Part 2 can be found here.


  1. "I also have a concern about whether I’ll be able to use this collection when I inevitably have to upgrade my computer. I’ll let you know what happens if I’m still blogging when that happens."

    'If I'm still blogging'? As someone who had a website, then migrated to forums, and is now planning to launch a blog to share my modeling, I can relate...times change. But I hope whatever format digital sharing may take in the future, you continue to share. I, for one, enjoy seeing what you are up to, especially the retro builds.

    1. Thanks Galen. Nothing ominous in my words – I had used my previous laptop for 6 years before I replaced it with my current one. If the past is any indicator of the future, I may continue to use this one for 2 or 3 more years – who knows what the future holds by that time, but as long as I’m in a position to type and post I’ll keep running this blog :-) I’ve still got many things I'd like to write about (If I can get myself organized I’d like to try my hand at building John Allen’s engine house using the techniques he described in the article he published on it in the late 1940’s. I’m glad to hear you’re are starting up a blog. I look forward to reading it!