Normally I’m a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to the Christmas season. Well, truth be told, holidays not withstanding I reached curmudgeon status long ago, and I’m progressing nicely on the ‘crusty old’ part of “crusty old curmudgeon” as well. This year was different, though. Just before the post office began their annual hibernation, a package from Saitek arrived. I gave them a pretty good score on the reviews of their rudder pedals and AV8R joystick I wrote last month, so I wasn’t overly concerned that the shiny box might be a Trojan Horse containing anthrax or some other toxic substance (this reviewing gig ain’t all wine and Doom 2, you know), and sure enough I was greeted with one of the most aesthetically pleasing gaming peripherals I’ve ever seen upon opening the mysterious box. Yes, it was the Saitek X52 joystick and throttle combination, a simply gorgeous piece of gaming kit. What could be better than spending long hours putting this beauty through its paces, and what a perfect excuse to not participate in the annual Xmas stress-fest! In short, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I may have actually lapsed into the holiday spirit so foreign to us hermits!
Having already installed update Saitek drivers for my other peripherals, it was a simple matter to get the X52 installed and running. The throttle unit provides the USB cable and another cable connects the throttle to the joystick. This worked out well for me since I wanted the throttle positioned for my left hand, and my “almost-works” PC (it’s a long story…) is over on that side too. Being the impatient sort, my first goal was to get a feel for how the joystick worked for flying the helicopters in Battlefield 2, which is what I consider to be the “make or break” test for any joystick. As a comparison, this test proved the Saitek X45 I previously used to be unsuitable, but found the Saitek AV8R to be adequate. Of course, in all things aviation related we toss the unsuitable and strive to improve on the adequate.
The Saitek X45 was deemed unsuitable because of the overly strong break-out force to move it away from center. Flying a PC-based flight sim typically requires a good centering force, but also requires a lot of sensitivity around the center. In flying a helicopter, for example, it is critically important to be able to make very small corrections near the center of the stick’s throw. With the high break-out force of the X45, this was nearly impossible and commonly resulted in over controlling and pilot induced oscillations (PIO). With the X52 being similar in appearance and configuration to the X45, I was naturally curious as to whether this problem had been resolved. The answer, I’m happy to report, is an unconditional, resounding ‘yes.’ The X52 has very precise centering, but accomplishes it without brute force centering springs. The action around the center is extremely light and allows for very precise control. Now, this is an area that can cause other problems. If the centering force is light, and the full throw force is equally light, it becomes much too easy to over control. The X52 solves this inherent dilemma by having what felt to me like an increased resistance out toward the further reaches of the stick.
That said, I was initially shocked and awed by the extreme level of movement required to get an appreciable control input. Consider as comparison the level of stick movement required to get a response from my real-world airplane: my typical control input in making a turn is typically on the order of half an inch, if that much. I fly basically with fingertip control. To be fair, my airplane is an RV-6, a type known for its control responsiveness, so not necessarily representative of all stick-controlled airplanes. That having been said, helicopters are similar in their control responsiveness, so the butter-churning I was doing with the X52 is not realistic. But, is that bad? At first I thought it was, but once I took the time to get familiar with the required movements I realized that it was a good thing. One of the difficulties in flying sims is the lack of physical feedback, so it often becomes a matter of intense concentration on making minimal inputs to avoid PIO. With the wide range of the X52, however, I found it much easier to achieve good, solid control without the over-controlling that would occur with a tighter control throw. So, the X52 score on the BF2 chopper test: extremely good! When paired with the Saitek Pro Rudder Pedals, this is the control configuration that BF2 just screams for.
I then tested the setup with my favorite Microsoft Flight Sim plane, the Aeromacchi MB339 that I downloaded for the 2004 Century of Flight (FS9) version. This too was a very enjoyable experience, and offered the additional opportunity to utilize some of the 30 odd switches, buttons, sliders, and knobs, including a never-before-seen-by-me two-position finger trigger. Frankly, this level of control customization was daunting and I was only able to map a portion of the physical controls to virtual counterparts within the sim. For some reason, there seems to be a dearth of the sophisticated jet sims that seemed to be so common in the past. This stick/throttle combination just cries out for a sim with the complexity of the old Falcon sim, or the like. In any event, my testing was limited to the granularity of the FS9 controls but the capabilities of the X52 were readily apparent even in that limited test scenario. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for a more complex test suite in the future. In the interim, I grabbed a screenshot of the setup screen in order for you to see a 2D manifestation of the multitude of moving parts on this system.
As mentioned above, I think the X52 has to be one of the purtiest controls on the market today. It lights up like Times Square and looks great doing it, although some may find it overbearing and more than they want to look at. For them, Saitek allows the lights to be dimmed or turned off entirely in the configuration screens. The controls, both throttle and stick, have a nice hefty feel to them, and there is no feeling of the fragility one gets with lesser systems. The package included rubber suction cups that could be inserted into spots in the bases of both units which I found to be a significant feature. At best you can hold only one of the two controls, so at least one will have to be firmly attached to a flat surface. The suction cups grab hold very well, and have to be physically encouraged to let go when you want to put your toys away. I notice that the X45 has the same slots for the suction cups, but for whatever reason I never received them or long ago lost them. With the new system, I can finally throw away the bungee cord I’ve been using to lock down the throttle base.
Speaking of the throttle base, I have to mention the LCD screen Saitek has placed on its top surface. This screen is highly configurable and can display the current time from two different time zones (as a pilot, local time and GMT/Zulu time are the obvious choices), or it can be used as a timer. I was really impressed with its ability to be used to set comm and nav frequencies for the radios in Microsoft Flight Sim X, although it turned out to be a clunky feature to actually use in practice. Setting any given frequency requires moving a caret around to select the proper frequency, then another set of movements to set the actual frequencies. It turned out to be more of a distraction than a helpful feature to me, but your mileage may vary. I appreciate the thought that went into it, though. I also found it interesting, albeit slightly intimidating, when I noticed the title currently displayed in my Internet Explorer browser scrolling across the LCD screen. I’m not sure how I feel about that – it’s cool that it knows, but I really don’t see the utility of it.
All in all, the supple, silky feel of the joystick merged with the technical sophistication of the throttle unit combined to provide such a compelling experience in my beloved BF2 choppers that I completely forgot to live up to my reputation as a Holiday Season wet blanket. I became a BF2 hermit instead, and I imagine that was just fine with my family. While I strongly encourage Saitek to keep innovating, I’m not really very clear on what they can do to improve on the X52. I am extremely happy with it, and highly recommend it to gamers that are serious about their flight sims.