Pretends to Know What He's Talking About
One of the best things about PC Sim Racing is the sheer compatibility of the hardware that is available. Unlike a console, where you are tied to one manufacturer, PC racing allows you to mix and match hardware, to allow you to tailor your setup to whatever you see fit.
In turn, the variety of wheels that can be used with the PC is staggering. Not all wheels can work on the console, but almost every wheel released in the past decade is compatible with the PC.
With the wide selection of wheels, and different technologies available, it can be a daunting task to figure out what wheel to buy. I wanted to make this PC Sim Wheel Buyer's guide to provide a simple solution for the average sim racer to figure out what to look for!
Force Feedback Technology
It's crazy to think that 20 years ago, wheels didn't have ANY Force Feedback whatsoever. The Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback wheel was the first consumer sim wheel to use a motor to simulate the forces of driving a car. The wheel was released in August of 1997 (with the USB version of the wheel releasing in 1998).
FUN FACT: The first racing game to ever feature "Force Feedback" was Namco/Atari's TX-1 Arcade Racing title
Force Feedback has evolved drastically since then, and it has reached a fidelity that is amazing to see (...err, feel)! There are three different technologies that are commonly used to simulate the feeling of driving a car:
- Gear Drive Force Feedback - The oldest FFB system utilized. A motor is connected to the steering wheel's shaft via gears. The gear ratios allows the force to be amplified, allowing for smaller motors to be used. The main issues with gear driven wheels are that they are rather imprecise, rough, and fairly noisy (I used to have a Logitech G25 for 5 years, and my family joked that it always sounded like I was sawing logs while driving).With a gear drive wheel, you are limited by each cog on the gear, so you feel significant "steps" every few degrees or so. I don't know the precise amount, but if a gear had 120 cogs on it, then you would feel a "step" for every 3 degrees.Gear driven wheels are regarded to as fairly obsolete, in favor of the other two Force Feedback technologies.
- Belt Drive Force Feedback - A lot of technology uses belt drive, like vacuums and car parts (alternators, fans, etc). Due to the nature of the technology, it was clear that the technology could be applied to Sim Racing. High end wheels were developed with the technology, but Fanatec was the first to bring the technology to the consumer market.
Belt Driven Force Feedback is significantly quieter and more precise than gear drive FFB. The technology also shares some of the same benefits, where a smaller FFB motor can be used and the belt pulley ratio allows for stronger forces.There are some downsides with Belt Drive too. Because of the nature of rubber belts used for the FFB, stretching/wear can affect the feel of the wheel. Also, the belts absorb some of the force, as well as some of the accuracy is lost via friction.
- Direct Drive FFB: Direct Drive Force Feedback is regarded to as the best Force Feedback you can get, and for good reason. Direct Drive cuts out the middle man, and mounts a steering wheel directly onto a large motor.
In turn, a Direct Drive Wheel provides some of the quickest, strongest, and most detailed Force Feedback on the market. However, that comes at a cost. Direct Drive Wheels are the most expensive on the market, STARTING at around the $1,000 mark, and going up to around $3,000-4,000! In addition, you will need a fairly sturdy setup to mount it on, and also a place to mount the external box, which houses the electronics.
Beginner Wheels - Sub $200
For the Sub-$200 racing wheels, you are going to be mostly limited to gear driven FFB wheels. There is only one new wheel that I could recommend, but there are some solid offerings from Logitech that you can find pre-owned nowadays.
- Thrustmaster TMX/T150: The Thrustmaster TMX/T150 is one of the few NEW wheels I would consider recommending that is in the sub $200 price bracket. The wheel features 900° of rotation, and an 11" non-removable wheel rim. If you are interested in improving the wheel, it is also compatible with Thrustmaster's T3PA Pedals, and the TH8A Shifter.
- Logitech Driving Force GT: One of the go-to wheels of the PS3 era, the Logitech DFGT was also a solid PC performer. A rotary dial allowed on-the fly adjustments, which was great for making pit adjustments, or things like that. The wheel was discontinued years ago, but you can find a DFGT for around $100-150.
- Logitech G27: One of the most popular sim racing wheels, this became the go-to for the sim racer looking to get serious. The G27 featured a three pedal set and H-pattern shifter in the bundle. While this set is getting rather uncommon now, if you look hard enough, you can snag a pre-owned one under the $200 mark. Even over $200, it can be a solid value, as it includes the wheel, a three pedal set, AND an H-Shifter!
With this price range, you are going to be able to start looking into the Belt Driven Force Feedback wheels. In addition, the mid-range market is unique, where you can swap out steering rims on the two main contenders in the market.
- Thrustmaster TX/T300RS: Starting at $249 (~$360 with rim)
Thrustmaster's main mid-range offering is a solid wheel, featuring a brushless motor and a belt driven FFB system. You have multiple options on how you would be able to purchase the wheel. You can buy the wheel base as a stand-alone unit for $250, and then purchase a rim for $100-$150, depending on what rim you are looking for. Like the T150/TMX, the wheel base is also compatible with the T3PA Pedals and TH8A Shifter. Thrustmaster offers a bundle with the T300/TX Base, Rim, and T3PA pedals, which straddles around the $400-$450 mark.
- Fanatec CSL Elite: Starting at $299 ($390 with rim)
Fanatec's latest offering is a mid-range wheel, which offers performance on par with the German company's former Flagship wheel. The CSL Elite Wheel Base is very similar to the T300/TX offering, where it is a belt-driven wheel using a brushless FFB motor. The CSL Elite is sold as a stand-alone base for $299, and will require a wheel rim as well, which can be bought for as little as $89. The wheel is compatible with all Clubsport peripherals, including the CSL Elite/Clubsport Pedals, and Clubsport Shifter. A PS4 version is now available in select regions, with a USA release coming soon.
- Logitech G29/Driving Force G920: Starting at $280
While Logitech's technology is great for getting your feet wet in the sub-$200 price bracket, Gear Drive FFB is not as viable in the mid-range market as it used to be. Belt drive is becoming the more common approach for the mid-range market, due to the performance to price ratio. Some PC titles also aren't intended to be ran with Gear Drive FFB (rFactor 2 comes to mind), so if you want the better experience, I'd recommend a belt drive wheel. For PS4 and Xbox One use, the wheel is alright, but I would still recommend the Thrustmaster T300RS/TX or Fanatec CSL Elite over this.
The high end consumer wheels build on the technology featured in the mid-range wheels, but features higher quality components. Fanatec and Thrustmaster again are the two main competitors in this market.
- Thrustmaster TS-PC RACER: $500
This is Thrustmaster's latest offering, a PC exclusive wheel that seems to feature the strength of the T500RS with the smoothness of the T300RS, due to the upgrade to a Brushless motor. The wheel features an estimated 6 NM of Torque, which puts it on par with the Fanatec CSL Elite and CSW. This wheel also includes a rim in the $500 cost, which makes this product significantly undercut its competitor in the price range. The wheel rim is a lightweight one, making for some very quick responsive FFB as well.
I haven't received the TS-PC to review yet, but I have used the T500RS for years, which features similar power, and I've tested the T300RS/TX. The TS-PC is said to be a combination of the two, and I could picture that as a great combination, for a solid price.
- Fanatec Clubsport Wheel V2.5: Base from $500, Rims from $89
Fanatec's current flagship is one of the top wheels that can be had for under $1,000, that still offers some (limited) console compatibility. The Clubsport Wheel V2.5 features a Belt Driven Force Feedback system, generating over 6.5 NM of Torque. Like the CSL Elite, this is sold as an a la carte base unit, requiring you to buy a separate rim with the base. If you want to keep the cost under $600, you can buy the CSL Steering Wheel P1, which is currently sold for $89. However, with this investment, I would recommend going to a higher end wheel. I would recommend the Universal Hub paired with a steering wheel rim. That is the lightest offering that is available for the Fanatec wheel, and it results in a very quick FFB through the wheel. That combination runs $400, which would bring you to the $900 price point, the top of our range.
Now it's time for the big guns! If you're really wanting to take that next step into this hobby, or you have a lot of money to burn, high end wheels are becoming surprisingly reasonable. The high end market is quickly becoming dominated with Direct Drive Force Feedback technology, which is bringing costs to a fairly reasonable point, if you're willing to tinker. However, it is worth mentioning that once you get to this point, you will NO longer have compatibility with console racing titles, but if you're really wanting to do that, you will most likely have a console wheel on the side.
- Open Sim Wheel
One of the emerging trends is to build your own high end racing wheel, being dubbed the Open Sim Wheel. The thought is that, you could buy your own motor, pair it to the right electronics, and you would have your own functional Direct Drive racing wheel! As a result, we are starting to see prices for this go under the $1,000 mark. This method may be rather daunting if you have limited DIY experience though, so now retailers such as sim-pli.city and SimRacingBay are offering pre-built solutions, for under $1,000!
- SimXperience AccuForce: DIY $704, AccuForce "Your Way": $899 AccuForce Pro $1,299
SimXperience provides the most cost effective turn-key consumer solution for the Direct Drive market. They have developed their system totally in-house, utilizing what they call a "Hybrid Stepper Servo Motor" (see this link for more on that), as well as their own SimCommander software to drive the wheel. This allows for a lot of customizability with the wheel, and the ability to tailor it to the driver's wishes.The AccuForce comes in 3 versions, the DIY (which is basically similar to an Open Sim Wheel with SimXperience technology), the AccuForce (which includes a wheel rim), and the Pro (which adds a button box, quick release, and slip ring).No matter what configuration you purchase, the motor stays the same. The motor, as mentioned, is an in-house offering from SimXperience, offering 13NM of torque.
- SimSteering 2: "52": $2,820, "53": $3,000, "54": $3,200
The Simsteering is one of the highest regarded Force Feedback units on the market, and it has been at the top of many racers' wish lists. This unit features Leo Bodnar electronics, matched to a Kollmorgen AKM50 series servo motor, to provide incredibly high performance.While the motors aren't as strong as the higher end MiGE wheel available in the Open Sim Wheel, it is said the SimSteering still outperforms the OSW, due to its high performance electronics.Three motor options are available, providing different torque figures:
- 52: 16NM
- 53: 20.5NM
- 54: 26NM
- Other Wheels
Other direct drive wheels are entering the hardware market as well, and they are hovering around the sub-$2,000 mark. We have seen offerings from Frex, EC Sim Hardware, and others. They will be slightly better performance than the AccuForce, and also smoother, due to using a true Servo Motor.