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?
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.
Stander Hotos: 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.
It provides enough functionality to get you started while not overwhelming the new user with overly-refined settings or functionality. The action might not be amazing, it might feel a little plasticky, and the control scheme isn’t as expansive as that of a more expensive system. But it was Baby’s First HOTAS for a generation of players, and plenty of us have good memories with these machines. Just know that if you decide you like this system, you’ll eventually be plunking down for custom-built control systems like the rest of us sim addicts.
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.
A Higher-End Option: Logitech G Saitek X52 Control System
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.
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.
The colored buttons, LCD display and realistic control surfaces are all par for the course in the higher-end HOTAS world. The control system can hold multiple control profiles, allowing for switching based on simulated aircraft or simulator title. Your money also buys a progressive, adjustable throttle for smother idling and robust z-axis twist controls with axis-based confinement.
If you want to try out a HOTAS controller, the Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas is an enduring pick. You won’t go wrong there, and while the system might feel a little bit cheap, it’s also a great introductory tool.