Space trucking and exploring in Elite: Dangerous. Dogfighting in Star Citizen. For the first time since the glory days of 1990s space sims, the flightstick is a must-have peripheral. An Xbox controller just can't compare to the feel of a flight stick and throttle, and you'll want every one of those buttons and switches for controlling a space ship or dogfighting above a Battlefield ground skirmish. We've tested out seven sticks to help you decide which to buy. If you're on a budget, never fear—one of our favorite sticks is a mere $50/£40.
Were it not for the Thrustmaster Warthog (listed below) I would be holding the Saitek X-55 Rhino up as the pinnacle of flightstick creation. It's an update to the popular X-52, but bears less resemblance to that futuristic-looking peripheral than it does to its rival. That's no bad thing: not only does it look more like a modern fighter-stick-and-throttle combo than the X-52, it's also more usable.
The stick layout is almost identical to the Warthog, although with three hat-switches rather than four. It also has interchangeable coil springs, enabling you to tailor the resistance to your taste. But the star of the show is that throttle: the action is beautiful and it too has the option to alter its resistance on the fly—and to a greater degree than the Warthog. It's also covered in mini-joysticks, hat switches, flick switches and rotary switches, giving you full rein over your game.
The downside is that the X-55 is made out of plastic, not the metal of the Warthog. The stick feels lighter, the buttons less robust. But that's comparing it to a device a good deal more expensive—you'd hope to be able to tell the difference. The X-55 is still miles ahead of the rest of the devices in this test.
Verdict: The Saitek X-55 Rhino is an excellent controller combo, only suffering by comparison to the flightstick/throttle big boy from Thrustmaster.
This has been my toughest challenge yet in trying to figure out an overall supertest winner. Usually I've got benchmark metrics to back up any value assessment I make, but with the top two controllers in these pages—the Thrustmaster Warthog and Saitek X-55 Rhino—it's entirely subjective and agonizingly close.
The Warthog is by far the more expensive, but as soon as you start the glorious unboxing process you know you haven't been short-changed. The sheer weight of the device is incredible, mostly because Thrustmaster has used a metal casing for everything from the throttle base to the stick itself. And that stick weighs over a kilogram on its own. The weight not only adds a certain air of robustness, but also means you're not going to be wrenching it off your desk in the heat of battle.
The design matches the build quality, although Thrustmaster cannot take all the credit there as the Warthog is an almost perfect recreation of the controls of the real-life A-10C Thunderbolt II fighter-bomber. That legacy leaves it with more buttons than you have fingers, but also makes it one of the most beautiful controllers you'll ever plug into your PC. Both stick and throttle have an abundance of hat-switches and the throttle base is festooned with flick-switches too.
Sadly that devotion to perfect replication means there's no Z-axis rotation on the stick, one of the very few minus points. With all those additional controls though, it's easy to map rudder control to any number of them.
The action on both flightstick and throttle is impeccable. The stick moves smoothly in all directions and the translation in-game is excellent too. There's enough resistance to stop it feeling loose, but it never feels overly stiff either. The throttle unit gives you the option to change its resistance on the fly if you want, enabling you to create more or less friction to its travel. There isn't a huge amount of difference, but for my tastes it already moves quite beautifully and the distance it can shift adds granularity to speed—perfect for docking in those tricky space stations.
It might seem crazy to be recommending such an expensive item, but if you're serious about sims—or Elite: Dangerous—this stick is the very best money can buy.
Verdict: An incredible device with an equally incredible price tag—but you won't feel ripped off once you get the Thrustmaster Warthog out of its box. It's our pick for a top-of-the-line flightstick.
The Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X is testament to the fact that you don't have to spend a fortune to get a good stick. It's of a much cheaper build and design than the Warthog, but for a tenth of the ticket price you can forgive the use of plastic and lack of buttons and hats.
The key elements are there. The detachable throttle is probably the neatest feature: given that you're going to need easy access to your keyboard for its extra buttons, being able to split these components around it is a definite advantage.
It's also got the much-needed Z-axis rotation for rudder control, although the press of a switch will enable you to operate the rudder via a rocker on the front of the throttle grip. You get plenty of programmable buttons too, but they feel very much the sort you'd expect to find on a budget controller.
The action on the stick and throttle aren't great either, and you'll likely notice some grunching plastic noises as you push and pull the controller around. But it's still robust and feels solid on the desk. If you can't convince yourself an X-55 or Warthog is a sensible purchase, then this extremely good-value offering from Thrustmaster is not a bad option at all.
Verdict: Definitely a step down from the big boys, but the Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X represents great value and offers a pretty decent feature-set as well. It's our favorite affordable flightstick.
Just a few short years ago, there wasn't much reason to own a PC joystick. Realistic flight sims were rare, and exciting space dogfighting sims were even rarer. But now you don't have to be an elite Battlefield helicopter pilot or a diehard sim addict to need a flightstick. With space games like Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous around, X-Wing and TIE Fighter available for download on GOG, and more space sims on the horizon, it's time for a new stick to take its rightful place on your desk.
Aren't they hideously expensive?
You can spend the sort of money generally reserved for a new graphics card on Thrustmaster's Warthog. But you can get an experience that's very close for a fraction of the price. Check out the broad selection of controllers below.
For serious simulation you're going to need throttle control. This is the biggest thing that separates the joypad from a flightstick setup, and the granularity of speed it delivers when dogfighting can mean the difference between virtual life and virtual death. So that's number one: make sure your stick comes with a decent throttle.
Does that mean I need a separate throttle controller?
No, but the best and most respected flight controllers do come with an entirely separate control for the throttle, with extra toggle switches and LEDs. Others, such as the AV8R, have the throttle control built onto the base of the stick itself. So long as there's a decent amount of travel in the throttle you'll have a good level of control in-game.
How many buttons do I need?
Some of the controllers in this test have gone overboard on that front. But sims do demand a lot of different controls and having them all directly to hand can be incredibly useful. Just don't forget that your trusty keyboard can make up for any buttons lacking on your controller. You will need at least four buttons arrayed around the stick itself and ideally a hat-switch on the top of it.
Anything else I should look out for?
Maybe it's time we spoke about the Z-axis. Traditional joysticks just have pitch and roll control—forward, back, left and right—but some are configured for 3D movement. That means as well as controlling the X and Y axis you can also twist the stick clockwise or anti-clockwise to control the Z-axis. Generally this is used to control yaw and replicate the rudder controls of an aircraft.
In space that three dimensional control can be vital for accuracy, especially when you're zeroing-in behind an escaping Sidewinder in an Elite dogfight. On a stick with other controls which can mimic the rudder that's not such an issue, but on budget sticks which allow no such added control it is sorely missed.
Terms to know
HOTAS: This exciting acronym stands for the rather mundane-sounding 'Hands-On Throttle And Stick' and denotes a dual controller where one hand rests permanently on the throttle and the other remains on the stick.
Hat switch: A multi-directional button akin to the d-pad on a modern controller. On a flightstick, however, the d-pad has a hat on top which the thumb can easily push to activate the switches. They come in 4-way or 8-way flavors.
CH Products may not be a familiar name to most of us, but search through Google Image and you'll find a host of old-school beige controllers as well as serious simulators. The company mainly makes that serious sim stuff now, including mock Cessner cockpits, and their designs are far more about function than form.
By that I mean they're pretty damn ugly. Naturally, you're likely to be more concerned with staying alive mid-dogfight than what the chunky controller you're clinging to looks like, but when you're paying this much cash for the privilege you at least want something that looks like it was torn out of real-life jet-fighter and not from Toys R Us.
The Fighterstick remains a serious device and has the most extensive flightstick travel of all the controllers in this test. That enables very accurate fine-grain control, and the classic X/Y axis style lets you quickly wrench the stick in all directions too.
The Pro Throttle (you can buy each part individually if you wish) is a bit of a disappointment. The grip itself is fine, with a selection of hat switches and programmable buttons, but the linear movement feels underwhelming. Where the Saitek and Thrustmaster throttles move in a satisfying arc the Pro Throttle moves along a flat axis. It's also got a short travel compared to the other devices.
Considering that this is more expensive than the X-55 Rhino (in some outlets by quite a long way) it's not a pairing that I can particularly recommend. You'll feel far more satisfied having pulled the X-55 from its packaging and installed it on your desktop than the retro-styled Fighterstick and Pro Throttle. In operation it's not bad, but it can't justify its incredibly high price.
Verdict: A very expensive, ugly-looking gaming peripheral that struggles to justify itself in a tough market.
Speedlink's Black Widow is another good value flightstick. Its problem is that the HOTAS X above occupies almost exactly the same space on the price list.
On first slipping this device from its packaging, those fat tiddlywink buttons on the base had me worried about its overall quality. But in-game it's actually very usable. The throttle, although not detachable, is still able to deliver a decent level of control, especially when compared with the flightsticks that simply offer a little lever in their base.
The best thing about the Black Widow, however, is its chunky stick; it feels comfortable in the hand and you can easily access the various buttons. Because of the old-school X/Y axis setup you also get a decent degree of travel from the stick, giving you a fair amount of control as you traverse the heavens. The only problem is that the trigger seems to have been forced onto the Atkins diet—that skinny button just doesn't feel satisfying to pull at.
The Black Widow also lacks the Z-axis rotation I've come to rely on in Elite: Dangerous. It does offer the same rocker axis on the front of the throttle as the HOTAS X to control your rudder, but that isn't as easy to access mid-dogfight.
Thrustmaster's HOTAS X simply offers a better level of control for around the same amount of cash. The extra buttons and the added Z-axis rotation make things a lot easier to control, but it's the X's detachable throttle that really makes the difference. The Black Widow remains a decent budget alternative to the expensive flightsticks, despite its chunky basic layout, but sadly for Speedlink Thrustmaster seems to have got both the top and bottom of the market all sewn up.
Verdict: A surprisingly effective stick and throttle combo, and good value for the money, but lacking some of the finer points.
Although long in the tooth, the Saitek AV8R Pacific is still a pretty effective flightstick. The tall shaft allows you to really throw it around and the relatively wide base means that it doesn't fly off your desk when you do. Unfortunately it isn't that comfortable for long sessions; it doesn't have the ergonomic design of the others and puts a lot of pressure on your wrist after a while.
Still, the buttons on the head of the flightstick are easily accessible, and while the solitary hat- switch at the top may be small, the way it sits proud makes it easy to get at too.
Where AV8R falls down is that throttle control. Its placing on the front of the base may be good for left-handers—to be fair this is the only stick in the test to even consider them—but having to operate it with your fingertips is fiddly.
When you've got the HOTAS X at such a tantalizingly price, this isn't much competition.
Don't ask me what's so extreme or professional about any of the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro's three dimensions. The only extreme is the angle of the stick itself, and that's my biggest gripe, as whenever I found myself trying to engage in a steep dive, throwing the stick forward, it made the hand-rest dig into my wrist.
My other issue is with that afterthought of a throttle added to the base, seemingly just because someone at the end of the design process figured they ought to jam one in for another tick on the feature list. It's designed to be operated with the thumb while your left hand controls the six extra buttons tightly crammed onto the base. This is an ideal situation for neither set of controls. The 90-degree rotation of the throttle affords little fine-grain control and the base buttons are too cramped to be usable without looking directly at them.
The head of the stick is better laid out, with a thumb button and trigger as well as four other buttons arrayed around the single hat switch at the top of the shaft. Just the same, the hat switch is still a little awkward to reach and its dimpled top makes it a bit of a struggle to pull down with any accuracy or speed.
The short travel of the stick and the wide base make it very stable, but the rest of the extreme, professional design is a let-down.