The Ultimate Joystick Guide

desk-2905361_1920.jpg

In the last few years, the flight sim genre has awoken from years of dormancy, as gamers flocked to epic experiences like Elite Dangerous, Star Citizen, War Thunder, and others.

These titles basically mandate the use of a competent joystick, and yet most of your buying options are years old, and lack a set of comprehensive reviews.

The Byte Gremlin is here to right this wrong. He’ll help you steer clear of the various dated and unreliable models out there so that you get the best product for your use case.

There’s three different joystick buyers out there, and the Gremlin, having been in all three positions at various points, has a recommendation for each. If you’re curious how they compare to other joysticks on the market, skip down to the “alternatives” section.

For basic flight control needs:

Logitech Extreme 3D Pro

If you’re just dipping a toe into the flight genre, your priorities are a device that has enough buttons and axes to play any mainstream game, while remaining affordable and convenient to setup or put away.

Meet the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro. With dedicated axes for speed, pitch, roll, and yaw, as well as twelve buttons for all your boosting, missile-locking, and super-cruising needs, there’s no mainstream flight game that can’t be played on this inexpensive joystick. Most sticks either don’t include a throttle, or they give you a bulky second unit, which gives casual users an additional gadget and cable to manage. As a single unit with a built in tab for throttle control, the Extreme 3D Pro is a cinch to stow away when you’re playing boring non-flight games, so it’s low commitment in pretty much every way.

As for the brand, Logitech is a rock solid peripheral maker. They’re the Gremlin’s manufacturer of choice for remotes, mouses and other peripherals. To put it simply, their stuff lasts, and it’s always provides good bang for the buck.

For the intermediate flight enthusiast on a budget:

Thrustmaster T16000M FCS Hotas

Most people getting into a serious game like Elite Dangerous are going to want to invest in a T16000 at a MINIMUM. A modest total playtime for a game like ED is well over a hundred hours, so it’s worth treating yourself to a joystick that grants more than the bare minimum of functionality and quality.

First, and critically, the T16000M includes a dedicated throttle that’s actually worth owning. As mentioned above, it’s an extra unit to wrangle, but if you’re going to be flying for hours on end, you’ll appreciate being able to rest your hand on a your speed control, both for ergonomics and improved flight capability. This is really mandatory for anyone spending hours at a time in a flight game.

You also get access to more buttons. This may sound unnecessary. After all, most games you play involve like six buttons, so why do you need 16 vs 12? Well… you’ll discover the answer about an hour into to the Elite Dangerous (or X-plane) tutorial, as you realize that you don’t have a dedicated button for deploying your landing gear (Something you’ll need to do several times every play session). Then you’ll go to use your horizontal maneuvering thrusters and realize you only have one hat switch, so you’ll have to resort to a keyboard for those too. The examples go on. The Gremlin currently has a top of the line Warthog HOTAS (hands-on-stick-throttle, for those in the known), installed in a custom-built cockpit with additional hand-soldered switches, and STILL wishes he had more buttons for Elite Dangerous and other sims.

Most importantly, the T16000M is the cheapest stick you can buy that feels like more than a toy. Flying a space ship, or a plane, or a helicopter isn’t just about having enough axes. It’s about precision. It’s about having a stick with enough centering force that every tiny twitch of your hand doesn’t shift your aircraft. Don’t kid yourself, no joystick in this price range is going to match the feel of real life flight control hardware, but the T16000M comes close enough that most people can be really happy with its performance.

In my testing, the action of the stick bested everything in its price range, and the throttle was a particular upgrade over the alternatives. Thrustmaster has used an unconventional throttle design, which simply slides forward and backwards on a rail, instead of rotating around an axis like a traditional throttle. It’ll take a little getting used to if you’ve been flying with an X52, but in the Gremlin’s opinion it’s well worth the tradeoff to have smooth reliable throttle action. Better to have an unconventional but quality design, than something that will always have the feel of a toylike imitation of real hardware.

My only gripe with the T16000M is that some of the buttons (particularly those on the top of the joystick) were a bit mushy on the unit I tested. Not a deal breaker (especially for the price) but worth noting.

For the dedicated Flight Sim Enthusiast:

Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog

This is where it gets real. The Warthog is built primarily from metal external parts (if you research, you’ll find many internals are still plastic, but this design has been around the block, and there are few complaints of wear or reliability). What this unit gives you is HEFT, and it’s apparent from the moment you pick up the box, that this stick and throttle combo feels like it was ripped from a military aircraft.

That’s in part because the design is a close imitation of the real life AC-10 Warthog stick and throttle (the proportions have been adjusted a bit for the convenience of consumers). The result is a device that will make you feel like you’re piloting an actual plane, or spacecraft.

The Warthog is one of the Gremlin’s favorite all time gadgets. With a swath of buttons, hat switches and physical throw switches, there’s truly no flight game that the Warthog can’t play, and play extremely well. To be frank, the Gremlin’s decision to add additional switches to his cockpit design came as much from a desire to improve immersion as it did a need for more buttons (it’s just cooler to drop your landing gear using a a big switch built into your seat, as opposed to one of several switches nested into a HOTAS).

To be specific, the Warthog has 10 push buttons, 6 hat/directional switches, 12 throw switches, and a smooth zoom axis (the additional axes to the right of the dual-throttles).

The Warthog Throttle Unit

As important as the quantity of controls is the quality. The first time you try flying on a Warthog, your fingers might get a little sore from the effort required to depress the hulking buttons. Once you adjust to flying with it, any other flight hardware will feel like a cheap toy, to be discarded. The deep, resistive yet smooth action of the throttles, pared with the ample tight centering force on the stick are really what you’re paying for in this HOTAS, and the difference is simply night and day over the competition.

There are two potential cons to consider. The first is that the Warthog is not a twist stick. This means that to “yaw” or rotate the ship left and right, you can’t just turn the stick. This is actually an advantage to some degree, as with all twist sticks, it’s inevitably easy to accidentally twist the joystick while moving another axis, but it does mean you need to figure out another option for rudder control. Many people online are happy to assign one of the many hat-sticks to work as a rudder control, but for the Gremlin, this was awkward and inferior to the twist stick. The superior alternative is to buy yourself a set of rotating rudder pedals, just like pilots have on real aircraft.

Thrustmaster’s TFRP Pedal Set

Pedals really add to the experience of flight games, but they’re an additional cost, and if you’re not gaming in a dedicated space, they’re yet another thing you might have to move or setup each time you play.

The second con of the Warthog is that it’s a commitment of sorts. Some of the things that make it great (it’s heft, the height of the joystick which allows for more precise movement) also mean it’s more of a bear to get setup properly.

While the Warthog IS very usable on a desk, you won’t be taking full advantage of it’s design unless you mount it to something. This is mainly because the awkward ergonomics of having a joystick at desk level (above your elbows) come into full relief when all the controls are more sturdy and rigid. I found myself much more aware of all the inadequacies of my original desk setup after investing in “the hog.” You don’t have to build a cockpit to enjoy this HOTAS, but you should consider mounting it to the arms of a chair, or even building a wooden assembly you can set across your chair to mount it to, so that the stick and throttle rest at a more ergonomically pleasant height.

Also, a quick note on the overall design. Before buying the Warthog, the Gremlin was quite concerned that using a joystick based off of an older military plane might be ill-suited to flying virtual spacecraft, which obviously have different functions and control needs. In practice, this is a total non-issue. Thrustmaster has wisely included so many switches, including hat switches which, to my knowledge are not part of the actual AC-10 Warthog, which provide unparalleled flexibility in what you choose to fly, and how you choose to fly it. In each game you’ll want to spend some time adjusting the control bindings to what works best for you, but this design, despite its looks, is extremely well suited to space-flight.

The Alternatives:

The Gremlin has passed over some flight community mainstays in his picks. here are some thoughts on why they don’t measure up.

Saitek X52, an old classic with some issues

The Saitek X52, and X52 Pro (a slightly upgraded but mostly similar design) were at one point the pinnacle of mainstream joysticks. That was in 2004, when it was first released. Unfortunately, Saitek as a company has gone through some corporate changes, and has a long history of reliability issues. The Gremlin personally used one for several years without major failures, but was never satisfied by the weak spring force on the stick, or the light weight throttle that feels like it was made by fisher price. The X52 was good competition for the Thrustmaster T-flight, but the T16000M easily bests both where it counts, in the action of the joystick and throttle axes.

Thrustmaster T-flight X, a bargain alternative

Speaking of which, the Thrustmaster T-flight X is kind of a bargain if you can find it for around $60. It provides perfectly reasonable value for it’s price, and it’s the cheapest unit with a separate throttle assembly that’s worth buying. The problem is, the axis quality in both the throttle and stick of the T16000M is just that much better quality, and not much more expensive.

The Saitek X56 was a very promising when it was first announced. Intended to be a more spaceflight focused variant of the old X55 it replaced, it sadly has well documented reliability issues. Even reports from many owners of functional units complain of overall build quality that doesn’t quite measure up to the price tag. If you can find a working one, this might be a reasonable choice for those lacking the budget or space for a Warthog + pedals, but the Gremlin personally suggests you’re better off either buying something cheaper or saving for the big cahuna.

The final option worth mentioning is the Ch-flight Fighter Stick and its brethren. Ch-flight is a company that focuses its product line on professionally minded simulator folks, and while the Gremlin hasn’t personally tested one, the community has almost universally praised these units for build quality and smooth stick action. The issue is, most flight games these days really do require a decent set of on joystick buttons and hat switches for an uncompromised experience, and the Ch line is extremely barebones. If you know you’re only going to be use your stick for X-plane, check these guys out. For Elite Dangerous (or basically anything else) they’re not your best bet.

Pedals

If you’re buying a stick that doesn’t have twist, or you just want the added precision that you’ll get with a pair of rudder pedals, here’s some solid options.

At the budget level:

Thrustmaster TFRP flight Rudder Pedals

Unfortunately, the rudder pedal market is even more limited in scope than joysticks. If you’re looking for a set that doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars, the T-flight is really the only good option. Saitek does offer a pair in this price range as well, but again, build quality is hit or miss, and most peg them as overpriced. YMMV.

What do you get with T-flight? About what you’d expect. These pedals can often be found as a bundle with other Thrustmaster joysticks, and the Gremlin’s been using these in his setup for a little over a year, along with the Warthog. The good news is they appear to be pretty reliable, and the physical swing action as they rotate is smooth enough. The not so good news is, the centering force that holds the pedals in neutral isn’t all that strong, so it’s easy to rest your feet near neutral and find yourself drifting left or right. Once you get used to correcting for this, they work just fine. In many flight sim programs, you can mitigate this somewhat by increasing the “dead-zone” setting for your yaw axis, but it’s the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly good rudder pedal set.

If you want a serious set of pedals, it gets… a little weird. Both of the premium pedal sets available are made by small businesses in Europe.

For most, the Gremlin recommends the MFG Crosswind line. At 256 Euro plus shipping, these don’t come cheap, but they’re built like a tank, and the entire simulation community is enthralled by their smooth action, adjustability, and quality craftsmanship.

If you’ve got serious money to commit, another option is the “slaw device,” made buy a one man business out in Eastern Europe. These are all metal monstrosities for about $500, and to get them you have to wire transfer cash into a stranger’s bank account (no I’m not kidding), but reports suggest these are pedals that will outlast you. For more info, check out Arstechnica’s excellent writeup on the original pedal set, as well as the newer RX Viper release.

Buying Flight Hardware for VR

Before you go, a quick aside. VR presents a special challenge with flight controls. None of the recommended controllers were built entirely with VR in mind, and as you consider what’s best for you, it’s important to remember that you might not want to use every button on your joystick. In VR, it’s easy to pick out button styles and rough locations by feel, but it’s really hard to distinguish between a row of identical buttons. With a stick like the hog, you can run into issues where buttons are laid out in repeating patterns, which means you need to really think through your key assignments to avoid constantly flipping the wrong switch. I had similar frustrations with the lower joystick toggles on the X52 Pro.

Conversely, if you buy a stick with very few buttons, you’re quickly going to find that using keyboard shortcuts in VR is basically unworkable. For those on a budget or who enjoy a stick with limited button options, a good workaround is to configure software like voice attack with a good mic to use your voice in place of extra key commands.

In a future article, I’ll be getting into how I built custom buttons and control panels into my cockpit, which is the most elegant way to avoid this issue. I’ll also be delving into the construction and design of the cockpit itself.

Thanks for reading, as always. If you found this information useful, please consider using this site’s product links. Your purchases may earn ByteGremlin a small commission, and it doesn’t cost you a dime.

If you enjoyed this write up, feel free to share this post, or drop a comment below!

 

2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Joystick Guide

    • It’d be nice. Doubt we’ll see one anytime soon though. My guess would be that most of the really high end joysticks end up being mounted, where it’s a non-issue, and for the cheaper stuff, component cost becomes a problem. Sadly, the hotas market isn’t exactly high volume compared to other PC peripherals.

Leave a Comment