X-plane on an iPhone

If you’ve read my past reviews of X-plane, you’ll know that I’m somewhat of a fan of that product. It’s an ultra realistic flight simulator. If you’ll read the product page you will see that it boasts a long list of features. I can assure you, they’re being modest. I don’t pay for software very often but I’ve bought v8 and recently v9 of this one.

Anyway, I just had a little WTF moment reading this little blog post from Benjamin Supnik, one of the lead developers of X-plane who works on the scenery engine. They’ve actually ported X-plane to the iPhone! If so far, you didn’t think much of the iPhone as a development platform, look again. This is really impressive.

I just looked up the product page in iTunes and it has some nice screen shots. Of course they don’t ship the full UI or scenery. All you get is an area around Inssbruck (default area in the demo version of the normal version). Probably it is heavily tuned to work nicely on an iphone. However, the mere fact that they have it running at all is very impressive. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to link to product pages in iTunes, so you’ll just have to look it up yourself, producer is Laminar or you can go to Games->Simulation in the iphone section.

Also hilareous is Austin Meyer (founder and owner of Laminar that builds X-Plane) denying there was an iphone version of x-plane, just before he launched it on September 11th. A bit of a symbolic date for launching a flight simulator, don’t you think?

Sadly, I have no iPhone or ipod touch to play with. Working for Nokia and all that.

X-Plane 9 review

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.

x-plane 8.50 beta

It seems Austin Meyer has had a busy summer. As you may know, I’m big fan of his flight simulator, x-plane. About three months ago it was upgraded from 8.30 to 8.40. The 0.10 version increment represented a huge list of new and improved features and he managed to throw in some nice performance enhancements as well. The upcoming 8.50 release has a changelist that is even more impressive.

Check it out here: http://x-plane.com/beta.html. The long list includes major improvements to the scenery rendering, simulation accuracy of the plane on the runway, simulation accuracy of other planes in the air (down to simulating the turbulance they cause in the atmosfere) and many minor improvements. The major scenery improvements I’ve been reading about on the scenery blog are just a footnote in this list. Just reading it will take quite some time. Imagine implementing all of that in three months! Anyway, I’m looking forward to trying out the new stuff. Particularly the visual enhancements and formation flying look like they could be fun.

google earth

Yesterday I posted a story on x-plane and mostly commented on it’s superior scenery engine as opposed to the lack of content that uses it. Later that same evening I installed google earth, a new software package that downloads satellite imagery and annotates it with roads, places, hotels, restaurants etc.

What a brilliant program. It looks awesome (well some places do, mostly inside the US). For example, you can zoom in to about 500 feet altitude, hover a bit over phoenix arizona (and drag it around) and find back the very same pool I swam in six years ago. Mind you, all I had was a vague recollection of what the surroundings looked like and the name of the hotel chain (holiday inn, has many hotels in phoenix). So I zoomed to Scottsdale looked for some green areas. Found a label called holiday inn, with a building that I recalled was similarly shaped to the one I spent about five days and had a correctly shaped pool besides it. Impressive.

My point: why don’t these guys from google spent some time talking to Austin Meyer (the guy who makes x-plane). Google earth beats x-plane in displaying realistic scenery (and any other simulator) hands down, all it lacks is a flightsimulator. It now streams data over the internet. Stream it from harddisk and you stream terrain faster than you can fly.

Of course the engine is not optimized for flightsimulation. It might require a bit more elevation info, some more accurate texture positioning. The quality of the textures however is excellent and better than any satellite based scenery for any flightsimulator I have ever seen. It looks excellent at low altitudes (300 feet).