While most PC gamers prefer the mouse/keyboard combination for shooters and strategy titles, there's no denying that many PC games--console ports, sports titles, and the like--are just crying out to be used with a controller. In the past, there was a wide variety of controllers available in the free-for-all PC landscape. But with its Games for Windows initiative, Microsoft is changing that: the company has developed a template, based on the Xbox 360 controller, upon which hardware manufacturers and game developers can standardize their offerings in the hope of making the forthcoming Windows Vista operating system a more game-friendly platform. Logitech, a company with a long and successful track record in the console- and PC-accessory realm, has created its first such Windows-optimized controller. It's called the ChillStream, and with good reason: the $40 gamepad is equipped with built-in fans that cool players' hands during competition.
The ChillStream may be touted as Vista-ready, but the controller will look instantly familiar to Xbox 360 gamers: it has the exact same button layout--with the same labels--right down to the centered guide button, which will have greater functionality when used on Vista PCs. Like the standard Xbox 360 controller, it's extremely comfortable, with easy-grip plastic on its sides and bottom. The internal fan pulls air through a grille on its front side and shoots it out through vents located in the left and right handles.
Here and now, in this pre-Vista PC-gaming landscape, we still got decent results from the ChillStream in our tests. While we encountered many incompatible titles in our testing, particularly first-person shooters that are optimized to the mouse/keyboard setup anyway, the titles that did work exhibited almost no problems. Since the controller is guaranteed to work with Games for Windows titles, we fired up a few of those games, and it seemed to work pretty well. For example, it was easy to map the controller's buttons to (you have 10 buttons between the face, the shoulders, and the click-in analog thumbsticks), and it controlled just as well with the ChillStream as it did with an Xbox 360 controller. Simpler titles such as were a breeze to configure.
The controller's signature feature--the ability to cool players' hands--seemed to work consistently. There are two settings, though most will find the lower one far too faint, while the higher one can't quite reach the level of power a sweaty-handed gamer will likely require. It also may be a bit too loud for your liking on the higher setting, particularly if you're not playing with a headset. That said, Logitech deserves kudos for employing an energy-saving auto-off feature that kicks in after a few minutes of inactivity. Press any button on the controller and it'll start back up at exactly the same power at which you left it set.
Since it's such a dead ringer for Microsoft's console controller, it's a shame that Microsoft and Logitech couldn't work things out so this controller could be dual-platform compatible--as it is, only Microsoft has a PC/Xbox 360 controller on the market. We tried plugging the USB-enabled controller into the Xbox 360 and were met with continually flashing lights, but the system and controller couldn't properly sync. If anything, it makes us hopeful that a future hardware update for the console could remedy this. (Logitech has announced a PlayStation 3 version of the ChillStream, which is scheduled to debut once Sony's console hits store shelves.)
Ultimately, while the ChillStream's advertised feature may be useless for most, the controller's superior design and performance still make it one of the better PC controllers on the market. If you're a PC gamer with a need for a gamepad, the ChillStream is an attractive option, though we wish it were priced a little lower than Microsoft's similar controller that boasts PC and Xbox 360 compatibility.