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Hardware Reviews

CH Products F-16 Combatstick, Throttle, & ACM Gamecard

Out of all the gaming genres, none have shaped the peripherals industry the way simulations have. Many companies have made substantial names (and fortunes) for themselves, producing a whole host of controllers to enhance your gaming experience.

CH Products is recognized as one of the best manufacturers in the industry. This California based company blends their own plastics & builds their own molds. Many of their employees have past experience in the aerospace industry, and military pilots are often called in to consult CH on their stick designs.

My hardware fix for the month of February was threefold: the CH F-16 Combatstick, CH Throttle, and the CH ACM Automatic Gamecard. We'll cover them in that order.

F-16 Combatstick

Before I even bought the controllers, I was wondering whether or not it was worth it. Wasn't my Sidewinder just fine? After all, there wasn't anything seriously wrong with it. I had just beat it up a little. Wasn't there something else that I wanted? Something I could put my bucks to better use on?

Well, within the first few hours of using the new components, I knew that I had made a good choice. I couldn't have spent my money on anything better.

The F-16 Combatstick is based on the controller found in the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, and it is my understanding that the Combatstick is a very good copy. With this in mind, I'll now enter my only negative observation about the stick: U.S. Air Force pilots must have very big hands. I have average sized hands (thumb to pinkie, fully spread, 8¼ in.), and I find it difficult to maintain a good grip while staying in touch with both the pinkie button and the buttons on the top of the stick.

The Combatstick was an upgrade from my Microsoft Sidewinder 3D Pro. Understandably, the Combatstick seemed a bit on the huge side (9½ inches, including the 2 inch base), but its size is something I've gotten used to, and in fact come to appreciate. The stick itself is solidly mounted slightly aft of center on a wide square base that measures 6½ inches square. The base is home to the X-Y trim controls, something the Sidewinder lacked. A throttle wheel is located on the left side of the stick's rotation cylinders. There is no 'middle' setting on the throttle, which is unfortunate, but if you've got a separate throttle, there's no problem. Rubber feet on the bottom make excellent contact with the tabletop, and prevent the stick from slipping, even during drastic changes, as EF2000 is apt to make you do. As an added bonus, the Combatstick has a 7 foot cable, which should be adequate for any gaming setup. Extension cables are available from CH, if you need them.

The stick fills out my hand very nicely, making for a very comfortable grip. There is a button on the front of the stick for your pinkie, a thumb button on the left side of the stem, a nice big trigger, and a pointer button mounted on the right side of the stick's long nose (if this image gives you trouble, grab an imaginary handgun. Now point your pointer finger straight out, parallel to the barrel. There's your button.). The top panel of the stick is home to two more thumb buttons, and two 4-way hat switches. The hat switches and buttons are textured differently, to ensure that your fingers won't confuse them. Each control, both buttons and hats, offer a satisfying click when pressed.

Many sticks that are manufactured nowadays use a ball-and-socket design, with a round collar restricting the stick's movement. This is usually fine for most sticks, but it limits the total travel of the stick, and sometimes makes accurate calibrations a difficult task. All CH joysticks that I've seen abandon this design, instead mounting the stick's stem on a spring-loaded rocker for X-axis movement. The rocker is mounted inside a larger spring-loaded cylinder, which handles the Y-axis. Because of this design, the cylinder is bounded by the opening on the base, making a well defined rectangle. This completely eliminates any doubts during calibration, and offers more travel, allowing you to make finer adjustments in your game.

The Combatstick comes wih a companion diskette, which includes a calibration utility, allowing you to precisely center the joystick using the trim tabs, and a Windows 95 driver.

CH Throttle

The CH Throttle is of the same solid construction as the Combatstick. Like the base of the stick, the throttle's base measures about 2 inches high and 6½ inches wide, but is slightly longer; about 8 inches total, allowing for a 3¼ inch travel of the throttle slide. The unit is a total of 5½ inches tall.

The slide is something that should be mentioned right off the bat. I had once used a Thrustmaster WCS throttle control, and while I enjoyed using it, it did have a few flaws. First, there were far too many controls, and with that, the layout was confusing. In addition, and what I felt was the biggest problem, was that the throttle stem was connected to the base by a hinge assembly, meaning that as you moved the throttle, it arced from the back of the base to the front. This also meant that you couldn't allow your hand to leave the throttle during a game, because if the hinge was loose, the throttle handle would fall towards the front or the back against your wishes. CH has eliminated this problem because of the slide; the throttle handle actually slides back and forth, up and down the length of the base. The slide moves smoothly from front to back, and offers just enough resistance. Way to go, CH.

The throttle has the same rubber feet as the Combatstick, although they are not as well-suited for this purpose. Because the direction of the force you apply to the handle is exactly parallel to the plane of the desktop, they must grip the desktop more firmly. Foam-based feet might have been a better choice, at least in my case. My desktop is formica, so your milage may vary.

Accessible by your thumb on the rear panel are three pushbuttons and a single 4-way hat switch. Your pointer finger curls around the front of the unit, and has access to a two way switch, which pushes toward and away from the base. Three more buttons lie across the front, accessible by your middle, ring, and pinkie fingers. What stupid names for fingers. Anyway, all of the buttons have a good, solid feel to them, and respond well by clicking with each press.

Like the Combatstick, the Throttle has a long cord. However, at the end of the throttle's serial cable, two more cords sprout from the connector. At the ends of these cords are passthru keyboard connectors for PS/2 and AT style keyboards. The throttle connects to your motherboard's keyboard input, and the keyboard connector is attached to the back of the throttle's plug. If you're with me so far, try this: the joystick is plugged into the back of the throttle's base. The throttle, in turn, is plugged into your gameport. To me, it sounded strange, but I'll tell you that it works like a dream. The throttle plugs into the keyboard port because the throttle is a programmable device. Included on the throttle's disk is a program that allows you to program keystrokes (including macros) into the throttle's onboard non-volatile RAM. Just start up the program, program your keystrokes (the methods for doing this take a little practice), send the recording to the throttle's memory, and away you go! The memory holds onto your keystrokes even if you shut the computer off. You can save keystroke files to your hard drive, making the task of reprogramming the throttle for other games an easy one. It would have been nice, however, if CH had included the same functionality of their Pro Throttle into this unit. With the Pro, you have the capability of also programming keystrokes for your CH joystick, vastly increasing your hands-on experience. Still, the Throttle is an excellent controller, and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a good mid- to high-range throttle.

CH Gamecard III Automatic

The serial ports on the back of your computer are, charitably speaking, just plain awful for modern controllers. They haven't changed a bit since they were installed in the first PCs to hit the market. They were designed to be able to accept four axes of input and two buttons from two different joysticks. Essentially, those rubber-gripped, two button sticks on the old Atari systems. They were made with the infamous "512K of memory should be enough memory for anybody!" mentality. Glamourous, huh?

Now, I've known that gamecards have been around, but I never really saw the need for one. The port on the back of my Soundblaster seemed to do just fine. The ports being designed as they are though, I opted straight away to sink $30 into a gamecard, just to be sure. On a whim, though, I plugged the throttle & joystick into the SB card, just to see if I really needed the extra card hogging an ISA slot. I booted up the graphical calibration utility that came with the stick & throttle, and man, all the flashing & twitching it was doing would have been enough to induce an epileptic fit in just about anybody. I'm just lucky that I accidentally swatted the ESC key, else I would have twitched there for hours, drooling on myself. So, do you need the gamecard? Bet your ass you do. (Consult your physician first if you have epilepsy).

Having established that, let me tell you about the 45 minutes it took to install it & and get it running. The gamecard plugs into an open ISA slot, and has two 15 pin serial ports on the back of it. I had thought that one would be for the throttle, and the other for the stick, but it didn't turn out that way, as I described above. I would guess (mind you, guess) that I could plug a second throttle and stick into the second port, but why I would want to do this is really beyond me. At any rate, I wasn't entirely certain about how I was going to disable the Soundblaster's gameport, because I couldn't find anything in the SB manual about it. So I blindly continued. After many false starts, I got it running. There didn't appear to be any jumpers to mess with as far as the SB was concerned. Turns out that it's software configurable, within your system's Device Manager. Simply disable your gameport, install the card, and away you go. Smooth sailing in Win95 or otherwise.

The install utility adds a line to your AUTOEXEC.BAT file to launch a program that checks the speed of your system. The program will set the gamecard to a setting appropriate to your system; 0 for the fastest systems, all the way down to 32 for the slowest (i.e., 4.77 MHz) systems. My system scores a 9. The program is not a TSR, and so takes up none of your precious memory.

After installing the card, I shut the case, and completely forgot that the card was in there. Which is exactly as it should be. You know you have a good piece of hardware in your system when you don't even know it's there. Truthfully, all three components have been top performers since I took them out of the box. They're not designed for the absolute hardcore sim fanatic; CH has the Pro Throttle and F-16 Fighterstick for that. What they do offer, however, is an excellent value for your gaming dollar. I'd recommend them to anyone who's serious about gaming.

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