What You Need To Know Before Buying A PC Or Console Racing Wheel

Matt Smith 21-11-2013

Keyboard and mouse controls, though excellent for many genres, have always been a problem for racing games. Arrow keys are no substitute for a wheel. The rise of cross-platform controller support has lessened the issue by making it possible to play with a Xbox 360 gamepad Connect Your Xbox 360 Controller To Your Linux Gaming Rig Linux gaming rigs? Yup, they’re happening. With Valve’s Steam on Linux and a forthcoming Valve Steambox using Steam to run Linux games, the future is looking up for gaming on Linux. You can even install... Read More , but for those who are seriously into virtual racing, a wheel remains the standard.


Just one problem; wheels can be very expensive. Spending $100 will net you a bargain basement model and the best wheels sell for more than $500. You’re going to want to know what you’re buying before you lay down that much dough. Here’s a fast tour of everything you need to know.

Rotation And Wheel Size

PC racing wheels attempt to replicate the look and feel of a real wheel; some even license the look of a popular supercar, like that of the Ferrari 458 or Porsche 911. Yet creating a 1:1 scale replica of a steering column is very expensive and difficult for practical reasons.


This means that there’s usually a compromise in terms of size and rotation. Inexpensive wheels tend to be the smallest and have a range of rotation that’s less than many road cars, while more expensive wheels come closer to the real thing. The Thrustmaster Ferrari Experience, which is usually $80 with bundled pedals, rotates 270 degrees. The company’s top-of-the-line T500rs, which is $550, offers 1080 degrees of rotation and a 12” diameter, making for a more realistic experience.

That’s not to say you’ll always use the full 1080 degrees, but it does provide more choice. Increasing rotation decreases input sensitivity. So if you were playing, say, Euro Truck Simulator 2, you might use the whole 1080 degrees to better simulate driving a big truck. If driving an F1 car Get Up To Speed With Formula 1: The Resources You Need The new Formula 1 season is already underway, but how will you keep in touch with the sprawling racing calendar, an annual competition that runs for nine months of the year and takes place across... Read More , however, you might use less rotation to simulate their more agile, even twitchy responsiveness of an open-wheel racer.


Vibration And Force Feedback

Force feedback has been around for years, so you’d expect all racing wheels to offer it – right? Wrong. The least expensive PC racing wheels often advertise themselves as vibration or “force vibration” wheels. What this means is the wheel will vibrate like any modern gamepad, but there isn’t a motor inside that adds resistance to the wheel.


And you really do want that motor. As most people know from driving a real vehicle, bumps and jolts can often be felt through the steering column. Though we’re not conscious of it most of the time, the wheel is usually alive with feedback, particularly in a car with sporting intentions. Force feedback in modern racing games does a surprisingly good job of replicating that feel, and driving without it feels like…well, like playing a video game.

If you want to nerd out about it you can even look into the type of motor a wheel uses, and how it’s connected to the wheel. Inexpensive wheels like the Logitech Force Feedback GT often have a single motor connected to the wheel by a belt. The more advanced Logitech G27, however, has two force feedback motors, which allows for more complex reproduction of simulated feel. And the most expensive wheels use industrial motors that can replicate extremely strong forces, an effect you’ll notice the next time you slide off the track.


Pedal To The Metal

A wheel is generally useless without pedals, so most come with a bundled set. If you’re buying an inexpensive wheel ($200 or less) you can expect mundane plastic pedals supported by a small spring, belt or elastic band. That works okay, but it’s not the most durable choice.


A mid-range medal set, like Fanatec’s CSR Pedals, will be substantially more robust. While plastic may still be the main material, you’ll likely find beefier springs that provide more realistic resistance and metal panels or structure reinforcement for added durability. Adjustability is common, too, and makes it possible to change pedal spacing so that it works best with your particular feet. If only real cars had this feature!

Premium pedals like the CSR Elite up the ante with even more robust construction, the option to use a floor-hinged or suspended pedal arrangement, and an important sensor technology called a load cell. This sensor measures pressure, rather than pedal position, so driving the brake hard to the floor will create a different result than gently tapping it to the floor. Note, however, that only the most advanced racing simulations support load cells; check the racing games you play before splurging.


Considering A Clutch


Another important feature every buyer must consider is whether or not a manual gearbox with a clutch is desirable. If you choose to buy a wheel with a clutch, you’ll be able to realistically simulate the experience of driving a manual transmission. Wheels without a clutch can still shift, but rely on paddles behind the wheel instead of a dedicated shifter.

A clutch can add a lot to the simulation experience, but it also makes driving a lot more challenging and may not be appropriate for every game. Personally, I find that a clutch is annoying in arcade racers like Need For Speed, so I zoom around with an automatic transmission. Gamers who are not interested in hardcore simulation games shouldn’t consider a manual stick shift with a clutch mandatory.


The last issue you need to think about is compatibility. It’d be nice if one wheel could work on every platform, but that’s not the case. Instead, there is a strange split between PC/PlayStation and Xbox. Despite the fact that Microsoft develops Windows, wheels designed to work with a PC also function only on a PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4 console. Yea, go figure.


You should also note that you’ll generally have to buy pedals from the same manufacturer as the wheel. This is a bit confusing because almost all pedals connect via a cord that looks like an Ethernet cable, so you can physically connect Logitech pedals to a Mad Catz wheel, or vice versa. But that doesn’t mean the pedals will actually work.


In this guide I’ve covered a lot of exotic, premium features. The best racing wheels are truly awe-inspiring peripherals, and once you’ve used one, it’s not so hard to understand why they cost hundreds of dollars. But with that said, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that you must buy a premium wheel.

The basic features you should look for are bundled pedals, true Force Feedback Touch Something That Isn't There - Haptic Technology [MakeUseOf Explains] Haptics is the technology of touch. In the context of a virtual environment, it would mean being able to touch and feel something that literally isn't there, but that's certainly not its only use. From... Read More (not just vibration) and 900 degrees of rotation. You can find all of these features on the Logitech Driving Force GT, which usually sells for $125 on Amazon. Everything else is icing on an already tasty, and rather speedy, cake.

What racing wheel do you use while blazing down a virtual racetrack? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credit: Dolly1010/Wikimedia Commons

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Hessmeister
    January 4, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    I just ordered the Thrustmaster T150 because its a great starter wheel with decent quality for under 200 bucks.

  2. Gary
    December 10, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Hie, I bought this flashfire 3 in 1 steering wheel, but am having difficulty configuring it to my PC for use on ETS2. the small manual that came along with the steering if of know use. please help how do i set it up.

  3. CJ
    May 13, 2014 at 5:19 am

    Hey Matt

    What do you think is the absolute most realistic driving simulator and pedal / wheel setup out there - basically if money was no object what would you get?

    • Mo
      March 19, 2015 at 10:40 am

      My own ship.

    • Vidura Jayawardene
      August 7, 2016 at 7:25 am

      A real car.

  4. Matt D
    April 23, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Great article, but you didn't mention the ergonomics or difficulty in setting up the driving wheel properly. One solution is to get a purpose-built racing seat. I built one myself for about $50. It makes a huge difference in the feel of the game. I describe it here:

  5. Rama M
    November 22, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Hey Matt !,
    Thanks for using Porsche's logo for the image. which dragged me from fb to MUO..
    can I get the following spec .?
    A Wheel , with built-in gear shifting (Paddles) , also with normal gear shifter . and pads for Acceleration , brake and clutch . ! what would be the Total Cost .? and also company !
    I ll often play Need for Speed.. using arrow keys and other keys looks so bored ..

    • Matt S
      November 23, 2013 at 5:04 pm

      I'll recommend the Logitech G27 to you as well, it's $219 on Amazon.

  6. Matt
    November 22, 2013 at 3:59 am

    Hey Matt, I was wondering if you could recommend a wheel or wheel setup for me. I play a lot of Euro Truck Sim 2 and I'd love to have a wheel. I'd want one that has a clutch pedal (what's driving a truck without a clutch!), a shifter, metal pedals, and for the actual wheel, something that's realistic but not crazy expensive. What would a setup like that run me? It doesn't need to be top of the line or anything just good bang for your buck.

    • Matt S
      November 23, 2013 at 5:02 pm

      If you want full metal pedals, then you do have to go with something pretty expensive, like the Thrustmaster 500RS or a Fanatec wheel with ClubSport pedals.

      If you're willing to get rid of that requirement, your best bet is probably a Logitech G27.

  7. Kevin M
    November 21, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    I have used a Saitek R440 for years and it has been a fantastic wheel offering everything you say to get. The peddles could be better and really the only thing I would ask to upgrade on mine.

    • Matt S
      November 21, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      Wow, that's a pretty old wheel! I'm somewhat surprised it's still working. It's too bad Saitek stopped making wheels.

    • Kevin M.
      November 21, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      Yes it is old and I use it all the time so it should be testament to the quality of Saitek. Of course you keep the kids and the pets away from perpetuals like this and most any of them will last a long time...;)

      I to wish Saitek would still make wheels, I am looking to upgrade but not sure what to get now?