AVSIM Commercial Hardware Review

Saitek - X52 Flight Control System HOTAS

Product Information
Publisher: Saitek
Description:  Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS).
Reviewed by: Brian Fletcher AVSIM Sr Staff Reviewer - September 10, 2006

Introduction

Even though the vast majority of simmers use some type of joystick, if you do not have one of only a handful of Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) controllers that can operate all of the necessary functions in Flight Sim, then you need to pay close attention to this review.

What separates the X52 from most other HOTAS controllers is that it has the ability to control every function in every Flight Simulator that I tested it with, which completely eliminates the need to use the keyboard. Plus, the throttle portion of the X52 has a mouse control feature which can be used in place of a normal mouse to move the cursor in any sim, and in fact, in most Windows programs and games.

The X52 is a two-piece HOTAS; one of which is the stick / joystick portion, and the other being the throttle. Combined, the two controllers provide the simmer with an enormous amount of functions and controls that can be tripled by use of the mode selector, which allows you to designated three different functions for each button and switch.

One of the eye catching features of the X52 is the LED display built into the base of the throttle controller. This provides the date, GMT, two additional time zones defined as you wish, mode selected, profile information, and has a chronometer of sorts. Also pleasing to the eye are the 11 lighted buttons, which can be adjusted to provide dim to bright blue backlighting, or no lighting at all if you so choose.

But the biggest selling point for me is the comfort of the X52. Because this HOTAS is in two pieces, you can place the joystick and throttle wherever you wish, and the rubber grips and 5 position adjustable palm rest provide maximum comfort and minimal fatigue. And to top it all off, both of the X52 controllers are constructed of part metal and part hard plastic, which combine to form an extremely resilient HOTAS.

Of course, not every simmer will become as fond of the X52 as I have, and after almost two decades of flight simming I can understand why. I have found that many sim enthusiasts grow attached to their joysticks, especially after modifying them to fit their needs. In fact, it took years of prodding from my fellow simmers before I entertained the idea of upgrading from my Microsoft Sidewinder to the Saitek X45, the predecessor of the X52.

In this review I am going to show you what the Saitek X52 has to offer, and why I was willing to give it a chance. You can then decide if it is something worth looking into, and you can also determine for yourself if the cost-value is suitable. To do this I am going to cover the controller and the SST Programming Software, which allows you to configure the X52 to your liking and lets you save profiles for different Sims and users.

We will begin this review by visiting Saitek’s website at http//:www.saitek.com, where the X52 can be purchased for $99.00, which is reasonably discounted from the $160.00 I had to pay at a leading US electronics store. While visiting the website I took notes of what features Saitek claims the X52 to have and compared them to my findings. Now let’s go find out why this HOTAS is more than just another controller, but a real “Flight Control System”.

Installation

The Saitek X52 is accompanied by an installation CD including manuals, drivers, and the SST Programming Software. You can choose which of these items you wish to install, but the driver will be required in order for your controller to function properly. To do this, you will need to click on the box next to “Install drivers and SST Programming Software”, and then follow the onscreen instructions. During this process, Windows will detect the hardware and you follow the instructions given.

After the driver is installed, you will be asked whether or not you wish to install the SST Software, which I highly recommend doing. This step will only take a brief moment and will place a shortcut to the program on your desktop. Though you do not need to install this program in order for the X52 to function properly, it does provide a user-friendly interface for programming the X52 to your liking. You may also use the installation CD to view the manual for the SST Software, which is a fairly inclusive walk-through of how to use the program.

Even though the X52 driver is included on the CD, you should visit the Saitek website on a regular basis to ensure that you always have the most recently updated drivers. The driver downloads are free and easy to install, plus they will keep your controller performing to its maximum potential. While at the website, you can also visit the FAQ page to answer any questions you may have about the X52 and download SST profiles.

The Joystick

The joystick portion of the X52 sits atop a part metal, part plastic base measuring approximately 7” wide, 7” deep and about 2” high. There is a 1 ¾” gap between the base and the bottom of the stick where the coil spring is located, which when combined with the 7 ½” height of the stick itself, makes for an overall height of about 9 ¼” inches off the base and 11 ¼ inches off your desktop.

The base can be mounted to your desktop by use of the two existing holes in the front right and rear left of the base, or by using the four supplied suction cups, but the weight of the base will keep it in place on just about any surface, keeping you from having to drill holes in your desk. However, if you would like to mount the base, but do not want to ruin your desk, you can use screw clamps (not included).

On the front of the base you will notice three spring loaded 2-way toggle switches. These switches are numbered T1 through T6, and all have a blue back light seen through the center handle of the switches. To the right of the switches is a green light that indicates the controller is plugged in and activated, just in case you have turned off the backlighting.

Moving up on the joystick, you will come across a pull out lock for the rudder twist feature. When pushed in, the joystick will twist a little over an inch either direction to allow you to control the rudders, but when pulled out, this axis will not move. I should note however, that even with the rudder lock pulled out, it is possible to twist the joystick just enough to affect the rudder movement but this lock will keep you from accidentally twisting the joystick during forceful maneuvers.

Next to the rudder axis lock is the palm rest, which can be relocated to one of five positions to fit any simmer's flying hand. To adjust the palm rest you will need to loosen the nut on the back of the joystick enough to pull the palm rest out of the inset, and simply reposition it and tighten the nut. Unfortunately for the south paws out there, the palm rest can only be positioned on the right side of the joystick, just as the throttle is designed to be used with the left hand.

While you’re adjusting the joystick to your liking, you will notice two trigger buttons located on the backside of the stick. The lower trigger controls one function by a sliding movement, and the upper trigger has two stages to control two different functions. The first stage of the upper trigger is activated by depressing the trigger up to the half-way point, and the second stage is activated by continuing to depress the trigger further, which is indicated by a clicking sound.

On the top of the stick is where the bulk of the buttons are located, which include two 8-way hat switches, two fire buttons, an additional button with a spring loaded safety cover, a flat button, and a three way rotary knob used to select one of three modes, or up to six when used in conjunction with the pinkie trigger. The mode you are in can be deciphered by the light to the left side of the rotary knob that changes from green to orange to pink. We will learn more about mode selection when we discuss the SST Programming Software.

In addition to the aforementioned features, Saitek has also included what they call a precision centering mechanism that “…uses non contact technology on the X and Y axis and constant spring force to reduce free play and improve control and durability". What this means for the simmer is swift response, constant tension, and a long service life for your joystick.

From any angle, the joystick portion of the X52 is, in my opinion, just about as good as it gets. I have found it to be comfortable and I am pleased with the array of buttons, switches, and knobs which, as I will explain later, can be configured to function the controls however you want them to, in most Flight Simulators. But there is more to the X52 than the joystick; let’s go take a look at the throttle.

The Throttle

The throttle portion of the X52 is just as eventful, if not more so, than the joystick. This controller begins with a base similar in size to the joystick base that can be mounted in the same manner, but includes a built-in LED display to keep you informed of a number of things. The top line of the blue backlit display notifies you of what mode you are in from mode 1 to mode 3. This is changed by the rotary knob on the joystick. As you change the mode on the joystick, the number in the top left corner of the LED display will change instantaneously.

Also included in the display is the date, GMT, and two additional times as defined by the user. You can choose to set one of the digital clocks to the time zone of your departure and the other to your arrival area time zone, or perhaps you might set one to your home time and another to a fellow simmer's time zone. Also included in this display is a counter, which can be combined with the other features to make a decent digital chronometer of sorts.

And finally, in the center of the display is my favorite feature; the profile name. This is where the title that you have given your selected profile will be displayed, which can be changed through the SST Programming Software. Below the display you will notice three buttons, one titled “function”, another labeled “start/stop” and the last titled “reset”. These buttons are used to change the time displayed, start and stop the digital counter, and reset the counter to zero.

The throttle handle is positioned on the left side of the LED display behind a green on/off indicator light, and is rather large when compared to the throttles built in to most joysticks. The base of the throttle handle has markings indicating when the throttle is set to 0, 50, 100, and eight points in between. The accuracy of these markings all depends on how well you have the throttle controller calibrated.

The left side of the throttle handle does not contain any buttons, but it does have a rubber grip designed to conform to your hand comfortably. There is one scroll wheel with a built in button that resides on the back of the throttle where your forefinger would rest, but the rest of the features are conveniently located to the right side of the throttle handle, which makes for easy access by your thumb.

The buttons in this area include: two rotary controls, an 8-way hat switch, three fire type buttons, a slider, and a mouse controller that includes a 360 degree rotating lever and a metal button to act as the left click feature. This mouse feature can be used in place of your typical mouse, and can be used to make menu selections, move sub-panels, or anything else. The only downside to this mouse controller is that there is no button to act as a right click.

In addition to the previously mentioned functions of the throttle, there is another feature that I found to be helpful in many situations. I am referring to the two detents in the throttle axis that indicate when the throttle is set to idle, and when it reaches the afterburner level. Of course the actual idle and afterburner setting may be affected by the controller calibration and the sim aircraft itself.

All in all, I found the throttle portion of the X52 to be a perfect companion for the joystick. I like the tension in the throttle axis, which is not enough to force the base to move, but more than enough to prevent any accidental movement. And when you combine the buttons, knobs, slider, and rotaries with those on the joystick, you have all you need to fly without the mouse and keyboard. But in order to be able to chuck the keyboard for good, you will need to be able to triple the functions provided, so let’s go find out how to do that.

SST Programming Software

The Saitek Smart Technology (SST) Software is an easy to use program that allows you to assign functions to each of the buttons, knobs, switches, slider, and rotaries on the X52. You can use this program to make as many profiles as you want, which means that you can set up your X52 for each simulator that you use. Since the SST overrides the in-game controller configuration settings, you will not have to reassign each function if you re-install a Sim.

The main page of this software is divided into three sections; the top menu bar, the left controller identification screen, and the button data menu on the right. The menu bar gives you the option to change to a full screen data view, save and load profiles, print the button assignments, and access the help menu. You can experiment with the menu option to configure the program to your liking, but I find it to be best as it is displayed by default.

The left side of the screen displays both the joystick and throttle portion of the X52, with one being front and center, and the other to the back left side of the screen. You can change which controller is closest by simply clicking on it. While selected, you can use the mouse to rotate the controller to any position you choose, which will allow you a clear view of the button you want to configure.

To configure a button, you can left click on it which will highlight the applicable data field on the right side of the screen. In the data field you will need to use your keyboard to depress the key function that you want that button to operate. After doing this, you can then click on the top portion of that button's data field and enter a description of that function.

For example, if I wanted to configure the “C” button on my joystick to extend and retract the spoilers, then I would start by left clicking on the button on the model of the X52 on the left side of the screen. Then I would enter the keyboard command that operates the spoilers, in FS9 that would be the “ / ” (forward slash). Once assigned, I can then type in a reminder in the top portion of the “C” buttons data field. Perhaps something along the lines of “Spoilers extend / retract” or just “Spoilers” would be suitable.

Using the mode selector you can also designate five additional key commands to that same button. You simply need to change the mode from the
drop down mode menu on the top of the screen and follow the above steps. While using Flight Sim you can change which mode you are in by rotating the rotary knob on the top right portion of the joystick, plus you can use the pinkie trigger in conjunction with the rotary knob to switch through three additional modes.

You can also use the SST Software to program multiple and combination keystrokes. This will allow you to use the buttons to operate functions in the Sim that would normally require you to press two or more buttons simultaneously or repeatedly. A good example of this is the sub panels in FS9 that are opened by use of the “shift” plus applicable number key. Instead of having to use your keyboard to open and close these panels, you can simply assign a key in the same manner as above, but by adding the subsequent key command to the button data.

In addition to assigning commands, you can also configure the hat switches and slider to your liking. There are a number of ways that you can alter their function and assign what and how they operate. This procedure takes a little time to master, but the SST Software manual will tell you all that you need to know to configure these, and in deed all, of the functions of the X52.

Test System

Compaq Presario SR1232
AMD Athlon 2.2 GHz
2 GB Ram
NVIDIA Ge Force FX5500
StarLogic 21” Flat Panel Monitor @ 1024 X 768
CH USB Flight Yoke
CH USB Rudder Pedals
Saitek X52 Flight Control System
FTP 290 Throttle Quadrant
Bose 5:1 Surround Sound

Laptop
Toshiba Satellite
1.6 GHz Intel Celeron M
512 MB DDR2 SD Ram
Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900

Flying Time:
44 hours

Conclusion

Given the seemingly endless functions, the comfortable and authentic design, and the arguably reasonable price tag of $99.00 USD, I consider the Saitek X52 to be one of the finest HOTAS controllers available. Some of the features, such as the separate throttle control, LED display, and adjustable button lighting add to my cosmetic likes of this controller. And other functions, such as the rudder twist, adjustable palm rest, conveniently placed buttons and switches, mouse controller, and mode selector, find my approval as well.

There are two aspects of this HOTAS that have made it a must have in my home cockpit. The first being the ability to function all necessary Flight Sim controls without accessing my keyboard and mouse, and the second being the comfort. The latter feature is what has made it so difficult for me to upgrade joysticks throughout the years, but I have definitely found a keeper with the X52.

Of course, I cannot possibly suggest that every simmer will feel the same way I do about the Saitek X52 Flight Control System, but I do think that if you were to give this HOTAS a chance, you will likely find it to grow on you. Perhaps the best way to determine if this controller is for you or not, is to visit your local retail electronics store where you can get an up close an personal look at the display model. I employed that tactic myself before purchasing my X52.

If the $99.00 price tag is a concern to you, then you might want to consider the fact that this HOTAS comes with one of the most important features of all…survivability. Not only is the X52 constructed well, but given the trend of joysticks over the past decade, I don’t see it going out of style anytime soon. And with FS-X right around the corner, this might be the perfect time to get your home cockpit in order.

So in case you haven’t noticed, I am definitely very fond of the X52, and I place my seal of approval all over it. I have not found any notable problems with either of the two units making up this HOTAS, and even though I have had a few problems trying to get certain features to function properly in different Flight Sims, I have managed to overcome those problems with help from the folks at Saitek.

In conclusion, I can only say that I absolutely love my X52 and couldn’t imagine having to fly HOTAS equipped sim aircraft without it. And even though I may not be willing to suggest that you hurry up and get one for yourself, I do highly recommend giving this product serious consideration. It is, after all, a great way to add that extra bit of frame rate friendly realism to Flight Sim.

 

What I Like About The Saitek X52
  • The cost-value seems very reasonable to me.
  • There are numerous buttons, switches, rotaries, etc.
  • The X52 can eliminate the need to use the keyboard and mouse for simming.
  • I am more than satisfied with the comfort of each controller.
  • The adjustable blue backlighting of the buttons is a cosmetic plus.
  • Both the joystick and throttle are constructed to handle the most intense simmers aggression.
  • The weighted bases keep the controllers in place very well, or you can use the mounting options.

 
What I Don't Like About The Saitek X52
  • The throttle controller is designed to be used with the left hand, which may not accommodate all simmers.
  • Even though the twist action can be locked, the joystick can still be twisted slightly, allowing rudder movement.
  • The X52 is not as compatible with some Sims as it is with the Microsoft series (FS and CFS).

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