- More convenient than a proper racing wheel
- Sensitive and responsive performance
- Makes racing games more immersive
- No bumper buttons
- Tiring on the arms
- Hasn't the feedback of a proper racing wheel
- Review Price: £39.99
Sadly, having a wheel clamped to a solid surface isn’t always convenient in the average living room, and not all of us can get away with all those cables trailing across the floor, let alone the pedals and clutter of a full-scale wheels and pedal setup. As a result, there’s a market for a halfway house: a wheel that gives you some of the experience of racing with a proper steering wheel combined with the convenience of a conventional wireless controller. It’s a halfway house that Microsoft’s new Xbox 360 Wireless Speed Wheel now occupies.
Designed for release with the recent – and exceptional – Forza Motorsports 4, it’s a solid little U-shaped controller that looks more like something from an airplane’s cockpit than a steering wheel. The right-hand side of the U has the four Xbox 360 face buttons while there’s an analogue trigger mounted on the rear. On the left-hand side you’ll find the D-pad and a matching left analogue trigger.
You’ll find the usual central Xbox button in a circular module in the middle of the steering wheel, with the Start and Back buttons in a circular rocker switch surrounding it. The unit runs on two AA batteries, which fit into a spring clipped compartment at the base of the U. You need to be careful with the release switch or they’ll be out and under the sofa in record time.
The Wireless Speed Wheel uses an accelerometer to sense the rotation of the wheel; only horizontal movements seem to be detected, so there’s no hope of pressing it into service for combat flight sims or other action games. Obviously you can’t expect to get the 900 degrees of rotation that you’d get from the Logitech G27 or even the 270 degrees you get from the Thrustmaster and Mad Catz wired wheels. Instead, the Wireless Speed Wheel seems to have around 80 to 90 degrees of tilt on either side.
The other thing you’ll have to do without is any real force feedback: the use of motors in the wheel to provide resistance and judder as you corner or drive across rough ground. Of course, while Microsoft’s original Xbox 360 Wireless Wheel supported force feedback, it’s hard to find another 360 wheel that does, so the Wireless Speed Wheel is hardly alone in this, and it does incorporate haptic feedback for a little rumble when appropriate.
There’s also a little visual feedback from two green glowing circles at the top of each end of the U. These seem to light up in relation to the position of the steering wheel and flash when there’s rumble, but – to be perfectly honest – you’re usually too busy staring at the screen to pay much attention to what they’re up to.
In use, there’s plenty of good news. The wheel is well-built and very comfortable, and the sensitivity is just about perfect for playing Forza 4 at casual and medium difficulty levels. There seems to be a little more sensitivity near the centre so that you can make smooth, light turns, but enough play as you turn the wheel hard to make sharper corners or drift at higher speeds. The triggers also have more travel than those on a standard controller, allowing for a greater level of control over acceleration and braking.
Physically, the experience can feel a bit like playing Mario Kart or F1 2010 with a plastic speed wheel on the Wii, but the Wireless Speed Wheel is unquestionably more accurate and responsive. The bottom line is that you can move from a conventional controller to the wheel without seeing your performance or your lap times suffer, and it definitely makes the racing feel more fun and more natural.
The Wireless Speed Wheel is a brilliant match for Forza 4, but it also works well with other race games we tried it with. There’s a slight twitchiness to the handling in the criminally under-rated Shift 2: Unleashed, but it’s something you soon adjust to, and the wheel is smooth and sensitive enough to deal with the rapid cornering of F1 2010. Play any of these games in the cockpit view, and it’s quite impressive how accurately changes in the position of the Wireless Speed Wheel are reflected on the in-car wheel. We’re a long way from Kinect territory here.
That said, there are some issues. Play games on harder or more realistic difficulty modes, and you will start to struggle. It gets harder to make perfect corners or counter spin, and you’ll definitely miss the force feedback and physical interaction of a more expensive wired wheel.
The wheel can also get tiring with use. It weighs around 300g with batteries, and while the weight is concentrated at the bottom and the wheel is quite well balanced, holding it out in front of you for the duration of a longer race can be a drag. If you like to get stuck into a two or three hour session of Forza, you can expect a little muscle fatigue to start creeping in.
Most seriously, there are no left and right bumpers, so if you want to play with manual gear changes or there are features that need left and right bumpers to control, you’ll either have to map them to the d-pad (if that option is even available) or switch back to a standard controller.
Even in Forza, where some of the menus and customisation screens need the bumper buttons, it’s an irritation, and one that Microsoft should really have considered when designing the wheel. The same applies to the lack of any socket for a wired headset; not a problem if you have a wireless or Bluetooth model, but an annoyance if you’re stuck with the one that shipped with the console.
These are problems, but then you need to balance them against the intended market – the average gamer, not serious racing enthusiasts, and the fact is that you have a wheel you can stash away in a drawer at the end of a session. The Wireless Speed Wheel isn’t perfect, but it’s still the first thing we reach for when we boot up Forza 4.
The Wireless Speed Wheel is marred by a couple of bad design decisions, and the effort of holding it in racing position can make longer racing sessions tiring. Yet it’s accurate and responsive, and it does make playing Forza 4 – and other racers – a more exciting and immersive experience. What’s more, it’s an awful lot more convenient to pick up, play and put away than a proper racing wheel setup.
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