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Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive vs. Gear Drive: Which Is Best?

By Bojan Jovanovic

Updated: October 12,2022

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Do you know the difference between direct drive, belt drive, and gear drive racing wheels? If not, don't worry - you're not alone. 

Many people don't know what these terms mean, let alone which is the best choice for them. In this article, we'll break down the basics of each type of system so you can decide which is ideal for you. 

So, whether you're a beginner or a seasoned racer, strap in!

Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive vs. Gear Drive - Which Should You Pick?

When shopping for a steering wheel, the most important choice you’ll make is which force feedback steering wheel type to go with. There are three main types: direct drive, belt drive, and gear drive, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. 

Out of these three, the  direct drive steering wheel is the best choice overall, and we’ll explain the pros and cons of each type of steering wheel below, but before we get there, we need to cover a few more things. 

What Makes a Racing Wheel a Necessity?

A racing wheel is necessary for anyone who wants to get the most out of their driving games. They provide a level of immersion and control that cannot be matched by even the top-of-the-line PC gamepad or any other console controller.

There are many types of racing wheels on the market, but they all have one thing in common: force feedback. Force feedback is what makes a racing wheel so unique and what makes it worth the investment. Without force feedback, a racing wheel is little more than an overpriced gamepad.

What Is Force Feedback?

Force feedback is comparable to haptic technology in that it generates physical feedback, while haptic technology gives the appearance of sensory input. Force feedback technology allows the steering wheel to provide resistance to your inputs. This resistance simulates the effects of G-force, weight transfer, and road surface on your car. How does it work in the game itself?

When you’re driving in a game, and your car hits a bump or is jostled by another vehicle, you’ll feel it through the force feedback in your steering wheel. This is made possible thanks to Microsoft DirectInput, which game developers use for input devices. It contains the library required to generate force-feedback effects for devices with the appropriate drivers.

The strength of the force feedback can be adjusted on most racing wheels, and some even have different settings for different types of terrain. For example, you might have a setting for off-road driving that simulates the bumps and jostles of driving over rough terrain.

Simply put, force feedback allows you to feel the road and the car as if you were actually driving. The steering wheel will fight you when you take a turn too fast or drift off the track. It feels natural and realistic, making the game much more fun and immersive.

Types of Steering Wheels

As mentioned before, there are three main types of wheels: direct drive, belt drive, and gear drive. We’ll now take a closer look at each of them and explain how they work and what makes them unique. 

Gear Drive Racing Wheels

A gear-driven racing wheel is the most common type of steering wheel. It’s the type of wheel you’re most likely to find in arcades and game rooms. They’re also the type of racing wheel that comes with most prebuilt entry-level and mid-range gaming rigs.

All three types of wheels use electromagnets to provide force feedback, but the main difference lies in how they transfer that force to the steering wheel. When it comes to a steering wheel with a gear drive, the motor is connected via a series of gears. These gears increase the motor's torque (rotational force) to provide enough resistance to your inputs.

The main advantage of a gear drive system is that it’s relatively cheap to manufacture. The downside is that the gears can create a lot of noise, and the steering wheel can feel a bit loose.

Belt Drive Racing Wheels

Belt-driven wheels are the next step up from gear-driven systems. Instead of using gears to transfer the force from the electromotor to the steering wheel, belt drive systems use a toothed belt. 

This belt is wrapped around a pulley that’s attached to the motor. The other end of the belt is attached to the steering wheel. When the motor is activated, it turns the pulley, which in turn rotates the belt. The belt then transfers that force to the steering wheel, providing resistance to your inputs.

The main advantage of a belt drive system is that it’s much quieter than a gear drive system. The downside is that it’s more expensive to manufacture, and the belts can wear out over time.

Direct Drive Racing Wheels 

The third and final type of steering wheel is the direct drive wheel. This is the most expensive and realistic type of steering wheel. 

With a direct drive system, the motor is directly connected to the steering wheel. There are no gears or belts or any other transfer systems, and the direct connection means that the motor can provide a higher level of force feedback. It also means that the steering wheel is much more accurate and realistic.

That said, the main advantage of direct drive wheels is that they are incredibly precise. You’ll feel every bump and turn with absolute clarity. The downside is that they’re quite expensive compared to the other two systems. 

Pit Stop

Now that we've explained how each type of steering wheel works, comparing direct drive vs. belt drive vs. gear drive doesn’t seem fair. Yes, they all generate force feedback and serve the same function. However, direct drive systems operate differently from their belt and gear drive counterparts, which gives them a significant edge. 

That doesn’t mean that the belt and gear drive systems are bad, far from it. We just wish to point out that direct drive wheels can be considered a category of their own, while belt drive vs. gear drive is a more fair comparison.

Belt and gear-driven wheels work on a similar principle, so they feel very similar. The main difference lies in the build quality and the materials. Belt drive wheels are built with higher quality materials and tend to be more durable. On the other hand, gear drive wheels are usually cheaper and don’t last as long.

Because stretching is unavoidable with a belt steering wheel system, the toothed belt is its weak point, while the gear steering wheel system has a problem with gears grinding or jumping. Furthermore, gear systems employ smaller and weaker motors to keep the price as low as possible. The direct drive system doesn’t have any of those problems. 

Having said all of that, we still feel that you should opt for a direct drive wheel if you want the best racing wheel possible, or purchase components for a DIY direct drive wheel and build your own.

This doesn’t mean that gear and belt drives aren’t worth considering. Instead of comparing all three, think of them as a progression ladder. Gear drive would be the entry-level wheel you buy to test the waters. The belt drive is your mid-point, and most people would be happy with it, whereas only the die-hard racing fans would go on to buy a direct drive wheel. 

The Finish Line

Now that we know the difference between direct drive, belt drive, and gear drive steering wheels, let’s go back to our original question: Which should you pick?

We recommend going with a gear drive wheel if you're just starting out. They’re the most affordable and will give you a taste of what sim racing is all about. 

Once you’ve been bitten by the sim racing bug and want to upgrade, the next step would be to get a belt drive wheel. They’re a significant step up from gear drive wheels in terms of quality and realism. 

And finally, if you want the best possible experience, go for a direct drive wheel. Yes, they’re expensive, but they offer the most realistic and immersive racing experience money can buy.

FAQ

Which is better, a gear drive or a belt drive?

If this is your first time buying a steering wheel and you don’t want to spend too much, then you should buy a gear-driven steering wheel. But if this isn’t your first rodeo, you should get a belt-driven steering wheel, as they’re an overall better choice.

What is the difference between direct drive and belt drive?

When you compare direct drive vs. belt drive steering wheels, you’ll notice that the main difference between the two is how they create the resistance needed for force feedback. 

The belt drive wheel, as the name indicates, uses a belt attached to an electromotor, but the direct drive wheel does not utilize any transfer mechanism since it’s connected to the electromotor directly. Such a connection allows direct drive systems to create greater torque while also providing smoother and more realistic feedback.

You can read more about it, plus how the gear drive system compares to the other two, in our “Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive vs. Gear Drive: Which Is Best?” article.

Why is a direct drive wheel better?

Since direct drive wheels are connected directly to the electromotor, they provide a considerably more engaging driving experience with stronger and smoother force feedback.

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