Sunday, 28 February 2016

Into space with the Saitek X52 Pro

Since Christmas I have been playing a lot of Elite Dangerous. It’s a great way to spend time - floating around in space, deciding what to do with an evening, heading off to achieve things and gradually increasing in rank and skill.

I cut my teeth (whatever that means) playing on a keyboard and mouse setup, which is … functional. At best. Online People say that a HOTAS setup changes the way the game plays entirely and is a must for any serious Elite player so I thought I’d give that a go.

After much deliberation (should I spend £270 on a replica of the flight controls from an A10?) I decided to go for the Saitek X52 Pro. It was, apparently, the stick used by Frontier Developments when designing Elite so should have good in-game support. There is a strong body of opinion that it is better than the newer stick, the X55, in terms of button placement and general feel (and saves £50 too). Plus it looks exactly like the joystick your avatar is using in the cockpit of your ship.

The good

  • the hardware is lovely - solidly built and satisfyingly weighty
  • ergonomic stick, adjustable and comfortable
  • button placement is equally good with most functions falling naturally under my fingers
  • I keep finding buttons - after a month of using it I suddenly discovered a small wheel on the throttle I hadn’t noticed before

The bad

  • the drivers are horrible - I mean really horrible
    • it took several attempts and a few blue screens to install
    • I have to plug the joystick in to the SAME USB port - I’m not quite sure how they’ve achieved that
  • the control software is horrible, although less than the drivers
    • saving the profile doesn’t seem to work properly
    • I have to manually tell it to load a particular profile before playing
    • in Elite some buttons can only be mapped after changing the default bindings in the profile
    • for some reason I seem to need the control software actually open to make some of the remapping work in-game
This is running the latest official Saitek / Mad Catz drivers on a Windows 7 machine.

So, did it change my life?

Well, kinda. It really has made a difference in game. I can perform manoeuvres that were next to impossible with the keyboard / mouse combo. More importantly, the feel of the game is indeed very different. The joystick and throttle really help with the immersion and even routine activities are a lot more fun.

On the other hand, the driver problems really tarnish the experience. I would struggle to recommend a Saitek device to others - especially since I’ve apparently got away lightly (the control software rarely crashes for me and my system remains stable). None of these problems are insurmountable but, basically, I expect a lot more from a piece of hardware costing in excess of £100.

I’m happy with where I am now, but it was far more work than I wanted to go through for a premium peripheral. If I decide to buy a new stick in the future I will be reading about the software support very very carefully before selecting my product and it will take a lot to convince me to buy anything with software by Mad Catz again. It’s a shame because the hardware is really very nice.