A good controller can transform a game from unplayable to totally addictive. Nobody in the real world steers a car, bike or plane by pushing buttons on a keyboard, and when you feel the difference you'll know why.
When selecting a game controller, you should always test the way it feels in your hand, as comfort is the most important factor to be considered.
Accuracy and build quality are obviously important, too, but if you spend around the price of a good game on one of the top brands, you can be pretty sure that these will be adequate (I've seen very few joysticks priced under $50 that I would consider worth buying). This leaves features and comfort as the main selection criteria, and both of these are largely matters of personal preference.
Three of the most popular controller brands are Logitech, Microsoft and Thrustmaster, and their latest offerings all provide accurate and reliable control through a USB connection. Since I'm a flight sim fan, I'll look at a joystick from each company - but if you're into other popular controllers, like steering wheels or gamepads, all three manufacturers make fine examples of these. Likewise, each company makes several joystick models, and you should try out several at a major shop before deciding which you prefer.
Force feedback made its appearance in game controllers a couple of years ago, and joysticks with this feature have become smaller and less expensive since then. The WingMan Force 3D is Logitech's second-generation model to feature this technology, which seeks to enhance your game experience by pushing against your hand at appropriate times, such as when firing weapons. The WingMan Force 3D incorporates small electric motors in its base, and these provide an adequate amount of force, though they make a slight whining noise from time to time.
The smooth, contoured handle of the WingMan suited the size of my hand well, though it may not be perfect for those with shorter fingers (the Microsoft Precision 2, by contrast, seems to be built for smaller hands than mine).
Its eight-way hat switch is well positioned, though I'm not sure I liked the arrangement of the other four top buttons. The throttle, though, was the best of the three. Like the others in this review, the WingMan incorporates a twist action which is ideal for rudder control, and I recommend that any joystick you buy should include this feature.
The SideWinder Precision 2 from Microsoft uses an optical system to detect the position of the handle, and consequently it's very precise and reliable. It features an unusual secondary fire button which some people like and some don't - I'm one of the latter, and prefer the previous version of the SideWinder. However, it works, and you may well like the new button arrangement.
Finally, the Thrustmaster Fox 2 Pro is a solidly-built, wide-based joystick with rubber inserts for improved grip. Its handle is thicker than the others, and sports a flip-up plastic safety cover over the secondary fire button. This is a cute-looking gimmick, but in practice it tends to get in the way and I just left it open all the time.
All three joysticks have good build quality and will do a fine job on flight simulators. The choice is really a matter of which one you find best fits your hand and usage style.
Logitech WingMan Force 3D
Phone: (02) 9972 3711
Microsoft SideWinder Precision 2
Phone: 13 2058
Thrustmaster Fox 2 Pro
Phone: (02) 8303 1818