Saitek has taken the plunge and developed the first force sensing joystick for the mass market. Coupled with a split throttle quadrant it seems Saitek is having a serious assault on the Logitech G940 and the yet to be released Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS. 159th_Jojo takes a look at the X65F in depth...
For sometime I’ve been looking around for a HOTAS with a split throttle because I suppose I’d like more realism in my cockpit. Up until now I’ve been using the X52 Pro, which has been pretty good but I noticed that some of the switches were starting to play up. Originally I was quite interested in Logitech’s G940, but the reviews for it weren’t great and it lacked certain buttons and sliders that I find useful for Lock On FC and Black Shark. I saw a prototype picture of the X65F back in October and I was impressed by concept of it and the new Force Sensing stick. The X65F wasn’t released in the UK until mid March. I managed to secure mine from overclockers.com.
The HOTAS arrived in a large buff colored box. I was impressed by how well packed it was. The first thing I noticed was how well packaged it was and that it came with a printed manual and a software/driver disk. As well as a demo of Lock On Flaming Cliffs. I spent 20 minutes getting all the bits out and working out how to fix the back control panels to the throttle.
Once setup out of the box I installed the software and did a basic test of all the buttons and axes to see if they all worked. I have to say that I like the new look control panel and the SST key-mapping program.
The Joystick doesn’t move at all. When you hold it for the first time and look at the bullseye axis control graphic, it is very weird to see the cursor move around. It comes with four preset, and user editable, settings for the amount of force required on the back panel that attaches to the throttle quadrant. So in theory you can have different profiles for different stages of flight. The stick has four hat switches along with two red push buttons just like the Thrustmaster Cougar or the CH Combat Stick. It also has a button at the base on the stick near where the pinkie rests and further out there is a paddle switch/lever, again like on the Cougar. The SST software will allow the user to set any button or switch as a shift modifier, which is pretty cool. As well as the X/Y axis, the stick also has a force sensing twist (Z) axis; this can be locked if you have rudder pedals (as I have).
One thing to point out here is that this stick was designed for large hands and there is no adjustment possible, which is a pity. I solved this by using some of the thin foam to create a cushion that works quite well. It does come with a plate that extends the hand rest that is designed is to improve control of the stick. I would advise people to use this as it smoothes out the sensitivity of the joystick a lot.
For me this was what this HOTAS was all about. My enthusiasm was dampened however by the news that Flaming Cliffs 2 doesn’t recognize the split throttle, which is an oversight on the developer’s part since it works in the original Flaming Cliffs. However, the developer has said it is waiting for Saitek to provide it with an X65F so that the issue can be addressed.
The first thing to say is that the throttle with the panels attached, has a much larger footprint than the X52 Pro. In fact, so much so, that I’m considering removing it and placing it elsewhere in my pit. The throttle bristles with five hats, a mini-stick, three rotaries, one button and a four-position mode switch. The mode switch sits where the slider would be on the X52 Pro. The sheer number of options here is astounding. The rotary under the left pinkie functions as a zoom by default in FC2.0, which is great.
Now we come to the best bit, the throttle paddles can be latched together by a pin on the left side or pulled out to allow independent control. I have to say that the throttle is very stiff and hard to move and the adjustment is on the rear, but requires a hex key (Allen key) to turn the screw. I checked this out on the web and others have reported that this screw can strip quite easily, I undid it as much as I could but the throttle was still not as free to move as I would like. I have since been told that it should slacken off in time… We shall see.
With the throttle being so stiff it is hard to feel the idle and afterburner detents. I rely on these and this could be a major factor on whether this HOTAS works out for me. Ergonomically the throttle is a bit clumsy. The designer for the throttle must have had weird shaped hands as some of the hats do not sit where they should, especially those that lie under the fingers. It is very easy to catch them while pulling the throttle back and this detracts from an otherwise well thought out throttle.
One thing I noticed is the throttle has less travel that the X52 Pro, which means it is less precise. It is harder to make small adjustments. This may be a problem for those who enjoy formation flying; I’ll need to try this out with one of my Fighter Wing squad mates in the 159th first!
If you use other Saitek Pro series equipment such as its rudder pedals, then you need to follow this installation order.
1. Install rudder software only
2. Install other devices (drivers only)
3. Install X65F driver software
4. Install X 65F SST programming software. Not the general SST software!
Clicking on the system tray icon for each device and selecting Profile Editor will bring up the correct editor for your HOTAS, rudder pedals or throttle quadrant (which I have installed).
Check Saitek online for the latest drivers/software.
Having a great looking HOTAS is one thing, but one that is functional and easy to use is another. My experience has been mixed with previous incarnations of SST. One of the main issues I’ve had in the past has been in it recognizing left and right shift, control and alt. The developers of Flaming Cliffs 2.0 have for some reason or another changed the command keys and uses the right alt/shift/control keys and as such I was banking on the new SST to play ball. I played around with it for some time and I did get a profile up and running after a few hours. However the software is still buggy and it took several attempts to get some macros to work. But this may be a combination of problems between the mapping system and FC2.0, however it is a vast improvement to what I had previously.
Having spent a couple of evenings exploring and testing the stick and SST software, I embarked on creating a simple profile for a flight test on Flaming Cliffs 2.0. I had decided that rather than wreck my current setup that I use for 159th squad nights, I’d install Windows 7 64bit on a spare disk. I wanted to see how the new stick did on a fresh install so that there were no possible conflicts from the old X52 Pro and SST software.
The install took most of an afternoon. The profile for the Su-33 took most of the rest of the afternoon and evening, and there are one or two bits left to do as I write this. Overall the whole process was OK, there were a few problems with the key mapping but these were mostly solved easily. I managed to keep 99% of the stock key commands for the keyboard except for the wing fold. I couldn’t get FC 2.0 to accept the mapped command. There must be a delay issue and I’ll need to explore this another time.
One of the things that I hate is that each aircraft has to be individually setup, which is a pain. So I focused on the Su-33 but will have to program the rest at some point later.
For the first flight I left the Force Sensing setting on default and the axis free of curves or deadzones. In the air the stick was very sensitive and it's very strange you almost have to think the stick movements (Firefox anyone?). I went through the four presets and they ranged from extreme pressure required (F1) to very twitchy (F4). The pitch axis was especially sensitive and my aircraft seemed to porpoise a lot. I don’t know how much of that was me getting used to force sensing, or just a lack of calibration. I spent two or three hours going backwards and forwards adjusting first the force setting and then adding some curves to the profile in-game. I eventually came up with two switchable force profiles that seemed to work well. One was for small inputs for carrier landing or formation flying and the other for combat. The pitch setting is still not perfect but I’m sure that will just take a few more days to fix.
One thing became very clear, this stick requires that you keep the aircraft trimmed or your hand will get very tired. Whereas the X52 Pro and CH Combat Stick are quite slack and allow you to compensate for an untrimmed jet, this stick doesn’t. So check your trim especially on landing.
All in all this is one hell of a HOTAS. The construction is excellent and feels very solid. The hats and buttons are good and don’t feel sloppy at all. I think Saitek have provided more than enough for most simulators. The only drawback here is the positioning of the hats on the throttle, they are very easy to accidentally press when using the throttle levers. I’ve not tested the HOTAS in Black Shark or any other sim, so I can’t comment on how it fares, but since I fly mainly jets, this baby will do for me.
If you're happy with the HOTAS you have then there is no big reason to change (unless you want a split throttle). At nearly £300 this stick is quite pricey, however you’ll get a decent HOTAS with software that does what is says on the tin.