HOTAS-Up: Saitek X52 vs. CH Products
Saitek X52 ($130)
X52 if you want a good, simple setup. CH Products if you’re a maniac who doesn’t mind fiddling with third-party apps and keybindings. TrackIR everywhere, all the time.
The Saitek X52 is one of the most common HOTAS setups out there. This means most games compatible with joysticks will instantly recognize it as an input device, and in some cases (like Elite: Dangerous), feature a premade profile specifically designed for it. The X52 also only has one USB cable to worry about, whereas each CH Products device has its own. This can eat up your ports pretty quickly unless you invest in a USB hub.
The stick and throttle themselves don’t feel particularly sturdy, but ours seem to have held up so far (UPDATE: the joystick died after around five years of faithful service). The movement on the stick is great; it offers a good amount of resistance without being tiring, and doesn’t snap too hard to the middle. The throttle is a little tough to move but both devices feature suction cups on the bottom that help keep them from sliding around. The stick also swivels, which means you don’t need to invest in pedals (unless you want to).
CH Products’ gear feels like it hasn’t changed since the 80s, and that’s awesome. Everything is matte black, grey, and red, just like you’d expect to find in an F-14. The stick and throttle feature way more buttons than the X52 (44 vs. 23), which makes it much easier to bind everything you need to them. In my opinion, if you have to touch the keyboard, you’re doing it wrong. Both the X52 and CH Products devices feature mode switches, which can multiply the number of buttons by switching between button sets, but I like to keep everything on one mode for simplicity.
The CH devices are heartily built, and the movement on the pedals and throttle is great. The stick snaps pretty hard to the middle, however, which can make it difficult to execute smooth movements. By default, your computer treats the stick, throttle, and pedals as three separate devices. CH Products’ free software, CH Control Manager, can be used to trick Windows into treating them as one device, which is sometimes required if you’re playing an older game. The software is a little tricky to use and crashes occasionally, but it can be pretty powerful with the right amount of configuring.
If you’re a bit hesitant to invest over $100 in a joystick, 1) you’re a sane person, and 2) there are cheaper options. I know Danny O’Dwyer of GameSpot to be a fan of the Mad Catz F.L.Y.5 ($60) and Amazon seems to like the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro ($32). And then there’s always the trusty Xbox 360 Controller ($27), which I guess can work for flight sims, but I’d definitely miss having a throttle T-bar.
The X52 is a great plug-and-play HOTAS option. The devices are solid and feature enough buttons, knobs, and sliders to accommodate pretty much any game. CH gear will set you back a bit more than the X52, and will likely require hours of fiddling to get things just right, but once that’s done, the feeling of playing with fully configured CH devices is immensely satisfying.
Regardless of the control device(s) you choose, I would highly recommend you get a TrackIR if you’re serious about flight sims. I may even recommend getting a TrackIR before getting a joystick. You can have an amazing stick and throttle, but if you have to hold a button to pan your view to follow an enemy plane that just flew by, you are already dead.
Note: I’ve made PDF layouts for each of these sticks, if that’s your thing!