Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback Wheel
Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback Wheel is similar to a joysticks in that it helps get you further into the game by making it feel more realistic. Most devices are input only (you send information to the game about what you want to do and it reacts to you), force feedback devices actually interact with you. Your actions trigger events on the screen, which in turn interact with you in the form of vibrations and shakes from the device, enhancing the gaming experience.
The Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback Wheel comes with the wheel, a set of pedals, a heavy-duty electrical plug, and a copy of Monster Truck Madness 2. This review will focus primarily on the wheel since the included software package is a bit on the stale side. To test the wheel, I tried the game with Need for Speed 2: Hot Pursuit 2 and the demo versions of Microsoft Rallisport Racing and NASCAR Thunder 2003 so that I would have a wide variety of games to try the wheel out on, as each game represents a different type of racing environment.
Installing the wheel is easy. You simply clamp the wheel to your desk; connect the wheel to the pedals via a RJ-11 cable; plug in the wheel to the power supply; and then hook it up to the computer via a USB cable. The device is automatically recognized by WindowsXP and the driver is installed. I did install version 4.0 of the SideWinder software just to see what was there but more on that later.
The clamping mechanism is solid. You slide the wheel where you want to install it, tighten the screw on the clamp, and then lock it in place with the clamp. Once you have it tightened down, it’s not going anywhere. You do need to make sure you have enough clearance below where you’re going to install it because the clamping mechanism does take some space. I would have preferred to install it onto my desk but with my keyboard tray right below it I was forced to relocate the keyboard and install the wheel on the keyboard tray. The wheel itself is very nice. It’s comfortable to grip and has notches for your thumbs and the main gripping part of the wheel (at the 3:00 and 9:00 positions) has a nice soft rubber coating. The wheel does take some getting used to, as it’s super-sensitive by default (you can change this setting within the control panel applet). While this is kind of a turn-off at first, you quickly get used to it and it’s no longer a problem.
The wheel does have a bit of a notchy feel (you can feel the gears that the wheel uses to transfer the turn information to the computer). I checked out some of the competitor products and all of the other wheels in this class exhibited the same behavior. The wheel is also a little loud under heavy turning but it’s not too noticeable if you are playing the game (I only noticed this when I let the girlfriend try out the wheel).
There are six buttons located on the hub of the wheel. They’re very easy to reach with your thumbs as long as you don’t move your hands from the grip area. The buttons have a nice solid feel and good feedback when pushed. The only gripe I have is that it would have been nice to have a small raised dot or line on the center buttons so that you know where you fingers are without looking at the wheel (I’m a kind of spaz and sometimes take my hands off the wheel so having something to help me relocate the right buttons in the middle of a race would be nice). With only three buttons, it’s not a big deal but there were a couple of occasions when I ended up pressing the wrong button as I tried to resituate my fingers.
The pedals are decent but not anything to write home about. They have a solid feel to them and aren’t too soft or hard. Both feet are needed to use the pedals, though, since they are a little far apart to effectively use one foot and keep the pedals on the floor. A couple of times, while slamming on the brakes, I pushed the pedals out of position (see the spaz remark above). It’s difficult to move the pedals with your feet without pausing the game to re-position them. As long as you use both feet and keep your ankles firmly planted on the base, you shouldn’t have any problems (I also pushed them up against the back of my computer desk and that worked as well). I’m not sure there’s much for Microsoft to do to solve this without putting in some soft carpet spikes or putting a “No Spaz” warning label on the box.
The highlight of the wheel (for me at least) is the two shifter paddles behind it. These are perfect and help performance in any game. For those who usually play racing games with a keyboard or joystick, unless you are L33T, you stick with the automatic transmission, which usually costs you some performance in game. The paddles on the Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback Wheel are near perfect. They’re the right size and have a fantastic feel to them. They allow you to use the manual transmission easily in any racing game. The SideWinder software allows you to create macro-like schemes that give you the ability to map several commands to one button. The software lets you program functionality for all six buttons and both shifter paddles. You simply enter a name for the command, and then enter the key (or keys) that you want to be sent when you push the button. It’s a easy way to bind multiple keystrokes to a button. You can save sets of these commands off as a scheme, which allows you to have different button combinations for different games. You’ll need to make sure that you don’t have the same button mapped to anything else in the game or you could have some nasty consequences.
The SideWinder software also allows you to customize the sensitivity and dead zone of the wheel to your liking, as well as letting you customize the force feedback settings. The most important of these is the Return to Center Tension. This basically controls how much the wheel will try to return to the center position and playing without it is difficult (you get the same effect if you turn the force feedback off). This is probably an acquired taste but something you should be aware of.
The force feedback function is also nice but is really dependant on the game you’re playing. Some games support this feature more than others. With the game support, the impact it has is amazing. I was impressed by NASCAR Thunder’s implementation of the force feedback. You could feel every shift, every bump in the road, and got a solid feedback when you hit the walls (or other drivers). The use of force feedback in RalliSport Challenge was also impressive with a different feeling for when you were on pavement and when you were on dirt which really amplified the game experience.
To get used to the wheel, I used the Free Run feature in Need for Speed. What is neat about the wheel is that almost every lap was better than the last as I adjusted to the wheel. It’s kind of rewarding seeing your best time get lower and lower each lap and, to be quite honest, I ended up doing a few more laps because the wheel is so much fun to just play around with. The impact with the other games I tested was the same. This is really the kind of peripheral that really makes an entire class of games.
If you are a die hard racing fan, then you probably want to have one of these around. It’s comparable to the other wheels in its class and it has Microsoft Hardware quality (note: I said Microsoft Hardware…not Microsoft Software, that’s a whole other issue). If you don’t play a lot of racing games, then the wheel probably isn’t of much interest to you because of the price. You could put that money towards a memory upgrade or other gaming hardware more in line with your personal gaming style. It would be also nice if Microsoft would include a better game with the package (adding Rallisport Challenge would sell a ton of these wheels).
The Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback Wheel is a solid but not perfect racing wheel for the true racing sim enthusiast.
Rating: 7.5 Above Average
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Hi, my name is Charles Husemann and I've been gaming for longer than I care to admit. For me it's always been about competing and a burning off stress. It started off simply enough with Choplifter and Lode Runner on the Apple //e, then it was the curse of Tank and Yars Revenge on the 2600. The addiction subsided somewhat until I went to college where dramatic decreases in my GPA could be traced to the release of X:Com and Doom. I have been a Microsoft Xbox MVP since 2009.