Featured image: Thingiverse designs by Peter Winkler
Even though many sim racing wheels have a comprehensive selection of buttons and rotary encoders on them, I still use a button box because it makes the entire sim experience more graceful, and perhaps more importantly, it just feels more authentic.
In this guide, I’m going to explain why you might also want to get a button box if you don’t already have one, and I’ll show you some great examples of both pre-built units and a DIY solution in case you’re handy with a soldering iron.
Before anything else, for those of you that maybe don’t know what a button box is, as the name implies it is a box with buttons on it but to be technical, really it should be called a rotary encoder, toggle switch, and button box because they are not solely comprised of buttons, they offer a mixture of these three things or possibly more.
Regardless, in essence, a sim racing button box is a control panel that plugs into your PC via USB as a separate USB game controller device allowing you to bind all those buttons and switches to a driving simulator and ultimately have more control over your car, without having to mess around with keyboards or in-game menu options while driving.
Why you should buy a button box
At this point, you might be thinking it’s a bit unnecessary to buy a button box if you already have a steering wheel with a bunch of buttons on it. That’s all well and good if you only want to race in one discipline such as Formula 1, since F1 rims have all the necessary buttons on them that you could need given the sheer complexity of Formula one cars.
But what happens when you go from an F1 car to a vehicle that uses an oval wheel rim for example, and your oval wheel rim doesn’t have the same buttons on it? Essentially you no longer have the ability to control the car in the same way you did with the F1 rim.
Our top sim racing button boxes:
- Grid Engineering Ferrari 488 GTE
- Grid Engineering Porsche 911
- SRX Innobox Pro
- Ricmotech RealGear RACEpro H22
- DSD CSW Panels
- BBJ SimRacing Pro Key Series
- DIY Button Box
For titles like iRacing, rFactor Assetto Corsa, and others, there’s a lot of different functions you can map to a button box and trying to hit an exact button on a keyboard in the heat of the moment during an online race could be very tricky, if not disastrous. Therefore, having a separate device that is always in the same place (think muscle memory), consistently has the same options, and can be used across all your simulators, is just a really nice and convenient piece of kit to have.
It makes swapping from wheel rim to wheel rim much more elegant and less of a hassle.
Another great thing about button boxes is how tactile and life-like they feel, which is especially beneficial for sim racers who like to wear gloves. Once you become accustomed to which button controls which function, it will become second nature to change your brake bias, camera mode, or anti-roll bar settings to name but a few.
Buttons, switches and encoders
As I touched on earlier, there are not only buttons to assign functions to on a button box, but also a few types of switches and knobs which may leave you wondering what jobs are assigned to each type of control, so below I’ve gone through some of the main mechanism categories to elaborate a bit further how each of them can benefit your gameplay.
Push buttons are the easiest types of controls to use and can be mapped to functions you often use like lap times, fuel, tyres, etc. Premium boxes will utilize push buttons with a perceivable amount of travel, and a certain heavy-duty feel to them, while more moderately priced units will have a lighter and less realistic feel.
One-way and two-way toggle switches
Real race cars commonly have toggle switches for many functions, and by having a combination of both one-way and two-way toggle switches you can map various functions more intuitively. In fact, with a simple programming procedure, you can convert any two-way toggle to function as a one-way toggle for even more flexibility. Some toggles are positioned to operate left-to-right to be more intuitive to use.
Safety toggle switches
Safety toggle switches incorporate a latch to ensure this switch is only flicked when you genuinely mean it. These controls are commonly mapped to functions like ignition or the pit lane speed limiter since these are functions that are on or off and do not want to hit these accidentally.
Knobs and encoders
Real race cars use large adjustment knobs to change the brake bias. Whether the knob adjusts a pivot point on the brake pedal or a valve in the hydraulic line, it requires some effort and several turns to adjust. Certain button boxes utilize a friction clutch to replicate the feeling of turning a mechanical adjustment and help the driver make slight adjustments. As for encoders, they are a unique type of knob. They are commonly mapped to functions with opposites such as increase/decrease, next/previous, left/right, and up/down.
So now that you’re clued up on how advantageous a button box can be, and what sort of tasks you can assign to the buttons, let’s look at some of the best options for pre-built button boxes out there, and also how you can make one of your own if you’re so inclined.
FYI, my recommendations are but a mere drop in the ocean in terms of the choice and availability of options out there, and there are many reputable manufacturers of sim racing equipment that sell button boxes. So, make sure to think about what functions you’ll require to program into the box, what aesthetics you like, what mounting solution suits you best, and perhaps most importantly, what budget you have, before you buy.
Grid Engineering F488 Dash Button Box
If you’ve ever wanted to drive a Ferrari 488 GTE racing car then this might be a big step in the right (virtual) direction! Grid Engineering’s 488 GTE/GT3 Dash Console Button Box is nicely assembled in 3mm carbon fibre and a carbon composite enclosure making it very “Motorsport”. Get all the buttons, rotary encoders and switches you would find on a real Ferrari dash.
Specifications include: a 3mm real carbon fiber front + rear case, with a black carbon composite enclosure. 8 x MOM-OFF-MOM toggles with rubber boots, 7 x CTS-288 encoders, 2 x ON-OFF safety switch toggles, 3 x NKK push buttons, 2 x style 4 12mm pushbuttons, 1 x brake bias knob with slotted mount holes for easy mounting to your sim rig.
Grid Engineering Porsche 911 rsr / GTE / GT3 Button Box
If you’re more of a Porsche enthusiast, no problem, check out this Grid Engineering 911 Dash Button Box:
I’m quite a Porsche fan which makes this centre console dash botton box about as authentic as it gets for the sim racing enthusiast.
SRX Innobox Pro
SRX, or SimRacing Real Xperience, is a sim racing equipment developer based in Spain, and their Innobox Pro is a fantastic piece of plug-and-play kit that features a backlit cover that will illuminate the labels providing button info.
There are 24 functions included on the unit, and each of them gives a very satisfying solid click when engaged. The lighting colour can be changed using the included remote control, and the Innobox Pro also features a cover swap system that makes it possible to exchange the covers with different templates customized towards different racing titles including iRacing and rFactor.
Ricmotech RealGear RACEpro H22
Inspired by the dashboards of real race cars, this horizontal programmable switch panel box will add authenticity to your sim racing rig. The unit features a metal housing and race-car-correct buttons and toggle switches and offers up to 36 functions including the brake bias valve knob which incorporates a proprietary friction clutch to simulate the drag of a real bias valve.
The programmable box allows you to map various functions in the game to any button, switch, or knob on the panel. From the in-game configuration screen, you select the function you want to map, such as engine start for example, and then move the button, switch, or knob you want to set it to, and voilà, that button now starts the engine.
DSD CSW Panels
These button boxes are unique because they are specifically designed to be mounted onto a Fanatec Clubsport wheelbase only. What I like best about this panel set is that they also offer a very distinctive mounting solution that creates a dashboard effect, and as a plus point, the mounting hardware is included in the box with the panels to get you going.
CSW Panels are offered in three versions, each with loads of functions to keep your controls where you need them when you need them. Each type offers toggle switches, pushbuttons, and two-way rotary encoders for any control you’d need.
As well as making these panels for CSW wheelbases, DSD also creates a separate button box set for the CSL Elite base, so if you use either of these Fanatec products, a DSD button box might be the right choice for you.
BBJ SimRacing Pro Key Series
The Pro Key Series button box from BBJ SimRacing features two 12mm latching toggle switches with missile style safety covers, four 12mm momentary toggle switches, four rotary encoders, twelve push to make switches, and one sprung key switch! Yes, that’s right, an actual key for a computer game. All the functions and switches on this box are rated for genuine automotive use.
It’s got a heavy-duty ABS plastic case and a high gloss solid ABS plastic fascia. The underside of the box has four threaded mounting points that will accept M4 bolts. The unit also has a built-in 6ft USB lead and is completely plug and play with Windows. What’s more, being USB powered it require no power supply or batteries.
DIY Button Box
Lastly, for all the tech whiz kids reading this who scoff at the thought of buying a pre-built button box, why not try building your own?
If you’ve got the skills and feel like you’re up to it, then check out this helpful video guide from the amstudio YouTube channel that explains the entire process in relatively easy to understand terms.
This informative and helpful tutorial will take you through a step-by-step process on how to make a DIY USB button box with encoders.
The unit in this specific clip is a 32-function button box, and amstudio was also kind enough to explain the electrical circuits’ design and layout and provide a list with all of the parts you will need to make one yourself in the video description.