Fountech AirStyle Review
The best PS2 wireless controller you've never heard of.
May 21, 2003 - It was only yesterday that I wrote up the Fountech AirStyle controller. I found this controller, more specifically the Fountech booth, in the depths of Kentia Hall on the last day of the E3. I had never heard of the company -- no one has -- but the controller piqued my attention. It was nicely designed felt sturdy as could be, and the wireless communication was solid. However, I only played with it for a few minutes. One of the company reps was nice enough to send me on my way with a review sample. After writing up the preview yesterday I plugged in the AirStyle for some extended play. When I got to work this morning I hooked up my new Elite Interactive LCD and got right back to work with the AirStyle.
It's hard to believe my results with the pad. I have used almost every third-party pad on the market and I have become quite good at bashing the hell out of them in reviews. As you gamers know, they almost all suck. Little did I know that while strolling around in Kentia Hall I would happen upon the best third-party controller for the PS2. Notice I didn't use the word "wireless" in that sentence? The AirStyle is without a doubt your best wireless option for the console, but it blows away the competition even when you throw in wired options. Fountech might be a newcomer, but if this pad is any indication, there will be great things in the company's future.
Before I handle the design aspects of the pad, I should address the build quality. This is what struck me most when I first picked up the AirStyle at E3. It continues to amaze me. Logitech has been the king of controllers for a while, especially in terms of construction, but Fountech has taken things up a notch. Not only is it built better than any third-party efforts, but also most first-party controllers. I know that's a bold statement, but rarely do you see a videogame peripheral or accessory this well made. It does not feel hollow. It does not creak. It does not flex. It does not do anything it's not supposed to do. The pad is a bit heavy, but in a healthy, reassuring way. It's got a small, dense feel to it that is extremely unusual in third-party controllers.
In terms of design, Fountech smartly followed Sony's lead with the Dual Shock 2. As you can see in the pictures, the controls are organized almost identically. It's not a perfect pad, but the Dual Shock 2 is as good a place as any to start. Plus, this is what PS2 owners are used to. Why have them adapt to something else? As you can also see, the pads are almost identically sized.
The AirStyle diverges from the Dual Shock 2 with the D-pad. Instead of Sony's four-section pad, Fountech went with a more traditional design. The four main directions have the same five-sided accent, but the center is not below the surface. I find this an improvement on the original. At the same time the design will be comfortable to gamers already happy with the Sony D-pad.
In the centrel area of the pad are the Select and Start buttons, just like the Dual Shock 2. Above these sit three slim buttons: Mode, Power, and Vibration. The second two are self-explanatory, but the first needs a little description. The Mode button toggles through Digital, Analog, and Eco. Eco is an energy-saving setting that greatly extends battery life. The rub is that response times are slower. Before you freak out, know that the response times are not that much slower. Additionally, not all games demand blazing controls, i.e. a slow-paced RPG. I even played this mode with a few fast games and the results were acceptable. If you can play THPS4 the way I do with the AirStyle then you'll be fine with many titles.
The center button turns the pad on and off. In order to conserve power, it will also automatically shut off after a couple of minutes without use. This is mainly for forgetful gamers and is standard fare for wireless controllers.
The mode and vibration buttons light up on the outer edges to let you know what mode you're using and whether or not vibration is turned on.
Above these three buttons is a long, narrow strip of translucent blue plastic. It doesn't light up or anything; it is merely an accent. The receiver, however, does light up. A blue LED illuminates the clear Lucite extension on the front. It's a little distracting, but it's harmless enough. Hell, many of you might love it.
Now for the fun part: the actual controls. While using the pad I felt that Fountech might have read all of IGN.com's hardware reviews and then simply addressed all the problems that plague third-party pads. Loose and inaccurate sticks, atrocious D-pads, uncomfortable shoulder buttons - all the usual suspects. Fountech avoided all of these problems with the AirStyle.
The D-pad is usually the biggest problem area on a controller. Other manufacturers should take a cue from Fountech here. This D-pad is nearly perfect. It is fast, accurate as hell, and well mounted. I find that consistent diagonal depressions are often difficult for D-pads. With the AirStyle I was able to use the diagonal controls more effectively than those on the Dual Shock 2 while playing THPS4. It is really dead-on accurate. In contrast to most other D-pads, this one is extremely well-mounted. Some would say it's too stiff, if anything. If it were a tiny, tiny bit looser then it would be perfect.
Moving to the analog sticks we find more outstanding design. I often get letters complaining about the dead spot in the center of the Dual Shock 2 sticks. Being a racing fan, I feel the same way. While the AirStyle uses similarly shaped sticks, they set much more precisely. The result is that they are accurate and sensitive to the slightest touch. The calibration is excellent throughout the entire range of motion, so this sensitivity doesn't mean you'll overshoot your goal, but rather that the pad has a subtlety of control that is hard to match. The only sticks in which you'll find this kind of accuracy are on the official GameCube controller. The only problem with the AirStyle sticks is that they are too closely modeled on the Dual Shock 2's. The tops of the sticks are convex and the material doesn't offer quite enough friction to prevent occasional slippage. If they had scalloped the tops, or used gummier rubber, then the sticks too would be perfect. (The surface of the Nintendo stick is really unbeatable in this department.)
The main action buttons might as well simply be matte-finished versions of the originals. They feel the same, look the same, and act the same. This is not a criticism, however. There is no reason to change what has proven to be a successful formula.
The weakest part of the pad is the shoulder buttons. Know that I am really nitpicking here. There's really nothing wrong with these controls, but when contrasted to the rest of the pad's elements they seem a little weak. They are about the same size as the Dual Shock 2 ones, but they are a little too loosely set. While they are fast and comfortable, they should feel a little firmer.
And then, of course, there is the wireless performance. The RF pad operates at 900MHz and automatically chooses a channel. Up to eight can be used in the same area without conflict. While many new devices boast 2.4MHz communication, 900MHz is both effective and cost-effective. I used the pad extensively in my apartment (little interference) and at work (insane interference). In both environments the AirStyle performed flawlessly. I didn't experience any dropouts, lag, or hiccups during game play. None. Hell, the first time I used the pad was at E3, which can be an extremely hostile environment for wireless devices.
The company claims 30 feet of range, but I had a few problems after about 25 feet during testing. None of you are gaming beyond ten feet, so put away your worry.
As for battery life, the AirStyle is a complex character. You have an Eco mode and you can also disable the twin-motor vibration. The official word is "over 50 hours" in Eco mode without rumble. Power comes from two AA batteries, which come bundled with the pad. I have been using the pad in analog mode with rumble turned on for about ten or eleven hours -- I was up a little late last night -- and it's going strong. I would recommend skipping Eco and turning off the motors for a good balance of fast play and decent battery life. By using only two batteries the designers were also able to keep the pad relatively light.
I would also forget about the rumble because it's simply not very good. In fact, if vibration feedback is an extremely high priority for you, then skip this pad altogether. You feel it, but just barely. To me the tradeoff is a no-brainer, but some of you might like the controller to jump around.
Unfortunately, you might have a hard time finding an AirStyle. In fact, I was only able to find it at Hyper-Caf? while searching around today. I only hope some retail chains pick it up soon.
If you're looking for a wireless controller for the PS2, then the AirStyle should be at the top of your list of candidates. And it should have a big lead over its opponents. The pad feels excellent, the wireless operation is outstanding, and it offers tremendous value. I found it for $39.99 today, which makes it an absolute steal. Go order one. You won't be sorry.
Recommended without reservation.
-- M. Wiley
Exemplary performance as both a wireless device and a basic game controller. Almost perfect. 9.5
The shoulder buttons are a little loose, but beyond that this is the best made controller I've ever used. 9.5
You can get a cheaper Pelican, but this is the best wireless controller available and it's less moeny than much of the competition. 9.0
Wireless with rumble feedback. The Eco power-saving mode is extremely useful for slower-paced games. 9.0
Just like the Dual Shock 2, but with a more comfortable coating and a touch heavier. 9.0
Overall Rating (Not an average) 9.4