Any advice on a cheap joystick solution?
The prelevant choices for around 50 or less
seem to be the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro
and the Thrustmaster T16000M
I went with the latter and I've been quite happy with it. It has flimsy buttons and a flimsy throttle lever but very high end accuracy which shouldn't wear out over time thanks to the magnetic sensors. It's so accurate I don't need any deadzone set up in any game, there's no drift ever (where for example if I used the Xbox 360 controller for newer such games that supported it there would often be constant drift unless I set a very large deadzone that then made it harder to control accurately given the low range of movement with much of it negated for the deadzone), it seems perfectly centered and every direction seems perfectly calibrated.
The Extreme 3D Pro instead as far as I can tell has slightly more and better buttons and a better throttle lever but it uses potentiometers which are potentially less accurate and will wear out over time as they're not high end ones.
For my choice I considered that a cheap joystick by itself no matter how many buttons it has will not match up to a high end setup with a separate throttle and will most likely require use of the keyboard for additional functions in all but the oldest and/or simplest games in the genre so I may as well use my thrusters on the keyboard alongside all the other functions rather than alternate my left hand's placement to utilize the little throttle and base buttons that may be on offer regardless of their quality.
The above negated some of the flaws of the T16000M so I went with it for its highly praised accuracy. Still, I would have liked a couple more buttons on the stick itself for some primary functions (not on the base, as I said I find those mostly useless due to the placement and neither joystick has very many there) which the 3D Pro does offer alongside all of them being less flimsy, so yeah, the choice is totally yours.
Oh yeah, as a bonus the T16000M is also left hand friendly, you can change the orientation of the thumb rest since it's detachable as there are no button internals on it unlike the Extreme 3D Pro. Of course, both being cheap products other parts of their internals could die over time but there are reports of them lasting long and not so long. I can't guarantee anything but both should have enough of a warranty when new to not be afraid that they will need to be paid for again within a year or something.
Additionally, I wouldn't advice going for something cheaper than these
like the Thrustmaster T Flight Hotas X (or even just the T Flight joystick) or the Speedlink Black Widow I was eyeing previously because they're way more unproven and any good review and report is accompanied by many bad ones for pretty much all their aspects, from accuracy to comfort to featureset to durability.
If instead you have around 200
to spare I would go with a CH Products Fighterstick
(or the slightly lower end and cheaper Combatstick
, it offers much the same quality but less buttons and switches, still quite a few of those though) and CH Products Pro Throttle
for what appears to be the ultimate price to performance to features ratio set up that will be suitable for pretty much every such game.
These are apparently made with high quality industrial grade plastic and use potentiometers of similarly high quality so they will likely outlast you. Later on and if the Pro Throttle's built-in analog stick (needed for yaw because the CH stuff don't have a twist axis for yaw or whatever you'd map it to, which isn't so bad) proves insufficient for your advancement to elite pilot status you can also get the CH pedals which are also great for their price. This setup will last longer than any of the others in that price range (so, mostly overpriced Saitek HOTAS products) and match up to the far higher end and far more expensive stuff while there are many reports of decade old non-USB units (the only design change for the recent stuff by CH is that they're now USB based, otherwise they'r of identical build and quality) still working good as new.
I got that setup without the pedals for a while and the main functions seemed as awesome as I'd been told but the units were possibly used instead of new and defective in some ways (actually a certain part of the throttle was shifting around when pressured so something was broken for sure, while some hat switches didn't register reliably).
The retailer I had chosen however (SimWare Simulations) ignored me for months after I shipped them back for inspection (and they confirmed receiving them) expecting replacements, then claimed there were no issues found, so when they finally did something again after I raised a stink about it and finally got in touch with people from their company and parent company (Aerosoft), I opted for a refund rather than deal with their insufferable customer support all over again for new or simply re-returned units.
By that time I had been soured on the whole thing and went for a cheap set up as I'm no hardcore sim enthusiast anyway, but I still miss having those things, so solid and with more possible built in functions than most games will ever need negating the need for the keyboard or whatever else completely. A proper HOTAS, not like the cheap stuff, but a price that felt at the very least right if not a bargain.
That's all I got on the subject.