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TechnoFILE looks at PC Game Controllers

The good, bad, ugly, and expensive!

Microsoft SIdewinder Force Feedback Racing Wheel

Microsoft SideWinder Freestyle Pro

CH EXL 500 Racing Wheel

NASCAR PRO Racing Wheel a pile of fun

CH Racing Wheel

CH Virtual Pilot Pro/Pro Pedals

CH Gamepad

CH F16 Fighterstick

MS WheelMicrosoft SIdewinder Force Feedback Racing Wheel

"The Force" 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 experience.It'll cost 'em, though: Microsoft's Sidewinder Force Feedback Wheel isn't cheap - but it is one heck of a wheel.

Driving simulations 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 separately.

Which makes buying the Wheel easier to rationalize.

Now to show Greg Moore who the real Canadian driving star is….

Microsoft 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 suffering fingertips.

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 controlling.

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, however.

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 worked fine.

The Freestyle Pro comes with Microsoft's Motocross Madness game, which is a good test of the system.

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.

CH Products' EXL 500 Racing WheelCH Products' EXL 500 Racing Wheel

Affordable Driving Thrills

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.

Unfortunately, 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.

EXL500 comes 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" version!).

The steering "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.

CH Products says the EXL500 is compatible with all racing games, and we don't doubt that.

Now, let's try force feedback!

Mastering Virtual Thrust

NASCAR Pro Racing WheelNASCAR PRO Racing Wheel a pile of fun

There are game controllers, and there are GAME CONTROLLERS!!!

Take ThrustMaster’s 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 I’d 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…

There’s 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 you’re 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.

I’ve 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.

Joystick Incarnate

Virtual Pilot ProCH Products produce nifty game feel

One of the big problems with driving and flying simulations has nothing to do with the games. It’s the fact that there’s only so much of a realistic feel you can get from a keyboard and/or a mouse.

That’s 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 they’ve 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 we’re incurable flight and driving simulation freaks. And we weren’t disappointed. This stuff is just rarin’ to go, and we’ve 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 you’ll need another expansion card if you want to run the pedals in concert with the yoke – and of course you’ll want to.

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 d’etre). 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 what’s the gaming experience like? Need you ask?Pro Pedals

Virtual 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 we’ve 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.

On "Whiplash," 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 they’d move as rudder pedals) and, despite the simplicity of this solution, it works well. Pedal feel is good – it isn’t 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 doesn’t display the sloppiness of some of its competition. There’s 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 it’s going to come apart.

And that’s 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 they’ll last. Only time will tell, of course, but we haven’t yet had cause to doubt that impression.CH F16 Fighterstick

The F16 Fighterstick is the same, except of course that it’s more suited to jet fighter simulations than anything else – and that’s fine if that’s 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.

The GamePad looks like one you’d get with those video games that hook into your TV but think they’re computer games. It brings you good control of the arcade-type game – or lets you play those 3D first person games like a pro. CH Gampead

You can hook up more than one of these suckers for those times you’re determined to blow away your best friend, and it has all the buttons and features you’d expect from its video game equivalent.

For instance, there are two turbo buttons as well as the six regular buttons on the unit’s 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. CH Products' Racing Wheel

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 everything.

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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January 31, 2006