Thrustmaster has been on a roll lately — a seemingly relentless campaign to assume the mantle of leader in the simulation controller industry. In 2010, their new HOTAS Warthog reset the standard for combat flight simulation controllers. In 2011, Thrustmaster is poised to do the same in the racing controller category with their new T500 RS, marketed as the new official controller for Gran Turismo 5 (GT5) on the PS3. Like any high-end product, owning your own copy of class-leading tech will cost you: the T500 RS retails for a whopping US $600. That's double what you'll pay for a wheel from Logitech and US $100 more than Fanatec's top-line gear — Thrustmaster's primary rivals. The question: is it worth the price?
Here is the Thrustmaster T500 RS Introduction video.
The box arrived on my doorstep, looking and feeling more like it contained a small refrigerator than a gaming controller. Peering inside the box, these words started swirling in my mind: Beefy. Sturdy. Big. Heavy. Robust.
The T500 RS comes with a 20-page hard-copy instruction booklet, which is most appreciated. The manual includes descriptions of how to set up the basic wheel, and how to configure and use the customizable features of the T500 RS. It also contains a listing of what parts should be in the box — which helped me realize what items had been left out of the box by the last media team to try out this particular review copy: The "realistic" brake pedal stop, brake protectors, a few screws, and two Allen keys. To make up for those omissions, the previous reviewers added enough dog hair sheddings inside the box and every inner-working of the wheel and pedals to make my own lap dog. How considerate of them.
There's no getting around it — the T500 RS is colossal. It is literally the elephant in the room (or on my PC desk, anyway). The wheel housing takes up a lot of desk space. Normally when clamping a wheel to my computer desk, I attach the wheel housing to the sliding keyboard tray, then slide the tray in until the front of the wheel housing braces against the main portion of the desk.
That strategy worked for my Saitek R100, my Logitech MOMO, and my G25. With the T500 RS? Not so much. The immense size of the T500's housing sticks out so far that you cannot get the clamp under the keyboard tray. As a result, I had to attach the T500 RS to the main surface of my desk, which is made of glass. That method feels a bit iffy, as the force feedback is very powerful on this wheel. It worked for the review, but it doesn't feel like a permanent solution.
The T500 RS's desk clamp is a big, u-shaped bracket that mates to wheel housing via sturdy T-handle bolt. While this method ultimately results in a firm attachment, getting the wheel to that point is an awkward affair due to ungainly size and weight of wheel housing and the loose, free-spinning nature of u-shaped clamp during tightening. You're probably better off bolting this product to a wheel stand or sim cockpit, which is provided for with multiple hard points for bolting the wheel housing down.
Like the wheel housing, the T500 RS's wheel is also as big as Texas. While Thrustmaster claims the wheel rim to be 12 inches (30cm) in diameter, my tape measure shows it to be 11.5 inches, which is exactly the same as Fanatec's Porsche Turbo S wheel. That said, the wheel looks wider due to a thinner diameter rim, and also features nicely finished, brushed metal spokes in basic black.
The wheel's textured rubber grip is not as luxurious as the leather or alcantera-wrapped G25 / G27 or Fanatec wheels, but the T500 RS feels more solid, like a real street car's wheel. The wheel itself is also detachable from the housing unit, supposedly to allow for future upgrades.
In motion, the T500 RS feels very sturdy and smooth. With a larger housing, it feels as though the components inside are stronger and larger as well. This would make intuitive sense, as I have heard from wheel developers that the larger the wheel's diameter, the greater the loads placed on the internal components. Like many current-gen sim controllers, the T500 RS dispenses with mechanical potentiometers that quickly wear out, and goes instead with contactless magnetic Hall Effect sensors, called H.E.A.R.T (HallEffect AccuRate Technology™), that theoretically do not wear out. Thrustmaster claims this makes the T500 RS an ultra-precise wheel, endowed with 16-bit resolution, or 65,536 discreetly measurable steering values. In a strange battle of one-upsmanship, Thrustmaster has raised the bar for total wheel rotation angle, giving the T500 RS a max adjustable angle of rotation of 1080° (3 full turns of the wheel).
Wheel Force Feedback (FFB)
You know what they say: Big housing, big wheel = big FFB motor. Or something like that. The T500 RS makes use of a 65 Watt industrial motor driving two belts at up to 3000 rpm. Thrustmaster claims this gives the T500 RS "fluid and smooth" FFB action, and I have no reason to doubt that claim. Even though the FFB is powerful, the T500 RS is the one wheel that I enjoyed having FFB set to "Full" in rFactor because the delivery is so smooth and progressive. It never felt like the wheel was about to be jerked from my hands. Even with the FFB strength set to the default 60% on the T500 PC Driver Interface, and 65% on rFactor's force feedback settings, the wheel's FFB response was very powerful. The forces exerted made the game feel more like a real car than anything I've ever tried. Typically when you can crank up the FFB level on a sim racing wheel, it just feels like more force, and often the outputs get a little harsh and abrupt. Not so with the T500 RS, which has very smooth FFB output rates that add to the immersion of a racing sim.
As mentioned above, I tried putting rFactor's FFB effect fidelity on "Full". Normally all that Full really adds is an engine vibration to the wheel. In other wheels, this engine vibration presents itself as an irritatingly jerky wobble or shake that feels nothing like an engine. But with the T500 RS, the wheel purred like a cat, and when driving at speed the sensation conveyed a feeling of being in touch with the road and the car's vibrations, even if the feeling is completely artificial.
Thrustmaster has also clearly found a way to minimize the need for on-center reduction in FFB strength necessary to prevent divergent wheel oscillations (felt as a softening of FFB outputs when the wheel is nearly centered). This giving the T500 RS more consistent rotating resistance all from lock to lock which feels very good indeed. When driving straight, there's no backlash from the FFB system, giving the wheel a very realistic feel.
After just a half hour of driving, the wheel's cooling fan kicked on. It's a loud fan, much more so than anything on a Logitech or Fanatec wheel. Then again, this wheel is clearly packing a heavier punch in terms of FFB and vibration strength than its competitors and no doubt generates a lot of heat during a gaming session.
T500 RS has one shining set of features that raise the bar for sim racing: the wheel's rotating parts and FFB system are nothing short of superb. There's something intangible about the way the T500 RS feels in operation. Thrustmaster says it captures the 'inertia' of driving a car. And that might be the best way to put it. The depth of FFB effects and the smoothness of the T500's wheel action easily eclipse Logitech and Fanatec's current offerings. It's hard to put into words: simply saying "the FFB is stronger" doesn't convey the point at all. The force feedback feels like it's coming from something much larger, something solid and massive. Something like a real car. In comparison, the T500 RS makes the FFB from other wheels feel like they're coming from something hollow and lightweight. The T500 RS has to be experienced to be understood.
There's no shortage on the T500 RS, but they are all in the familiar layout of a standard PS3 game controller. There should be no surprise that the wheel is optimized for the PS3, since that's the wheel's design platform and it holds the current title of flagship controller for that game franchise. Overall the layout of the T500 RS's buttons and their distance from the wheel rim are ergonomically sound, as they have the feel of a purpose-built racing wheel. Many of the buttons are intuitively located to where your thumbs naturally reach out, although two of them, located on the lower left side of the wheel housing and behind the wheel rim, are somewhat difficult to reach when driving. The rest give you plenty of options for laying out the commands you'll need when competing in a racing simulation event.
As I turned laps with the T500 RS, one thing that I found myself wishing for was a set of on-wheel adjustment options. Having the ability to tweak rotation angle, force feedback and vibration strength, and linearity on-the-fly would be very welcome features in a wheel at this price point.
Thrustmaster really set themselves apart from their competitors with their paddle shifter design by fixing to wheel housing instead of the wheel, so they don't rotate with the wheel (somewhat like a rally car's shifter). The solid-feeling, brushed metal paddles are big (nearly 7 inches (30cm) tall, each covering nearly a 90 degree arc under the wheel, so that you can (theoretically) execute gear changes no matter how the wheel is turned. In any case, all that seemed necessary was some time to adapt to the T500 RS's shifter layout.
However, the more laps I turned with the T500 RS, the more I pondered Thrustmaster's decision to go with fixed paddles. For me, it became a bit of a love-hate situation. I really loved the response and accuracy of the shifters — the micro-switches and lever geometry are very well done, and I never missed a shift, or had a double-shift, as I have had with other wheels. In this one narrow respect they're easily the best on the market.
Getting my fingers onto the paddles is another matter. Although the paddles remain in a fixed location relative to the wheel housing, your hands are almost always in different places relative to the paddles as you turn the wheel. The result is that you can sometimes have difficulty getting a fingertip onto a paddle, even with fairly small wheel rotation angles. Worse still is that in order to keep the stationary paddles from rubbing on your fingers when you turn the wheel, Thrustmaster had to place them several inches forward from the wheel rim, so you have to make quite the reach with your fingertips to actuate a shift. Additionally, the large paddles have nearly the same edge-to-edge diameter as the wheel rim. So even with my size 11 hands, I found myself having to consciously stretch my fingers out and forwards to reach around the paddles, and doing so tended to compromise my grip and control on the wheel - which is a bad thing, especially with such robust FFB response.
Thrustmaster TH8 RS Shifter (optional)
The TH8 RS Shifter is a standalone USB unit, combining both a 7+1 manual gated shifter and a sequential shifting unit. The unit uses Thrustmaster’s proven H.E.A.R.T HallEffect AccuRate technology that already powered the T500 RS wheel, using contact-less magnet sensors that don’t wear out and give the product a long lifetime.
Aside from having the choice between using the unit as completely manual or sequential shifter, the TH8 RS is highly customizable, allowing users to tension, stroke & deadzone both via hardware adjustment and by using Thrustmaster’s extensive configuration tool. The adjustability dosen’t end there as the whole shifting plate is adjustable by 360 degrees and buyers have the choice to replace the shifter knob with other real-life knobs thanks to an authentic size.
Like the wheel housing, the T500 RS's pedal system is massive. Made from 100% metal and weighing in at around 14 lbs (7 kgs), the pedal base includes three fully adjustable pedals that can be tweaked for pedal face location both in height and laterally (for heel-and-toe shifting or left foot braking). The action on each pedal is very smooth and resistance is well balanced for each pedal.
The T500 RS's pedal base has a unique customizing feature allowing the gamer to switch from floor-mounted (F1 style) pedals to suspended or firewall-mounted pedals. The pedal base includes a metal frame built through a 90 degree angle, so that you can flip the unit over, flip the pedal faces over (swapping the throttle and clutch pedal faces between actuator arms) to create a firewall-mounted pedal set known as "GT Style" in the product manual. In doing this you unbolt the pedal base plate from one portion of the base and attach it to its opposing 90 degree shell. The heel plate is mounted with screws held on with wing nuts, making that portion a tool-free affair. Unfortunately it isn't a hassle-free operation, as the wing nuts are just wide enough to impinge on the pedal arm braces under the base. This makes loosening and tightening a troublesome event. Well, four troublesome events to be specific.
Although I am a full-on convert to a firm, short-throw, load-sensing brake pedal, I really thought the traditional rotating-potentiometer style pedals of the T500 RS are very well done. The pedal faces are adjustable, and the heavy pedal unit can be mounted right side up or upside down (which is which depends on your point of view). That customizability is a really welcome feature. In stock trim the brake pedal has firmer resistance than it's throttle and clutch siblings, but could use quite a bit more resistance. Thrustmaster includes a "realistic brake" modification with the T500 RS, but unfortunately whoever had this review copy of the wheel before SimHQ neglected to include that part in the box when they packed it off. Bummer.
The massive pedal base is both big and heavy, resting on four square rubber pads for extra grip. Despite this, the base's bottom is otherwise smooth and has three longitudinal bars on bottom that conspire against the weight and rubber pads, making it easy for the pedal base to slide around on carpeted floors. It would seem that the pedals are at their best when bolted to a sim cockpit or wedged against a wall to prevent them from slipping. All things considered the T500 RS pedals are nice and I really appreciate the configuration options they provided, but after driving with a load-sensing brake pedal, you really can't go back to a rotating / angular measuring system. Still, they're easily better than the G25 / G27 system.
Initially the T500 RS was released as a PS3-only product, but Thrustmaster assured consumers that software drivers for the PC were on the way. And indeed, those drivers are available now from the Thrustmaster web site. The drivers come in an easy to install executable file. Pretty much just follow the 'next' buttons and you're good to go. The driver's graphical user interface isn't much to look at, but all the functionality is there.
Driving impressions on the PC
I tried the T500 RS out with rFactor, using the ILMS v2.78 mod being used in SimHQ's 20111 SCES endurance series. Using the wheel's stock 60% FFB setting and my usual 65% FFB strength in the game's GUI, I was suitably impressed with the T500 RS's force feedback and vibration response. Robust FFB response is a bit of an understatement! The wheel really lets you feel every bump and thrust from rFactor's FFB code, which really enhances the entertainment experience.
Driving impressions on the PS3
I tried the wheel out with GT5, the game it is purpose-built to support. Some have said that GT5's FFB outputs are too subtle. I haven't found that to be the case with my own Fanatec wheel, and subtle is definitely not an issue with the T500 RS. Thrustmaster's FFB and return spring resistance have both brute strength and are progressively delivered with a broad range in amplitude, giving the game immersion and a realistic feel without making the wheel feel jerky. If I had to find fault, it would be that the T500 RS lacks in-wheel adjustments, and FFB communication of understeer from the front wheels is a little under-delivered. Overall, I found the T500 RS's FFB cueing and strength to be some of the best I've sampled, and it works very well with GT5's FFB code. That should come as no surprise, as a recent GT5 patch solidified the bond between the game's code and that of the T500 RS.
Thrustmaster has provided the sim racing community with a truly top-tier controller for carving up the virtual track. Although large and heavy — and with a heavy price tag — the wheel sets a new standard for force feedback and rotation in both quality and quantity. The pedal base has all the customizable options you'd expect on a high-end product and shows that Thrustmaster didn't skimp on this oft-neglected, yet critical component of a sim racing controller. The button layout, while very PS3-centric, is also quite well laid out for any sim racing application. The use of Hall Effect sensors gives consumers a product with a high degree of accuracy, reliability and durability. The unit's size doesn't lend itself well to desk-mounting, but is surely just fine with a sim cockpit or wheel stand (Wheelstand Pro, are you listening?)
The only place where this wheel truly disappoints for me is in the ergonomics of the paddle shifters. While the paddle shifter internals are crisp, positive and accurate, fixing them to the wheel housing is a curious choice. I am sure this design element is something sim racers could eventually get used to, but the shifter location and width makes it easy to have one's hands out of position to affect a shift, and the significant reach needed to actuate the paddles can compromise your grip on the wheel.
Even so, this is one superbly crafted product, and highly recommended for the sim racer with deep pockets (and perhaps a sim cockpit laying around).
What I liked
Silky-smooth Wheel Rotation
Class-leading, broad and solid Force Feedback and vibration effects
Minimal on-center softening and lock-to-lock consistency
Rock-steady tracking when on-center, with virtually zero back-lash.
Adjustability of pedal set
Useful PC driver GUI
Ability to re-map buttons in PS3
Crisp and accurate paddle shifter switches
What I didn't like
No load-sensing brake pedal
Paddle shifter ergonomics — too awkward of a reach, fixed to wheel housing
Wheel housing too large for some desks
Awkward/clumsy desk clamp
Rubber wheel grip feels cheap for such an expensive product
Pedal base slide around too much on carpeted floors