After a long time away I’ve had my first opportunity to review some hardware, and for the first time ever I’ve even been sent a demo unit to try out; full-disclosure I’d bought one already so it’s not influenced my view in any way.
So, the Blackhog b-explorer. I’m going to go in-depth in later reviews but for the time being this is my first impression of the controller, and as I have done with other bits of kit I will review them further as time goes on and I’ve got used to any quirks or drawbacks that may exist. I’ll be testing the units in VR with the new Rift-S and with Track IR. I’ve been sent two different mounting solutions, the custom baseplate, which fits a wide range of HOTAS throttle bases, and a Monstertech desk mount adapter.
While I have been sent a demo version, I’ve not been asked to write anything though I did make some suggestions about the kind of things I would try out. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, keep in mind I also bought one of the units.
First things first, Apple are widely regarded as having one of the ultimate ‘unboxing experiences’ and on a scale of 1-10, I would put most of my Apple devices, of which there are a few, at 10. To score a 1 I would almost be looking at a plain padded envelope. That does leave some wide scope in-between but I given the range of things I’ve bought and opened over time I would suggest this is necessary.
I received two b-explorers at the same time, my one and the test unit. Both of them were immaculately packaged. Although the boxes were plain brown boxes I like this as it means nothing is drawing attention to it while it is in the post. It did, however, have custom Blackhog tape sealing the box.
Everything in the box fitted perfectly. Nothing rattled, nothing moved, the box was divided into sections containing each of the pieces and paper for padding and security.
I would give the b-explorer packaging 9 out of 10, it was very well packaged, it can all be recycled and everything was extremely well protected, ok it’s not quite there with opening an iPhone or the Rift CV1…but it’s very good.
Setting up the units with their respective mounting systems was fiddly, mostly due to the small size of the screws and the bolts. However, once attached the mounts are solid. There is no prospect of them moving unless you want them to. The same applies to the mobile phone mount. This was an unexpected surprise in the package as I don’t recall it being an option when I purchased the unit back in 2018. The phone mount attached to the top of the unit and works well. I’m currently using an iPhone XR and its able to sit safely in the mount. The necessary tools were provided in the packaging – make sure you don’t miss them at the bottom or caught up in the paper padding.
With the two units came two different mounting options. Before I got my Obutto Ozone I had bought the Monstertech desk mounts. The b-explorer has two options for mounting:
1.) a base plate, which can be attached to a range of different HOTAS throttles.
2.) an attachment specifically designed to mount to the Monstertech mounts.
I have to say I think the HOTAS mounting solution is excellent, if you don’t have either a Monstertech mounting system or a similar kind of alternative. I think if I had neither and I was putting it on to a desk I would probably want something to help protect the desk from the bolts and to stop it from sliding around. This should be a simple DIY fix though. The mounting plate is compatible with a wide range of HOTAS throttles including:
- TM Warthog
- VPC WarBRD
- VPC MongoosT-50
- TM T16.000 FCS
- Logitech X-52 Pro
- CH Pro Throttle
- TM T.Flight X
There is also a short mounting plate for other HOTAS systems, though I have not tried this out.
The HOTAS mount left all of the controls in just the right place, I did have to turn it slightly to the side to fit into my rig, but this actually means that it is right in front of my left hand while I am using the throttle. It’s in the ideal position, and it is one of the things that attracted me to the controller when I first saw it.
With the Monstertech mount, I attached the test unit to the Warthog stick mount on the right-hand side and then mounted this in a side mount position. I have to say I have never been a fan of having the stick to the side but this seemed the best mounting solution for the Monstertech mount with my Obutto Ozone. The difficulty I found with mounting the b-explorer to the stick mount was that it restricted stick movement unless it was at a right angle to the stick (see videos below). However, I would argue that it probably isn’t meant to be mounted with the stick and this would not be an issue if it was mounted with the throttle. I just thought it might be clear of the stick and keep the controls closer to hand. The mounting point was solid and easy to attach. It’s a good idea and well implemented.
DCS had no issue picking up the controller, it shows up in the control list as Joystick 2. All of the axes worked and every button worked flawlessly. Set up was typical DCS simplicity, though I had to change the axis to sliders and invert the odd one as DCS seemed to pick them up the wrong way around, but this has happened with a few of the controllers I’ve used; with the CH Throttle Quadrant some are the right way around and others are the opposite! Having the additional buttons, switches and axes has been superb. The Warthog isn’t short of buttons or switches but with some of the aircraft, I have missed having buttons to press instead of toggle switches. I’m now able to turn on the cockpit lights and adjust their brightness with a dial, it’s just better than using a slider.
IL2 Great Battles:
I have to say that one of my biggest gripes with IL2 BoX is the control set up process. I really don’t like it and I’ve commented on it before. Essentially I don’t like that when you press a button on the HOTAS it doesn’t take you to the current assignment, that combined with the list system and the fact that essentially similar controls need to have button presses assigned – so the different forms of what is basically elevator trim have to be assigned to the same button when they could just be assigned to elevator trim. However, this isn’t about BoX as such. Unfortunately, though BoX would not pick up my BlackHog controller. It was showing in Windows without issue and it had just been working fine in DCS. I plugged in the test unit and that worked flawlessly. I don’t think that this is an issue with the controller but BoX. I used some software that I have had for some time to assign each button press to a keypress, but this is not an overly satisfactory solution. The controller then worked in IL2 but it meant reconfiguring almost all of the controls for it be of real use. Of course, this was not an issue with the test unit as this was picked up and worked straight out of the box.
I really don’t want this to reflect negatively on the controller as I do not think that it is at fault, but it was another flaw in the BoX control set up system.
Working with VR
I use flight sims exclusively in VR these days. I do still have my Track IR 3 Pro, but using it is a very rare occurrence. As a result, I wasn’t sure about how easy the b-explorer would be to use with VR. At the time of ordering, I was still using the CV1, I ordered as a pre-order. By the time it arrived, I was using the Rift-S. One of the big differences that has made it harder to use peripherals with the Rift-S is the loss of the nose gap. As a result, it is now not possible to see out of the headset without lifting it up. Due to the change in design to the use of the halo head strap, this is also more awkward than on the CV1!
However, with the HOTAS mounting plate, the b-explorer is right in front of your hand and it is easy to reach and feel the buttons. The difficulty is in not quite knowing which button, switch, dial or slider you’re pressing, twiddling or sliding! This can be done through feeling your way around the controls, but I think it would be aided through the addition of some kind of tactile feedback – basically some kind of braille. This would give you instant feedback as to which button/slider/switch/dial you are trying to manipulate at the time. The layout is good and I generally get my fingers straight to the row of buttons across the top. I’ve found these useful with the new arrival of the F-16 to use with the UFC mode buttons. This is where I found the difference between the two designs most noticeable though.
I think I’ve come away with the feeling that I may have bought the wrong model for me! I’m finding that I could use the extra two sliders a lot along with the extra two switches in place of the two black buttons. While my version has an extra press button it has one less switch and two fewer sliders. Both have the benefit of a covered yellow button, which I have been using for an emergency jettison button. I’ve found that in VR it is easier to find the button/switch/slider/dial with the A model over the C model. The grouping of the sliders and switches means you’re not searching around as much.
There are three different layouts to choose from. I think for VR my preferred layout is the A version, though I think I went for the C to get the balance between sliders, buttons and dials, with hindsight I’d suggest I’d get more use from the sliders and having the controls grouped more closely. If you’re not using VR though I don’t think there is much of a difference between them in terms of using the controller as you’ll be able to see the control that you want and use it. You do also have a choice of labels for the various buttons when you order too; as I was using it in VR only this was not important to me and I stuck with the standard ones.
My main recommendations for VR users would be:
- Tactile feedback on the buttons and switches – this could maybe be a user-specified add on feature
- Go for the A model to ensure the controls are grouped similarly.
Using more than one controller:
I have to admit I have tried using both controllers plugged in at the same time and the number of buttons/dials/switches/sliders more than met my needs. They both worked flawlessly in DCS, though they both share the same name in the column so you need to know which is which (easy enough once you press a button!). In IL2 I still had the issue that one was picked up without a problem and the other needed JoyToKey to work; as I said earlier I think this is an IL2 issue, not the controller. I had one mounted with the HOTAS mount and the other on the right-hand side of the MonsterTech mount. It’s more than possible to have one on either side of the Throttle or stick mount but I wouldn’t have been able to get into the Ozone’s seat or use my rudder pedals.
BlackHog were kind enough to give me some accessories to try out with the mounting systems, a phone holder and a cup holder. The cup-holder is for the Monstertech mounts and fits on the side of the mounts. It’s able to hold a good-sized cup/bottle/glass and makes it easy to find in VR!
The mobile phone holder attaches to the top of the controller and can fit a standard iPhone XR in landscape mode and any phone in portrait mode. Again, it makes it very easy to find and use, though with VR it is of more limited use as I can’t see it! However, if I need to stop to take a call or respond to a text I know exactly where it is. They’re both useful additions.
You do need your own USB cable though, this is the old ‘printer’ type (A-B) USB cable, and they’re very low cost to pick up, I ended up getting mine from ASDA for about £4, I had one spare already but with two controllers I needed another. If you’re like me and have at least one box of cables in storage “just in case” you’ll almost certainly have one of these.
I have to say the controllers are well built, well finished and fit in really well with my Warthog set up and the Ozone. The unit is of all-metal construction and the buttons and switches feel well made and durable.
BlackHog have not skimped on quality here. I have to say that, in VR, I prefer the HOTAS mount because I can find it easily without having to take my hand off the throttle. The Monstertech mount does necessitate taking your hand off and, probably, to the left (though it can be mounted on either side). I really liked having the combination of sliders and turnable dials; I just wish some more of the aircraft supported the in-cockpit dials with an axis assignment in DCS as the F/A-18 does.
If you’ve got a HOTAS and you’re looking for a way of adding functionality this would get a strong recommendation from me. The controller is in high demand, so there is a bit of a waiting list but in my opinion, it is worth the wait.
The BlackHog b-explorer can be purchased direct from the BlackHog website and is on sale at the time of writing (17th October 2019) from €169.