Reviews

Thrustmaster T500 RS Racing Wheel – Review

Thanks to Thrustmaster for providing the T500 RS for review. Please note you can find the technical specifications at the bottom of this page.

Compatible with Playstation 3 and PC.

When it comes to purchasing a  wheel so that you can get even more out of your racing games the pricing options available are rather limited: you’ve got cheap, expensive and really bloody expensive. There’s very little middle-ground between the cheap and expensive options. If  you are looking for that middle-ground wheel, well, this review isn’t going to help you in the slightest because the T500 RS is expensive. Really bloody expensive. £350 expensive. You could buy an actual car for that. Not a good car, mind, but a car nonetheless.

With a price-tag that high it better be a damn good wheel. This wheel is clearly designed for the hardcore racing fans only, the type of people who are willing to invest a lot of money into crafting a cockpit setup with multiple screens and a freakin’ epic surround sound system to help them become fully immersed in the screech of tyres and intense action that racing provides. And it’s fair to point out that I’m not one of these people. I utterly love racing games and motorsport in general, but I’ve never had the spare money lying around to put into creating the ultimate setup with which to fully immerse myself in F1 2012 or DiRT 3. Still, I know what I like, and for £350 I’m going to have to like it a lot. I’ve also had a lot of experience with the most expensive wheels out there, even if I never did have the chance to own any of them.

The first thing that I noticed about the T500 RS was how big the box was. There was enough cardboard there to house a small nation. As it turns out, though, this large packaging arrangement was entirely necessary as the T500 RS boasts a weight that an elephant would be proud of. 18KG, says the side of the box, to be exact. This weight lends the entire contents of the box a sense of quality workmanship and strength: it’s a chunky piece of technology that could, quite probably, survive a direct impact from Chuck Norris, although I wouldn’t recommend trying that theory out as the resulting explosion would probably destroy the Earth. It simply feels like £350 worth of material, which is important when you’re spending so much money, although I would have to say that it’s a little bit too on the heavy side. I’ll get back to that later, though.

 Once out of the box and sitting on my floor the wheel itself is a considerable size, with a large back unit housing the motor that provides strong 64-watt powered force feedback. As you can see from the pictures this isn’t a particularly spectacular wheel to look at: it’s a basic black design featuring a D-pad and nine face buttons with the centrepiece sporting the Grant Turismo 5 logo that affirms this as an officially licensed Sony product, although it’s also fully compatible with a PC as well. Behind the wheel are two large, chrome gear shifters that remain static when turning the wheel, their bright, polished look contrasting nicely with the basic black paint job of the wheel. To cut a lot story short the T500 RS isn’t going to be winning any awards for aesthetics – it’s a basic, functional design. It’s a little disappointing that £350 doesn’t buy you something a little nicer looking, especially when you compare it against the likes of the Fanatec CSR, but I suppose there’s something to be said for a simple, functional style.

The pedals, on the other hand, are little bit cooler looking. Again, these things boast a considerable weight that  lends them a real sense of durability. The brake, accelerator, clutch and almost all of the unit itself are done in diamond plate steel, making them visually stand out in comparison to the wheel. As a nice bonus they can be reconfigured from their standard F1 setup to a rally-style format, as seen in the picture below, although this is a bit of a fiddly process so I definitely recommend just sticking with one setup or the other.

Once everything is out of the box it is of course time to get the whole thing set up and operational. When it comes to the cables everything is pretty standard: you plug the absurdly large power brick into the back of the wheel and then into the wall, followed by plugging the USB cable into your PC or Playstation 3. After that the pedals simply plug straight into the back of the wheel. Of course this does mean you’ve got a fair few cables lying around, so it’s worth considering getting hold of a couple of simple ties to keep ‘em all together, especially if you’re going to be using a wired pair of headphones, otherwise you might find yourself tripping over things and smacking your head off of your shiny new wheel.

A clamp that comes supplied in the box is used to connect the wheel to whatever table you’ll be using. At this point it’s important to note that, yes, the wheel does require a table or such for it to be attached to – you can’t just sit it in your lap and use it. I know this sounds rather obvious, but it’s always good to point such things out. The other option is to purchase or make a cockpit for the wheel to be attached to, or some sort of stand. The wheel has multiple hard-points for bolting it to a cockpit or stand. As for the clamp itself, it’s a one of the weaker aspects of the wheel. It’s a functional enough U-shaped clamp which is connected to the bottom of the wheel using a simple bolt that you tighten. As designs go it’s far from elegant and a little clumsy to use, especially when you take into account the fact that the wheel is pretty hefty. The result is that attaching it your table is a bit of a juggling act as you try to hold the wheel  up and tighten the bolt while the clamp itself insists on spinning around and around because of its free-spinning nature. Then you generally have to stop tightening it so you can adjust the little “feet” of the clamp that hold it to the table as they hang also loose.  All of this won’t be much of a problem if you’re planning on keeping the wheel attached all the time, but if you’re planning on disconnecting it and storing it away after sessions then you’ll probably find yourself wishing fervently for a more well designed clamping system and a wheel that exercised a little bit more. Yeah, I just called a piece of technology overweight and lazy, and I understand that it was a terrible joke. You’re just going to have to live with it.

Also, you’re going to need quite a bit of desk space for the T500 RS as the housing unit takes up considerable space. I’ve got quite a large home-made desk that I used when testing the wheel, but I still had to shift my keyboard and other stuff out of the way. In fact, those with small tables may find themselves unable to use the wheel as the clamp needs quite a bit of space underneath the desk to clamp on to.

Once hooked the wheel runs through a brief configuration where is spins through its entire 1,080-degrees of rotation! That’s right, 1,080-degrees! That’s 180-degrees more than almost any other wheel on the market! It’s also a rather pointless 180-degrees because at this point very few games can even make use of 900-degrees of rotation, let alone 1,080. Still, that’s not really a complaint as such, after all it’s hard to complain about being given more of something and it’s not like the extra rotation hurts the wheel in any way. After that it was simply a matter of downloading the correct drivers and software from the official Thrustmaster site as I was using the T500 RS on my PC. This might seem a little strange given that it’s an officially licensed Gran Turismo product, but the fact of the matter is that even a year after the wheel’s release there still not a lot of games on PS3 that can take advantage of the T500 RS’ powerful force feedback, while pretty much every PC racing title works perfectly. The software that comes with it is a nice and easy to understand piece of kit that lets you quickly configure your wheels’ settings. This is where initial setup can become a little tricky: some games work well with the wheel pretty much straight away, requiring the bare minimum of tweakage, while others required a fair bit of adjustment in both the T500 software and the game itself, so if you’re playing multiple games at any given time expect to have to jump in and out of games to adjust your settings. This does actually bring me a criticism about the wheels design: unlike other top-tier wheels there’s no way to alter the wheels settings on the unit itself, so if you need to change anything you’ll have to exit the game entirely and use the T500 software. It would have been nice to have an in-built menu  system on the wheel that allowed you to tweak settings or choose from a range of  setups that you’d created and save earlier. Still, generally speaking you’ll probably manage to find a base setting that works well with most games.

Once all of the bolting and twiddling is done, it is of course time to actually get to grips with the wheel! But before I get down to how well this beast performs, and it does perform well, don’t you worry about that, I want to stop and talk about a couple more problems. I have more gripes, you ask? Yup. But I’d rather get them out of the way now, so as not to spoil the praise I’ll be heaping upon the T500 for how it handles. The first is that of button placement: I don’t have particularly large hands, but nor are they that small, yet I struggled to comfortably reach the rightmost buttons that were settled on the spoke during gameplay. While this isn’t much a problem for many games, it is if you’re playing something like Codemaster’s newly released F1 2012 where you need to be able to activate KERS and DRS quickly. Coming out of a hairpin and trying to desperately stretch your thumb to the KERS button so you can nail Alonso on the straight is rather frustrating. Another complaint is that the wheel features rubber grips which feels rather cheap for a product of this price. Make no mistake, the rubber is nice and grippy, but it’s also not that comfortable on the hands, especially in comparison to other wheels on the market that use materials. The biggest problem, though, is the decision made by Thrustmaster to make the metal shifters static, meaning they don’t rotate with the wheel . The disadvantage of this is obvious: you can’t change gears once you get past a certain amount of rotation. Most of the time this isn’t that much of a problem and the shifters are fairly large, but if you’re in a tight sequence of corners or you’ve just spun your car then there’s just no way to get your fingers on to them to shift gears quickly. This is by no means unrealistic, after all there’s plenty of cars that have paddle gearboxes that don’t rotate with the wheel, but it just feels like a poor design decision on Thrustmaster part. The other problem with them is that to stop them brushing against your fingers during use Thrustmaster situated quite far back, making it a bit of a stretch for my fingers to reach them. At this point it’s worth mentioning that there is a stick-shift attachment available for the T500 RS, but of course that adds even more money on to the already high price.

These flaws, though, will quickly fade into memory once you start racing. At the heart of the entire thing is a 65-watt Force Feedback motor that puts out 3000RPM which   drives dual belts transmitting the effects of the car in the game to your hands. Coupled with that is the  H.E.A.R.T (HallEffect AccuRate Technology. Yeah, it’s a very forced acronym) system which uses special magnets on the steering access to give the wheel incredible precision, as well as the promise that the wheel will never lose that precision over the years. Obviously I can’t attest to this fact as I only had the T500 RS for three weeks from Thrustmaster to review, but I can at least attest that the wheel was indeed stunningly precise during use. There’s almost no lag or deadzone and the wheel was incredibly responsive in every situation, allowing me to quickly and smoothly regain control of a spinning car with small, subtle movements. 

As for the Force Feedback it was equally impressive, delivering loads of power with a broad range smoothly and consistency to create the sensation of actually driving a real car. Unlike a lot of other Force Feedback wheels there was never a moment where it became jerky for no discernible reason, instead it always smoothly and progressively delivered the power to give me a far more realistic feel than I’m used to having in a racing wheel. But the really important thing is that impressive as the amount of power it can deliver is, it’s also very, very good at delivering subtly. The motor delivers a broad range of power, from very slight resistance to arm-wrenchingly powerful fights to keep your car under control, once again ensuring that it really feels like you’re driving a real car. Ultimately, though, it’s pretty hard to put how awesome the Force Feedback is into words – it’s really something you need to experience for yourself to understand it.  It allows you to feel every nuance of the road. Keep in mind, though, that it’s 3000RPM powering this thing, so make sure that whatever you’re attaching it to is very, very sturdy so that it can support both the weight and the brute force of this thing. Even attached to my sturdy wooden computer desk which is directly bolted to a wall it gave off some powerful, and fairly noisy, vibrations.

As for the gear shifters, though they may be awkward to reach but they’re certainly satisfying to use. They’ve got just a slight amount of tension in them that makes them feel nice to use, and each shifter gives off a nice, audible thunk when you pull them. Admittedly they are a little noisy which may annoy some gamers, but for me, who generally uses headphones, it wasn’t a problem. Much like the wheel itself they’re also precise and quick: pull the shifter and the gear change is instant. And at no point did I ever find myself double-shifting, a problem I’ve had with numerous other shifters in the past.

Moving on to the pedals, I’m going to open up once again with a criticism: despite their weight and the four little feet on the corners, they still slid across my carpeted floor, forcing me to occasionally pause the game and drag them back into position. This was largely caused by the fact that the brake pedal has a satisfying degree of resistance to it, resulting in the pedals sliding across the floor when braking hard (read: panic braking like mad). Once again this reinforces the idea that the T500 really is meant to be bolted onto an actual cockpit rather than just used on a desk. Apart from this flaw, though, the pedals performed well enough, though the choice to go without a load-cell brake is a decision that a lot of sim-racer fans won’t be too impressed by. For those that are unaware a load-cell responds to pressure rather than movement like the potentiometers used here, which makes it ideal for replicated a brake. The spring behind the pedal, as I mentioned, gives a good bit of resistance and is adjustable, but it still doesn’t feel as realistic as a load-cell brake or offer up the same level of precision. Speaking of which I also noted that the pedals are lacking  a little bit of precision. Just lifting off a tiny bit on the accelerator or pushing on it a fraction more doesn’t result in any reaction from the in-game car. Obviously a little tweaking in settings can minimise this. Had this wheel been designed for the mainstream consumer the chances are most people wouldn’t even notice it along with the slight deadzone on each pedal. Yeah, it really is that hard to notice, especially since, as I mentioned, I don’t own a top-of-the-line racing wheel, I’ve just gotten to use a lot of them.   Yet I can’t help but feel that since this is clearly a wheel only for dedicated racing fans, the slight lack of precision and small deadzone is a little disappointing, especially in comparison to other to-tier gear which offers up near-perfect levels of precision on their pedals. Still, while the pedals certainly don’t impress as much as the wheel itself you shouldn’t go away from this review thinking the pedals are bad: they do their job and they do it well enough. The thing is I just don’t feel they do it £350 well enough.

So, after three weeks of playing around with the T500 RS on various games, how do I feel about it? Flaws aside the wheel itself is absolutely fantastic, offering arguably the best Force-Feedback on the market. It’s strong, smooth and progressive. It’s just a shame that the bulk of the unit and the shifters let it down somewhat. Still, even with these problems it’s still one of the best wheels out there. As for the pedals they’re definitely not as impressive as the wheel, providing  solid performance all-round but never managing to rise above the realms of just being good.  In comparison to something like  Fanatec’s CSR Elite  pedals they’re just not quite as precise and the CSR’s load-cell brake further helps give it an edge, although to be fair it’s now possible to purchase a brake-cell modification for the T500 RS, but that of course once again means spending even money on the already expensive setup.

Ultimately it all comes down to that price-tag and whether you’re willing to pay for. And the problem with that is how much money you’re willing to pay for something is entirely subjective. I may not be willing to pay as much for the same product as you, or vice versa. At £350 this is an undeniably expensive package that Thrustmaster have created, and the simple truth is that I, personally, wouldn’t pay that price for it. Do I love T500 RS? Absolutely! The wheel has its problems, but it’s still a fantastic piece of kit that easily sits amongst the best out there, and while the pedals can’t boast the same claim they still perform well enough. The thing is as much I enjoyed using the T500 RS, the price is just too high. So how the hell do I review this, then? Simple: I’m here to review the T500 RS, and that means money shouldn’t come into my verdict of the product itself. It’s up to you to decide whether you believe what you get is worth the money, and what you get is an absolutely great wheel and a set of good pedals to go with it.

The Good:
+ Awesome Force-Feedback
+ Chunky build ensures it’ll last a long time.
+ Very precise.

The Bad:
- Static shifters.
- Poor clamp design.
- Too heavy.

The Verdict: 9
The T500 RS allows you to feel every nuance of the road, from the rumble of powering over a curb to the dirt being kicked up by your tyres. The Force-Feedback and level of precision and response it offers is absolutely amazing. As for the pedals, there’s better out there like Fanatec’s Clubsport or CSR Elite pedals, but they do their job well enough. If you’re a racing fanatic willing to spend £350 then you won’t be disappointed, but if you’re not then there’s other wheels on the market for far less than offer wheel performance that’s almost as good with better pedals. For me, on a personal note, the £350 price-tag knocks a full point off the review score.

The Tech Specs:

Realistic wheel

  • Authentic wheel:
    • 30cm (12”) in diameter with brushed metal central spokes
    • Detachable (allows for future upgrades)
  • Authentic sequential gearshift levers: crafted of brushed metal, attached to the base (so they don’t move with the wheel)
    • 17cm in height (for instant access along 1080°)

Precision

New H.E.A.R.T HallEffect AccuRate Technology™(*) on the wheel’s steering:

  • Ultra-precise wheel, with 16-bit resolution (65536 values on the steering)!
  • Precision that won’t decrease over time (contactless magnetic sensor)

Realistic angle of rotation

  • Mechanism with large dual belts (fluid and smooth action)
  • Angle of rotation adjustable up to 1080° (3 full turns)!

Realistic pedal set

  • Unique design(*) with your choice of 2 positions:
    • Floor-mounted position (F1-style)
    • Suspended position (GT-style)
  • 100% metal, for optimal stability, weight (more than 7 kgs) and resistance
  • 3 100% adjustable pedals (spacing between the pedals/height)
  • Brake pedal with reinforced and adjustable resistance (included and removable “Realistic Brake” mod)
  • Included metal footrest with non-slip grating texture

Force Feedback

Force Feedback with industrial motor (Torque 150mNm, 3000rpm, 65W, Ø 52mm/2”)

  • Super-powerful, quick responding Force Feedback mechanism
  • Rigid motorized stopper, no matter what angle of rotation you select
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