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Gravis Xterminator
Gravis includes a very slick installer, including a freaky purple-haired woman to walk you through the process. Simple enough, although it requires a reboot, which always drives me nuts.

Then, it's on to the Keyset Manager. This is a nifty program that allows your Xterminator's buttons to emulate whatever keypresses you need to accomplish a desired game action, which you can then save as a gaming profile for a specific game. The utility, though powerful, is very confusing to use and I found the supplied help to be less than totally helpful. I muddled around in the program and seem to have gotten it to work fairly well, although I have the sneaking suspicion that there are more things I could be doing with the application. Now, a possible cause for concern: you don't have to activate a given profile when you play a game. Why is this a cause for concern? I mean, it does it automatically, which should be a big plus. You never get into a game, then realize you forgot to activate the correct profile (which happened a lot with the Microsoft software). The cause for concern is the DBServer application. This little beauty loads at startup (from the registry, so there's no skipping it by holding the shift key while Windows loads), and then sits there, always running, always watching to see if maybe you load up a game and it can spring into action. My opinion, and the opinion of numerous others on the Internet, is that this little application has a major impact on performance. I think my machine is noticeably slower since loading the Gravis software. Again, I cannot prove this, but I'm not the only one who's noticed a slow down with DBServer loaded. If you want to check this after installing the Xterminator, give yourself a single Ctrl-Alt-Del in Windows and you'll see it in the Task Manager, always running in the background.

Microsoft Sidewinder/Freestyle Pro
Yes, these two can be lumped together. As could be the Force Feedback Wheel or Joystick, or any of the other Microsoft controllers currently on the market. They all use the same software. It's slick, it's easy to install, it's easy to configure. You can save profiles for various games, and you have right-click access to the profile activator from your system tray at all times. Do the profiles load automatically? No, and I frequently had to exit games, activate the correct profile, then restart them. No, I didn't eat a lot of paint chips as a child, it's just hard to remember to change the settings sometimes. However, this also means that Microsoft didn't have a background task running all the time, just on the outside chance that I might decide to run a game.

Installation winner: Microsoft Sidewinder/Freestyle Pro. Once again, it seems that Gravis has over-engineered their product, making it too complex to be useful and not providing enough support to make it worthwhile. Additionally, the possible performance implications of the DBServer app are troubling.


Gravis Xterminator
The Xterminator, once you get past all its complexity, is one hell of a gamepad. As I mentioned before, I found the analog D-pad to be a little too high and too left for me to be fully comfortable using it. The controller itself, however, felt great in my hands. The response in games was very quick and I had fewer incorrect button presses with the Xterminator than with any of the other pads. There's a learning curve associated with the Xterminator which is absent with the Microsoft pads, but it's a curve well worth following.

Microsoft Sidewinder
The Sidewinder is more than a good pad, it's a great pad. It is very comfortable, very responsive, very easy to use. I seemed to mistakenly press buttons a little more frequently than with the Xterminator, but I still really liked the controller. If you've ever used a gamepad before, even on a Sega or a Super Nintendo, you'll have no problem with the Sidewinder. Very intuitive.

Microsoft Freestyle Pro
Let's be blunt: I hated the feel of the Freestyle Pro in my hands. And, for a $70 item, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement. The tilt technology is, admittedly, extremely cool. It's also very a handful of games, such as the included Motocross Madness (also from Microsoft). Unfortunately, I didn't really like the tilt technology in any other games. I found it imprecise, sluggish, and gimmicky. You have the option to turn the motion tracking off, but that leaves you with, basically, a fat, uncomfortable, bloated Sidewinder that you could have bought for about $10 after rebate.

Gameplay winner: Gameplay winner: this was the closest category, but the Xterminator wins by a nose. Realistically, though, you can't go wrong with either the Xterminator or the Sidewinder when it comes to sheer gameplay. Give the Freestyle Pro a wide berth, however.

Read about the multiplayer capablities...

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