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Saitek X36 Flight Controller

It's back. Oh, yes, it's back. With surprisingly little fanfare, Saitek grabbed its screwdrivers and wrenches and performed a complete overhaul to the already outstanding X36 flight-control system. Though a quick glance won't reveal any major differences, the new version of the joystick-and-throttle package is USB-ready, DirectX-friendly, and absolutely spectacular.

If you're like me, you wince when you hear about a modern "update" of a classic product. Abominations such as the Flintstones movies come to mind. There's also New Coke, Blood II: The Chosen, After M*A*S*H, and the Sega Dreamcast, not to mention the shot-by-shot remake of Psycho. (Who the hell green-lighted that?) When I heard the Saitek X36 was getting an update, I almost puked. I was picturing a pathetic, cheap, neon-colored, hunk of trash, a mockery of the 1997 X36, which is widely considered one of the best PC flight-control products of all time.

OK, so I was wrong. The new controller has the same sensually comfortable grips, the familiar, solid feel of a well-built product, and the satisfying Swiss Army functionality of its predecessor. Saitek's changes are transparent, but significant. The new X36 is a USB controller and it's fully DirectInput compatible. And the few incompatibilities and bugs that plagued the original have been surgically removed.

Folks who have experienced the original X36 have probably stopped reading this review and are rushing to find their wallets. For the rest of you, here's what the hoopla's about.

The X36 is actually two separate units, each of which resides on wide, sturdy bases (you shouldn't need the included suction cups). They're both encrusted with buttons, switches, knobs, and gizmos, just as a vain king's crown would be slathered with jewels.

For your right hand, there's a unique and formidable joystick with a pair of eight-way hat switches, and six buttons. Only three of the buttons are familiar red nubs. Of the other three, one's a trigger, one is the cool Launch button that can be quickly flipped into Safe (unclickable) mode, and one's a clever slot that you can hold down with your pinky--perfect for use as an afterburner, strafe toggle, or other functions that require prolonged pressing.

The left-handed throttle is adorned with a similar array of controls. There's a thumb button; a four-way hat you control with your index finger; a thumb-operated four- or eight-way nub that can function as another hat or a mouse emulator; another button, right next to the nub, that can be programmed to act as a regular DirectX button or a mouse button; a pair of dials (one of which is a little hard to reach) that function as miscellaneous analog axes; a proportional rocker situated beneath your fingers that serves as a rudder or z-axis; and, to cap it all off, a three-way mode switch that triples the programmable functionality of every button and gadget on both the throttle and the stick.

The amazing thing is, even with all that stuff crammed onto two controllers, they're both palm-and-finger-friendly and there's no risk of accidentally hitting a button or other controller. The controls are all placed conveniently near, but not in the way of, areas where your fingers and thumbs naturally fall.

Saitek's programming software, called SGE (Saitek Gaming Extensions), allows you to fully dictate the function of every switch, axis, button, and knob. Like any worthy programming software, it lets you build separate macros for each of your games and automatically detects when a game is launched. Gone is the need for the X36 Launcher program that the old DOS-happy version needed. The downside is that SGE's interface is a horribly muddled mess, about as intuitive as a long tax form.

The only other complaint we have about the X36 is that it became intermittently unresponsive when connected to a USB hub--and we tried several hubs. Games would start to lag in their response to control input, and the lag would grow longer until the game became unplayable (think five seconds between a button press and a missile release). Connecting it directly to the USB ports on the back of our test systems alleviated the problem.

Once you figure it out, the new X36 will give you satisfaction in proportion to the time you put into programming it. This is a controller for methodical fans of flight sims; it's marvelous in any Jane's sim or similarly serious title, such as MiG Alley, Falcon 4.0, and Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator, and it also rocks in less simlike titles that have tons of controls, such as Tachyon: The Fringe, Descent 3, and Allegiance. Be warned, however, that using the X36 will make your games new to you all over again: thanks to the sheer number of controls, it takes time and practice to perfect, and then to remember, your own programming macros.

 

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