Steering-wheel controllers, used by players to make their driving games feel more realistic, are nothing new.
These days, even the cheap ones come pretty tricked out, with realistic wheel rotation, working shift levers, real gas and brake pedals for your feet, tons of buttons and loads of adjustability. It's pretty much at a point where the more you spend on one, the more realistic it will feel and handle.
Yet I've always felt there's a certain awkwardness to using these, for two reasons.
One, hardly any such controllers sit comfortably in one's lap for an extended period; you've got to set the steering-wheel unit on a desk or table in front of you, which is fine if you're playing on a desktop PC but usually a hassle if you're playing on a TV-connected console.
Two, it's too easy to nudge most free-floating gas-and-brake pedal units out of a comfortable position on the floor, even ones that get a good grip on carpets, unless you wedge them against something.
I'm not saying these are huge problems. But screwing up in the middle of race because you accidentally knocked the pedals away is really, really annoying.
Some companies have helped gamers get around the problem by selling them $100+ mounting stands to go with their $100+ racing wheels.
But Subsonic  has done something a little different with the Racin' Pro , a portable yet sturdy contraption that combines a steering wheel controller and pedals with a back-supporting seat to plop your butt on. So far, the only version on the market is for PC and PlayStation 3.
It's designed somewhat like an F-1 racer's seat, in that your legs are split by the controller's steering column, with your right foot on the gas and your left on the brake.
The whole assemblage, which sits flat on the floor, is easily adjustable so that you can position the steering wheel at just the right position for comfortable "driving" -- and yet its sturdy enough that you'd be hard pressed to shake anything out of position -- unless you forget to lock down the adjusters, of course.
The USB cord that connects it to your console or computer runs from the steering column, and it doesn't get in the way of the wheel or pedals. I'd estimate the cord is about 10 feet long or so, which allows players to sit a good distance away from the TV or monitor.
I admit that when I was first setting the Racin' Pro up, it seemed a bit flimsy. Small tabs, which click into place, are all that hold the "steering column" -- made up of telescoping aluminum tubes -- at the height you adjust them to. And wide vinyl belts with big plastic clips secure other parts of the structure, such as the wire-framed back support.
But it holds together just fine, even as you torque your body while driving. Also, while there's technically a height limit (anyone between 3 feet and 6+ feet tall will fit fine), weight isn't really a factor in who can use this. That back support is sturdy, and the physics are such that there won't be much pressure on it anyway.
Two little notes about the seat, though.
First, because it sits flat on the floor, it was a little awkward for me to get in and out of, because, well, I'm getting old and I'm not as flexible as I used to be. So be aware that you might look a little lame "rolling" in and out of it.
Second, it needs a little bit more padding in the tush area. (Sorry, family paper. Can't write the word that begins with 'A.' I have to use lame alternatives.) My rear was plenty sore after an hour or two on the thing.
This brings us to the important parts of the Racin' Pro controller: the wheel and the pedals.
The steering wheel itself is a separate piece that clips onto the steering column. As long as you put it in place correctly and make sure to slide the locking switch in position, all is well. (I didn't the first time I played, and all wasn't well. But it was easily rectified.)
The wheel feels pretty good to the touch, like a real steering wheel, and it's festooned with easily recognized buttons and switches, such as a PS3-style D-pad and buttons, including a PS3 power button. Plus there's two nicely positioned buttons on the back that don't seem to get in the way and four shift paddles in easy reach.
It also has two unique buttons, one to adjust how sensitive it is in relation to the game you are playing -- sensitivity supposedly ranges from "arcade" to "simulation" -- and a programming function, which you use to set controls up to your whim. I didn't really do any programming, as the defaults all played well with the games I tested it against: "Motorstorm," "Midnight Club: Los Angeles" and "Shift 2 Unleashed."
But I did test out the sensitivity switch. For me, the third setting was pretty much the best. Any less and it didn't feel like my vehicle was responding to my turns; any more and what I was driving became way too responsive for me. I spent a lot of time running into walls while I figured things out.
But once I did, whoo boy. Cliff hopping in "Motorstorm" became loads of fun. I still sucked tons at "Shift 2," but I wasn't crashing any more, at least.
One negative, however, -- and it's not a small one -- is that the wheel has only 270 degrees of rotation. Better wheels I've seen rotate about 900 degrees.
In other words, you can turn the Racin' Pro's wheel only a little bit in each direction before it comes to a stop. The net effect is that it doesn't handle like a real steering wheel, as a little turn of the controller equals an out-of-proportion turn in-game. In other words, for serious players of racing simulators, this device doesn't offer enough performance. For casual players like myself, however, especially when playing more "arcadey" games like "Motorstorm," it's just fine.
The pedals, on the other hand, feel and respond just fine, as the gradual resistance they offer seems spot on. You can "feel" your level of acceleration or braking through your feet quite easily.
Also, two vibration motors are installed within the whole device, so you get nice force feedback when you play games that support the feature.
Ultimately, I liked using the Racin' Pro. I'd be happy to own this controller. And even though it retails at $199.99, which sounds like a hefty sum, it's not a bad deal compared with other setups that are out there -- especially as it is extremely portable.
Yet I must confess, I want to see a version with more wheel rotation. Not necessarily 900 degrees of rotation, but certainly more than 270. Maybe it wouldn't make a real difference in how well I race in games, but I have this niggling feeling that it matters.
Images courtesy of Subsonic