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Completing the Trifecta of Gaming Peripherals

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Completing the Trifecta of Gaming Peripherals Powered By Docstoc
					                 The Trifecta of Flight Sim Peripherals
                          (well, two thirds of it, anyway)
         Hands-On Stick and Throttle (HOTAS), TrackIR, and a set of rudder pedals.
This, IMHO, is the trinity of flight sim goodness that adds far more enjoyment to our
little hobby than the sum of its parts.

        “Dart,” a reader asks, “what is the best set of controllers one can get at a
reasonable price?” Okay, so maybe they didn’t ask me, but it’s a common question on
the forums. Since the folks at SimHQ seem to actually publish my missives, I’m going to
write about what I think are two of the three indispensable legs of the simulation stool
one sits on to perform well:

       The first two legs are the HOTAS and rudder pedals.

       The third, the TrackIR4 (review) with Tracking Clip (review), has already been
spoken for, so I’ll just review the X52 PRO and Pedals.

       I’ll be reviewing the Saitek X52 PRO HOTAS and the Saitek Rudder Pedals,
pictured below:




                               (Pictures from SaitekUSA website)



Bottom Line Up Front:

      The Saitek pedals are good. Very good. Excellent. Somewhat better than the
CHPro pedals.
       The X52 PRO is great, with the potential of becoming stellar and the new
standard in HOTAS production.

First up - the Saitek Rudder Pedals:

      I took the plunge and bought a set of the new Saitek rudder pedals a couple of
months ago, placing my CHPro ones into reserve.

        Why? Well, the CHPro pedals are good, but I was intrigued by the wider pedals
and the adjustable tension of the Saitek pedals. That there was a 20 USD coupon from
GoGamer.com and I had incredibly won 100 USD on one of those “scratch off” lotto
tickets (bought on a fluke, it seemed an awful lot like divine will, especially since I was
chanting “rudder pedals, rudder pedals” while working the dime feverously over the
paper).

The Competition:

       CHPro pedals are a fine product by any criteria.

        They didn’t want to play nice with my “old” Saitek X52 (review), however, and
insisted on taking the ID1 spot in Windows XP no matter what I did. Even though the
X52 was the “preferred device,” I had to remap every control in IL-2/PF to see it
properly; the HOTAS was “ID2” for every sim and game.

        This presented me with a nightmare of control issues in Aces High II that I never
fully resolved, for example. With a pure Saitek rig, everything straightened itself out.

        I found the pedals on the CHPro’s too light on the feet; if I was sitting even
slightly askew I’d wind up applying slight rudder one way or the other simply by the
weight of my feet.

       Don’t get me wrong – they’re a fine set of pedals, and my irritations with them
are minor and probably unique to my very strange ways.

Physical Description:

       The Saitek offering is slightly wider than the CHPro pedals and slightly less deep
without the supplied additional “feet” extensions to the base. They’re very utilitarian in
appearance, and while I appreciate the little LED indicating power, who’s looking at their
feet while flying?
                    (Picture from SaitekUSA website)

Here’s a picture of the CHPro and the Saitek Pedals for size comparison:
                        (Picture courtesy of Jason from GoGamer.com)

       The most dominate feature besides the pedals themselves is the tension
adjustment, which I’ll detail later.

        The USB cord is plenty long, which I was pleased to note. I keep my computer
on the desktop and run cables up to it, rather than on the floor. No problems reaching to
the hub I have placed on the tabletop.

        Saitek includes Velcro strips that one can stick to the bottom of the pedal set for
either gripping carpet or firmly fixing to one’s hardwood floor. I can’t imagine anyone
sticking Velcro to a floor, but it would work great in one of those custom cockpits some
have made. The plethora of rubber pads would seem sufficient to keep it steady without
the use of them. Since I have carpet in the computer room, I placed the “hook” side of
the Velcro on the bottom of the pedal set in the thin groove made for it on either end and
its remained rock solid.

          There are two plastic extensions to the set that either make the base of the unit
longer.
       The foot pedals themselves are adjustable in length to accommodate a pair of size
13’s, with a very shallow heel rests on the bottoms. Almost Achilles in proportion, I
have found myself kicking my shoes off in order to better feel for them. With shoes on I
find myself looking to see if I’m positively at the back of the pedal and not off of it
somehow.

        Both pedals are also controllers, making for excellent toe brakes or for translation
into driving simulations.

       Everything is solidly built and I believe they will last a long time.

Software:

         Saitek has come a long way in their software, from drivers to their programming
utility. Even though it picked up immediately on the pedals, I went ahead and re-
installed the software and drivers from the disc.

        And, as a bit of built in nostalgia, ran into problems. I uninstalled the previous
drivers and software and followed the “Autorun” instructions. It got to the place where it
tells you to plug in your devices and just sat there. I unplugged and reinserted the
devices. Nothing. I unplugged my “old, original” X52 and the pedals and rebooted, ran
the installation software, and plugged in the device when prompted. Nothing. Just a big
box of grey with a “Next” button, as if their auto install program failed to recognize that
the HOTAS and pedals were there.

         Eventually I figured out that the dialog box saying “please connect the device you
wish to update the drivers for” is just that – a dummy dialog box. Nothing to indicate
that it knows you’ve connected the device, Saitek assumes one is smart enough to follow
simple directions and just hook up the pedals and press “Next.”

       This is why, developers, I should be a beta tester for all new sexy hardware
devices and the software that comes with them; if I can understand it, anyone can. Y’all
need the dumbest guy in the room to evaluate stuff before unleashing it on the public.
Email me for my address and start sending the nextgen hardware. I’ll even do it for free
and spare the company the hassle of return shipping once it’s all sorted out.

        The best thing is that the pedals know their status in relationship to the X52, and
took up the ID2 position in the Game Controller section. Yes, I had to remap the controls
within IL-2/PF, but did so with glee.

Tension Control:

         This, along with the slightly wider throw (why couldn’t they have gone as far out
as my old Thrustmaster Rudder Control System – “Wider is Better!”), the real benefit of
the set is the ability to adjust spring tension on the pedals. The spring is a beefy sucker to
begin with, and even at the lightest setting is more resistant than the CHPro.
                             (Picture from SaitekUSA website)


       To increase the tension, one turns the big knob in the center of the set in the
labeled direction.

         I experimented with this until I found my sweet spot – about three quarters to full
max – and grinned. No more accidental application of rudder! No doubt this will shorten
the life of the pedals by some margin, just as the beefy spring in the RCS failed after a
few years, but it’s a trade off I’m happy with.

Accuracy:

        Since I put the tension up to stiffen them, I’m finding that I over correct with the
pedals a lot less than I did with my CHPro’s, as they require far more positive input.
Small corrections are easier for me, and with a little dead zone in the middle to account
for the slight waggle around the middle (which I suspect is due to changing the spring
tension), things have really zeroed in for me.
Final conclusion on the Pedals:

        If you don’t have rudder pedals at all, buy the Saitek ones! It really makes the
sim come alive in a meaningful way and will reduce a huge amount of frustration if one
is using the keyboard, a twisty stick, or a rocker switch.

        If you’ve had problems with the narrowness or light touch of the CHPro pedals,
the Saitek pedals are probably your answer. If you’re happy with your CHPro set, hang
onto them.

The X52 PRO HOTAS:

        If you read my review of the “old” X52, you know I really like it. Er, make that
past tense. I really liked it. Now I’m only sort of fond of it, as I’ve played around with
the X52 PRO for a few days.

        Without covering too much old territory, a Hands On Throttle And Stick allows
one to use the keyboard as a space holder more than an interface device. With a bunch of
programmable buttons on both the joystick and the separate throttle unit, one can adjust
settings such as gear and flaps as well as select weapons, communicate with AI wingmen
(by programming dialog tree commands), etc. The X52 PRO, like it’s predecessors, is
non-force feedback.

       I don’t know why I bought the X52 PRO; it might have been an inherent need to
keep Capitalism going, the irresistible allure of a banner ad, the words “metal” and
“improved,” or the fact that I had a little money on the side that fit the price pretty much
exactly might have prompted me to make the purchase. Besides, the wife was very
adamant that I had bought enough computer stuff “this year” and asked for a solemn vow
from me to knock it off already. Of course I raised my hand and swore not to buy any
more computer stuff “this year.” On the 28th of December, it’s not a hard promise to
make.

       (Three…two…one…HAPPY NEW YEAR! *kiss* “I love you, honey.” “I love
you, too.” “Great, gotta go do something on the computer, be right back.”)

       I must say that I am very pleased that I made this a New Year’s Day purchase.


Performance:

         If you liked or loved the X45 and X52, you’ll be impressed in a new, even better
way with the X52 PRO. The craftsmanship is superior, the controls are more precise, and
it just feels like one is in more positive control of his virtual aircraft. Even though the
stick is much stiffer in resistance, it is smooth (thanks to a metal cup at the bottom that
reduces the friction of plastic on plastic of previous models) and not at all fatiguing.
They got the tension just right, and a light touch is still possible without having to “two
finger” the control at the edge of a stall; similarly, I never feel like I’m wrestling to move
the stick back and to the side when performing a roll. When the stick reaches center, it
stays there – no rebound. For those with “wobble” in some planes in the IL-2 series, this
could be the solution.

       They definitely got the name right. This is the “Professional Grade” model of the
X52, with the hardware designers really going the extra step to make it exceptional. If it
were a car, the PRO would be the Shelby Cobra to the standard X52’s Mustang GT.

Improvements over the X52:

        Saitek took to heart the comments that the stick was too soft in the joystick
spring, and placed a second, smaller one around the shaft that leads from the base
to the stick.

        A far more elegant solution than cutting up a milk jug cap or CD dust cover lid
(which is a common “mod” for the X52), the stick is positively beefy now. I disabled the
“twisty stick” function by pulling out the familiar stop tab, but suspect that the solution of
one problem (the overly light touch of the stick) will now bring another (unintentional
twisting) to those without rudder pedals.


         Early X52 units had a dead zone problem with the sticks around the center; I was
fortunate enough not to get a model with it (or so crappy a virtual pilot not to notice if I
did). However, dead zone issues crop up with the X52 from time to time and from unit to
unit. With the improvement of the “no touch” sensors, Saitek claims that the dead zone
was removed from the firmware entirely within the PRO and will not be an issue at all.
When I went into the IL-2 controls section, I noticed that the joystick was dead center
with both squares in the X/Y axis area. My X52 was always a little offset (so maybe I
did have some dead zone). I know that the darned thing sure feels more steady – but that
might be the springs talking. It’s precise, though, in all axis and along all the dials and
sliders.

        Looks shouldn’t matter, but with one exception, the PRO model looks better than
the standard X52. The blue LED’s have been replaced with green ones, and the throttle is
now lighted along its base – green to 100%, red if one goes past it into WEP or
afterburner. Finally the LED’s brightness has a full slider in the “properties” section of
Windows Control Panel. The “interactive Multi-Function Display” (iMFD) area has been
recessed and functional scroll wheels placed on either side for additional options. It’s
easier to read, but no longer supports a coffee cup. As one can see from the picture,
several wheels have been replaced from plastic to metal.
      The exception is the “safe” flap that covers the top center button on the joystick.
They’ve replaced the clear blue one on the X52 with an ugly solid red one that allows the
word “FIRE” to glow through it. No doubt it is made of the same material as the old one,
but it looks cheap and out of place against the rest of it.

The Steps Backwards:

        It doesn’t take long to figure out that the hardware people at Saitek were way,
waaaayyy ahead of the other departments on the project once the unit arrives. It’s as
though the hardware developers got their stuff together on making a truly great HOTAS,
got the factory humming and filled up the warehouses without first checking to see if the
software and documentation people were ready for launch; and since warehousing costs
money, the company started filling orders, everyone else be damned and best to be quick
to play catch up.

         No manual. At all. Three paragraphs of “quick setup” on one sheet of paper,
printed front and back in tiny font in order to annoy people in what I’m guessing is
fifteen languages.

      The .pdf files on the CD are the exact same ones that came with my X52, and
mention products they no longer make or sell in the SST guide.

       The lack of documentation rises to the level of gross incompetence, especially
when one considers the sticker price of 179 USD + shipping (from GoGamer). Heck,
they could have stuck a regular X52 manual in the box with a note saying that an updated
manual for additional features will be released later, but they didn’t bother. If I hadn’t
known about the little tab to disable the twisty stick from the X52, it would have been a
mystery. Likewise, one of the touted features is the ability to change the color of the
LED’s on the unit – but not a darned thing anywhere tells one how to do it, for another
example.

        I don’t know why, but this really ticked me off. One gets the desire to find out
which manager at Saitek decided to leave off any documentation or manual, follow him
or her around until they buy a 200 USD piece of electronics (I’m thinking video camera),
jump out of the bushes, take the box out of their hands, remove and destroy the manual,
and then hand it back to them.

       Any protest will be met with three responses: 1) “It’s much like the previous
model of video camera you have bought,” 2) “Consult the website for information,
updates, and any general questions you may have,” and 3) “What, are you stupid?”

       The drivers and programming software as provided are hit and miss – some
(probably most) that have purchased a PRO have loaded the driver and SST software
without a hitch. I was a miss, as the HOTAS installed and was recognized, but it simply
wouldn’t accept a profile. Saitek put up a new set of drivers and SST software on their
website, but still no dice. Fortunately – and this is the saving grace of the unit – the tech
support folks on the official Saitek forums answered quickly with simple instructions on
how to completely remove all references of Saitek from my system for a clean re-install,
putting me in business.

         And there is one other consideration:




        The X52 PRO’s throttle unit will NOT reliably support a cup of coffee, even a
small, cheap souvenir one.

The Potential:

        Once the software matures beyond basic functionality (which, granted, is pretty
powerful – full programming of every switch, dial, axis, and slider multiplied by three
modes) the potential is huge for the unit. First, the iMFD display comes with an SDK
for programming display information. If one is so skilled and with the right knowledge,
the opportunities for some really cool stuff is endless. Provided there’s an appropriate
hook in the software, the X52 PRO could be programmed to change the color of a button
depending on which munition is selected in a jet fighter, for example. Or the buttons
could all flash red if there was a radar lock on the aircraft. Or in a stall. Imagine having
the lights on the setup slowly dim to nothing if one’s engine is knocked out, while the
iMFD shows the oil and coolant pressure drop and the RPM’s slow to a windmill. Saitek
does provide an “output test” proggie to let one peek at the potential. Naturally, one has
to find out about it by surfing their website, as there’s no documentation provided.

         Here’s a picture of my setup in “Christmas Tree Mode” with custom text on the
iMFD :
       You’ll have to forgive my crappy photography, but the buttons are red, yellow,
and green. No blue. And the iMFD stays green.

       Sadly, once one exits the sample program, it all goes back to green. Indeed, there
is no way other than programming in C++ to change the color of the LED’s at this time –
something the guys at Saitek say will be changed in the next release of the programming
software for the X52 PRO, allowing users to change the colors globally (and, hopefully,
within profiles and modes).

        I’m calling it a “build forward” feature, one not yet realized for the customer but
there for expansion later (much like the “Perfect” terrain in the IL-2 series was placed in
the simulation well before we had hardware to truly take advantage of it).

        Indeed, FSX already has a plug in for it, allowing one to “stack” the iMFD with
radio information and quickly scroll through them. Saitek includes the demo version of
FSX with the X52 PRO to show it off. I actually installed and tried it out. Turns out the
rumors are true: there are no guns on the planes provided for strafing the beach one flys
over in that sim. What’s the point, again? Uninstalled.

        If developers, ubersmart users, and the software guys at Saitek really go after this,
it could be big and really increase the utility of the PRO and increase immersion in
whatever game or simulation one is flying. We could have information on demand in the
iMFD rather than on the screen – target info, briefings, full plane status, etc.

        Perhaps in the PRO II it will be an LCD screen that is multi-colored and wide
open for use to replace what they have now. With a clean slate like that, we could have
maps and fully customizable displays. And yes, Saitek, I am willing to beta test such a
device.

Final conclusion on the X52 PRO:

         If you’re in the market for a HOTAS because you don’t have one, yours is
broken, wearing out, or you really, really want a new one because, well, you deserve it,
this is the one you want.

[note to editor: does this really need system specs?]

System specs:

Operating System – XP Media Center Edition
Processor - Intel® Core™ 2 Duo Extreme X6800 2.93GHz 4MB Cache 1066MHz FSB
Memory: 2GB DDR2 SDRAM
Graphics Processor: Dual 512MB NVIDIA® GeForce™ 7900 GTX - SLI Enabled
TrackIR 4 w/TrackClip Pro
Saitek X52 PRO HOTAS
Saitek rudder pedals

				
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