[align=right][digg]http://www.digg.com/gaming_news/Xbox_360_Wireless_Racing_Wheel_Review[/digg][/align]Yippy, another Microsoft steering wheel [align=left][/align]I've been a racing fan since I first sat in the backseat of a friend's modified 5.0 Mustang in high school and since then I've done a lot of racing myself. I've owned several performance cars and driven all of them to their limits. Naturally I began playing racing games as well, and have been hooked since. Some of my favorites in the past were Sports Car GT, Viper Racing, Gran Turismo (1-3) and Forza Motorsport. As a writer on hardware and gaming, it was easy to acquire many steering wheels over this period and I'd estimate I've owned at least twelve in that time, including Microsoft's original force feedback wheel. Many wheels were too gimmicky (such as Act-Labs Force RS) which led to poor support, or too cheaply built (such as Joytech's Nitro) which led to broken parts, but Microsoft's wheel was a solid pick, other than its lightweight plastic construction and gameport connection. I really anticipated a follow-up for the Xbox and Xbox 360. When I first bought my Xbox 360, I was dying for a decent wheel. I wanted to drift through Project Gotham Racing 3 with force feedback but settled for a rumbling gamepad. Kudos: it worked fine. Eventually I did buy the Joytech Nitro wheel (info here, ~$80) around the time Test Drive Unlimited was released, but was very disappointed by its sensitivity, cheap pedals, and poor construction. I actually snapped off the right paddle one day while playing TDU, and eventually returned it to Best Buy. I used the money to hack away half of the massive $150 required to buy this baby: Microsoft's Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel. Opening the box Since I made the purchase midway through a move, it sat almost 1000 miles away from my Xbox 360 for a month while I planned how to get the rest of my junk to the northwest. I had disconnected my Xbox 360 early in the move and waited this long to crack open the cardboard, but the day finally arrived earlier this week. You can imagine my anticipation, with Forza 2 right around the corner and a few great racers already released for the console. As I cut into the tape that held it together, the box disassembled into a small rainforest's worth of cardboard. The wheel is packed tight in the very high quality box. Mine had been driven nearly 1350 miles and moved twice by the time I opened it, but hadn't moved an inch in its fortress and had that wonderful “new electronics” smell. Inside the box are the essentials: the wheel, pedals and base, the bracket that locks the wheel onto a table, power adapter and cable, a phone cord, two Energizer AA batteries, and a disc with Project Gotham Racing 3 (including Force Feedback support) and system drivers for the wheel. For more pictures of the packaging check [H]ere. Initial inspection This wheel is very stylish and extremely well built. The white exterior looks like the other Xbox 360 items except the center is extra shiny and smooth, resembling the front of a fine-tuned fiberglass race car. The unit is heavy, but in a good way. It is not as light as the previous Microsoft wheels or the Joytech, but not nearly as heavy as the Act-Labs RS or even the Logitech Driving Force Pro for Playstation 2 (at least as I remember). The wheel itself features heavy padded rubber and a slick metal-looking (plastic) bottom-half, flattened a bit to make intense turning sessions possible even if the wheel is on your lap. The dark molded plastic base is smooth and comfy, extra wide, and had its own grip retention mechanisms. On either side are grey plastic compartments. One was just for looks, but the other opens up the battery compartment where you can install those Energizer batteries from earlier or if you've got an Xbox 360 battery pack, that instead. The mounting bracket that holds the wheel to your desk (optional to install) has a hood-release looking button that unlocks it from the wheel and a large lock button to stabilize it on a desk. I just wanted to give it a try but as eager as I was to hook it up and start playing, something bothered me... Wireless is a relative term Honestly I hadn't done much homework on this wheel before I made the purchase. I knew from experience that Microsoft makes great wheels and that any wheel made for Forza 2 was probably the one to buy. After all, Forza was (at that point) the best racing game I had played and I wanted to have the best wheel for its sequel. Test Drive Unlimited was like crack, and Project Gotham Racing 3 always kept me entertained when I really wanted to beat on a fast car and slide it around some corners. That said, I had no idea this wheel required any wires. You will need to hook-up at least one wire in order to use this wheel, though. It's the “phone” cord that runs from the backside of the wheel to the pedal base. Luckily though this cord is very light and easy to maneuver out of the way. Also the bottom-side of the pedal base has slots to run the cord though, so you can run it to either the left or right side easily without sacrificing any traction of the pedals on the floor. If you've used many wheels in the past, you'll probably remember the most annoying feature being the cables that ran between the pedals and wheel, to the power source, and to the console or computer. The wheel runs off two AA batteries or an Xbox 360 battery pack and the battery life is excellent. As tested, the wheel took many two-hour sessions while showing no signs of fatigue, and from what I have read, I gather that with decent alkaline batteries you could get 20 hours or more of game play. But, enough of that... rarely when you use this wheel will you be playing a game without force feedback and trust me when I say you will want to have force feedback, meaning you'll need to plug-in the AC adapter. In the titles tested it only made the game more realistic and enjoyable without significantly impacting the difficulty level. The problem for “wireless” fans is that if you want to use force feedback you must run the AC adapter to the wall and the power connection to the backside of the steering wheel. This makes sense, as it would drain the batteries in record time with that sort of action of its motors, and at least the one wire that interfaces between the wheel and the Xbox 360 is eliminated with its “wireless” connection. Still, a little more warning would've been nice and calling the wheel wireless is not really 100% fair (that's a few years off yet). I'm not complaining, though, as I hate dealing with batteries anyway and at least the adapter is small, the connection is solid, and the intelligently routed pedal wire makes the extra wires barely noticeable. If you want to be nearly wireless you can settle for no force feedback, but you may be missing out on this wheel's greatest feature. [BREAK=Setup and In-Game Performance] Setup and mounting Hooking up the wheel was almost as easy as any other Xbox 360 controller. The included disk loaded straight to Project Gotham Racing 3 which supported force feedback immediately. Within seconds I was racing. Casual racers that play non-racing games would enjoy this wheel immensely as its one or two wires are easily thrown aside, quickly converting a race cockpit back into a regular chair. Most wheels before this generation required more effort and ultimately wouldn't be used as often due to the hassle of hooking-up and disconnecting the various components. Optimally you would have a setup like the ones they demo this wheel with at trade shows and PR events: It would have a real race seat with surround sound speakers attached and a bracket to lock the wheel onto. It'd probably have three HD screens, three Xbox 360s, and three advance copies of Forza 2. Realistically you're going to either lock this unit onto your desk or set it on your lap. Setting a wheel on your lap always works okay, but you can only expect so much from it. You may need to sit slightly back in your chair with legs stretched in order to get the most out of it and switching between users on a couch in a living room might cut down some realism in the experience. With the combination of rumble and force feedback, the wheel's going to move around a lot – as any wheel will. This one happens to do an excellent job keeping the wheel in place and stable on your lap, but force feedback constantly fights you and can make it difficult at times to control the car in hairy situations. However this is one of the best wheels I've tested to date for a lap-mount and if you were to play games without force feedback, a table is not necessary. If you take things more seriously, which I'm assuming you do if you're planning on buying a $150 wheel in the first place, you should definitely consider a more solid mount using the bracket, by attaching it to a desk, table, or even a homemade contraption to lock the wheel in place in front of a big screen TV or monitor. Locking the wheel down really is the best way to go as it allows you to apply maximum movement to the wheel without compromising its position in your pseudo-cockpit. You can make a very hard turn and the wheel will stay right where it's supposed to be even as if fights and rumbles if your tire grabs a little dirt or you rub a wall. Locking this wheel down is very easy. You can put the bracket on the solid surface first, adjusting its large screw to the right size, then pulling the Lock button down to secure it into place. It holds with a large spring-loaded plastic screw on one side and a flat plastic piece with rubber feet on the other. It is quite secure and will not likely move during regular play. Once the bracket is secure you can attach the wheel by pressing the hood-release button and sliding it into place. Since the wheel and bracket separate so easily, you have many options for mounting it quickly on surfaces that might otherwise be pretty tricky. If you put it on too tight, the lock button might be hard to release because its handle is not very big, but that's a minor concern. Slipping pedals – the biggest issue? Traditionally a major problem with game wheels I've tested has been the traction of the pedals on the floor. The designers of any wheel must consider a number of surfaces: carpet, wood, vinyl or even concrete. Usually the biggest problems are with slick surfaces, but carpet is often enough to cause headaches. Microsoft's Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel has a few things going for it here. The rods on the pedals are angled so most of the pressure applied to the pedals is pushed downward into the base. The bottom-side of the pedals have grooves that help with friction on carpet. There are rubber feet at each corner for improved traction on slick surfaces. There's the wire mentioned above, that easily can be routed out from under the pedals. Finally there's a separated front and back section of the pedals, creating a 3” gap. This gap fits perfectly for your heels, as a place for your feet to rest, and it assists in holding the pedals in place. The result? Hardly any unexpected movement was experienced during any of the racing. I was very impressed with the pedal base layout. The pedal pressure is somewhat realistic and easy to adjust your driving style to, but the brake pedal seems a tiny bit too small or slightly out of place. It's not bad, by any means, but you may find yourself frantically searching for it until you're completely used to its position. If it had been a bit lower or wider, it would've been an easier transition for me. Okay okay, so how well does it work? The wheel definitely exceeded my expectations both as a simulator and controller. The sensitivity is damn near perfect for what I'd want in a racing wheel on a console. After extensive testing with Test Drive Unlimited, Project Gotham Racing 3, and Forza (which you can't use the paddles for shifting...) I'm in love and can say this is the best wheel I've used for a home console. You'll probably be disappointed at first with the performance in Test Drive Unlimited, as its sometimes awkward racing physics (Havok engine) cause the car to perform slightly less like a car and more like a brick with wheels at times, which combined with a wheel like this can make things difficult. You'll likely spin out a bit with RWD cars and have a few headaches getting the ropes. My track times were marginally better with a regular controller in every game I've tested so far, but I have a lot of experience with that controller and relatively very little with this wheel. I imagine with a little more practice, Test Drive Unlimited won't be nearly as bad. Practice makes perfect and each time I try it I do a little better. The flipper position is nearly perfect and the size is great. You'll never miss a shift once you get a feel for these buttons. The other buttons are all in the right spot and when you need to hit the e-brake it's there waiting for you. The Xbox, Back, and Start buttons are well placed in the center of the wheel. The slight sponginess of the grip and heavy feeling the wheel demonstrates while racing is worth investigating if you have a chance. If locked down, it works just like you'd hope it would. Project Gotham Racing 3 was instantly familiar and is much more fun as a simulator. The wheel works excellent for this title and since it's included, it's going to be part of your collection if you don't own it already. The force feedback is phenomenal and a great indicator of things to come for this wheel (like its support in Forza 2). When you enter a turn a little hot and lock up the brakes, the force feedback's realism is frightening. As you fly over a slight hill and catch a couple inches of air heading into a turn, the wheel becomes loose with its weight transferred upward. The experience was impressive and it made me realize we've come far in the world of steering wheels over the years. Just for kicks, I introduced the wheel to my brother, who doesn't play a lot of video games and has not played a racing game with a wheel since Daytona USA in arcades many years ago.[align=right] Image from Forza Motorsport 2[/align] I selected for him the Radical SR3 Turbo on New York, with a long straightaway over the big bridge and a few tricky high-speed turns. His first few laps were poor, smashing walls and spinning out, but as he became more familiar with the wheel his regular driving skills began taking over. We then switched to a medium difficulty track and a RUF CTR 2. He commented on how it handled more like a real car than any game he'd played and after a few laps he was confident enough to push the car pretty hard through some corners. I was very impressed with his performance – if you play a lot of racing games, you probably cringe when you hand over the controls to a non-racer type and watch them muck it up. The wheel made it easier for him to go faster and made the game more enjoyable instead of like a chore. Good racing games are hard to come by but this wheel makes them that much better. A “good” game suddenly becomes a great one, as the experience becomes much more immersive and the simulation near complete. Team this wheel up with a decent home theater setup: TV and surround sound, and you've got a hell of a simulator. Forza 2 is just around the corner, so start saving your pennies for those extra Xbox 360s and monitors for some three-screen action. Now if only our seats could move with the phyiscs... Overall [align=right][digg]http://www.digg.com/gaming_news/Xbox_360_Wireless_Racing_Wheel_Review[/digg][/align]If you like racing games, you need to buy a steering wheel to play them. Please admit at least that. It may be weird or harder at first, but eventually you'll adapt and find your games to be that much better. For the Xbox 360, no wheel comes close to this one and likely will not in the time this console is around. The price is a bit steep compared to other wheels but this one blows them away in every category, setting new highs in almost every way. You'll get the most out of it if you've got a solid mounting surface, an HDTV, a few good racing games, and the desire to drive way too fast far too often. It's a tricky bug to cure but this wheel's a good remedy.