looks at PC Game Controllers
The good, bad,
ugly, and expensive!
SIdewinder Force Feedback Racing Wheel
SideWinder Freestyle Pro
EXL 500 Racing Wheel
PRO Racing Wheel a pile of fun
Virtual Pilot Pro/Pro Pedals
SIdewinder Force Feedback Racing Wheel
Meets "The Road Warrior"
by Jim Bray
Speed freaks who love
to live out racing fantasies can add some road rash reality to their virtual
cost 'em, though: Microsoft's Sidewinder Force Feedback Wheel isn't cheap
- but it is one heck of a wheel.
deserve a racing wheel; keyboards and joysticks just don't cut it. Fortunately,
there's an abundance of good steering wheel/pedal combinations on the
market, though until recently no one offered the extra dose of "virtual
reality" made possible by "force feedback" technology.
Force feedback is
the electronic gimmickry that makes your game controller bump and/or grind
depending upon the virtual circumstances. With a racing wheel, this means
that when you slam into a concrete wall (and, let's face it, you will!),
the steering wheel jerks appropriately in your hands.
With the Microsoft
wheel, you shake upon skidding, rattle over rumble strips, and roll when
you - well, roll.
Okay, this is an overstatement.
Force feedback, at least as displayed in the Sidewinder Wheel, isn't that
real. How could it be? When you slam into a wall at 230 mph, the wheel
isn't just going to jerk, it's going to protrude out of your back.
I used the wheel mostly
with Microsoft's CART Precision Racing,
my favourite driving simulation, and discovered that the most realistic
feedback was actually during normal driving - if there's any such thing
when you're screaming around a race track!
Most racing wheels
don't have much feel at all, or merely build in artificial friction, but
this one does. So forget the slams and crashes; just enjoy it for cruising.
Or shut off the force feedback if you want, though this seems like a waste.
The pedals are also
well thought out and are mounted so that when the action gets furious,
the base doesn't jump up and bark your calves, as happens with at least
one of the Sidewinder's competitors.
One thing missing
from the Sidewinder is a sequential gearshift, and this is a shame. However,
to be fair, there's a set of buttons on the back side of the wheel with
which you can shift á la Formula 1 - so I dried my tears and went
on a tear.
The Sidewinder Wheel
also has the best clamping mechanism I've seen. Once you set it (with
a big plastic screw clamp), there's a quick release/connect doohickey
to use from then on.
The Sidewinder Force
Feedback Wheel is expensive, but to help cure buyer's remorse Microsoft
throws in two complete games: the aforementioned (and wonderful) CART
Precision Racing and Monster Truck Madness II. Both are worth having,
and would cost you the better part of a hundred bucks if you bought them
Which makes buying
the Wheel easier to rationalize.
Now to show Greg Moore
who the real Canadian driving star is
SideWinder Freestyle Pro Game Pad
Ever longed to get
a little more "english" out of your game pad? How about a desire
to "tilt" at windmills?
Well then, you may
want to try Microsoft's new SideWinder "Freestyle Pro" Game
Pad, a doohickey that not only offers "virtually" unprecedented
freedom of movement, but which helps eliminate calluses from your long
That's because this
piece of two fisted excitement comes with a motion sensor built into it,
so when it's activated you can lean, twist, bob, and weave to your heart's
delight - and the machine passes your body language on to the player you're
It's a nifty idea,
but easier said than done! Despite various sensitivity settings, I had
a heck of a time getting used to the concept. That didn't spoil my enjoyment,
Besides the sensor
(which can be turned off, rendering the controller more conventional),
you get six programmable buttons, a pair of triggers and there's even
a throttle wheel mounted just out of reach of my thumb. There are also
connectors for game port or USB (universal serial bus), both of which
The Freestyle Pro
comes with Microsoft's Motocross Madness game, which is a good test of
It's a pretty innovative
idea, putting to good use the weaving and bobbing to which gamers are
prone anyway, and Microsoft has done a good job of pulling, pushing, and
bending it off.
As we've said
in other reviews, if you want to play with a driving game or simulation,
there's nothing like an honest-to-goodness racing wheel/pedal combination
to give you the closest approach to reality.
these things usually cost an arm and a leg, like in the $150 + US range.
But now, thanks to CH Products, there's a well-built and fun-to-drive
model that sells for a mere $64.95 US.
It's the EXL500,
and what it may lack in heavy duty construction it makes up for in affordability
without sacrificing the fun quotient.
complete with pedals and a sequential gear shift that's mounted on the
right of the steering wheel console. As we've come to expect from CH products,
it's a well built set that seems as if it'll be around for the long haul
(or at least until you throw it aside for a "force feedback"
"WHEEEEEL" is rubberized and has a 180º turning radius,
and feels good in your hands. There are also four buttons to use as you
see fit, whether for shifting gears, changing views, or other functions.
The gear shifter feels solid and works well when you're slamming through
tight turns and quick passes. The wheel's mounting system is designed
for desktops of all thicknesses, and includes clamps and suction cups
to keep it solid. We didn't think too much of the clamping mechanism,
which wasn't as nice as that of the more expensive Thrustmaster Nascar
Pro and which kept getting in the way of the keyboard tray that hangs
below our desktop.
The pedals are
mounted onto a non-skid pedal base, and while they don't look as realistic
as the Thrustmaster's, they work better because pressing on them doesn't
cause the base to jump up and bark the back of your thighs. Pedal feel
is quite good.
EXL500 has a
7 foot cable, which as usual is just a touch too short.
On the whole,
however, once we got the EXL500 clamped to the desk (which as mentioned
was quite the operation due to the construction of the desk), it performed
well, as we expected from a CH product. It doesn't have as realistic a
feel as the Nascar Pro, but it's much more realistic than the CH
Racing Wheel, which doesn't include pedals, either.
says the EXL500 is compatible with all racing games, and we don't doubt
Now, let's try
There are game controllers,
and there are GAME CONTROLLERS!!!
Take ThrustMasters NASCAR
Pro Racing Wheel, for instance. This GAME CONTROLLER
only seems to be missing a simulated racing car cockpit to be perfect,
which is probably just as well or Id never get any real work done.
Ah, reality an ugly
thing, especially when it means unclamping the NASCAR Pro and returning
to the more mundane world of fingers on the keyboard so I can tell my
high speed tale.
The NASCAR Pro comes complete
with a good-feeling (it feels good, which makes YOU feel good!) small
diameter steering wheel and floorstanding accelerator and brake pedals.
And an honest to goodness sequential gear shift, the same type they use
in CART racing (wait'll I review that!).
The set is solid and feels
as if it'll be around for a while. It clamps easily onto your desk's edge
with what ThrustMaster calls a "Cam-lock" system that gapes
wide enough to chomp onto four inch thick desktops. The clamping system
appears clumsy at first glance, but it works well and holds the wheel/shifter
console firmly in place.
NASCAR Pro only takes up one
game port, with a "Y-splitting" of wires leading to each of
the modules. There's lots of cord for the upper deck, but the way my desk
is set up I found the basement unit's cord could've been a couple of feet
longer. It's a minor criticism, though.
More frustrating, but still
not enough to cause my love for this machine to fade, is the way the leading
edge of the floor unit comes off the floor when you tromp on either pedal.
It means you have to either glue it to the floor (and I'm not quite ready
for that) or hold it down with your other foot.
This means you can't left foot
brake without the thing flipping up and barking your calves.
So you hold it down with one
foot and get on with it
Theres no clutch pedal
either, but so what?
The Wheel doesn't yet have
force feedback, which is probably just as well: I can imagine how tired
my poor body will be after they add that particular innovation
to future generations.
I tried the Racing Wheel with
various racing games and simulations and the only thing lacking was the
smell of gasoline or methanol, a virtual reality helmet, and a comfortable
driving position. The smell can be obtained if youre silly enough
to spill flammable liquids in your home office, the VR helmet will probably
be along presently, and the latter is the fault of my pre-ergonomic office
and not a shortcoming of the ThrustMaster product.
Ive tried a few different
racing wheels over the past couple of years and this one is by far my
favourite. Of course, it's expensive enough that it should be!
Really, though, if you like
driving games or racing simulations, you really should spring for a contraption
like this, cause a joystick, keyboard, or (perish the thought) mouse
don't even come close.
Just pretend you've sprung
for an extra three games. You won't miss them.
Products produce nifty game feel
One of the big problems
with driving and flying simulations has nothing to do with the games.
Its the fact that theres only so much of a realistic feel
you can get from a keyboard and/or a mouse.
Thats why flight
yokes, joysticks, gamepads, and even "virtual pedals" were invented.
These things were designed to enhance the gaming and/or simulation experience,
and can do a darn good job of it, too, short of possibly adding a virtual
reality helmet that makes you feel as if you were truly there.
One of the premier
makers of game peripherals is CH Products, of California.
CH Products makes
a full line of neat stuff, from flight yokes and pedals, to joysticks
and gamepads. We tried out their Virtual Pilot Pro, with its accompanying
(but optional, of course) Pro Pedals, the F16 Fighterstick, and their
GamePad 3 and have to admit theyve put together a fully featured
and well built ensemble.
The pieces we were
most anxious to try were the Virtual Pilot Pro and the Pro Pedals
cause were incurable flight and driving simulation freaks.
And we werent disappointed. This stuff is just rarin to go,
and weve been having a ball with them.
One thing you need
to know, however, before you run out and drop some cash on these pieces
of equipment, is that youll need another expansion card if you want
to run the pedals in concert with the yoke and of course youll
Fortunately, CH Products
also offers the Gamecard, which takes up an expansion
slot but offers a pair of game ports thereby giving as much as
it takes. The Gamecard is easy to install and does a great job of controlling
the controllers (its whole raison detre). CH says it uses high speed
chips to match any IBM/compatible PC from 4.77 to 200 MHz, which pretty
well runs the gamut right now.
So whats the
gaming experience like? Need you ask?
Pilot Pro, and the Pro Pedals, double as both flight yoke
and steering wheel, so you can fly and drive yourself silly. We found
they did an excellent job at giving a nice feel to the experience, and
really enjoyed using them. In fact, while weve played with flight
yokes before, it was the pedals that really made the difference. Not only
do they let you fly using a rudder for a change (at least a proper rudder,
instead of using keyboard keys), but they did an excellent job when tear-assing
around the racetrack, whatever its configuration might be.
for instance, the pedals were sophisticated enough to let you "heel
and toe" drive and use the gas to pull your virtual vehicle
around the bends just like you would in real life.
To switch from flying
to driving you put a couple of "chocks" into the pedals that
prevent them from moving forward and backwards (the natural way theyd
move as rudder pedals) and, despite the simplicity of this solution, it
works well. Pedal feel is good it isnt as accurate as the
real thing, but what is?
Ditto for the flight
yoke, which doubles as a steering wheel. It feels quite substantial and
doesnt display the sloppiness of some of its competition. Theres
a throttle mounted just where it should be, on the top right of the unit,
and there are enough buttons to please the most uncoordinated gamer
which made us feel right at home. And the elevator and aileron trim controls
work well, too.
Virtual Pilot Pro
clamps securely onto the edge of your desk/table, and is built well enough
that you can zig and zag without worrying excessively that its going
to come apart.
And thats where
these CH Products seem to excel. Sure, they do the job and give you a
good feel for the game or simulation. But they also do it with a feel
that has some substance to it and they give the impression theyll
last. Only time will tell, of course, but we havent yet had cause
to doubt that impression.
Fighterstick is the same, except of course that its
more suited to jet fighter simulations than anything else and thats
fine if thats the type of program you prefer. The programmable joystick
positively bristles with buttons and stuff, including an eight way switch
and three four-way switches, and there are three "fire" buttons
just to make sure your opponent gets your message.
looks like one youd get with those video games that hook into your
TV but think theyre computer games. It brings you good control of
the arcade-type game or lets you play those 3D first person games
like a pro.
You can hook up more
than one of these suckers for those times youre determined to blow
away your best friend, and it has all the buttons and features youd
expect from its video game equivalent.
For instance, there
are two turbo buttons as well as the six regular buttons on the units
top so you can blast away until you either run out of ammo or blow
that bad guy to smithereens.
If you're not interest
in flying - just driving - then CH makes the Racing
Wheel, another winner of a controller. Like the Virtual Pilot/Pro,
it clamps to your desk - but the Racing Wheel also includes a couple of
suction cups that hold it in place even better.
The wheel itself is
quite thick but with a small circumference, just like a CART/IndyCar or
Formula One car would have and the textured plastic offers good grip.
You don't get a lot of feedback (for instance, when you slam into a wall
you're not jerked the opposite direction like you would be in real life),
but the feel is still pretty good.
Racing Wheel has four
buttons mounted on it, two on the front and two on the back, and you can
configure them for shifting, accelerating, or braking. The games we tried
only let us configure the rear buttons, however, but if we had to make
a choice it would be those buttons anyway, since your fingers fall to
them naturally when you're holding the wheel.
You can also use the
Racing Wheel with CH' Pro Pedals, for an even more realistic feel. We
would have liked to see a gear shift included as well, but you can't have
Like the other CH
Products we tried, Racing Wheel is solidly built and feels like it will
last very well. Which means there's a good future in front of you as you
scream around the race track of your dreams.
Of course, you
may not get any work done...
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