Last weekend I ordered X-plane version 9. I bought version 8 early 2006 and since then I haven’t looked back. Sure, MS Flight Simulator looks great but the flying sucks. Laminar consistently delivers with new features and bug fixes. Version 8 got its last major update (8.64) about half a year ago and since then they have been beta testing version 9. While I could have bought it earlier, I waited until they released it.
A few days ago the package with 6 double layer DVDs was delivered. Installation was not so smooth as I complained about here. But I managed to sort it out and have a working X-plane 9 now. I installed the European and US scenery. The 6 DVDs of world wide scenery is really nice and detailed but consists only of automatically computed landscapes from various databases. Europe now also includes the part I live in (Finland) which was too far north for version 8. However, I prefer to fly southern Europe, where the landscape is a bit more varied.
There are cities, forests, roads, airports, coastlines, etc. where they should be (and in surprising amount of detail) but the simulator lacks custom content like the massive amount of content that comes with Microsoft Flight simulator. To fix that, I installed the excellent Corsica scenery, which is one of the many third party scenery packages available and one of the first ones to be upgraded for version 9. This adds a nice level of realism. Flying in from Nice (another scenery package, warning horrible HTML layout) with the new Cirrus jet was pretty cool and surprisingly easy given that the Cirrus was new to me. According to the product announcement, this plane was actually created by Cirrus themselves and presumably tuned to their specifications and needs. Also, the 3D cockpit is pretty cool and much more user friendly on a PC than the average very complicated panel coming with a X-plane jet.
Technically, version 9 includes lots of improvements to the scenery rendering and simulation. The changes are outlined in great detail in the product announcement page by Laminar owner and founder, Austin Meyer. I have little to add here except to say that it mostly works and delivers as advertised. Don’t expect to max out any of the rendering settings, they have been designed such that this is not possible with any hardware available now. In fact they just raised the bar for future hardware. If you can get your hands on a NVIdia with a few GB of video ram, X-plane will probably find a use for every byte of it. The good news is that it still looks pretty good with object detail not set to “TOTALLY INSANE” (Austin Meyer loves his capitals). In case you are wondering, I have a three year old AMD 4400+ with 2GB and a NVidia 7800 GT. Anything similar or better will run X-plane just fine.
Part of the attraction of X-plane is that it is a niche product build by some dedicated people who know what they are doing and are totally focused on doing it. Considering that they have a very small programmer team and not much other people working for them, it is pretty amazing what they manage to deliver. They have to be smart and efficient about a lot of things. So their UI is totally custom and a bit wacky. But it works. The included planes are so so but there are plenty of free ones available to fix that (and some better ones for a small fee). With all these nice freeware planes out there (e.g. on x-plane.org), you have to wonder why the selection bundled with X-plane is so weak. Most of the planes don’t have 3D cockpits and quite a few even lack textures.
However, at the core of X-plane is an excellent and extremely detailed simulation of just about anything that flies and everything that makes it fly. I mean, they are worrying about the accuracy of the voltage in electrical systems here and how that behaves under different failure scenarios. The attention to detail is just amazing. This is a simulator made by absolute flight sim geeks for flight sim geeks. It has lots of rough edges but it does its core job extremely well and is arguably the best all round flight simulator available today.