Are HOTAS systems really necessary?
I first heard of those when all the various spacesim kickstarters went up, it was kinda strange for me as I always used the old "right hand on the stick, left on the keyboard" setup and I barely heard of separate throttles before.
No, but quite useful.
Are current low-budget joysticks durable enough?
Depends. Are we talking about mechanical durability or the quality (and longevity) of the electronics?
I've had both electronic and mechanical failures on different sticks. However, generally speaking mechanical durability only becomes a factor if the electronics (sensors, buttons, wires) can outlive the mechanical components (gimbals, button base supports).
On all Logitech sticks I've owned (Extreme 3D Pro, Force 3D Pro, Wingman Force), the potentiometres were **** to begin with and went bad before any mechanical failures (although I would argue that the force feedback mechanics are a problem on the latter two sticks by design).
I've owned two Saitek Cyborg Evo sticks (pre-MadCatz days) and they both developed some potentiometre issues, and the main trigger button's support caved inside the stick on the other one.
My X52 throttle has had some really bad problems with wires getting chafed and cut inside the throttle, rendering random functions unusable on the throttle handle until I open it up and splice up the wires again.
Personally I value electronic durability over mechanical. Mechanical endurance depends on the level of stress you put the stick to, while you can't really do anything to reduce the "stress" on the electronics aside from playing less.
In normal use, anything should last at least two years. But at the moment I would advise against getting any Saitek/MadCatz products due to horrendous quality issues, and I would personally also avoid any Logitech sticks because of my previous bad, bad experiences with them. So that basically leaves Thrustmaster for entry level sticks...
The thrustmaster T. Flight stick X was tempting me as it cost only 30 Euros at a Gamestop (the full HOTAS cost 50), but I'm really worried as I read over the internet of people that lament problems after only a few months or even weeks.
T.Flight Stick and T.Flight HOTAS are both conventional sticks in the sense that they use potentiometres. Pots always fail eventually, being electromechanical components. On the other hand, the T.16000m has Hall effect sensors on the main stick axes, which removes two of the most important failure points on the electronics. Twist handle still uses potentiometre, though, but instead of three potential critical failure points you have only one.
In my opinion the T.16000m is at the best price/performance points for basic joysticks at the moment.
Also, I'm not a fan of the buttons on the base (a point in common with the cheap sidewinder I'm currently using) as I never use them on spacesims unless I play something really arcadey like the old Rogue Squadron 3D.
Then you may need a HOTAS setup. Or just not use the base buttons and use keyboard controls instead.
That said, is a CH Combatstick worth the price?
I put my eyes on it and while here in Europe costs about 100 Euros, it's still cheaper than the CH Fighterstick (which also has more hat switches and fancy modes than I think I'll ever need) but it's still very expensive.
Yes. CH stuff is worth the money it costs, however: Since CH joysticks don't have a twist handle function you will probably need to invest into separate rudder pedals. And possibly a throttle as well. And then you would be in trouble with older games - like FreeSpace 2 Open - which only accept one game controller at a time. The only option then would be to go with full CH setup (CH stick, CH rudder pedals, possibly CH throttle) and combine them into one virtual device by CH's profile manager software.
This is expensive, and most likely a Thrustmaster T.16000m would be easier and much, much less expensive...
And last but not necessarily least: do the various mapping softwares with the various thrustmasters, CHs, Saiteks have the ability to emulate buttons for Dos games?
While I do play a lot of X-wing vs Tie Fighter, Freespace 1 & 2, etc, I still play some older games that run under DOS and being able to use all the additional keys in that games without passing through the DosBox keymapper would be nice, if not completely necessary.
Yes. Generally speaking, profile software either outputs "raw" button presses, or translates them into keyboard button presses or macros.
Depending on the emulator software for your DOS games, you might either be able to set it up to look for "game controller" buttons, or just use key presses and remap the game controls accordingly for all the extra buttons that are not covered by the generic "4-axis joystick" support from DOSbox.