HO Scale vs. N Scale: A Comparison Between the Two Most Popular Model Train Scales

The HO scale and N scale are two of the most common and popular model train scales you will see on stores and people’s layouts. However, choosing the scale is one of the roadblocks a beginner can have and might wonder which is better for them. Thus, I made this post to give some insights and complete comparison between the two scales.

The HO scale is better than the N scale when talking about details and ease of access. This is because larger models allow more refined details. On the other hand, the N scale is better if you don’t have enough room for large layouts. Also, the N scale’s smaller size allows them to be cheaper than HO.

This post will give a complete comparison between HO and N scales. Furthermore, I will also share my insights on when HO or N scale will be better. With this, you can be sure you’ll make the right decision on which scale to get.

Which is better HO or N scale?

Which is better HO or N scale?

Here are the differences between the HO scale and the N Scale:

HO ScaleN Scale
NameHalf O ScaleNine Millimeter Scale
Size Per Foot3.5mm to 1ft2mm to 1ft
Standard Gauge16.5mm or 0.65in9mm or 0.35in
Minimum Layout Size 4ft x 8ft2ft x 4ft
DetailMore DetailedLess Detailed
UseGeneral UseSmall Spaces and Large Layouts
Comparison Between HO and N scale.

Right now, let’s talk about the differences.

1. N scale is cheaper than HO but are more expensive relative to size.

Generally speaking, the N scale is cheaper than HO because their trains are smaller. However, if we compare the price relative to size or weight, HO will be more affordable because the market for the HO scale is more saturated than the N scale.

I always say that HO is the cheapest and the N scale is the second. However, you might notice that the N scale seems a lot cheaper than HO on stores.

This is because the N scale requires fewer raw materials since they’re smaller. Thus, they are priced lower than HO.

However, if we check their prices relative to size, we will see that HO is cheaper because its market is more saturated than the N scales.

HO accounts for 60 to 70% of the model trains, while the N scale accounts for about 20%.

This big difference makes HO cheaper than the N scale in the long run.

Since HO is more popular, it is easier to get rare second-hand HO trains than N scale trains.

Furthermore, it is easier to find layout designs on the HO scale, such as trees, houses, cars, bridges, and people.

Lastly, since more people are using the HO scale, selling your models would be easier if you decided to do so.

Thus, most of the time, I recommend HO scale trains except for some particular reasons.

2. HO is 1:87 scale while N is 1:160 scale

When it comes to scaling, the HO scale is 1:87 while the N scale is 1:160.

However, 1:160 is the N scale in the US and most places.

Some other places like Japan use the 1:150 scale for the N scale, while the UK uses the 1:148.

But let’s focus on the 1:160 because it is what most countries use.

Scale is relative to size. This means for an N scale since it is in the 1:160, actual trains are 160 times larger than an N scale model.

For HO, the actual trains are 87 times larger than the model.

This means the N scale is a lot smaller than HO, requiring fewer materials. Thus, it is cheaper than HO at face value.

However, the availability of layout designs and lesser competition between manufacturers makes N scale more expensive if we look at its price relative to size.

Next is the naming.

3. HO means Half-O while N means Nine Millimeters

Now, let’s talk about naming.

HO means Half-O. This means the HO scale is half the size of the O scale.

In comparison, the O scale uses the 1:48 scale.

The term “N” scale comes from the word “Nine.”

This is because the distance between rails on the N scale is nine millimeters.

The letter system used in the scales on model railroading has a meaning behind them.

Another example is the G scale which comes from the word “Garden.” This is because the G scale is intended to be used outdoors.

The O scale comes from the word “gauge 0,” which is the old way of naming model train sizes.

For more information regarding the history behind the O scale, feel free to check my post. The post is not entirely about the history of the O scale, but that’s the post where I talked more into the O scale’s history: What is the most popular model train scale?

4. HO uses the standard 0.65″ gauge while the N scale uses 0.35″.

The gauge is the distance between rails. Since HO uses a 0.65 gauge, the width of the rails used in a standard HO is 0.65″ or 16.5mm.

This is larger than the N scale, which uses 0.35″ gauge or 9 millimeters, where the term “N” scale came from.

5. HO requires a minimum layout size of 4 x 8 ft while the N scale requires a layout size of 2 x 4 ft

This is where the N scale shines.

While some people make HO layouts smaller than 4 x 8 ft, it is not recommended since the turnouts look unrealistic since the train cars might look like they’re derailing.

So, the 4 x 8ft requirement for a good layout in HO is not viable for some people since they don’t have a basement or a spare room to make a layout.

That’s why the N scale is popular. N scale allows people who live in smaller spaces to make a layout on a small table since it only requires a minimum of 2 x 4 ft oval layout.

Furthermore, some rooms can’t accommodate large HO layouts since some modelers want extensive detail on their designs.

The N scale allowed people to start model railroading on smaller spaces. They also allowed people to make larger layouts with lesser space.

This means more houses, trees, and tracks in smaller spaces.

This is where the N scale outshines the HO scale and why it is the second most popular scale globally.

6. HO scale is the most popular scale, while the N scale is the 2nd most popular scale.

The HO scale accounts for 60-70% of the model trains sold, while the N scale accounts for 20%

In fact, if you saw a model train smaller than the HO scale on a modeler’s layout, it is most likely to be an N scale.

7. HO scale has more details than the N scale because of its size

One of the reasons why people still stick to the HO scale even if it requires more space is because the larger size of HO allows them to have more details.

Furthermore, it is easier to design larger models compared to smaller ones.

Thus, the HO scale is still the winner when it comes to tiny details.

8. HO scale is the choice for general purpose while N scale is used for tiny spaces

Lastly, we’ll talk about their purpose. Since the HO scale is the most popular, it is the standard scale and has a general purpose.

While the HO is more popular, the N scale is often used by people who live in apartments or people who don’t have enough space for HO layouts.

Furthermore, people who can’t fit a large detailed HO scale layout can often use the N scale to use less space.

However, both aren’t recommended to be used outdoors since the ones usually used outdoors are the O and G scale.

Now, let’s wrap everything up in the last section.

Is HO scale better than N scale?

The HO scale is better than the N scale if we are talking about availability and details. This is because HO is the most popular scale and is larger than the N scale. However, the N scale is better when it comes to price and space-saving capability.

Now that you understand the differences between HO and N scales, what should you get as a beginner?

The answer depends on your space. For example, do you have a basement or a room for the layout?

Remember that the HO scale recommends a minimum of 4 by 8 ft of space for a simple oval track. You will often need more since a simple oval layout is not as exciting as a complex track layout.

If you have the space for HO, go for HO. While they look more expensive because of their size, they are cheaper relative to their size, and you can find a lot of modelers who sell their model accessories and designs on the HO scale.

Furthermore, it is easier to sell HO scale models in the future if you decide you need to use the space for something else because it has a bigger number of users.

Lastly, painting or designing is easier with HO scale models since they are larger.

However, if space is your problem, you can always use N scale models because they are cheaper and require less space.

Furthermore, with many people moving to smaller living spaces, the popularity of N scale models will skyrocket in the future.

In short, if you have enough space, go for the HO scale. If you don’t, go for the N scale. Their availability doesn’t matter a lot since while the HO scale is more popular, the N scale is slowly getting popular with more people changing their lifestyles to smaller living spaces.

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