|SUNCOM F18 Split Throttle
by Leonard Hjalmarson
When the Suncom F15 joysticks emerged on the scene in mid-1995, they became the first serious challenge to both Thrustmaster and CH products. Since that time the parent company went under and then Suncom was resurrected and re-organized with a revamped product line featuring the Talon as its premium joystick.
What makes the Talon unique among existing programmable joysticks is the fact that the Talon is programmable from within the game itself. You may also add or change an assigned slot without disturbing the entire program. Its also somewhat unique in that its feels and looks like it should cost at least twice what you will pay for it! For more information on the Talon go to the Suncom Talon Review.
This morning when I came home from the mail the Purolator truck was pulling out of my driveway. I popped open the large box first, which contained a lovely F15 kit from Tamiya. Next I opened the big square box: the new SFS! The packaging is reminiscent of all the high end equipment: CH, Thrustmaster, Saitek....But this piece of hardware has a look that would make any military pilot happy and it begs the question: "Are they shipping the rest of the aircraft separately?" This is one mother of a throttle, and with this entry into the HOTAS arena SUNCOM finally sits with the big boys!
Don't get me wrong, its not like SUNCOM gear has lagged in quality or realism, but until now SUNCOM could not offer a complete HOTAS system. With the release of the SFS that is not longer the case. And for those who already have the SUNCOM Talon or the CH Force FX, this throttle is the PERFECT addition to complete a HOTAS setup.
As I said, this thing is big, bad and beautiful. It is composed of tough plastic and metal and bristles with switches, hats, buttons and LEDs. It feels great and the base mounts four sticky suction cups so that even if you crank up the tension (default is already stiff enough for me) it still won't crawl around your desk.
The unique feature of the SFS is the split throttle design. At the moment there is nothing out there that supports this functionality, but I expect that Flight Unlimited II and perhaps Sierras Pro Pilot might issue a patch. As for future support, Peter Karpas of Activision has confirmed that Fighter Squadron: Screamin Demons will support the split functions, as has Jim Belcher of Ocean for Fighter Duel II.
Janes/Origin have expressed interest in the throttle for F15, but nothing is definite at this stage. iMagics coming iF18 Carrier Strike Fighter seems unlikely, but again it could happen in a later add-on. Whether Microprose will add support in the add ons that will follow the initial release of Falcon 4 so that we can fly the MiG 29 or Su27 with this unit is also unknown, but given their commitment to detail I think its VERY likely. Ok, on to installation and functionality.
The SUNCOM split throttle consists of the dual throttle levers (which can be locked together to function in concert), 16 on board programmable buttons, 8 independent buttons and 2 four way HATS. As with the Talon, there are four independent slots or memories that can be accessed for programming the throttle itself.
On the right or inboard lever are four two-way switches. The two on top are programmable, but the bottom two are toggles which are used to select from one of the four program slots. Four LED lights on the base inform you as to which slot you're currently using.
Again on the inboard lever where your fingers curl over the top are two four-way hats. On the outboard lever reside a spring-loaded two-way dial and a red button, both of which are manouvered by your pinky. Also on the outboard lever is a simple one-way pinky switch, sticking out winglike where you can't miss it. Meanwhile, the tension adjustment is controlled by a steel lever that is tucked up tight against the lever housing on the inboard side.
SUNCOM has taken an interesting approach to optional rudder control, allowing the outside split throttle may be used as a fore and aft rudder control. Most serious sim pilots already use rudder pedals, and in sims like F22: ADF the rudder is rarely used anyway, but if you don't have pedals and need this functionality while NOT needed the dual control, there it is!
The SFS also gives you the ability to program your existing joystick. This is a natural with the Suncom Talon, but you can also program the CH F-16 Combatstick ( including the main HAT ) VP Pro and FS Pro. You should also be able to program TM non-programmable sticks, but you may then lose your default TM Hat function.
Installation was quick and painless, even though documentation is sparse. Like some other manufacturers SUNCOM is relying on online help more than paper these days. While this isn't necessarily all that bad, they really need to include a larger install guide. The single sheet that is presently packed in the box omits some important details, and having to go to an online guide immediately for this information is a bother.
Worse, you must first install the Adobe Acrobat Reader to access the guide, and while the Acrobat Reader is becoming pretty common, there are still plenty of sim lovers out there who have never used it. And the docs don't warn you that you will need to install it, or even where to find it! (Its buried in a sub directory on the CD). Inevitably, many will be phoning tech support at the install stage: always a frustrating experience!
Obviously SUNCOM has been racing to get this stick out, a fact which most of us appreciate! While they have covered their bases well with the hardware itself, they have neglected the installation process. The CD at present contains no launcher exe, and the .inf file must be manually installed by calling up WIN95 Control Panel and choosing Add New Hardware. Hopefully SUNCOM will rectify this quickly by adding a launcher applet to the CD.
Once the software is loaded you move to the Game Controllers Applet in Control Panel. The user is presented with a list of driver options and must choose from a list which includes the Strike Fighter Series Throttle in a number of configurations. Unfortunately, its not obvious which should be selected, and a more complete Install Guide should also cover this stage. The choices are complicated by the DUAL lever configuation options and the possibility of rudder control on the outboard lever.
I thought that the online guide would contain info on the driver options, but it doesn't. However, the option most of us would use with a stick like the Force FX is this one: Suncom SFS Throttle lft grip off +2ax,4 btn POV stick. If you want to use the left lever as a rudder you would choose "Suncom SFS Throttle lft grip off +3ax,4 btn POV stick."
Programming is where the SUNCOM sticks really shine. You can program on the fly to emulate your keyboard, and I used the throttle in Flying Corps Gold, F22: ADF and Longbow II without incident simply by pausing the sim while placing the throttle in programming mode and then hitting the keys I wanted to add. There are no DOS window boxes or downloads necessary to get this up and running, and no Windows 95 interference to be found. Chorded functions are also supported so that you can hit SHF F1 or any other key combination desired.
Some gamers may worry that they will be constantly reprogramming the stick, since there is no way to save config files to disk. Fortunately, there are precious few of us who fly or command in more than two or three sims at a time; newer simulations are simply too demanding to allow a user to stay proficient in more than two or three simultaneously. But the throttle allows you to save up to FOUR separate command sets at a time. I doubt whether anyone will find this much of a limitation and SUNCOM is working on software to allow you to save your configurations to disk for loading at a later time.
How does the Strike Fighter Throttle stack up against others? Throttle movement is in an arc, not a straight pull. There are detentes for minimum/maximum throttle and afterburner, and they are much more noticeable than on TM gear. There is even a rotary knob to simulate range finding! Form and function rate high on my list for this one. This is one big throttle with many buttons and knobs that all work. I am still exploring the functions available and hope to find even more surprises.
As for general compatability, once you program any buttons on the SFS you lose the native mode of the attached joystick. A button on the SFS allows you to select between Keyboard Emulation Mode or Standard joystick mode for the attached stick, and Emulation Mode is the only way to invoke programmability for your stick. This prevents WIN95 from recognizing the native HAT and other functions of your stick, but its not a big deal since you can now program individual functions on your stick, including the trigger.
However, if you like the default functions of your Force FX or other stick, simply leave the selector in Standard mode and don't attempt to program any new functions to your stick. This way you keep your defined HAT and other joystick functions and just program the SFS itself. Any sim that supports the Force FX or Combatstick or whatever will continue to recognize the sticks functions and you have added the programmability of the throttle along side.
The Strike Fighter Throttle is an attractive fully functional throttle which rates high on my list. The ease of programming is outstanding . The unit will be priced around $129 US but you may be able to pick it up for even less.
The only drawbacks of the hardware itself relate to the size of the unit. I have average size hands (I'm 5 feet 8 inches and weigh 155 pounds) and I can't reach the bottom two way switch on the inboard lever without shifting my hand. The only other change I would make to the unit itself is to change the color of the programming button to green; I am forever referring to the manual to check which of the four red buttons I need to press!
The other item I almost forgot to mention is that when you use both throttles you then give up any rudder control, including the use of separate pedals! Yes, this is an important item, less so for jet sims but especially for prop jobs. I don't know if SUNCOM is working on a solution or even if there is one, since the limit may be the design of the game port itself. It could be that this will be solved by new technology like the digital port (L4 Lightning) being made by PDPI. The standard PC only has 4 axes for a stick ( X,Y, throttle, rudder).
Otherwise, this is a great piece of hardware, and I don't hesitate to recommend this unit for any sim fan!
I tried the SFS in Flying Corps Gold, F22: ADF, Longbow 2, and M1TP2 beta. None of these sims support the dual function, but the throttle works great as a standard unit, with a feel and ease of programming second to none.
As for the documentation issue, I spoke to Dave Farner at SUNCOM this morning and he says that they are committed to service and to improving the SFS package, so I think we can count on an improved Quick Install Guide to happen ASAP.
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