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Gamepad versus wheel – what’s actually better?

By Tony O’Kane, 02 Jan 2020 Advice

Gamepad versus wheel – what’s actually better?

Alright so you want a gaming wheel, but is it actually going to help you win races? We get scientific

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably spent a fair bit of time in the peripherals aisle at your local computer shoppe, browsing the wheels on display and giving their rims a playful twirl. “Yes”, you think to yourself, “this is exactly what I need to be a faster driver, it’s just like the real thing”.

But is it? And will it actually improve your in-game performance?

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Here at WhichCar we spend most of our time spinning actual steering wheels, but among the gamers in our staff there’s an interesting mix of peripheral preferences. Some of us swear by the realism imparted by a proper gaming wheel, while others ‘make do’ with a gamepad either for budgetary reasons or space constraints at home.

There’s also a couple of sickos who actually prefer to race with a gamepad.

But are they handicapping themselves by sticking with a bog-standard controller? We decided to get scientific and do some proper instrumented testing to answer that age-old question: does a gaming wheel actually make you a faster racer?

Xbox One controller

Method

The basis of every good scientific test is to eliminate all variables besides the ones you want to examine, so we had to lock down a few things. For one, our Xbox One long-termer will be the sole platform used – no PC, and given Playstation won’t return our calls and send us a test unit, no PS4 either.

As for the game, Forza Motorsport 7 strikes the right balance of accessibility and realism. After all, as a flagship Xbox title FM7 has been coded to perform well with the standard Xbox controller, with a damping map that helps smooth out the tiny force variations of your quivering left thumb and spit out steering inputs that won’t turn your virtual racecar’s handling into hot garbage. There’s also plenty of customization if you plug in a wheel, with input curves, movement ranges, deadzones and force feedback all featuring plenty of adjustability.

gaming wheel versus controller

We’d also use one car and one track, both of which needed be unfamiliar to our test subjects to ensure an even playing field. On the car side, that was easy. We tuned a Subaru BRZ to ‘semi-serious road car’ status through upgraded suspension, tyres and some light power mods – and we also dialed in suspension settings that would ensure it would deliver a challenging tail-happy RWD experience. Oh, traction control and stability control would stay off, and test subjects would need to shift manually.

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For the track, we selected Lime Rock. Primarily because it’s a circuit that’s often overlooked by players (after all, it’s nowhere near as sexy as the Nurburgring, Bathurst, or Laguna Seca), but also because it packs a great mix of low and high-speed turns into its short length.

Logitech G920

And that leaves the wheel: the Logitech G920. With three pedals, dual-motor force feedback and the accessory shifter, our long-term G920 test unit has a well-rounded feature set and is also a popular choice among virtual racers. If you’re shopping for your first wheel, you’ve probably got the G920 – or its PS4-compatible brother, the G29 – on your shortlist.

We calibrated the wheel for Forza Motorsport 7 and forbade anyone from fiddling with its settings for the duration of the experiment. Every test subject would get two practice laps then six timed runs of Lime Rock in the BRZ with the Xbox controller, then they’d repeat the exercise with the wheel. We’d then get their fastest laptime from each session and compare the results.

gaming wheel versus controller

And the winner is?

It’d be a cop-out to say the results were inconclusive – they weren’t, actually – but the data gathered may not be as black-and-white as you might think.

Most people might assume that the more realistic input method, the wheel, would deliver better laptimes, and in most cases it did. Time improvements ranged from 0.7 seconds to as much as 4.6 seconds with the wheel, and while four out of 11 participants failed to register a faster laptime with the Logitech, two of those were on track to easily eclipse their gamepad times before tragically binning it on the final corner of their final lap.

gaming wheel versus controller

But there were some other interesting patterns observed, the biggest being that virtually everybody sucked when they first started driving with the wheel. Not just on their practice lap either, but most people’s first, second, and third timed laps with the G920 were well down on their best lap with the Xbox gamepad.

What’s more, though it was the slower method for many, everybody quickly got up to their fastest times when they were playing with the gamepad, with their final three timed laps often being very close indeed. That suggests the graph of ‘performance potential over time’ plateaus much faster with the standard Xbox controller.

gaming wheel versus controller

Its intuitive nature means there’s really no adjustment period required for the controller. The opposite is definitely true of the wheel.

Even those who have a wheel at home tended to take a while to get up to speed with our office G920, arguably due to the wheel’s tune being different to what they run themselves. One couldn’t make the adjustment fast enough, and recorded a slower time with the G920 despite owning one himself.

Yet one thing was clear: while people would quickly start banging out fast times with the controller and reach their natural limit within a handful of laps, those same people showed far better racecraft when put in front of the wheel. While they started out slow, their laptimes would steadily drop as their familiarity with the wheel built up and they took more aggressive lines and hit apexes and kerbs with greater confidence and accuracy.

gaming wheel versus controller

Some kept lapping even after the exercise finished, and while those times weren’t recorded they were easily far better than what those same people could achieve with the controller. The performance potential unlocked by a proper gaming wheel is clearly much greater, it just takes a lot more seat time to get there.

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The conclusion is this: if you spend loads of time playing racing games and you’ve got the spare dosh (and the spare room), getting a decent wheel is an absolute no-brainer. You’ll get more out of your games and develop better driving techniques too. However, if some Joe challenges you to a few laps at a house party and they’ve got a wheel for you to try out, insist on using the boring ol’ gamepad instead – especially if it’s a game, track, or car you’re unfamiliar with.

The science says you’ll be much faster from the get-go.

gaming wheel versus controller

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