Thrustmaster T128 review: The best budget gaming steering wheel
Recently, there’s been a deluge of mould-breaking direct drive wheels, either top-of-the-range professional-grade or trying to democratise the optimum force feedback technology to a wider market.
But, even the most affordable of those aren’t ‘cheap’ in the grand scheme of things, especially in these extraordinary and inflationary times.
While everyone, including Thrustmaster as it happens with the T818, has been fighting tooth and nail for a DD breakthrough, the American-French gaming peripheral manufacturer hasn’t forgotten the area of the market which will undoubtedly shift the most unit.
Entry-level steering wheel bundles.
It launched the T248 a year ago for PlayStation, Xbox and PC, which was taking on the likes of the mid-to-entry level Logitech G923, and now it has this – the T128.
This is as budget as you are going to get with Thrustmaster, with the lowest price point and slowly replacing the venerable T150.
It may be affordable, but the questions are, is it good value for money and does it achieve what I believe it sets out to be – a starting point for gamers or racing fans looking to pick up their first force feedback racing wheel?
I think with a wheel like this, it’s probably best to start out by talking about the price.
It costs $199.99, £169.99 or €199.99.
For reference, the existing T248 is $399.99, £299.99 or €349.99.
Logitech’s budget offerings are usually between £250 and £300 for new G29s and G923s from retailers, but a whopping £379 for a G923 on the Logitech website at the time of this review.
So, this new wheel is cheaper than all these other options, but not the cheapest of cheap.
You can still pick up a new, working racing wheel, likely by Hori, for a lot less. However, it likely would exclude any sort of sophisticated force feedback system, or up to 900 degrees of rotation.
For your hard-earned cash, you receive the wheel and wheel base itself – together they are one piece – and there are magnetic gearshift paddles on the rear.
You also get a clamp in order to secure it to whatever you want to use it on, so a desk for example and this wheel does indeed come with pedals, the T2PM’s, which consist of a brake and a throttle, but no clutch pedal.
Of course, there’s also a power cable, USB connector, a quick installation guide and a QR code to a more detailed manual, as well as a warranty.
Packaging-wise, it’s all basic cardboard and plastic bags, no foam cushioning or anything but it doesn’t feel like it really needs anything extra. That would just be… well extra costs. It’s the Dacia of steering wheels, remember.
You have 13 action buttons on the wheel rim plus a classic D-pad, some cute little rev lights to let you know when to change gear with those paddle shifters and two bonus handbrake-specific buttons.
I actually really like this idea, it’s a small touch but every time I use a wheel without an actual handbrake peripheral, I always struggle to find the best button to assign, and this makes that job very easy.
Inside, it used the identical force feedback system as the more grownup T248, which Thrustmaster calls Hybrid Drive.
It’s basically a combination of gears and a belt to give you the sensation of driving. It outputs 20 per cent more force than their previous entry-level offerings, the T150 and TMX. The wheel will rotate up to 900 degrees, and automatically matches the car you are driving, which is another nice touch.
There’s no built-in telemetry screen this time, however, this is a bit more rudimentary. On that subject…
The construction is, as far as I can make out, entirely plastic. I would say, cheap and tearful.
It’s a low-cost wheel, so this is to be expected, but it’s not pleasingly built. I actually think the layout and aesthetics are perfectly reasonable, but the buttons all feel cheap and small.
The thing is though, I don’t mind that too much. What I do mind, however, is the hard plastic wheel rim.
It would be interesting to see how this felt in a longer stint of racing as it’s not comfy. It’s literally just hard plastic, like a selection of Tupperware.
At least the T248 has a layer of softer materiel over the top, maybe you should put badminton or tennis racquet grips on here to help with that.
The gearshift paddles are also plastic, but I think they are a bit nicer than the T248’s shifters, still fairly loud and clunky but far less obnoxious. Also, a quick shoutout to the cable management channels underneath, those are superb.
Despite its low aspirations, the force feedback feels way better than it has any right to be at this price point – a pleasant surprise.
I found it easy to catch slides and control a high-power, low-grip, car on a sim like Assetto Corsa. It may look like a toy but doesn’t feel like one.
The feedback can be a little notchy when moving the wheel slightly, as you can feel the gears and the belt in action – but perhaps only if you’re looking out for it.
This is the key feature, really – how it feels. In this class of wheel, there isn’t anything else like it.
This is helped by excellent button placement. Everything is within comfy reach of the thumbs, and those handbrake buttons are super.
I’d say the smaller size actually feels pretty good to use, not a negative like I thought it might be. The set-up is also a breeze, both hardware and software. The clamp works well on a desk, the drivers are easy to install for PC use and on a console, it’s plug-and-play as expected.
As predicted, however, the lack of soft grips is a gripe over longer play sessions, mainly because for those who have sweaty palms, the surface becomes slippery. Driving gloves are recommended.
The main hold-up, however, is the set of included pedals. They need to be mounted to a cockpit or pushed against a wall to avoid them sliding, as there’s a lack of strong enough grips underneath. On the floor, whether carpet or hard surface, the pedals will slide.
Thankfully, you can save up and purchase any additional set of Thrustmaster pedals. So, if you’d like to use the load cell T-LCMs at a later date, this is fully compatible with them.
There’s not much travel to work with either in terms of braking and the spring isn’t heavy, so you must be precise if you want to try and avoid lockups in-game. This wheel suits anti-locking brake assists being on, but if you are racing and it’s forced off, you are going to have to be like a ballerina on the pedals. Don’t wear shoes, wear socks.
The best budget wheel
The T128 is pleasantly excellent overall, with the best force feedback for the price hands down.
It’s absolutely on par with Logitech’s more expensive G923 options and certainly didn’t feel any worse than the pricier T248 that it shares the same internals with.
The pedals are the weak point, but if you are a 12- or 13-year-old child who wants to play racing games on a steering wheel rather than a controller, I think this would make a superb Christmas gift.
It’s more than good enough to be useable in online league racing up to the upper echelons too as your progress – to a certain extent. I reckon I could compete in the SRO Esports event I sometimes partake in with this wheel with no bother, but I would need better pedals.
I think the price is very sensible because if you are a parent looking for gifts, or someone who enjoys racing games and wants to take that first step into force feedback, it doesn’t break the bank completely.
The T128 is an enjoyable stepping stone that you will likely want to upgrade in a couple of years’ time if you do indeed fall in love with sim racing as a hobby. This bundle does racing games and sim racing justice, and it is good enough to get anyone hooked, which is key.
Version tested compatible with Xbox and PC. A PlayStation version, which also works with PC, is also available.
Full disclosure: This product was provided by the manufacturer for review purposes. Here is our review policy.