Flight Simulator Joystick: Everything You Wanted to Know

There are a lot of guides of all kinds advising on how to choose the best gaming peripherals. The reviews of various gaming devices are totally overwhelming. However, there are hardly any decent ones discussing joysticks for flight simulator games and the ones available out there are way out-of-date.

by Dmitry Vasiliev
10/17/2011 | 05:07 AM

There are a lot of devices available for controlling your virtual flight but it’s hard to choose the one you will take home with you. You have to rely on your intuition, which may fail in this particular case, or collate specifications and prices (so many axes and so many buttons at such a price...) which can be likened to choosing a CPU basing on the number of its cores or a graphics card basing on the amount of its onboard memory. In fact, an inexperienced user can only find whether the device is ergonomic enough for his hand and check it out for loosely fitted details (if he knows that this is important).

 

You can try looking up product reviews in online and offline media but they often boil down to quoting the product specs from the manufacturer’s description and evaluating the quality of materials and ergonomics. A description of the software included with the device can also be added to the review as bonus material. Such reviews don't have much practical worth, of course.

You can also go to specialized forums and websites to find reviews from experienced users. Written by people whose hobby it is to design floor-standing joysticks with a control stick from a written-off fighter and custom-made steel mechanics with bearings, such reviews may prove to be hardly more useful than the formal descriptions mentioned above. It's because of excessive perfectionism of such virtual pilots who have learned everything there is to know about joysticks and have built a perfect one for themselves but have already forgotten why they wanted to build it in the first place. Such users can often be heard to say that out-of-the-box joysticks are no good until you polish them off with a file, i.e. replace the mechanics, sensors, controller, etc. Of course, an ordinary user does not want to take a soldering iron and screwdriver (or even go to a milling machine!) before actually taking to the virtual skies, so he closes the webpage with the guru's advice and makes a random shopping choice.

In this review I will attempt to compile a more or less exhaustive and, hopefully, comprehensive list of features you should take into account when choosing and buying your joystick. To back up my review with practical data I will glance over some specific brands and their products.

I want to note that this review refers to joysticks for playing true flight simulators like IL-2 Sturmovik or better (IL-2 used to be a revolutionary title in this field but has lost its leading position by now). Arcades like H.A.W.X., Blazing Angels and others can be played well enough with just a keyboard and mouse.

Search Criteria

Joysticks differ. There is a number of parameters that affect the functionality, efficiency and service life of virtual flight controllers. I will try to describe each of them for you.

Component Layout

We can talk about three basic types of controllers for flight simulators: simple single-piece joysticks, dual-piece HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) devices, and yokes.

 

The latter category can be recommended to gamers who prefer peaceful flights on heavy aircraft in games like Microsoft Flight Simulator or to bomber pilots in combat-oriented games. Yokes make it more realistic to control airliners and other heavy aircraft. However, they are not so good for controlling a fighter because it's hard to perform sudden pitch change maneuvers due to the yoke's excessive resistance when you're pulling or pushing it. Besides, there is little choice in this device category. I can only think of such products as the Saitek Pro Flight Yoke System and a couple of devices from HC Products: Flight Sim Yoke and Eclipse Yoke (the latter is perhaps the only new product for the mass market CH has released in the last decade).

 

Thus, we are left with two types of joysticks that have a classic control stick. The HOTAS design with separate control stick and throttle units seems to be only justifiable for products which are above the average in quality and price. They offer a lot of axes and buttons and may seem to be too complex for a user who's not used to flight sims. As for inexpensive HOTAS devices such as the SpeedLink Black Widow and Thrustmaster T.Flight Hotas X, their functionality is comparable to that of a regular single-piece joystick and they do not allow you to control the aircraft without getting your hands off the joystick, which is the point of the whole HOTAS concept. You have to use your keyboard to perform secondary functions.

Well, you can’t really do without the keyboard’s help even if you’ve got a top-class HOTAS system when you want to play a truly lifelike sim of a modern fighter in which the list of control options takes a few pages in the user manual. Still, you will have to take your hand off such a top-class HOTAS less often because all frequently accessed options can be assigned to the joystick's buttons and axes.

 

So, I guess that a user who's new to this whole flight sim business would be on the safe side by preferring a regular single-piece joystick as his first device since it is going to be more versatile than a yoke and much cheaper than a full-featured HOTAS system. But if money isn't a problem, a HOTAS system would be much more attractive.

Functionality

Now that you’ve decided what type of joystick you want, let’s think about the minimum of controls you need to cope with a plane or helicopter.

First, you need no fewer than four control axes: the standard two axes of the control stick (roll and pitch), the engine throttle, and the pedals that control the rudder. If you want to fly with more or less comfort, you shouldn't try to save money by buying a joystick with fewer axes.

There must also be an 8-way hat switch for surround vision and half a dozen easily accessible buttons to enable the most important features when in flight.

The two control stick axes are available by default even in the cheapest of joysticks, and most of them also have a throttle axis (if there is none, you can replace it with a couple of buttons even though this is not going to be as fast and accurate as a dedicated throttle axis). It is the rudder axis which is most often cut off in the cheapest (and also in the most expensive) joysticks.

You may think you can do without the rudder just fine. You can turn your plane by rolling it, and that's in fact the only maneuver the rudder helps with. However, when you get more experienced, you realize that without the rudder it is simply impossible to perform a regular turn at a constant speed and height, to maneuver on the ground when taking off or landing, to make a tiny turn just to catch an enemy into your gun sight. The rudder also makes some air combat tricks possible so that your enemy was misled as to the true course of your plane and had to miss even if he's sitting right on your tail. Yes, this axis can be replaced with a couple of buttons, too, to mask those inconveniences (at least, you will be able to take off and land), but the difference between the smooth analog axis control and the discrete button-based one is obvious. Besides, it’s no good spending two easily accessible buttons for that purpose.

Let’s see how the rudder is implemented in joysticks. The most common implementation is a twist handle (this is the only variant for regular single-piece joysticks). It is quite handy, especially when performing sudden maneuvers involving the rudder, but lacks authenticity and precision. A twist rudder makes it harder to use the control stick proper as you can twist the latter accidentally without really needing that.

Some HOTAS systems (like the old Saitek X45 and the above-mentioned Thrustmaster T.Flight Hotas X and SpeedLink Black Widow) come with pedals implemented as a swinging bar on the throttle. This rudder implementation does not interfere with the control stick and is somewhat more precise, but may be more problematic in terms of ergonomics. The bar may turn to be not shaped exactly for your hand. By the way, I guess purchasing a low-end HOTAS system, comparable to single-piece joysticks in functionality, may only be reasonable if you want the swinging bar instead of the twist implementation of the rudder.

 

Then, the most advanced and authentic implementation of the rudder consists of flight pedals proper. For some top-class joysticks these are the only means of having a rudder since they lack the two other implementations described above. Each serial device of this kind available (a couple of Saitek products, an old model by CH Products which is still being produced, and the pedals included with the Logitech Flight System G940) has three control axes: one is the rudder proper and the other two are separate wheel brakes. Hardcore gamers often buy pedal kits produced in small volumes by obscure firms. They have high-quality mechanics and electronics (something which the serial models lack) but the most affordable of them (which are still more expensive than any mass-produced model) lack wheel brakes.

You may be wondering if you can use the pedals from your racing kits for flight sims. Well, the flight pedals work differently. They are connected mechanically. If you push one forward, the other moves backward. And even if you don’t care about authenticity, you will only be able to use car pedals in which the accelerator and brake are assigned to one axis (this is easy to check out: the pedals are implemented using the single-axis method if there is no reaction when you press them both simultaneously).

What I’ve described above is the required minimum, but each extra axis or button above the baseline is going to increase your comfort. Additional axes may be implemented for individual engine throttle control, smooth regulation of the twist, for controlling the position of the wing flaps and trimmers, etc. And with more buttons on the joystick, you’ll be able to use your keyboard less often.

Force Feedback

Like nearly any other parameter, force feedback has both highs and lows. You can easily name a few even if you don't know much about joysticks. Force feedback adds realism but makes the joystick more expensive and calls for external power (the USB bus cannot power two electronic motors necessary to implement it). There are other, more subtle, factors, though. Force feedback is a dramatic improvement on your perception of the machine under your control. It won't let you miss the moment your angle of attack gets too close to falling into a spin. You can roughly estimate your speed without looking at the instruments by feeling the force in the handle. You can also accurately trim your machine with force feedback. Unfortunately, there are more downsides to it than just the higher price and the extra power consumption of your joystick. The force feedback mechanics with its gear transmissions and electronic motors worsens the accuracy of control. The whole arrangement is going to break down sooner, especially if you use the force feedback effect to its full extent. The motor-enabled handle can get you in trouble in situations where you wouldn't have any problems with an ordinary joystick: you can apply too much or too little effort after being jerked by the force feedback. This annoying effect shows up differently in different FFB joysticks, from being a slight nuisance to downright preventing you from controlling the machine normally, but it shows up in any case.

So, you have to make a choice between a higher accuracy of control (coupled with certain money savings) and improved realism thanks to an additional channel of communication with the machine under your control. The majority of experienced virtual pilots prefer joysticks without force feedback but there are some people who can't play without it. So again, the choice is up to you.

Joysticks (and other gaming peripherals) with the so-called vibration feedback seem useless to me. This kind of feedback does not change the resistance of the handle. Such devices react in exactly the same way - using a low-power integrated electromotor to make the handle vibrate - irrespective of the in-game action (shooting, your plane being hit by bullets, your plane’s wheel diving in between the runway slabs while taking off or landing, etc). And this utterly useless addition to your joystick has to be paid for, even though it doesn't increase the product price much. I guess these are the reasons why such models have never been popular among top-tier brands (the single attempt to introduce one was Thrustmaster’s Top Gun Fox 2 Pro which was never much of a success).

Axis Sensor Type

This secondary parameter doesn’t seem to be of much interest for the end user. However, the technical implementation of the axes affects many factors, in the first place the service life of the joystick. There are several types of sensors that are used to report the state of the control stick:

 

Currently, the axes of nearly all inexpensive joysticks (and also secondary axes of more advanced products) are based on the cheapest and short-lived variant. I mean mechanical potentiometers. Having rubbing parts, such resistors are far from reliable. If used daily, the joystick with them can hardly last for more than a year (the only exceptions are products from CH and Microsoft’s relics left from the times when the software giant was still producing joysticks). After that the potentiometers wear off as much as to make playing virtually impossible. Moreover, the first signs of mechanic wear show up much sooner (the axis quivers a little when idle, a too strong response or no response at all to small movements). Judging by users’ reports, it is products from CH that have the longest service life among mass-produced joysticks. Those from Thrustmaster and Saitek go next. The potentiometers of Logitech joysticks are less sturdy whereas less renowned brands use even less reliable resistors.

Of course, you can replace worn-off potentiometers with new ones (or clean and lubricate the old ones to improve their operation) but it you really want to get into your joystick’s bowels, you may want to replace them altogether with Hall sensors. There are a lot of detailed instructions about that on specialized forums.

 

Although the physical principles of Hall sensors and magneto resistors differ, there is no notable difference between them for the end-user (as a matter of fact, the first serial joystick with magneto resistors is only going to hit the shops; it’s Defender Cobra M5 USB). The main advantage of these sensors is that they are contactless. The lack of rubbing parts is itself a guarantee of a longer service life without any degeneration in specs.

Well, there are problems with specific products even though they have contactless sensors. For example, the Hall sensors in Saitek’s implementation have nonlinear response. This problem is due to an error in the placement of the sensors and magnets rather than to the technology itself. Users have offered solutions to solve the nonlinearity problem with the X52 in different ways, the simplest of which requires only a screwdriver, an awl, a couple of small self-tipping screws, glue, and half an hour of your time. Saitek's engineers, on their part, could only achieve linear response in the near-zero zone in their X52 Pro, which is in fact a perfected X52, despite the use of two Hall sensors per each control stick axis.

The rest of the serial joysticks with Hall sensors (the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog has them in its control stick and throttle axes whereas the Thrustmaster T.16000M and Logitech Flight System G940, in the control stick only) are free from that problem, but have another one. They feature a 3D Hall sensor for the control stick (one sensor processes signals for the two axes of pitch and roll) and the sensor's reading gets too distorted when there is mechanical play in the joystick. It’s comparable to an ordinary worn-off resistor. On the other hand, regular potentiometers usually die before the joystick's mechanical parts wear off seriously, so Hall-sensor-based products are going to be generally more reliable than joysticks with potentiometers.

Optical sensors are not very popular in joysticks. They are not used in current products, yet I guess I should mention them anyway. Microsoft used this sensor type in its old joysticks from the times when USB was drafted. Such sensors were also employed in the more recent Saitek Cyborg 3D Force Stick and Cyborg EVO Force.

Saitek came up with a more primitive design than Microsoft in its optical joysticks, though. The optocouplers with photoelements and perforated discs (this is similar to the optomechanical system of ball-based mouse devices) could not deliver high control accuracy. They had a resolution of somewhat more than 100 positions along the pitch and roll axes. For comparison: the optical array and lasers in Microsoft's joysticks ensures a resolution of 512 positions per axis (and this resolution was in fact limited by the controller rather than the sensors).

The last type of sensor for mass-produced joysticks that I know of is a strain sensor. It reacts to the deformation of the stick when you apply effort to it. This technology is currently only employed in Saitek’s flagship X-65F model for the control stick and twist. This is an original, accurate, reliable and long-lasting solution but it is far from convenient. The stick reacts to your effort only without giving you the traditional clue of a deflecting handle.

Control Stick Loading

This is another secondary parameter which is actually quite important. Apart from force-feedback products that use electric motors to shake the handle (I’ve discussed their highs and lows above), there are two ways to load the control stick: centrally (one spring along the handle) and separately for the X and Y axes (it usually means one spring for each axis although it can be two springs, too).

The central load helps position the stick accurately in the near-zero zone which is good for precise aiming. However, it is less convenient for maneuvering, especially when you don’t see the ground from the cockpit. It is next to impossible to deflect the stick strictly along one axis only, which may prevent you from performing some maneuvers neatly. Many inexpensive joysticks have this kind of stick loading but the particular implementations vary. I guess Logitech's products are the handiest among them as they have a smoother and more predicable movement than the inexpensive models from Saitek and Thrustmaster. The downside is that the stick movement range of Logitech joysticks isn’t long, which negates the advantage of the more convenient stick pressure implementation. Logitech’s mechanics is also inferior to the competitors’ in terms of service life.

Saitek products have an external pressure module. There is a center spring on the stem of the stick that is pressed against the plastic (metallic on the X52 Pro model) plate. Being largely implemented for the sake of visual impact, this system is overall less convenient than in competitor products due to its higher play.

The best implementation of the central loading can currently be found in Thrustmaster's flagship HOTAS Warthog model. The mechanism is based on a central spring but there are also four additional small springs that make it much easier to pass the central position of the stick, which is the common problem of this design.

The highs and lows of axis-independent loading are the opposites of those of the central load design. With this implementation, moving the control stick strictly along the axes requires less effort than the in-between positions (because you only overcome the resistance of the springs of one axis). It is easy to perform maneuvers that require your applying effort along one axis only (such as a loop). On the other hand, it is harder to maneuver accurately around the central stick position, especially when the springs are stiff, because the stick tries to move where meets the least resistance.

 

Despite some inconveniences, the separate loading looks preferable, but only if the springs are not very strong. There are but few such joysticks, though. I can only think of joysticks from CH Products, the affordable SpeedLink SL-6640 Black Widow (which copies CH's control stick design) and Thrustmaster's HOTAS Cougar. But the Black Widow has poor electronics, just like the rest of SpeedLink's products, whereas the springs of the HOTAS Cougar are so strong that I found it very difficult to move the control stick near its central position (but some users think that's normal).

Software

I am personally a proponent of the “one button for one action” principle, yet I concede that it may be handy for a joystick with few buttons to assign macros or use a button as a Shift (so that, when pressed together with this Shift, the other buttons would perform alternative functions). You can do this by means of software developed by the joystick manufacturer for your device model.

Cheap joystick that do not come from the top three brands (Logitech, Saitek and Thrustmaster) along with CH are not generally backed up by exclusive tools for programming their functions.

CH and Thrustmaster are the two names from the mentioned top-tier brands that offer the most advanced and functional software (even though it is not that simple in terms of the learning curve). Besides assigning functions to buttons or recording macros, the software of these companies allows to write scripts and even combine a few compatible devices into a single virtual joystick. Thrustmaster's newest exclusive software T.A.R.G.E.T. is only available for the HOTAS Cougar, HOTAS Warthog and T.16000M whereas the less advanced and older Thrustmapper tool does not support the rest of the company's currently produced products.

Joysticks from Saitek and Logitech are all compatible with the respective software utilities which you can download from the manufacturer's website even if you don't find a CD with it included into the product box. Their software is not that functional, though. You can only use it to reassign buttons and create macros. A few extra options may be available (axes settings for Saitek products, for example).

I have to warn you about a frequently occurring bug with the SST tool (Saitek Smart Technology): the installation process is completed successfully but Smart Technology doesn't appear on the list of installed programs. The solution is simple but not obvious: you have to unpack (e.g. with WinRAR) the distribution file into a folder and restart the installation using a localized language pack rather than the main installer file. This should help install the program correctly.

If your device is not supported by the manufacturer on the software side but you want to reprogram its buttons, you can try using a third-party tool such as JoyToKey or SVMapper.

Testing Utilities

I’ve written many words above on the various parameters of joysticks. But are there any tools that could help evaluate the quality of their electronics? Yes, there are. You only need two simple programs that do not even have to be installed on your computer. They are called JoyTester2 and FreqMeter.

JoyTester2 serves to test the quality of the electronic (and mechanic, to some extent) parts of a joystick. You can check it out for dead zones, evaluate its sensitivity along each of the axes and determine how linear its response is. When testing a joystick, you usually try to "draw" a divergent spiral with the handle. The pedals and rudder are simply moved to their full extent.

Here are a few examples of using the program:

The screenshot shows the results of an inexpensive Genius MetalStrike 3D joystick. What can it tell us?

The precision numbers in the bottom right corner make it clear that the device is based on an 8-bit controller. There are 256 discrete steps for each axis. That’s in fact the smallest resolution for today’s joysticks but it suffices for piloting in any games provided that the controller works well and the mechanics are okay.

The joystick’s controller isn’t perfect as is indicated by the spiral “drawn” by the handle. The sharp zigzags at near-zero axis positions indicate dead zones whereas the near-straight stretches suggest that the axis polling rate is rather low (this was later reconfirmed by the FreqMeter tool which reported only 27 polls per second). The good news is that the movement range of the handle matches that of the sensors (you can feel it easily while drawing the circle with the joystick) whereas the response is quite linear.

The presence of dead zones can be easily identified by watching the picture being drawn during the test. If the control stick is already deflected but the cross is still in the center, there is a dead zone. A dead zone can be either electronic (i.e. due to some flaws in the controller's firmware) or mechanical (there is some play of the handle near its default central position). There is some mechanical play to almost any serial joystick because high-precision mechanics would be too costly. So, a play of 5 millimeters for the top of the control stick is not really a defect for a serial product. But you should think twice before purchasing a device whose axis plays by more than 1 centimeter, like the Y axis of the Saitek Cyborg X/F.L.Y.5.

 

Sometimes you may want to create software-based dead zones if permitted by the device driver or the game. This is recommended when axis resistors have worn off and started to tremble in the central or extreme positions. With such trembling resistors, the throttle may change not from 0% to 100% but, for example, from 5% to 97% or one of the control stick axes may deflect sideways in its central position. In the first case you can set a dead zone up at the end of the axis to use its full resolution. In the second case, you can avoid the deflection by putting a dead zone into the center.

On the other hand, a fixed dead zone is a clear downside of some joysticks, such as early versions of Saitek's X52 and most of products from second-tier brands, as it won't allow you to fully enjoy your virtual flight even when the joystick is absolutely new.

Let’s get back to JoyTester2, though. The screenshot above shows you the results of the elder cousin of the MetalStrike 3D. It’s Genius MetalStrike FF where FF stands for force feedback. It is the latter that you can see in the picture. The control accuracy is awful and not just because of force feedback per se but because of its poor implementation. This technology is not that disastrous in Saitek’s EVO Force and Logitech’s Force 3D Pro.

Now this is a picture by Saitek X52 Pro where you can see the spiral trying to acquire a square shape. That’s a clear indication of nonlinear response: the sensors react differently to the same angle of the handle depending on how much the latter is deflected from its central position. This can be a serious problem for an air combat with lots of maneuvering but is not critical in other situations.

Otherwise, we can note that the axis precision equals 1024 per each control stick axis, which corresponds to a 10-bit controller (the screenshot reports 1040 due to measurement inaccuracies). There are no dead zones at the near-zero positions of the axes. On the other hand, we can see some problems with the mechanics with a rather weak central spring: the stick doesn’t show any desire to move strictly along an axis because the corners of the square do not lie on the axes.

This screenshot shows the same Saitek X52 Pro after a simple modification intended to correct the nonlinear response of its axes.

The picture is almost perfect except for the not very regular shape of the spiral (due to my inaccurate hands, I must confess) and the lack of precision in the near-zero zone (the stick moves softly but feels stiff when you cross the central position).

As a matter of fact, you shouldn't think about modifying serial joystick unless you are really into flight sims. I’ve only mentioned it because the simple mod helps get rid of the main downside of Saitek's X52/X52 Pro which are otherwise quite good products.

The final test in JoyTester2 is to show you that the Genius MetalStrike FF is not the worst case possible.

This is a SpeedLink SL-6630 Cougar, a joystick that has nearly any possible disease in its worst form (except for response linearity, but only because the rest of its downsides prevent us from checking that parameter out). We can see a very low axis polling rate, dead zones in the near-zero positions, and discrepancies between the movement ranges of the resistors and the stick. It also has a very bad driver which lowers its sensitivity (the resolution was 256 positions per axis with the generic Windows driver, but the joystick still was no good). I must acknowledge, however, that the electronics of other SpeedLink joysticks I've tried was not that bad as that.

FreqMeter is another testing program for joysticks. It helps estimate the real axis resolution. You can get a notion of this parameter even from JoyTester2 results (as shown in the first example) but FreqMeter is more accurate.

So, you just select one axis, click the start button in FreqMeter, and then move the axis regulator (a control stick or anything else) around. The testing tool measures the number of axis positions reported by the joystick controller and issues the average number of polls per second. As a result, you get a more or less accurate number which is usually far different from the 125 or 1000 polls per second as defined in the USB specifications.

The result is not exact, though. You can only think of it as the minimum the controller is capable of. So you may want to perform the measurement a few times and look for the highest result.

In fact, a polling rate of 50 or 40 polls per second is quite enough to control a plane with comfort. You can hardly tell the difference between 50 and 500 polls per second without any testing tools. A polling rate of 30 polls per second is rather uncomfortable whereas 20 polls per second (like with the above-discussed SpeedLink SL-6630 Cougar) is downright unacceptable – your keyboard is going to be more efficient!

 

There’s nothing else I can tell you about this tool. Here are a couple of screenshots: one for a Genius MetalStrike 3D and another for a Saitek X62 Pro.

Summary Recommendations

Now I will offer you my opinion about specific products and their manufacturers. I don’t aspire to be the ultimate truth, but there are no so many different joysticks available on the market and quite a lot of them have passed through my hands, so I hope I know something about the subject.

First off, I cannot recommend you products of firms like Trust (do not confuse it with Thrustmaster), SpeedLink (the Back Window being the only exception but it will only be good for people who want to have dedicated loading of the control stick axes and don’t care much about the overall functionality and quality of electronics), Sweex, HAMA and others of the kind.

Genius hasn't gone far from the abovementioned brands. The only joystick of this firm that I might recommend to users who want to save a few bucks at the expense of their own comfort is the MetalStrike 3D, the junior model in the MetalStrike series. The design and mechanics of the series betray the Saitek Cyborg EVO's features but Genius's joystick are far inferior in the quality of their electronics. Their controller has a lower resolution and they have dead zones in the near-zero areas. The axis polling frequency isn't high, either. The senior models of the series can only offer you some useless bells and whistles (and a poor implementation of force feedback in the appropriate model) but cost much more. Well, Genius is currently producing but one, wireless, version of the joystick which comes at an unattractive price. The rest of the models are but leftovers from the previous shipments.

I wouldn't even consider the products of the older Genius Flight2000 series. Even prior to their transition to the USB interface, they had acquired a reputation of shoddy products among virtual pilots. Granted that many gamers started their flight career with the cheap F-16 (that was my first joystick, too; I had worked for 2 weeks until a mechanical failure) and later moved up to more advanced models, it would be better to buy something better right away.

 

The junior models of the first-tier brands, e.g. the Thurstmaster USB Joystick or the Logitech Attack 3, should also be disregarded as not being functional enough for realistic flight sims. They are quite good for flight arcade games, though.

So, I think there is only one entry-level product that is optimal in terms of price, ergonomics and functionality. It is the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro. This is the most affordable model among the offers from the first-tier brands. It has good functionality and is free from obvious shortcomings, at least in its out-of-the-box state. The main problem is that its service life is too short, which refers to both the resistors and the mechanics. Still, it really seems to have few, if any, opponents as a first joystick, and none of those opponents can boast such splendid ergonomics.

There is a force-feedback variant of the previous model. It’s called Logitech Force 3D Pro. You can find it in shops somewhere, although the model itself is already out of production. It is quite good in terms of force feedback, functionality and ergonomics whereas its price is affordable enough. Besides the short service life, its downsides include a very small angle of inclination along the X axis. The plane careens dramatically on a slightest deflection of the stick sideways. On the other hand, the single affordable alternative with full-featured force feedback, the Genius MetalStrike FF, is far inferior in its force feedback implementation and electronics and comes without software for programming its buttons.

If you want an inexpensive joystick that would live longer but have no desire to pay much more for it, you can consider the Thrustmaster T.Flight Stick X. It is just as good as the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro in functionality (except that it lacks exclusive software for programming its features) and is close to the latter in ergonomics.

The Saitek Cyborg V.1 Stick is also an inexpensive and relatively reliable product. It is cheaper than the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro but has only half the latter's buttons. The number of buttons isn't as critical and the number of axes, though. And they have the same number of axes.

The more expensive Cyborg F.L.Y.5 can hardly be recommended. Its folding design makes the details loose whereas its price grew to inadequate level after the Cyborg X was rebranded as Cyborg F.L.Y.5.

Saitek’s Aviator series have progressed since the first model with that name in a rather ambiguous way. It has changed unprecedented functionality (for an inexpensive single-piece device: the three independent modes for 12 buttons (four for the control stick and four dual-position ones on the base) provided huge opportunities for assigning lots of commands) for compatibility with game consoles. I don’t think it’s a fair exchange. The rich functionality made up for the original joystick’s mediocre ergonomics but now the abovementioned Thrustmaster seems to be a better option even for TV-connected consoles. The only point in favor of the Aviator is that one of its versions is compatible with the Xbox 360 (the T.Flight Stick X is only compatible with the PS3).

The Thrustmaster T.16000M can be recommended as a more expensive but also long-lasting and accurate joystick. However, it is not free from downsides. Its ergonomics is not perfect and some of its details are too cheap for its price (for example, it has rubber-membrane buttons).

This joystick is downright overpriced compared to products with similar functionality. Considering that the volume price of the 3D Hall sensor Melexis MLX90333 is a mere $3 and that they saved even on the buttons in the T.16000M design, the latter's price should not differ much from other joysticks of the same class like the T.Flight Stick X, for example.

Still, the T.16000M cannot be put off the list of recommended products. The more advanced models are twice as expensive whereas the more affordable ones with similar functionality are far less accurate and do not last that long.

Next go the rather affordable but feature-rich HOTAS kits from Saitek: X52 and X52 Pro.

The two models are close in design but the Pro version is free from many minor shortcomings that spoil the life of the owner of a regular X52. An example of such a problem is that the control stick is not identified when you turn on your PC (this can be cured with the X52 by disconnecting and reconnecting the cable between the control stick and the hands-on throttle). The X52's mouse wheel emulator doesn't work very well and the control stick axes have more nonlinearity. The Pro version features a handier control stick load system (it's central but has a second compensating spring) and a more conveniently positioned display on the hands-on throttle. There are a number of smaller differences. In fact, those differences are all insignificant, even though the X52 Pro is generally more comfortable to deal with, but their price tags differ by about 50%!

These devices are not ideal (the exceedingly light central loading of the stick is perfect for precise aiming but piloting turns out to be sloppy, which is further worsened by the nonlinear response) but they have no rivals in terms of price/performance ratio. They virtually have no alternatives for today's modern plane simulators with lots of onboard equipment: the cheaper single-piece joysticks lack functionality for such games whereas the flagship HOTAS kits from the top three brands are much less affordable.

Let's discuss such top-end HOTAS kits now. I mean the Logitech Flight Control System G940, Saitek X-65F and Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog. They come at similar prices and each has its own peculiarities that can appeal to wealthy virtual pilots.

The Logitech Flight Control System G940 boasts the richest selection of accessories including separate flight pedals. It features force feedback for the control stick but is priced somewhat lower than its competitors. By the way, this is the only mass-produced joystick with bearings in its mechanics (but only in the control stick suspension).

Yes, the included pedals are downright poor, even though sturdy enough. They are inferior in ergonomics to any pedals selling separately. On the other hand, considering the price of the G940 as opposed to its competitors, they look like a free accessory. After all, they are no worse than the twist, anyway.

The feedback is quite good here, though. Although it doesn’t match the legendary Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback 2, which is still being hunted out by virtual flight aesthetes at online auctions, it is generally better than what you get with a regular force-feedback joystick.

Saitek’s top-end X-65F model is not really meant for everyone. It’s less ergonomic than both of its top-end competitors (even though without serious shortcomings in this respect) but the main problem is that it’s got a very unusual fixed control stick with strain sensors.

It’s control accuracy is immaculate and its reaction to the user’s effort is lightning fast which is due to both the strain sensors (there are no mechanical movements of the stick which would otherwise take some time) and to the electronics (a very high speed of polling the axes). The sensitivity of the strain sensors can be flexibly adjusted for each of the three axes (the control stick and the twist) independently, so you can easily set them up to your taste whether you prefer a weightless stick or thick the HOTAS Cougar too soft. A classic joystick cannot provide you such a broad adjustment range.

It takes a natural-born surgeon to wield this scalpel-sharp instrument, though. An ordinary mortal will find it hard to control his hand accurately enough whereas the strain sensors are too eager to record even the slightest of efforts, including accidental deflections in an unwanted direction, even a change in the angle of the plane the joystick is standing on!

This device has one problem. The axis of the left part of the composite control stick is not identified by many flight simulators.

Finally, the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog is an exact replica of the control stick and throttle (including the base with switches of the A-10C Warthog ground-attack aircraft). I've never met any other serially produced product to be so impressive at first sight. It really looks serious, reliable and authentic much more than the HOTAS Cougar.

Besides its stunning looks, this joystick features good ergonomics, excellent control accuracy and the best stick effort you can find among joysticks with the central loading design. The software capabilities are wide whereas the stiff buttons contribute to the impression of an authentic and solid military gadget.

The HOTAS Warthog is not without downsides, though. The control stick is somewhat loose (also along the "twist" axis which is not implemented in it physically). The software is not polished off and its interface is hardly intuitive. The control stick or throttle would occasionally malfunction with the earlier versions of the joystick's firmware.

This is also the most expensive option. Being the most expensive serially produced joystick by itself, the HOTAS Warthog calls for pedals (sold separately) because it lacks the twist (as in the Saitek X-65F) and the swinging bar (as in the old Saitek X45) and pedals (as come with the Logitech G940). Using it without pedals is like trying to save on your insurance or service costs after you buy a Rolls-Royce.

Conclusion

The perfectionists mentioned at the beginning of this review are right in their own way. Although joysticks can be used out of the box (there are very few downright bad samples), there have never been perfect joysticks as yet.

The biggest problem of every serially produced joystick is about some play in its mechanic parts. If the latter were immaculate (steel, bearings, laser cutting, milling machine processing and other luxuries), the resulting product would be much more expensive than today's ones. As for the electronics, the leading manufacturers have already polished it off well enough (except for the use of cheap potentiometers in low-end models). There are but occasional failures like the nonlinearity of the Hall sensors in Saitek’s products.

I hope you’ve picked up enough joystick-related knowledge from this review to make an informed shopping choice.