A Review of Hands-On Throttle-And-Sticks (HOTAS): Which is the best?
In the flight simulator and newly-emerging space simulation gaming genres, using a Hands-On Throttle-And-Stick (H.O.T.A.S), or HOTAS as it is commonly known, is a must have for any serious gamer, as it brings much more realism to flight simulation and also provides a better more intuitive control of the simulated aircraft or spacecraft being commanded. In recent times, Virtual Reality (VR) headsets have also increasingly entered the gaming ecosystem bringing even more realism to flight simulation but with the unwelcome consequence of obstructing the view of the computer’s keyboard where so many of the controls are often located. As a consequence, VR gamers have become even more dependent on the controls in their hands and having strategically-placed buttons and other control hardware on a HOTAS is now often essential in order to interact sensibly with the game (although with the advent of voice controls, such as VoiceAttack software, this can be mitigated to some extent).
The modern day HOTAS is also outfitted with a plethora of buttons, hats, rotary switches and other controls that allow the gamer to quickly access the different aspects of the gameplay. Due to the complexity of flying an aircraft or a spaceship in real life and then in trying to mimic that in the gaming simulation, the number and complexity of controls on the humble HOTAS has only increased. As a consequence, trying to decide on the best HOTAS to buy can be a somewhat difficult and complex task. In this review, we look in more depth at HOTAS controls, what features we, as gamers, should be looking for when buying one, before examining what is on offer today with particular focus on those which are readily available to the UK consumer.
What to look for in your next HOTAS purchase
Total Number and Type of Controls on the HOTAS
Probably one of the most important aspects of HOTAS devices to look at when buying one is the number and type of controls that are designed into the equipment. These come in a number of different form factors including buttons, hats, analogue sticks, sliders, rotary dials and scroll wheels. Ideally, one wants to know what game or games the HOTAS will be used for in order to pick a device that has the controls that are best suited to the appropriate gameplay. However, with the increasing diversity of choice in today's simulation gaming genre, that is not always possible. Fortunately, the majority of today's HOTAS controllers have enough buttons and other similar controls to be adaptable to just about any simulation game, but as a general rule, the more available controls a HOTAS has, the better the HOTAS. Exactly which type of controls are preferred also depends very much on the type of flight or space simulation game being played but some types of control are generally more useful than others. Below we outline the different types of controls in more detail and, to some extent, in order of importance for when choosing a HOTAS:
Buttons: Buttons are the primary control on any HOTAS after the primary joystick and throttle mechanisms, coming in multiple forms including toggle-type switches that stay on when released, as well as momentary push buttons which return to their original position once let go. Buttons can also sometimes be found under scroll wheels and sitting atop rotary dials. In general, buttons are usually the most valuable control type to have on one’s HOTAS as in-game functions are more often than not binary on or off affairs, so one can almost never have enough buttons.
Hats: Point-of-View (POV) hats are also a common feature on HOTAS devices, named as such due to their common, although not exclusive, use for looking around the cockpit of a flight simulation game. Each hat on a HOTAS usually has a unique appearance and shape in order to provide the gamer with a unique tactile sensation when using it without looking at it. Hats come in a couple of different forms, usually either 8-way or 4-way, to indicate the number of different activation states that the hat is capable of differentiating around a 360° axis.
Analogue sticks: A close relation of the POV Hat is the analogue stick, which can also be operated over a 360° axis however the difference between the analogue stick and the hat is that the analogue stick can sense its position over the full continuous range of 360° axis rotation as opposed to the discreet activation states of the hat.
Sliders: Sliders, as their name suggest are sliding controls that are also analogue-type switches providing a continuous range of values over the length of the slider.
Rotary Dials: Rotary dials generally come in two different form factors, an analogue type that provides a continuous range of values over the full extent of rotation of the dial, and the discrete type which has discrete positions on the dial representing different activation states within gameplay.
Scroll Wheels: Similar to the continuous form of rotary dials, scroll wheels are essentially identical to the scroll wheels found on the typical computer mouse and provide a continuous range of values over the full turn of the wheel.
Ability to Program Individual Controls on the HOTAS
Another key feature of HOTAS controllers to be aware of when choosing one is their ability to be repeatedly programmed according to the needs of the gamer. Most HOTAS controls can be programmed with profiles specific to different games, with many of these profiles often available to download from manufacturers’ websites. Being able to change profile quickly depending on which game is being played or by whom is a useful feature, however, a truly capable HOTAS will have the ability to have each specific control on the HOTAS programmed exactly to the gamer's specification. This usually involves the assigning of specific controls on the HOTAS to specific functions in the game, as well as the programming in of small dead zones on the various axes of joystick rotation to reduce its sensitivity to small inadvertent movements made by the gamer just from holding it.
Robustness and Reliability of the HOTAS
HOTAS controls are relatively complicated devices that can be subjected to quite a lot of physical abuse in the heat of gameplay. As a consequence, the average HOTAS is somewhat notorious for malfunctioning at some point during its life, and gamers looking into choosing a new HOTAS should take into account the relative robustness and reliability of the device relative to its competitors. In days gone by, some components of HOTAS devices, such as the internal potentiometers that were used to provide a read-out of the throttle and stick positions during gameplay, were known to have a limited lifespan of a small number of years of use. In recent years, however, the majority of HOTAS controllers available to the consumer today have mostly replaced these with more reliable Hall Effect-type magnetic sensors (although even these too are not immune to malfunctioning if over-used).
With the long hours dedicated to addictive gameplay that is typical of most gamers, making sure that the HOTAS control is comfortable in one's hands is also an important consideration. Most HOTAS controllers on the market today are ergonomically designed to fit in the palms of the hands comfortably, however, with the wide variety of different hand sizes within the population, no single HOTAS, particularly the joystick part of the device, will be absolutely comfortable for all to use. Better designed HOTAS joysticks have incorporated an adjustable hand rest that can be raised or lowered to better suit the hand size of the gamer, making holding the joystick for long hours or over-gripping it during heated gameplay a much more comfortable experience.
A frequent requirement in both the flight and space simulation game categories is the need to control the simulated aircraft’s rudder or spacecraft’s yaw axis thrusters which implement the side to side horizontal rotation of the simulated vehicle. In real aircraft, this is normally achieved using foot-operated rudder pedals, and HOTAS manufacturers often sell foot pedal controls that can be incorporated into the gameplay to mimic real life. However this usually means that there is an added expense of purchasing pedal controls, which some gamers on a budget might find prohibitive. Fortunately, this rudder function is often also programmed into HOTAS controllers so that the horizontal motion of the simulated vehicle can be achieved with the HOTAS alone. Indeed, some controls on well-thought out HOTAS devices in the form of rocking switches on the throttle as well as twist-action motion on the joystick, have been specifically designed to address this ’rudder’-type movement.
Throttles are essentially large sliders that control the level of simulated thrust in the forward and reverse direction of the simulated aircraft or spaceship. However unlike a joystick where one can generally sense the orientation of the control without looking at it, knowing at what level the throttle is set at usually requires either looking at the hand control itself or having some indicator present on the gameplay screen. This is not always ideal since in the heat of battle or other high pressure game situation which requires the gamer’s full attention, looking at the throttle’s setting can be an unwelcome distraction. As a consequence, some HOTAS manufacturers have thoughtfully designed their throttles to mimic the more curved motion of real aircraft throttles, the curvature of which providing the necessary tactile sensation to the operator letting him know its approximate location just by holding it.
Another feature some HOTAS manufacturers have also integrated into their devices is the splitting of the throttle into two separate parts allowing independent control of each and giving the gamer the option of individually controlling more than one engine for example. The usefulness of this is very much game-dependent with some aircraft simulation games allowing the control of two engines independently, whereas in other games, such as the space simulation game Elite: Dangerous, having the dual throttle functionality is a little superfluous.
For the left-handed amongst us, HOTAS manufacturers have traditionally not been very kind. The joysticks of most HOTAS controllers have been designed exclusively to be operated with the right hand which may feel natural for righted-hand individuals but might be wholly unnatural for the left-handed minority. Fortunately, some manufacturers are starting to come around, making their HOTAS offerings convertible for both right- and left-handed stick operation. However, this may be more due to the increasing growth of the space simulation genre, where a two joystick setup as opposed to the more usual throttle and stick arrangement is gaining more traction in the space gaming community, rather than due to benevolence on the part of the HOTAS designers.
Operating System Compatibility
Last but not least to know about when choosing a HOTAS controller comes the issue of computer compatibility. Aside from the usual minimum computer system requirements, the majority of HOTAS controllers have been primarily designed for Windows personal computers so almost all that are available are compatible with the more recent versions of Microsoft's operating system. In addition, the programming software, used to assign different controls on the HOTAS to different functions in a game, is invariably designed for Microsoft Windows. In recent times however, some manufacturers have started to cater to the gaming console crowd by making some of their HOTAS offerings compatible with either Microsoft's Xbox or Sony's Playstation. Unfortunately, Apple Mac and Linux users are the last in line when it comes to HOTAS controllers and although some devices might work relatively well with Mac or Linux flight simulation software, HOTAS manufacturers rarely specifically support it, making it a more technically challenging affair for the user, so try at your own risk!
Popular HOTAS controllers in the UK
So which HOTAS is the best and which one should we be going for? Well that depends on your budget, and as with most things in life, the more you are willing to pay, the better the product you will end up with. However, unlike most other technology products, the range of HOTAS options from which to choose from is surprisingly limited. This is especially true here in the UK, with currently only two companies dominating the HOTAS space, Thrustmaster, and the computer peripherals company, Logitech, which not so long ago entered the HOTAS market by purchasing the well-known HOTAS company, Saitek. Each company has fielded a number of HOTAS controllers over the years with the current crop of available devices shown in the table below: