PC steering wheels group test review

PC steering wheel
Photo of PC steering wheels group test

Logitech’s WingMan Formula GP offering looks well made and sports snazzy, bright yellow, rubberised grip inserts in the rim of the steering wheel. It’s certainly comfortable to grip and the fingertip gearshift switches are in just the right place. There are also several other programmable buttons on the front of the steering wheel.

Logitech does offer a more expensive force-feedback version of this wheel, called Formula-Force GP, which also features USB compatibility, but here we’ve tested the cheaper version. Steering accuracy seemed to be pretty good, although the action of the wheel is extremely light, with minimal centre-position springing or dampening.

Slightly less impressive was the way the steering unit attaches to a desk. Thoughtfully, Logitech designed the system to avoid damaging the edge of a desk. However, we found that there wasn’t quite enough depth for the edges of some desks to fit and the two plastic clamps didn’t seem tight enough to hold the unit on as securely as we would have liked.

The foot pedal unit is pretty good. It is weighted and has a grippy underside to help avoid slippage. It also looked like it could take a fair amount of punishment, plus the action was smooth and consistent and there was plenty of range in the sensitivity, enabling realistic feathering of the throttle plus subtle braking. There was also plenty of cable between the foot pedal unit and the gameport, which meant positioning of the unit was never a problem.

On paper the Logitech WingMan Formula GP has a very simple specification, but it looks the part and is pleasant to use. No bundled games or demos are supplied.

The Microsoft Sidewinder Forcefeedback Wheel was the sole force feedback design we tested. The permanently-connected motor which provides this effect makes the feel of the wheel a bit rough even when it is switched off. It also requires mains power via a chunky transformer. In use, the force feedback effect is quite vivid. Its strength can be adjusted and it can be instantly switched on or off via an illuminated button in the centre of the wheel’s boss.

There are F1-style gearshift switches on the underside of the wheel, though these could have had a bit more travel and positive feel. Three programmable buttons are also featured on each side of the front of the wheel. The foot pedal unit is well made and felt solid.

This Sidewinder wheel only supports a USB connection. Luckily, there is comprehensive software supplied for setting this up, including some pre-set configurations for a selection of popular games. This included Monster Truck Madness 2, which is bundled with the wheel. This isn’t at the pinnacle of 3D game technology, nor of motor racing software, but it does demonstrate the use of the force feedback effect well.

Physically this wheel is well made and finished, though the design is slightly drab – it’s all black plastic with the only relief being dark grey rubber grip inserts. A particularly impressive feature, though, was its excellent clamping system with quick release. There was no problem in clamping this wheel to a thick table.

The Microsoft Sidewinder Forcefeedback Wheel is a Rolls Royce among PC steering wheels. It has more features than any other we tested, but its comprehensive specification is reflected in its price.

Fundamentally, all four of the PC steering wheels we tested performed the most important task at least adequately. All will make a big, positive difference to the enjoyment of playing racing car games on your PC. Some people will find one model preferable to another and we can only give you our own preferences.

We’re least impressed with the Trust Vibration Feedback Rally Master. The foot pedals aren’t as well designed as the others, the wheel switches aren’t very positive and the vibration feedback feature, while raising a few laughs, isn’t much more than a gimmick. We also weren’t very happy about the overly complex clamping system.

The Logitech WingMan Formula GP is a great looking wheel that is well made. It’s main failing is that its action is too light and it doesn’t have any out of the ordinary features. If you want a good looking but simple wheel, we can recommend it. The USB/force feedback version of this wheel could be well worth a look too.

For Ferrari fans especially, the Thrustmaster Modena 360 is well worth considering. It feels good to use and has the most authentic F1-style gearshifter. It’s also USB and gameport compatible. Accompanying software for re-mapping button functions is very comprehensive. This could make McLaren fans envious, especially if force feedback is not a high priority.

The most expensive wheel, Microsoft’s Sidewinder Forcefeedback Wheel USB, is brim-full with features, extremely well made and effective in use. Force feedback isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and it’s not as nice to use as, say, the Modena 360 when its force feedback is switched off. Its excellent quick-release clamp is supplemented by some good setup software and the bundled copy of Monster Truck Madness 2. If only the design could have been a bit more appealing to the eye.

If you know anything about racing cars, the name ‘Modena’ should automatically lead you to think ‘Ferrari’. Thrustmaster has managed to license the famous prancing horse Ferrari symbol, which dominates a yellow badge in the middle of the steering wheel boss.

The Modena 360 is interesting because the ‘real thing’ in Ferrari and F1 terms has clearly influenced its design. The shifter paddles are large wings sprouting from the column instead of glorified buttons – just like on a real F1 steering wheel or some of Ferrari’s road-going sports cars. Another interesting feature is that the paddles are actually split into two on each side. The extra functionality is designated for hand-controlled braking and throttle, although this isn’t an authentic F1 feature. Besides up and down gear shifts, an extra paddle for manual clutch control is usually found in real F1 cars, but not brake or throttle.

However, this addition does mean you don’t need to fit the bulky foot pedal unit if you can’t be bothered. The wheel itself mounts securely via a metal bolt with a plastic and rubber grip. It’s secure, but not as fast and easy to set up as the Microsoft Sidewinder arrangement.

The pedal unit was one of the better ones we tried and once again there was some thought put into the design. The brake pedal has much stronger spring, as you’d expect in a real car, than the throttle pedal. A small aside – the throttle pedal is extended downward, a design point in real sports cars so you can ‘heel and toe’ – brake and control the throttle with one foot at the same time.

Although the Modena 360 is not a force feedback model, it has generous centre-position springing and a feeling of dampening in its action, which makes it pleasant to use. This, combined with its digital motion sensing means steering control is easy and consistent. Another plus is support for both USB or traditional analogue game port interfaces. If that wasn’t enough, the wheel also features a pair of small thumb-operated switched joysticks which can be mapped to other types of game apart from the racing type.

A few years ago, the Swedish car company, Saab, unveiled an experimental prototype car that featured a joystick instead of a steering wheel. Little has been heard of it since. For playing games on your PC the common or garden joystick is unbeatable for general-purpose versatility. But if you’re seriously into car racing games or simulators a joystick simply won’t do. Maybe this is what Saab found out as well.

What you really need is a steering wheel, ideally complete with foot pedals. In this group test we look at four such devices, ranging from a basic specification through to a model featuring force-feedback and connection via USB port. While most models on the market cater for Formula One fans, we also looked at one model that seems to be aimed at rally fans in particular.

So what are the unique selling points to look out for when choosing a PC steering wheel? To start with, size and appearance will obviously be important. Real racing cars have surprisingly small steering wheels compared to your average family saloon car. Being compact, to a point, is good because you’re likely to have to bolt the steering wheel to the desk in front of your PC. Such PC steering wheels used to look very plasticky, but the standard of finish on current models is usually very high and some even feature leather-look trimmings.

Next, you need to decide how you want to change gear. Following the trend of Formula One, most PC steering wheels provide shifter switches that fall roughly where your fingers rest when gripping the wheel. For a near-perfect replica of a real F1 steering wheel, the shifter switches need to extend out in the form of ‘paddles’. Only a minority now offer a separate gear lever type shift.

Most PC steering wheel packages come with foot pedals, but it might be worth checking that these are included before you buy. Force-feedback is another feature being popularly touted. Whether this is a must-have feature really depends on the individual. Do be aware that not all games support this feature. If you see the word ‘digital’ in the specification, the motion sensing mechanism is probably more accurate than a standard analogue system. Finally, although cheaper PC steering wheels plug into the standard PC joystick port, there’s a growing trend for game control devices, including PC steering wheels, to be designed for use with USB ports.

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Trust’s offering in this group stands out for several reasons. For a start, the Vibration Feedback Rally Master has a garishly bright red wheel. It also has a separate gearshift as well as buttons on the underside of the wheel itself – in fact no less than two buttons on each side, but these couldn’t be described as ‘paddles’ in the F1 sense.

The wheel doubles as a conventional gamepad, with two clusters of four buttons on each side of the front of the wheel for compatibility with other games. There are also some fake instrument dials on a fake instrument panel. The desk clamp arrangement was the most complex of all, requiring a bag of bolts and bits of plastic. The foot pedals are the least convincing of the group, having a short travel and being a bit too flat in angle for comfort. Connection to the PC is via the traditional PC analogue game port, though some variations of the package are available with a USB adapter.

Then there is Trust’s ‘vibration feedback’ feature, which requires a mains power connection. A cynical mind might be moved to think this was a cheap way to imply force feedback was a feature of the product. Vibration feedback is not force feedback. It’s a much simpler and less expensive effect that introduces a vibration to the wheel when the wheel is turned or some buttons or the pedals are used. The more you turn the wheel or press a pedal, the stronger the vibration becomes. It’s completely independent of software. Actually, it does add a bit of a fun dimension to the driving experience, but if you don’t like it, you can switch it off.

The Trust Vibration Feedback Rally Master is really a very simple analogue game controller that works via the basic ‘two axes and four buttons’ Windows configuration. No driver software is supplied or required and our box did not contain any bundled games or even demos. The vibration feedback feature is novel, but not everyone will be impressed by it. If you really must have a separate gearshift, the Trust Vibration Feedback Rally Master has one, but it’s just a forward/backward two-switch affair.

Company: Thrustmaster

Contact: 020 8686 5600