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Review: RailDriver
Developer: P.I. Engineering, Publisher: Aerosoft
Reviewed By Matthew Peddlesden
Date: 25 January 2003


There are some facts in life that we just take for granted. Computers will crash, if anything bad can happen it will and it will happen at the most inconvenient time (like at 2am the morning of an exhibition your MSTS installation decides to crash whenever you do anything with it) and that hardware add-ons are not possible with Microsoft Train Simulator. Until now...

The RailDriver console is a complete hardware add-on that enables you to drive trains and control the simulator completely without using your keyboard. The idea is that it's a much closer to reality control system including throttle and brake levers etc and therefore the experience is a lot more enjoyable.

A picture of the main unit not in use The button array on the left which includes pantographs etc, plus the tall button for the horn The four main lever controls, Reverser, Throttle, Train Brake and Loco Brake The three-position switches on the right for Lights and Wipers

In order to make a hardware add-on for a game it must have some kind of support for it. When you fly aircraft in Flight Simulator it has support for Joysticks as inputs at a simple level and then for much more complex interaction it provides something called an Application Programming Interface (API) - this allows third party software to actually examine or control any aspect of the game while it's running. Examples of use of this in Flight Simulator beyond some incredible hardware add-ons include weather control programs that dynamically change the weather to match the current real world weather for where you are flying. The power that an API offers, even a very simple one, is very good indeed - unfortunately, Microsoft Train Simulator and Trainz currently do not have such a thing.

Without this API to help RailDriver exactly how can it hope to work? This was a question that was on my mind for quite some time after I heard about the device and when I heard the answer I half cringed and half smiled at the ingenious solution to the problem. Have you ever pressed F5 to get the textual display on the top right of your screen? This is required to be on screen for RailDriver, the software operates by actually reading the screen in real time to see where all the controls are, what speed you are doing and so forth. That's the examination of the simulation sorted, how does RailDriver control the train when you operate levers and switches? The RailDriver software emulates a kind of keyboard, so when you operate the light switch from OFF to DIM it just sends an 'H' keypress to the simulator and when you operate it back to OFF it sends a SHIFT-H keypress.

The requirement to have the F5 display on the top right is not so great, but you quite easily can live with it - especially as on high resolutions it disappears in to the corner quite nicely. It is pretty much the only way that something like this is possible though so with the current release of Train Simulator, and credit should be given to them for coming up with this solution in the first place.

The ranged controls present a unique challenge for RailDriver. The software knows where your physical control is on the console in front of you, it then finds out by reading the screen where it is according to that and then issues lots of keypresses to make the simulator match up with the console in front of you. Clever stuff.

Left hand side of the function block at the bottom Right hand side of the function block at the bottom The rear of the unit, showing where you plug your speakers in, the volume control for the bass speaker and the two wires coming out heading to your sound card and USB ports The underside of the unit showing more sturdy construction and the bass speaker

Unfortunately this interface isn't as good as it would have been had there been an API. As an example I was driving the Class 31 on the Mid East UK Activity 'Move Coaches' (it's installed from the CD), a number of times I was sitting there cruising down the line not adjusting the controls and yet it was feeling fit to wind the controls up and down between 0% and 75%, or as you start up it'll just flick between 0% and 25% until you move it far enough. Don't get me wrong, these are things you can easily adjust to and they don't affect all loco's, but it does highlight the shortcomings of what is a "double sided sticky tape" solution to the problem (and again I stress, probably the only solution to the problem).

The physical hardware itself is outstanding quality. Its' solid metal construction is finished to a very high standard, with very rugged levers dominating the top of the console. On the top left you have a 3 digit 7-segment display which displays "rd" when not in use, flashes "run" when you are going in to MSTS via the RailDriver Manager application and while driving it reports your speed. There are two three-position switches on the right hand side for the wipers and lights, and a selection of buttons on the left hand side for things like the pantographs and sanders.

At the bottom of the console are a large number of function keys that are by default tied to standard operations such as toggling the driver aids, changing points, view controls and so forth. Finally on the bottom right there is a four-way pad (much like on a games console) to control your view point and a rocker switch to control zoom.

The left hand side of the unit again, this time the LED display shows us that the unit is started ('run' flashing) but not yet in Train Sim Finally a wider shot of the unit again, this time we're driving and you can see the speed showing in the display

Another feature of the RailDriver that I heard about before receiving it and became very curious about was an apparent capability to vibrate! Given that nothing is there to tell it what's going on where would it get this information from? Turns out it's another simple but clever idea, in the base of the unit there is a fairly large bass speaker, you plug the console in to your sound card (and your speakers in to the back of the console) and a volume control on the back allows you to alter the volume of the bass speaker. The final effect is quite good, it was certainly shaking the unit a little as my 37 sat growling away :)

The lever controls have each had careful thought applied, they aren't just end to end swing levers with a different knob on them at the top - they each operate in a different way. The reverser is designed to click at the forward, middle and reverse positions. The throttle control has kink in the middle that you must work around in order to move in to Dynamic brakes. The auto / train brake has a stopper that prevents you from going to Emergency brake and you must then push it through that to go to Emergency brakes. Finally the independent or loco brake is a fairly straight forward end to end with no clicks or bends.

Included in the package is a tool called RailDriver Manager, most fundamentally you must use this to start your Train Simulator in order for the console to work as it is this tool that does the 'virtual keyboard' impersonation I spoke of earlier. In addition to this however you will find a fairly complete editing tool that enables you to redefine basically every lever, button and switch however you like - so if you want to use it to control some new kind of loco that you've got for Train Simulator then you can do that without any problems. The tool is very easy to use with a nice graphical user interface.

At this point in time there is no support for Trainz, while the unit itself apparently has support for Trainz control it is Trainz itself that is lacking - however Auran are rapidly working with RailDriver to fill the gap and the end result is looking very likely to be a proper API so we might well see much more accurate control when using the unit with Trainz, time will tell. It is hoped that the driver will enter beta testing in the next week or two and then hopefully release shouldn't be long after that - it is my hope that by the time the next batch of consoles makes it in to the UK this should then be available.

As you can tell from looking at it, the console is designed to be used with Diesel and Electric locomotives - but there's a lot of us out there that appreciate the steamier things in life - so how does the console operate for Steam Engines? It's actually not bad, I'm not mad keen on it as I have much more precise control over the braking via the keyboard directly than using this control, but it does work and it is quite usable. An example of what I mean is when you bring the loco to a stop you generally drop the regulator and then apply the brakes until your brake pressure has dropped a little and then your train will gradually slow down - unfortunately I found the control had me ranging from 40% Running and then when it next detected I'd moved the controls it put me at 9% apply, which rapidly changed the brake pressure as you can imagine. These are possibly just problems due to the fact that I've only used the console for a couple of days now - I've completed several steam activities and had a great time doing it, the fact that the reverser becomes much quicker and easier is very nice indeed and makes shunting operations a doddle in steam - it's just that it's not as accurate as I'd like (and I'm fussy :) ), which again boils down to the far from satisfactory means that it has to use to interact with Train Simulator.

The unit is quite weighty too, it won't be flying around your desk in a hurry, adding to the overall feeling of solid construction that makes you see why you paid 159.99 for this thing.

At this point I want to add that I have been quite hard on the device and the above might seem quite negative, there's a reason for this, it's not a cheap product to buy at a UK RRP of around 159.99 so if I sugarcoat this, say that I'm having a party with it and gloss over the problematic areas because they aren't the fault of the device I don't think I'm doing you the full justice that I'm here to do.

I would however like to say that I am very much enjoying this device since I got it, I've found Train Sim to be a whole new experience and it's been amazing. The designers and builders of this device deserve a very hearty slap on the back for such ingenuity and I sincerely hope that future versions of Train Simulator will incorporate a proper API as I am confident that the device will then function exactly as you would hope.

Another key point to note is that everything appears to have been designed with future-proofing in mind. It seems that they realised this wasn't going to be a cheap device from the outset and therefore the guts of it is controlled by the Rail Driver software - I don't have any official or unofficial source for what I'm about to say, it's just my own suspicion - but I strongly suspect that if Microsoft were to release a patch tomorrow that provided a suitable API, P.I. Engineering would be able to release an updated RailDriver Manager application that enabled you to use your existing unit and get much better responses.

For those of you with Model Railways, you'll also be very interested in two modules which are going to be released for RailDriver in the near future. They both allow you to use your new controller to drive your model railway, one connects it to a standard Analog railway and the other is for DCC use. I hope to be able to provide an updated review once these are available.

The unit is looking like a retail price of 149.99 or 159.99, I suspect the latter will be the RRP and you might find it for the former in some places once it actually starts to become more widespread in its availability.

The unit that I received was missing the labels for the function keys but both PI Engineering and Aerosoft were more than happy to ship the PDF file over to me for me to print out, hopefully they'll be included either on the CD or already printed in the box in future shipments.

Bottom line, is it worth the money? I'd have to say yes, absolutely. The software interface isn't perfect yet but I'd say the hardware is spot on. I've had a great time using the device and will definitely be using it for all future Train Sim game-time without a doubt so it's not a 'fad' that you'll grow out of and go back to the keyboard, in fact I think many people will wonder how they ever lived without one after they've had it for a while :)

It's a bit of a shame that the UK release of the product is so expensive (it's $149.99 in the US) but then the unit is very heavy and quite large so the importing costs alone are going to be quite prohibitive for the distributors in the UK.

Overall, I'm giving this product:

94%

The only thing that really hit the score was the shortcomings of the interface with Train Sim (ie. controls flailing about occasionally, occasional unresponsiveness and so forth - quite probably more MSTS problems than RailDriver problems, but the fact is that they are still evident when you use the console), rating the hardware alone it is a 100% score without a shadow of a doubt.



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