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Manufacturer: Saitek
Min OS X: 10.2    Requires: USB Port

R440 Force Feedback Wheel
April 7, 2004 | Scott Turner

Click to enlarge
I've never pulled a 180 degree turn in a car in real life, nor do I ever plan to. However, if Saitek's R440 Force Feedback Wheel is any indication of what it actually feels like to throw a 2,000 pound hunk of metal into a tail-spin, it's not as easy as it looks in the movies. Screeching tires, your car doors flying off when you hit a wall, and then the shudder in the wheel as your rims grind to a halt on burning asphalt. Thanks to Saitek and the Force Feedback technology they've incorporated into their top of the line racing wheel, I felt this experience all the more viscerally with the shuddering and bumping of the wheel as I spun it around. Racing games aren't done justice by toying with arrow keys or a frictionless wheel to drive a virtual car. There's no alternative once you've felt the jolt of energy at every bump and jump in the road on your Mac directly through your racing wheel. Saitek has really made an immersive input product with their R440 Force Feedback Wheel, and that's not something you'll hear often.

Unpacking the Beast
Saitek's wheel is not exceptionally large and unweildy. Compared to most car steering wheels save for maybe a European smart car the wheel is very compact. With pedals, a connecting brace, as well as ample packaging and supplementary materials, the box that the wheel arrived at my doorstep certainly had quite a heft to it. When I had lugged the thing up to my computer and unpacked it, I had quite a spread. There was a medium sized manual in multiple languages, a fast reference sheet for techinical support phone numbers, and a CD full of wheel setup options and extras. Unfortunately, as is the case with most third party peripherals designed for both the Mac and PC, the software was PC only. However, this did not delay me in the least.

When I had placed the wheel on my computer desk, there was another unfortunate setback. The brace that firmly sticks the wheel to your table-top was too small to fit around my table, and even with a few adjustments, I wasn't able to secure the brace. I don't think this is a big strike against their wheel, since the brace is basically a vice and they couldn't have made a simpler, more-likely-to-work support. Even without the support, the wheel seemed to work just fine, although, admittedly, I did not yank or jerk the wheel like some are likely to do in the middle of an intense race.

There are three plugs on the back of the Saitek wheel. One of them looks like a base 10/100 Ethernet port, and a cord from the included pedals fits snugly inside. An included AC adaptor plugs into another port, and the final port contains a USB cord to be connected to your Mac. I was surprised to find a tag connected to the strange, grainly feeling USB cable with the following warning:

"Handling the cord on this product will expose you to lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause [cancer, and] birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling."

Yikes. After a thorough hand-washing, I finally opened up a few games and got going with the wheel.

Get a Good Grip
The wheel is set up with firm rubber grips on either side, covering most driving hand-positions from 10 and 12 'o clock to 4 and 8. There are two paddles that are directly behind the grip on the left and right, and each counts as a button. At the top left and right corners of the wheel, there is a red and yellow button which can also be assigned a function, such as handbrake or clutch. While it may seem akward at first, this is really the only alternative to using the keyboard, since the Saitek wheel does not include a stick shift like many other high-end steering wheels offerings in its price range.

The included pedals are fairly small and close together, and while they feel a bit cheap and plastic-like in bare feet, for most instances you won't even notice their small form factor and will likely come to enjoy the space the small footprint of the unit saves like I did. The pedals are also fairly sensitive, and braking as well as acceleration felt about as accurate as driving a real car. You can't get much closer to the real deal without a whole car cockpit.

The actual wheel feels quite solid and responsive. Sensitivity varies depending on how you set it, but the slight amount of friction in the steering "column" gives you the nice illusion that you are really turning something attached to wheels. There is a meter of lights smack in the middle of the wheel that is powered by you turning the wheel and indicates how sharply you are rotating left and right. This is also a good gauge of force-feedback, which also cause the lights to shift as you drive. There's just enough weight to make this unit have a real solid grounding as I turned it back and forth, but not too much so as to make the unit laborous to turn. I thought it was a very nice balance.


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