AVSIM MSTS Add-on Hardware Review

RailDriver Desktop Controller
Review Contributed by Rich Garber
 

Rating Guide
Publisher: PI Engineering
Description:
RailDriver Train Cab Controls put levers, switches, and buttons in your hands to make you feel like you're driving a train, not a computer. Programmable keys put commands on the RailDriver, so you can put the keyboard away.
Download Size:
N/A
Format:
Executable Auto Install File
Simulator Type:
Microsoft Train Simulator
Reviewed by: Rich Garber (Contributed)

Not rated: this is a contributed review.

[Editor's Note: Rich Garber had the opportunity to test a production model of the Raildriver product. AVSIM Online is publishing his review with permission from the developers. Also check out the really terrific freeware add-ons such as East Metro Deluxe Route and Ohio Rail (Build 10) - Part 1; Ohio Rail - Part 2 Rich has uploaded for MS Train Simulator in our Avsim File Library. Also see his The Activity Tutorial available from Abacus for $10.]


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To my surprise, an e-mail showed up at my door asking me if I wanted to participate as an early beta tester for the Raildriver unit. Right smack in the middle of creating and testing activities for the WV&O RR, I said, 'you bet!' Activity testing is one of those times when I'm the crankiest—I'm not the happiest of campers when it comes to running MSTS because I use the keyboard/mouse combination. Two days later a large box showed up via UPS, and to my surprise the box weighed close to ten pounds. From the screenshots I had seen of Raildriver I was under the impression that Raildriver was a fairly light plastic unit about 8 inches long with little tiny throttles on it. I open the box wondering why the box was so big and heavy and behold the reason is because the Raildriver unit is about the size of a computer keyboard! My next thought, 'this is gonna be fun!'

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Because of the way my computer is set up, I had to wait a few hours before installing Raildriver into my system. So I gave the physical aspect of the unit a very thorough going over. The size of the unit is the depth of your keyboard and almost as long. The Raildriver unit is about 4" high (not including throttle height). The quality of the components that make up Raildriver are excellent. The throttles have a very comfortable and durable feel to them. The switches have a positive click to them. Buttons, while they don't move much, have an adequate response so you know you've pressed them. The blue buttons along the bottom row are spaced very nicely apart and have the same response as the buttons on the top side of the unit. There are no small plastic parts that could harm infants. Everything is thick and are mounted really well. In fact, nothing comes off, so feel very comfortable with this unit in a child's hands.

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On the back are two ports for your speakers and the transformer plug-in which comes with Raildriver. There is also a knob to control the volume of the speaker that's embedded inside of Raildriver. Force feedback? Kinda. I'll explain this in a moment. In the back are cables for your USB and audio. Basically the audio works so that you route your outgoing sound into the Raildriver unit, and then plug your speakers input into the Raildriver too. This basically puts your Raildriver in between your computer and speakers. What the Raildriver people did was to place a speaker inside the Raildriver to give the unit a vibration. Let me tell you that this concept works pretty well. It enhances the experience of MSTS quite a bit feeling the console vibrate. Even when you throttle up your engine, the vibration picks up like you just revved your engines. It's not just vibration either. It plays the sounds you hear in MSTS too. You can even cut your regular speakers off and play MSTS in a 'stealth-like' mode (makes wives happy). And because of the adjustment knob in the back, you can make the Raildriver unit play loud or soft.

To summarize the physical makeup of Raildriver, this is an attractive unit with everything labeled cleanly. The throttles/buttons/switches have a durable and positive feel to them. The unit itself is nicely sized and speaks of a unit that should cost much more. Everything about the unit is spaced apart well enough that those with large hands should be comfortable. Even down to the cushioned feet, the unit is well thought out and the implementation is fantastic!

Installation

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When you run Raildriver, you start an included program which allows you to choose the type of diesel/steam/electric engine you will be running. The program then executes the running of MSTS and stays running in the background so you can easily change Raildriver's settings if you change engines while running MSTS. You can even remap the controls with another included program.

Operation

When you run Raildriver, you start an included program which allows you to choose the type of diesel/steam/electric engine you will be running. The program then executes the running of MSTS and stays running in the background so you can easily change Raildriver's settings if you change engines while running MSTS.

I should add that the first time you run Raildriver, the startup program will ask you to calibrate the Raildriver unit. Calibration is quick and easy to do. It doesn't take even five minutes. Done once, you don't have to do it again. You don't do it for every engine either, just the one time. You do have the option to recalibrate should you need to.

With MSTS running I started an activity using the Dash 9 and began. Before Raildriver will actually be the controller, you have to press the Raildriver Run/Stop button. This is pretty cool because you can at any time get your throttles set for the activity before Raildriver starts sending commands to MSTS. For instance, I have an activity where your engine is already speeding down the track. If Raildriver was already active and the throttles were set to stop, without this feature, Raildriver would immediately begin to send commands to stop your engine. So at any time, at your discretion, press the Raildriver Run/Stop button and Raildriver is now an active controller.

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For MSTS, Raildriver has to read the F5 read-outs to know what you are doing. So leave that information on screen. Raildriver automatically puts the F5 information on your screen for you. I find that the information is helpful and even allows me to run the cab view in a view I didn't know about. 2nd button from the left and the bottom row is a button which says 'Hide Cab Panel.' Between the F5 readouts and Raildriver, you don't need the internal cab view and a plus is you'll get better frame rates too. Now if I was running custom cabs then I would keep the cab view on and press the button next to it to get that view. For me, the button features were so extensive that mouse and keyboard usage became rare. Just about any feature in MSTS is represented by a button on the Raildriver unit.

Now I will say that I am a casual user of MSTS. I've never driven a diesel or a steam engine so I can't give you any 'rivet-counter' type detail. I will tell you that as a casual user, Raildriver takes the frustration out of driving in the sim. Especially switching. Mainline running in MSTS with the keyboard and mouse was adequate. But switching? No way. Raildriver is very responsive and the sim behaves just as if you are using the keyboard and mouse but better. What's nice though, is if you do have to use the keyboard or mouse, you still can. And you don't have to do anything extra either to make that happen.

Quick Saving is a real pleasure with Raildriver too and something I am doing more of now. All you have to do is press the Quick Save button and then the OK button on the Raildriver unit and within a second you're back to the activity.

In other words, Raildriver becomes almost transparent to you. Like a console in a real train engine, Raildriver does the same. What has happened to me is that Raildriver has become so second nature, so quickly, that I barely notice it anymore. It's like a natural extension of my instincts to control a train. Anything I want to do, that I know of, I either press a button, or move a throttle or turn a switch, and Raildriver sends that information to the computer, and it's done. I know this sounds so unbelievable in a day and age where little works right straight out of the box, but Raildriver does just that.

Summary

Raildriver works as well as you could want. Right now the MSTS interface would be nice if we didn't have to have the F5 read-outs on screen. But they are extremely helpful if you run the engine without the internal cab view. Someday I'm sure the folks at Raildriver will be able to work something out with the developers of MSTS and we'll get a clean interface between the two. Presently I can vouch the Raildriver folks have a system that works quite well.

Raildriver can also be used with Trainz. In fact, the Raildriver folks tell me that with Trainz, the Auran folk already have a clean interface between the two.

From the start, my experience with Raildriver has been one 'wow!' after another. This is such a neat interface to have if you enjoy running trains. To get the actual price per unit, please see Raildriver's website. For the price (currently $149.95 for the throttle, reverser, and brake levers), The RailDriver is a steal. Raildriver has quality and functionality which promotes a much more pleasant and authentic experience.

To repeat, my own impressions are that as a casual user. Rivet counters or someone just looking to find 'something' to fault probably could, but my overall impression is that I rate Raildriver as a 'must have.'

 


 

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The review above is a subjective assessment of the product by the author. There is no connection between the producer and the reviewer, and we feel this review is unbiased and truly reflects the performance of the product in the simming environment. This disclaimer is posted here in order provide you with background information on the reviewer and connections that may exist between him/her and the contributing party.

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