HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) are much needed accessories for playing flight sims. While you can play the game with keyboard and mouse, it’s challenging to learn and inefficient to play long term. If you’re just getting into playing flight simulators, when should you get a HOTAS? And which ones are worth purchasing today?
Flight simulator controls for macOS are largely the same as those for PC, except you may need to perform some additional software configuration. Using software like ControllerMate, you can manually configure the operation of HOTAS input actions. As long as your can physically connect the HOTAS to your Mac, you can typically find a way to make it function. Older hardware can be harder to resuscitate, but it can be done with sufficient investment of time, money, and patience.
Features to Look for in a HOTAS or Flight Stick
Once you’re sure you like playing a flight sim, you’ll want to invest in a HOTAS controller. It’s such an incredibly quality-of-life upgrade for any simulator. If you like a sim with mouse and keyboard, you will adore it with a HOTAS. No gameplay changes required!
When you’re shopping for a new HOTAS or flight stick, consider the following attributes:
- Comfort, which is in part determined by stick tension and weight. The more difficult a piece is to move, the less comfortable it can become. Of course, the right amount of resistance is also essential to keeping the flight stick from feeling weightless or plasticky. You need to feel that you’re authentically driving the hardware of your flight system for the sake of immersion, after all.
- Throttle, provided one exists. Judge it by comfort, separability, and durability.
- Input variety, in terms of z-axis rotation and input systems.
- Z-axis rotation determines how far the flight stick can spin on its bottom axis. This is invaluable for space sims, but less relevant to airborne flight simulations. In space, a fully six-dimensional combat space can require unique control inputs. For airborne craft, this yaw input is typically controlled by flight pedals, which are bound to the rudder within the simulation. If you lack rudders, the z-axis rotation will take that control’s place.
- Buttons and switches need to exist in sufficient quantity and position. Think about the control surfaces used in-game and the ergonomics of binding different actions to different physical input hardware. Also, look for personal preference tickers, like hi-hat controls.
It’s also wise to actually set hands on a controller before purchasing it. This might be with a more financially-invested friend or at a computer shop like Microcenter. If you don’t have the opportunity, you may need to buy and return a few setups until you get something that fits your ergonomics.
Top Three Picks for First HOTAS
These options are your best bet regardless of simulator application or flight medium.
Thrustmaster T16000M FCS HOTAS
The superior of the two HOTAS products offered under the Thrustmaster brand, the T16000M FCS HOTAS is a two-part modular system. It consists of the highly regarded T16000 joystick and a physically independent throttle control. If you only require the flight stick, you can buy that piece separately. And if you decide you’d like to add the throttle later, that’s easy to do. You can also add control pedals to the system at your leisure, producing a fully-featured flight control system.
Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas X Flight Stick
This long-time entry-level favorite, the Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas X, has enough flexibility to provide a good introduction into the HOTAS control scheme. If you’re trying to keep your financial commitment low, you’ll find a good bargain on this HOTAS any day of the week. This HOTAS is also compatible with macOS, simplifying setup and use.
However, of the two Thrustmaster products, it’s markedly more amateurish. It does enjoy a discount on the price, but the decrease in build quality is noticeable. If you at all care for long-term use, the T16000M HOTAS setup is superior.
Flight Stick Only: Thrustmaster T16000M FCS
If you want to start small with simply a flight stick, the Thrustmaster T16000M FCS is a great option. While the difference in cost isn’t dramatic, you might be considering a two-flight-stick setup. Enjoyed by high-end Elite: Dangerous players, the dual-flight-stick control scheme, allows for more intuitive control of the game’s spacecraft in the null-gee environment.
You’d be right to criticize us for our focus on Thrustmaster, but they really are the big dog in the world of HOTAS systems. From top to bottom they have an excellent option available. But Thrustmaster doesn’t work for everyone, so let’s think about some other manufacturers. It’s not natively compatible with macOS, but the older Saitek drivers might help you along, and custom projects have kept the controller alive.
Logitech’s G Saitek X52 system is a HOTAS of proud lineage but somehow mixed reviews. It offers highly superior physical sensation thanks to the spring-centered structure that snaps the flight stick back to neutral upon release. It’s a big step up from the Thrustmaster systems we’ve recommended, which are, in fairness, significantly less expensive. The Saitek system clocks in well above $100, but you may want to tear off the expensive HOTAS band-aid early on in this expensive hobby.
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