People are different, and there is much debate about the best controller type for Elite: Dangerous (ED). If keyboard only, or mouse + keyboard, is your thing, then I am not going to try to dissuade you. For me, though, joystick and throttle controls seem the most natural and effective (perhaps improved by pedals, but I have yet to try my new pedals).
I still rate the X-box controller too, for a more relaxed, leaning back, type of game-play, but for sheer precision and smoothness the joystick/throttle combo wins hands down for me. It also feels more like I imagine flying a spaceship would feel, though in the future I am sure there would be plenty of other ways to actually fly a spaceship!
I graduated from a F.L.Y. 5 stick/throttle combo to the X52 Pro. The F.L.Y. 5 is a perfectly adequate product, with very varied reviews on reliability and build-quality. I reviewed it here. At £140 (vs. £40), the X52 Pro is more than 3 times the price, so I was expecting a significant step up, and, so far, I am not disappointed. Released in 2006, it is far from cutting edge, (though it has been improved a little), but this also means it comes with a proven track record of precision and durability.
The two controllers (joystick and throttle) are both built with large rectangular plastic bases. They are a good weight, feel sturdy, and fit my average male hands very comfortably, (the joystick has a height adjustment for the palm rest and is good for me set one of six slots up from the lowest/tallest position). They are rather large units, so those with limited desk space will either have to cope with unsticking and re-sticking the suction cups that are provided, or find another method of temporarily mounting them. I went for the low-tech approach of mounting them on a plank of wood, (backed with rubber to prevent movement), which I can easily and quickly remove from my desk and store elsewhere.
a low-tech solution to limited desk space
Joystick movement is smooth, and the dual- spring tensions quite light. In fact, the springs are perhaps too light for some, with a very small amount of slack in the centre. There is a simple mod for this, (actually more popular on the X52, which has even weaker springs, but said to help an X 52 Pro too). I tried the mod, however, and realized I didn’t prefer the extra spring tension, as it felt too tight. For me, the stick is working as intended, with only very light pressure needed for very small movements. There appears to be no dead-zone at all, the tiny amount of slack is almost unnoticeable in use, and I think I will naturally learn to compensate for it without much trouble. Some people will prefer a tighter spring, however. The most telling result for me is that, within 10 minutes of use, I found this stick makes me fly far more smoothly and accurately than with the F.L.Y. 5, and is also more pleasant to use. It makes flying in ED even more of a joy, and brings a smile to my face!
There are 2 mini-hats on the joystick, and 1 on the throttle, (see below for how to check these are configured as 8-way). The mini-hats are not analogue. There is also a smooth twist to yaw function, with short travel, that can be locked if pedals are used for yaw. There are a wealth of buttons which can be assigned as needed, though the profile editor is required to liberate some for ED (see below for details). The X52 Pro is detected by ED and a reasonable setup provided, though I customized mine somewhat (again, see below).
The throttle is also nice and smooth, has a good range of adjustable tension, and a nice assortment of well position buttons, a mini-hat, slider and mouse controller. It has one major drawback: It comes with physical 2 detents at about 15% and 85% throttle. Why, I don’t know. I can’t imagine there are many games/flight-sims where these detents match exactly with requirements, and so would need configuring, (and not all planes have afterburners, for example!). In any case, they are annoying in ED, where fine control throughout the range of travel is desired. There is any easy fix, (see below), which anyone with a Philips screwdriver, pliers, and basic D.I.Y. skills can do. If you don’t want to invalidate your warranty, however, you will need to find a way to live with the detents.
All the buttons, knobs, sliders and hats feel robust and positive in their action. Many of the buttons are lit by LED’s, and most of these LED’s have selectable colours (red, amber, or green). Not only does this look great, but it also makes locating buttons easier when playing in low light. The throttle has an MFD screen, which can be used to switch profiles on the fly, and display various pieces of information. This screen is largely useless if only used for ED, but may be useful if playing other games or flight-sims with the X52 Pro.
oooh… pretty lights!
There are many comments in flight-sim forums, which highlight some weaknesses of the X52 Pro, when measured against higher priced controllers. The main criticisms are that the springs are too light and allow for too much slack at the center, (though I remain unconvinced on this point); also, the magnet sensors are, apparently slightly too weak/placed too far from the sensors, which causes a slightly non-linear and less sensitive response. I haven’t noticed either issue as a problem in game, though I may well try the mods relating to to the magnets if I feel this could improve my ED experience, (or just out of sheer curiosity). I’m not going to link the magnet mod(s) here, until I have tried it/them myself.
In summary, the X52 Pro is a great mid-priced controller for ED. Along with the X-box controller it, and the X52, are often featured in dev and fan videos, and I can now see why. If I had been able to source the X52 Pro locally, I would have bought it earlier, and I would advise all who can afford it and want a high degree of flight control in ED to do the same. If you really have money to splurge, then I am sure the more expensive HOTAS sticks will perform even better, and possibly last longer, but even I cannot justify such extravagance, no matter how hard I try, and I cannot imagine how they could really improve control significantly over the X52 Pro.
For a far more detailed and professional analysis of the X52 Pro, check out Angelique van Campen’s great review.
Configuring for Elite: Dangerous:
- Remove throttle detents. I found this photo guide helpful. WARNING: This will probably invalidate your warranty.
- Plug in the device and install the latest drivers (make sure you select the correct OS for your PC).
- Check all the buttons, hats and sliders are being detected by the OS. In W7, click ‘Start’, ‘Devices and Printers’, then right click the X52 Pro icon and select ‘game controller settings’, then ‘properties’.
- Disable ‘clutch mode’ in the properties settings. The ‘clutch mode’ provides a way of switching between profiles on the fly, which you probably won’t need in ED, and it also ties up some buttons on the throttle, thereby making them unavailable to ED. To disable, simply un-check the ‘enable clutch mode’ box on the MFD tab of properties (see, #3, above for how to access ‘properties’)
- Install the latest smart software (profile programming software; again, make sure you select the correct OS). Follow creating an ED profile for X52, by Calaban, to disable the shift function of the pinkie-switch, un-program some of the buttons, and set all mini-hats to 8-way. This enables ED to ‘see’ all the buttons and hats. It sounds way more complex than it is! Note: some people have claimed that the profile software interferes with ED, or does not help ED to see all the buttons. This is clearly not the case. If the profile is set up properly, it will work.
- Run ED and select the X52 Pro control settings (‘options’ / ‘controls’ / select controller type from drop down menu at top right: The X52 Pro option will only appear if/when you connect the X52 Pro). Amend / change the bindings as you prefer. I chose to move the boost function to a button on the throttle to keep it well away from the UI select button, as I didn’t want to accidently boost into things if my TrackIR slips away from a UI panel just as I try to select an item on the UI! I have many spare buttons left, as I also use VoiceAttack for many voice-controls, like toggling landing gear, entering supercruise, etc.
- Enjoy a new, greatly improved, level of comfort and control!
NOTE: Saitek / Madcatz controllers, including the X52 Pro, are often USB port specific, meaning the smart software profile AND properties settings mentioned above (including LED colour settings) will only work when/if you plug the controller into the port you had it plugged into when you configured the respective behaviours.
Low-tech solution to limited desk-space:
OK, so it’s just a plank of wood, but for those who might be relatively new to D.I.Y., or it’s just not their cup of tea, here is a guide to how to make a very simple, yet effective, removable mount for a joystick/throttle combo.
My current PC build (runs ED at 70 – 140 FPS, 40C max.)