Summary: With the overwhelming response we received from the community after our simple Saitek Cyborg Evo review, we decided to tackle something a bit more... hardcore. Jakub took on the task of reviewing two premium HOTAS units, one entry-level yet swanky item from Saitek in the form of the X52, and the other a plain-jane but very professional CH FighterStick and Pro Throttle combination. Who will win?
Why in the world would anyone want to tie up his second hand with a throttle, instead of using the keyboard? Well, for starters, it isn't just a throttle. Throttles often contain extra hat switches, buttons and occasionally features like a mouse controller, or - and keep your pants on - trim wheels. If you don't enjoy flight simulators, that probably went right over your head - but don't worry, we'll get to it.
For review, we purchased a Saitek X52 and came to an arrangement with the fine folks at CH Products for a review unit of their top-of-the-line CH FighterStick Pro USB and corresponding Pro Throttle USB. We also made overtures to Guillemot to try and test a Thrustmaster Cougar, but were unable to secure it despite delaying the article several times, and the joystick is far, far out of our price range but we did do research on it regardless.
The question remains though: why HOTAS? Since a keyboard can do just as much and often more than a throttle, why use one? Well, other than features like the mouse emulator and trim wheels which are difficult to repeat on the keyboard, it all comes down to atmosphere. When you sit down at your desk and put a hand on a meaty throttle, with a dozen buttons under your command - buttons to raise and lower landing gear, adjust flaps, switch radar modes, control the in-game map or select weapons - and in the other hand you've got a capable joystick to fly your aircraft with, that's when it hits you. You are most definitely in the game - the sense of immersion of never having to touch the keyboard as long as you fly is unparalleled.
Far and away the best feature of the X52 is its ergonomics. Though the base of stick and throttle are made of typically light, hard plastic, there is aluminum trim on it for... well, for show. A lot of the X52 is for show, right down to the blue LED buttons.
However, the joystick and throttle are comfortably shaped and both include a soft, black rubbery substance that is remarkably adept at absorbing sweat. The joystick has an adjustable hand rest for users with various hand sizes. All buttons are readily accessible - even the pinky switch slides up and down with the hand rest. The throttle is a rolling rather than sliding style, and has adjustable resistance. Inside the throttle are detents for idle and afterburners, but they're not disruptive.
The joystick includes a two-stage trigger and pinky switch on the stick itself, with two 8-way hat switches and four buttons on the top, including one with a safety switch - all manipulated with the thumb. Also on the top is the mode switch, which permits the player to switch his stick between three modes on the fly, all of which can reveal extra programmed options if the player has set them up so. Finally, there are three toggle switches at the base of the stick, though we haven't found much of a use for them since they are not reachable unless either hand abandons the stick or throttle.
The left hand rests comfortably on the throttle and the thumb naturally gravitates towards the lower trim wheel, while the forefinger slides easily to the upper trim wheel. There's another 8-way hat on the forward edge of the throttle, as well as the scroll wheel/second mouse button. The thumb controls the primary mouse button, mouse emulator, sensitivity slider, clutch button (to switch programming files) and another button. There's one more button for the forefinger, on top of the top trim wheel. There's also a multi-function display that can show the time, a timer, and identifies the programming file the player has selected.
SIDEBAR: I'm still using the same logitech mouse as I was three years ago. It's hard for me to let go of old hardware. I had a SoundBlaster 16 Pro for close to 6-7 years.
There is no scripting language, however, and experienced users will find themselves increasing limited by the capabilities of the Saitek programming software. On the bright side (if you pardon the pun), it permits the user to lower the intensity of the LED lights on the stick and throttle. It's also easy to calibrate every axis and test all the buttons and hat switches. Saitek's software allows the player to set virtual dead zones, in case the stick or throttle or trim wheels are being unnecessarily twitchy.
The coolest feature of all is the ability to load program profiles on the fly. There's no need to Alt-tab out of a game or anything like that. As long as the profiles are set up beforehand, the player can engage the clutch button (on the lower throttle wheel) and use the lower hat switch on the joystick to switch between program profiles (which are identified by their filename). It's even possible to switch between folders, which can get confusing and is a feature that we suspect most new players could do without. Although modes, which the X52 also has, aren't a new feature, this dynamic profile switching is. It's particularly useful for me personally in World War II Online, where I can load profiles for aircraft, tanks and ships. More complicated simulations, like Falcon 4.0 or perhaps Lock-On: Modern Air Combat, could also benefit from separate profiles for different aircraft as well.
SIDEBAR: I've hooked up with an air squad in World War II Online, all because of this joystick review. If you ever meet JG1, we're sorry, we're not really assholes, it's just that you're too sensitive.
All that sounds wonderful, doesn't it? In fact, if it does sound great, the X52 is probably the stick for you. Those readers who are experienced sim pilots have no doubt noticed certain omissions - notably the stick's performance. Believe it or not, joysticks aren't all capable of identical performance.
One of the features the stick boasts is the ability to lock rudder twist with a tab that's pulled out. This doesn't really work, since the stick will still twist - though to a more limited extent. Fortunately, the twist axis can be disabled completely with the Saitek software, which permits the owner to set a deadzone as large as he likes - including the entire axis.
Where I get very hesitant about recommending the Saitek X52 asking what will come 3, 6 or 12 months down the line - will the stick still work? The X36 was a fairly reliable design, but its successor, the X45, was very flakey. X45 issues included shoddy pots (potentiometers, the devices that measure how much input the player gives), which resulted in spiking responses, as well as notoriously fragile hat switches which were alleged to have worn out in as little as 2 months of moderately heavy use.
CH Products has been around a long, long time - they were the primary competition for Thrustmaster back in the days of the flight simming golden age and they're still kicking today. Unlike Thrustmaster, which fell upon hard times and was consequently bought out by Guillemot, CH has remained independent and their product line hasn't seen any huge revamps.
This could and probably does explain why initial impressions of the CH FighterStick Pro and Pro Throttle USB were very tame. In comparison with the sleek (if overly bright) CH sticks, with their aluminum trim and sweat-absorbant padding, the CH combination is just plain. Plain plastic. Hard, black plastic, dotted with spots of equally hard grey and red plastic. Sex appeal, thy name is most certainly not FighterStick Pro.
In fact, most of our initial impressions of CH were disappointing compared to the X52, yet we came away using the CH items more. The X52 has an adjustable handrest, the CH stick doesn't, and being modeled on the actual F-16 stick, it requires mammoth hands to wield properly. If the CH stick is anywhere above elbow level, it is simply impossible for the average man to reach the top 8-way hat switch without triggering all the other hat switches in between. F-16 authenticity is great and all, but we're gamers, not fighter jocks (or gorillas). Though there may be a small subset of the gaming population who drink jet fuel, know the exact number of rivets on the leading edge of a Bf-109E-4 wing, and would probably tear their hair out if they had to fly a jet sim with anything but an F-16 style stick, we're rather certain that they do not form the majority of the market. No, the rest of us would be quite happy with an adjustable hand rest and a more ergonomic layout of the top of the stick, and perhaps a sweat-absorbant padding.
That said... I ended up buying a new desk so I can use the CH FighterStick Pro. It may be less comfortable than the X52, but it is much more responsive - and more importantly - predictable and linear. I got used to the X52's quirks in about a week of flying in various games. I knew to expect diminished inputs when crossing the X or Y axis, and that the point-of-view hat switch wasn't as sensitive when pushed to the upper-right corner. When I installed the CH FighterStick Pro, I just FLEW. There are no dead spots, no sensitive areas, no flakey hat switches. It just works and it does so correctly from the start. The FighterStick, like the X52, is light - perhaps a bit firmer than the X52 - but this doesn't present a problem for most people it seems, though many do prefer the 15-20lbs of force typical of a Cougar.
SIDEBAR: It took me MONTHS of playing with these sticks and reading various forums to come to a conclusion.
CH's best feature, a definite killer app, is the CH Control Manager Software. It's not quite as flashy, simple or intuitive as Saitek's programming goodies, but it is more reliable and robust. In certain games we'd have problems with macros on the X52, no matter what we tried - but these issues did not appear with Control Manager. In addition to basic programming, such as assigning key presses and macros to buttons, the Control Manager item has one last definitive feature. Many older and even some newer games are incapable of identifying separate input devices. The CH Control Manager permits the user to create a single virtual stick, that Windows and all games using DirectX input see as a single stick, out of multiple items. If, for example, the player had a CombatStick, a Pro Throttle and Pro Pedals, those would normally be three different items that needed to be programmed into a game. With Control Manager, it's possible to combine all three together, so that they're seen as a single item with multiple axes.
In terms of hardcore appeal, about the only item that could rival CH Products is the Thrustmaster Cougar. Though we tried to obtain one for comparison, we were unable to. However, after some research on various flight sim forums, as well as Cougar World, it seems that the consensus on the Thrustmaster Cougar is that it's a quality stick with decidedly shoddy components. The potentiometers, speedbrake, and other items are often in need of fixing or replacement (as the case may be).
Saitek X52 Pros
Ease of use
Saitek X52 Cons
No trim knobs
The USB cords on the CH sticks are short, and neither the throttle nor FighterStick likes to be connected to a USB splitter/hub.
Little did I know, when embarking on this massive review and research project, that I would not find the ultimate HOTAS set up, but find out that they can be so different and appeal to such different target audiences.
The Saitek X52, for example, is the ultimate entry-level item. It's comfortable, easy to use, simple to set up and since it actually is a single item, it won't have any issues with older titles. It has all the features anyone would want of a HOTAS, and is made of at least relatively high quality components. It's certainly more accurate and at least as durable as the Cyborg Evo I owned before.
For those who put their sticks through more of a workout and have more refined performance tastes - and damn fancy ergonomics - the CH Products line-up is ideal. More expensive than the X52, it is the ultimate in reliability, and the single finest stick this reviewer has had the pleasure of flying with. To say that the CH FighterStick is accurate is to understate the issue considerably. It's smooth, accurate, refined, linear... and did I say accurate? There is no hesitation in the response, no quirky jerking, no spikiness - it just does what you want.
It's strange to know that in such a specialized market segment there can be two very different options. The X52 is far and away the best stick for new but enthusiastic flight simmers, or those who play only occasionally. Neither group is likely to mind its little quirks and inaccuracies, and both will appreciate its ease of use.
The CH Products combination, on the other hand, is definitely aimed at the hardcore market. It's more expensive, less flashy, and makes a lesser initial impression than the X52, but none of these things matter to people who got through joysticks at the rate of 3 or 4 per year, replacing them at the first sign of bad response. There are two words that describe the FighterStick and Pro Throttle: reliability and performance. They're not as comfortable as the X52 combo, but that's a secondary measure. Unfortunately, we do lament that CH hasn't produced at least a variant with an adjustable base and a throttle with trim wheels, since this would make it a much easier item to recommend for new flight simmers. Gorilla F-16 pilots be damned.
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