AVSIM Commercial Product Review|
Thrustmaster F16 FLCS,
TQS and RCS System
Reviewed by: Eric Berns
If you are seriously into flight simulators, you probably already have some kind of flight stick. You may or may not however have a throttle and rudder system. If you are one of these people, or just looking at upgrading from your good old reliable, 2 button stick, does Thrustmaster have a treat for you. Recently, I was given the opportunity to review three of their top of the line pieces, and quite frankly, the capabilities of this three piece package is most impressive.
First off, the F16 FLCS (Flight Control System). The heart of the system. Being a virtual replica of a block 50 F16C flight stick, this is one serious piece of hardware. This item is about 3 years old now, but still packs a huge punch. This stick is BIG, only the F22 pro is comparable, and even the instruction manual that comes with it is big too. Actually, it is larger than the manuals that come with most sims! This stick, even alone, is the most capable stick I have ever used. It has enough buttons and hat switches for any game in the foreseen future. It has four 4-way hat switches, a 2 stage trigger and 4 single buttons. With the press of the pinkie button, these functions can double-up. With this stick alone, and some creative programming, you may very well not need the keyboard at all. If you can, team it up with its sister products, the TQS and RCS, and your control will be unparalleled.
Meet the F16 TQS (Throttle Quadrant System). Modeled directly after the genuine article, in my humble opinion, the best looking piece of hardware. Very cool. If you have not used a separate throttle at all, I must say, you are in for a treat. It compliments the FLCS very nicely. Its features include 2 rotary dials, to be used mainly for antenna (e.g.- Range and Elevation), a 3 position mode switch, a 4-way hat switch, and another multi position switch. It also has a very nice arced movement, with adjustable resistance. The movement features an idle indent, along with a full military power indent. Another nice feature is a cursor control. It is of the same basic design as some laptops use for mouse control. It can actually be used as the mouse control for your PC. You must own either the F16FLCS or the new F22 Pro for this product, as it slaves to them.
The RCS (Rudder Control System). Pretty self explanatory here. However, I think one of the best features of this product is its ergonomics. It feels and looks very nice. The peddles are about 16" center-center, and fit perfectly under my desk. The feel of your feet sliding back and forth is also very smooth, with about the right length of stroke. If you don't have rudder peddles, you are missing a nice bit of realism. Built almost completely out of aluminum, with the exception of the actual footpads, it is also quite rugged.
Now into the meat of it. First off, the setup. Before you even try to hook your new pieces, it is HIGHLY recommended that you have a dedicated game port. Your old sound card may just be too hard pressed to do the job of watching these new high tech toys and playing a concerto at the same time. A speed adjustable game card will also help any drift and calibration problems that you may encounter with your new super fast pentium. At first, I tried hooking everything up to my SoundBlaster 16 PnP. Seemed to work for the most part, but, I can honestly say, my frame rates in FSFW95 appeared to drop at least 4 FPS, probably more. The service whiz at Thrusmaster I spoke to had never heard of that before, but it really was noticeable. It is of my understanding that the sound card starts fighting for CPU time with the game port, since they fit in the same slot on the motherboard (I may be wrong with this). With the separate game card, and the sound card game port disabled, everything picked back up. Being relatively inexpensive, a card is a very worthwhile investment. Thrustmaster makes a very nice one, called the ACM. The setup process was not totally painless for me, as I was having trouble with my system recognizing the new hardware at first. However, a quick call to Thrustmaster, and I was on my way. The customer service from these people is the best I have encountered, very helpful and friendly. A very, very big plus here. After my system recognized everything, it was pretty smooth sailing. One more item of note on the setup, one that I really think is quite important and that most of us ignore. As mentioned earlier, these pieces are quite large. If you are of the type of armchair pilot that puts his flight stick on his lap as he flies around, you are going to probably have problems controlling your aircraft. This makes to be very awkward with hardware like this. Get a chair with some serious arms to rest the hardware on and secure them. Make some type of home pilots seat if you can. This may sound like a little bit of overkill, but trust me, it will make your simming much more enjoyable.
Let it also be noted that I do not believe that the FLCS and TQS are designed for the novice pilot. I am sure that these products will find their way into the homes of the more serious sim fanatic, and this is for what they were designed. There is a very pronounced learning curve for programming these, but the time and effort is very well spent. The programmability of these are unmatched in the marketplace to date. This cannot be overemphasized enough. This is the main purpose of the products. You can program any switch or button to do basically anything that you like. In a nutshell, it works like this. The FLCS and TQS eliminate most, if not all, of the need of using keystrokes off of your keyboard to control the various controls of your sim. You quite simply tell which button or switch position acts as a certain keystroke or command off of the keyboard (The keyboard is plugged into one controller, and in turn, the controllers are daisy chained together, and back to the computer). You may even have a different command programmed to take affect when a button is released or switch is moved back. These instructions are all in the download file you either created yourself, or received from another source (i.e. the web). The "instructions" remain in the controller until you download a new set of commands (another programming file) to them. They are not lost when you turn off the computer. You don't want to use the antenna dials on the TQS for the radar? Fine. Use them as zoom controls, or view rotating controls, whatever your heart desires. Use them to tune the radio. Following an enemy aircraft, shooting the cannon with the main trigger? Want to launch and AIM9? Just press the main trigger to the second stage. Or whichever button you programmed. How about your ECM? Forgot to turn it on while you got into this melee? Flick one of your switches on the TQS. This is very nice. Think you ran out of buttons to program? Switch to a different mode and you can have a whole new set of commands for whichever buttons you programmed. I.E. - You may have a dogfight mode, a cruise mode or navigation mode, and buttons/switches may have totally different functions in these modes. Most sticks follow this basic programming operation (keystrokes to button presses), but few others, if any, are capable of the shear number of options that you quite literally have at your finger tips.
If you so wish, you could have true HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle And Stick) capabilities with these products. Your hands would not have to touch the keyboard again. The sticks are quite literally capable of doing anything you want them to do, as long as the sim supports it. However, if programming the controllers scare you, don't be. If you take the time to read the manual completely, programming shouldn't be much of a problem. But, if this prospect still intimidates you, no concern. There is a cult-like following of Thrustmaster products on the web, and rest assured that if your game did not come with configuration files for the stick (or throttle), someone on the web more than likely already has made one and is available for download. Download it to the supplied programming utility, follow the onscreen instructions and Voila! Ready to get some bad guys. Also note the stick and throttle come with a good library of configurations for several, albeit mostly older, games. Both the throttle and stick can be used in a digital mode as well, although all games that I am aware of now support the more useful analog mode.
To sum up, these pieces would make an excellent addition to any armchair pilots arsenal. These controllers are about the most authentic you can get, short of trying to liberate a set from the spare parts department of your local airbase. I was watching a documentary on television about the F16, and low and behold, the controllers on the TV looked identical to the controllers I used earlier in the day. The quality is also excellent. I have not taken the controllers apart, but from what I understand, it is top quality components all they way in the construction. They do appear to be built well and more importantly, feel very rugged. They have just the perfect amount of resistance, and feel just right. It should be noted that the resistance of the TQS can be adjusted via a dial on the front of the controller. If you wish to have even more resistance in the flight stick, the F22 Pro may fit the bill, which is very comparable all-around, but a little heavier and slightly newer. The controllers are a bit on the large side, but fit the average hand quite comfortably. And don't forget the RCS. This was the first time I have used a set of external peddles, and the feeling was very different than using the stick or keyboard. It is almost a little strange, hurtling down a runway and moving your feet, and watching it react on the screen. Very nice indeed, really adds to the realism factor. On the downside, about the only thing is the programming. This is not necessarily bad, but as mentioned earlier, it is a steep learning curve. Once mastered, there shouldn't be anything that you can't make these sticks do. Also note the price. The bad news is, the FLCS and TQS both list for $199.99 each, and $149.99 for the rudder peddles, not cheap. However, the good news is, they can all be found for substantially less if you care to do a bit of bargain hunting. I have heard that they are available for just over the $100.00 mark at various mail order houses. A deal and money well spent if you are seriously into flight sims. Also note that these could very easily be the last pieces of control hardware you need to buy for years, as their capabilities are tremendous.
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