Microsoft was kind enough to include full versions of Monster Truck Madness II and Cart Precision Racing with their wheel, which we promptly used to test the hardware.
The Microsoft wheel set up extremely easily, as did the other wheels we tested. Load the driver software and reboot. The hardware itself connects via the game port, so it doesn't require an IRQ. The best thing about setting up this wheel, though, was attaching it to the desk Microsoft has fashioned a single-screw clamp with a kind of tensioner lever that makes putting the wheel on and taking it off a snap (literally!). You simply snug up the screw clamp, then snap the lever up into place, tightening the wheel to the desk. This means that you only have to adjust that screw clamp once. As long as you keep using the same desk, the lever motion alone will allow you to slip the wheel on and off the desk with ease. Why hasn't anyone else thought of this? Maybe the same reason we didn't
As stated before, the SideWinder is a very compact unit, but Microsoft has taken steps to make sure that it fits the hands well. There are deep grooves on both sides of the wheel to accommodate the user's thumbs, and the short-throw paddle shifters on the back are placed exactly where your fingers sit. The six buttons on the wheel spokes are right within reach. It feels almost like a steering-wheel-shaped flight yoke, which makes it feel fast. This machine is also the only one with a button on the center of the wheel to toggle the Force effects on and off (the others use a toggle in the driver menus). The wheel portion of the unit feels heavy and durable, and no wacky sounds emanate from it while playing, unlike one of the others we tested. Unfortunately, the foot pedal portion of the unit doesn't seem to have been designed or manufactured by the same people. It is so lightweight that it slides easily across the floor. That would be okay if it wasn't so smooth on the bottom. But it is. That would be okay if it had a pad on the left somewhere so that you could use your foot to hold it down. But it doesn't. That might even be okay if it were constructed so that you push down on the pedals, instead of forward, pushing them away from you across the floor. But it isn't. The net effect is that you are chasing the thing across the floor. And if you are unfortunate enough to be playing on carpet, you will spend most of the game either looking for the unit under your desk, or laying out like you are really driving an F1 car, straining to reach the errant pedals. In short, they aren't great.
The Force effects on the SideWinder were great on the Microsoft games we tried, especially MTM II, but not quite as good on the other titles we played. The wheel feels a little too mechanical sometimes, like it is making a myriad of little clicks as you turn it, rather than going in one fluid motion. That said, there is a wide range of customizability within the drivers, and a large margin between minimum and maximum force effect strength. We just felt that we had to set it pretty high most of the time. The translations were quite good, the wooden bridge felt like a wooden bridge, etc. It wasn't any better in that respect than the others though they all performed well.
The bottom line and this is where this product is weak. At $209.00 (MSRP), this is the most expensive of the three wheels we tested, $70 more than the lowest priced unit. We didn't have time to test the long-term durability of these wheels, so maybe time will tell that the Microsoft SideWinder is worth the premium price. It's a good product, but it should be a better one for that kind of money