For the past few years, one of my hobbies is flying planes in a flightsimulator. I don’t meancombat flightsimulators but ‘real’ flightsimulators that simulate flying an actual airplane as realistically as possible. This post is about a review of two flightsimulators: ms flightsimulator and x-plane. I’ve used both, extensively and I’ll focus on the strong and weak points of both.
Let me start off by saying that these days x-plane is my favourite. I’m absolutely biased towards this wonderful program. X-plane is a commercial product by an individual named Austin Meyer. This somewhat outspoken individual (just read the stuff on his website) is, in my opinion, a genius and has pulled off what a whole team of developers at Microsoft couldn’t do: produce the most comprehensive, complete and realistic flightsimulator software for PCs. He can boast about his software being used in actual commercial training simulators that are certified for use during actual pilot training.
X-plane is an awesome technical achievement. It flies really smooth (that alone makes it realistic), it models how an airplane flies very realistically based on realtime computed aerodynamic properties that are derived from the shape of the airplane. It can model basically anything capable of flight (gliders, single props, helicopters, multi props, jets, supersonic jets, rockets, the space shuttle, hypothetical mars atmosphere planes, baloons, you name it). This makes flying x-plane lots of fun, for example trying to take off vertically with a harrier is way cool.
The airplanes in ms flightsimulator are much less realistic even though they look really nice. In addition, the graphics processing in ms flightsimulator goes at the expense of realism. The flightmodel is simplistic and is constantly fighting for cpu power with the graphics engine. And since the latter doesn’t scale well either way, you are in for a bumpy ride even on fast machines.
V8 of X-plane includes scenery technology that is superior to what Microsoft offers. Unfortunately, technology alone is not enough to create pretty scenery. Consequently, despite the technology, MS Flightsimulator looks much better. The reason for this is content. Even though x-plane is capable of rendering complex landscapes full of custom objects, roads, forests, cities, etc; it doesn’t have anything to render because the scenery is not ready yet. A project is underway to provide worldscenery for x-plane v8. This project will provide scenery based on satellite images, detailed roadmaps etc. This type of scenery is already available for the US and it looks really nice. Detailed roadmaps and coastlines have been integrated to the scenery so if you fly over new york, the roads are where they are supposed to be. The same goes for runways and taxilanes on airports. In addition the scenery includes autogenerated objects (these are part of the scenery and not generated at run-time) with objects in the right places of the right type (big office buildings in manhattan, farms in the country). The scenery has a lot of potential and is much better than the ms flightsimulator autogen scenery but it lacks custom modelled airports, buildings, bridges and other objects that flightsimulator has. All the landmarks (except for rivers, roads, coastlines and mountains) that a pilot uses to navigate are absent. When you fly over New York, there is no empire state building, no central park, no brooklyn bridge or even the statue of liberty. All of these can of course be added but that is a lot of work and unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Another disadvantage of x-plane scenery is that when you fly from one region to another, the flightsimulator pauses to load the scenery. These regions are not that big and sometimes the border is right in front of the runway you are trying to land on. If you fly a supersonic plane you cover a lot of ground really fast and the simulator pauses to load scenery every minute or so. Very annoying and ms flight simulator does not do this. Finally, an issue with the current version of x-plane is the ground textures. Again the technical potential of the engine is underused because only a hand full of textures are shipped with the engine. Consequently, cities are green because a city texture is lacking so a grass texture is used. You can actually add textures yourself so it is not hard to fix the issue.
MS flightsimulator has two huge advantages over x-plane when it comes to scenery: 1) it ships with excellent, detailed scenery of the entire world. 2) more scenery is available from third parties (for example the excellent nl2000 scenery that models the Netherlands in great detail).
Yet despite all these disadvantages, I still prefer x-plane. The smoothness of the simulator makes you feel in control of the airplane. I’d love to have better scenery, I’d love to be able to turn on the more advanced rendering features but the truth is that flying x-plane is really fun. Flightsimulator is all about great looks but the framerate drops dramatically when flying over detailed areas like big airports where you need a smooth simulation to land in a realistic fashion. It has trouble rendering ground textures properly. With detailed groundtextures that means that you have limited visibility because most of the textures around you are blurred because flightsimulator can’t keep up. X-plane doesn’t suffer from these issues at all.
Other features where flightsimulator has an edge over x-plane are AI trafick (watching the boeings queue for takeoff at Schiphol is cool), the weather module (x-plane has one and it uses the same weather web services but it is much less nice to work with). Finally the big advantage of flightsimulator is the huge community of users providing custom scenery, planes, tools, textures etc. X-plane has a much smaller community and there is not that much to download.
Still I prefer x-plane, simply because it simulates flying an airplane much better. If you want pretty screenshots, use ms flightsimulator. If you want to fly a realistic, challenging simulation, use x-plane.