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Friday, February 27: Hot Wheels

Robert Heron

For modern PC wheels, force-feedback (FF) technologies enhance the driving experience by simulating the texture of road surfaces and gravitational forces. While the overall qualities and support of FF effects are left to game developers to implement, the force-generating hardware within a wheel determines how these effects translate into the user's hands.

All the wheels we looked at utilized Immersion Corporation's ( TouchSense technology for the FF engine. We tested all wheels and accessories with our AMD test box equipped with an Athlon XP 2800, 512MB DDR memory, Radeon 9700 Pro, and a fully updated installation of Windows XP Pro, including DirectX 9, as well as the latest device drivers.

And the winner is...

Act Labs: Force RS, GPL USB Shifter, and Performance Pedals

The Force RS wheel (Windows) has been TechTV Labs favorite for years because of its heavy-duty design and near-perfect FF response. Despite its rather plain-looking exterior, gripping the leather-wrapped steering wheel imparts the feeling that this isn't a kid's toy.

The Force RS offers seven programmable buttons and a hat-switch on the spokes of the wheel, with three more buttons on the simulated dashboard. An F1-style shifter is integrated just behind the wheel. The included pedals are affixed to a rubber-covered metal base that is slip-free with most floor coverings. The pedals have a limited range of travel compared to the "performance pedals." Act Labs should offer its wheel with a choice of pedal designs.

The GPL USB Shifter and clutch pedal are designed to work with any steering wheel, but software support is another issue. Only NASCAR Racing 2003 Season properly supported simultaneous, multiple controllers—wheel, clutch/gas/brake, and shifter. Act Labs' racing products support USB as the primary connection, but with three or more USB racing devices connected simultaneously, software developers must incorporate support for "odd" axis assignments as well as specific gear shifting.

Despite the wheel/clutch/shifter support, the Force RS is the most convincing wheel we have ever used. It takes up more space and weighs more than the others, but its LEGO-like toughness and great mounting hardware deliver crisp, precise effects.

Thrustmaster F1 Force Feedback Wheel

Considering its worldwide popularity, F1 racing might as well be the official religion of motor sports. Thrustmaster's F1 Force Feedback (Windows) racing wheel does an admirable job of mimicking its namesake's aesthetic style, but the single-purpose design and unremarkable force feedback engine left us wanting more.

A real F1 steering wheel is a sub-$50,000 custom contraption complete with digital readouts and plenty of controls. Thrustmaster mimics the same "9-3" hand positions with the shifter placed perfectly for fingertip use. Unfortunately, the gas and brake levers, located beneath the shifter mechanism, travel to within less than a half inch of the wheel itself. Drivers with average-size digits had to reposition their hands or stick with the floor pedals.

Even with the force effects set to maximum level, the F1 Force Feedback couldn't match the variety of effects or strength offered by the other wheels.

As the more expensive wheel in this comparison, we expected better FF quality from Thrustmaster's F1 wheel.

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