Saturday, October 11, 2014

Three Flight Simulator Joysticks for DOS

I want to compare and contrast the three DOS-era joysticks I own suitable for DOS Flight Simulators, Racing Simulators and the like.

1.  CH Flightstick Pro

One of the first modern joysticks, this almost-completely ambidextrous joystick has four buttons, a 4-position hat switch, two trims and a throttle wheel.  The throttle wheel acts as the Y-axis of the second joystick.  The 4-position hat switch is implemented as button combinations.  Hat up is buttons 1,2 3 & 4, Hat down is buttons 1, 2 & 3, Hat right is buttons 1, 2 & 4 and Hat left is buttons 1 & 2.  Due to this, the individual buttons will not register simultaneous button presses.  Button 1 will have priority over buttons 2, 3 and 4, button 2 will have priority over buttons 3 and 4 and button 3 will have priority over button 4.

This joystick is by far the "loosest" of the three.  The stick offers little resistance and it seems you can move the stick much further than you would think.  With my joystick the trims frequently get dislodged, causing things to go haywire.  I put electrical tape over them to keep them in place.

To open the joystick, you must dislodge all four of the rubber feet around the edges to get at the screws.  This is annoying because you can scrape the sticky stuff holding the rubber feet to the bottom off.

The stick's design has been very popular over the years, and the basic design is still being sold today in a USB form.

2.  IBM 76H1571 Joystick

Despite IBM introducing the PC joystick interface in 1981, I believe this may be the only IBM-branded joystick released for the PC-compatible platform that is suitable to hold in your hand.  It was made for IBM by Anko Electronic Co., Ltd., and was branded for its Aptiva line of computers.  Its for right handed people only.

It has four buttons, a 4-position hat switch, two trims, a throttle wheel and a pair of two position switches.  This joystick is fully Thrustmaster Flight Control System compatible, where the hat switches represent resistance values of 0.2 (Up), 20 (Left), 40 (Right), 60 (Down), 82 (Center) kOhms on the Y-axis of the second joystick.

The left switch, when set to the right position, enables Thrustmaster compatibility.  When set to the left position, it disables the hat switch and allows the throttle wheel to function on the Y-axis of the second joystick.  It does not provide full CH Flightstick Pro compatibility because the HAT switch is disabled.

The right switch, when set to the left position, enables rapid fire action for button 1 only.  The right position is normal button operation.

Unlike the other two joysticks, it has suction cups on the base.  It also has steel weights screwed into the inside of the base to give it extra weight.  This stick has the stiffest feel and the travel distance feels short.  The screws for opening the stick are all completely visible.

As I do not own a true Thrustmaster joystick, I do not know how well the build quality or stick and button action compare to the real thing.  Even still, it fills a hole in my joystick collection.

3.  Microsoft Sidewinder 3D Pro

Microsoft's first joystick shows a transition between DOS-compatible hardware and Windows-feature hardware.  It is more-lefty friendly than the IBM stick, but despite its shape it is not truly ambidextrous.  It has four buttons and a hat switch on the stick, a throttle wheel and the stick can be twisted for a X-axis.  It has four buttons on the base and a mode switch on the bottom of the base with two positions.

The CH and IBM joysticks use traditional potentiometers to indicate stick movement and need the trim controls.  The Microsoft joystick uses optical sensors to determine stick movement and converts the data into an analog resistance value.  There is also a "digital" mode which allows for direct optical support, ultra precise input and the use of the four buttons on the base, but the driver must have explicit support for it with DOS.  The four extra buttons on the base of the stick also require specific driver support.  The Windows drivers should allow for full game support.  As far as I know, only Mechwarrior 2 for DOS supports the "digital" mode of this stick.  Descent does not and Descent 2 does only with its Windows version.

Unfortunately, this stick may only be compatible in its digital mode with Windows 95 or 98.  I have read that it can be tricky to get working in ME, 2000 or XP.  You may want to try and build a gamepad to USB converter.

The mode switch, when set to the 1 position, enables full CH Flightstick Pro compatibility.  When set to the 2 position, it enables full Thrustmaster FCS compatibility.  Due to the way the Hat switch works in these modes, the hat switch is only a four way switch.  (This also applies to the CH and IBM sticks).  The twisting function is recognized in either mode, so it will register as input on the 2nd joystick's x-axis.

There is one notable flaw in the design, the throttle control.  The throttle control rubs plastic against plastic and is particularly open to attracting dust and debris through the slot.  There is grease that will need to be cleaned out and replaced.  My stick's throttle control is very stiff, some lubricant can help.

The lack of trims is both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that your joysticks will not drift because the trims get adjusted.  The curse is that you may not be able to get a perfect center for your game.  Depending on how sensitive your game is, it may throw you the game's calibration off.

To open the stick requires not only removing the feet on the "tips" of the joystick but also a screw covered by the Microsoft label on the bottom.  There are weights on each side of the stick for balance.  One optical sensor handles all four joystick axes.

One thing to note is that this stick's DA-15 connector does not have all the pins on it.  Pins 5, 8, 9, 12 and 15 are not  supposed to be present on the connector.  If you see a stick for sale with these pins missing, do not let it faze you.

The Microsoft default drivers for this stick in Windows are very speed sensitive.  This stick was released during the Pentium era, but apparently the designers did not future proof their drivers because the stick will go haywire with a Pentium III.  This is despite the optical encoders having the precision of a mouse.  Fortunately there are custom drivers that will allow you to get an adjustable speed setting, to a point.

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