x-plane 8.32

The previous time I posted about x-plane, it was to comment on the then newly released world scenery, which at the time I could only admire via the provided screenshots. Also I was waiting to order a new PC. Well the new PC is in use for a couple of months now and today that 6 dvds I ordered last weekend arrived today. The six dvds cover the world until a little south of Helsinki (too bad) and north of Antartica. When I say cover, I really mean cover. Cover, as in 60 GB of goodness.

It shows. The x-plane world is very detailed. I only tried out a few areas. I took off from Newark to land (well sort off, didn’t make much of an effort to make it a proper landing) at la Guardia a few miles distance. This is a nice route that crosses manhattan and really shows off the flightsimulator and scenery. Basically the upper limit of what you get to see is cpu and memory bound. I have a dual core amd X4400 with 2GB. Plenty of horse power, but not nearly enough for the maximum settings. Clearly this architecture is built for the future (i.e. next decade). Luckily, it all scales down very well. Basically the scenery consists of very detailed terrain and generated objects. The generated objects take into account terrain type; area and expected building height. The settings for the amount you can display range from none, few, default, lots, tons to extreme. It’s tempting to go to extreme.

After all I have a dual core machine with a nice nvidia 7800 GT card. Plenty of horse power for running doom 3 or half life 2 at maximum settings at 1600×1200. However, extreme really is extreme. When flying over new york in real life there are buildings in every direction as far as the eye can see. With the settings set to extreme and visibility to 20 Miles, you literally have tens of thousands of objects in visual range. I doubt PCs exist that can draw that at a reasonable framerate today. And flight simulators require a reasonable framerate of course.

Adding to the problem is the roads setting, which, when set to extreme, draws every road it knows about in visual range. That too is quite a bit of road when flying over NY since it uses actual map data to render roads. So in short, reasonable framerates on my machine mean trading off between viewing distance, number of objects, number of roads, texture resolution (when set to extreme it eats video ram like crazy). Forget about using the maximum setting for any of those except maybe texture resolution. Luckily everything still looks great with the settings moderated a bit.

It’s just really frustrating to be constantly aware of the fact that you are not seeing close to 25% of the data available to you because your bad ass gaming machine just hasn’t got the super computer capability required to do so. It still looks very realistic of course, no complaints about that.

Besides, NY is just a place to take off or land. The beauty of this scenery is that you can fly to say Chicago and have plenty to see on the way. All terrain features are there, mountains, hills, canyons, highways, towns, small villages, rivers, lakes and other things you normally see from the air, all in the right place. Coastlines are extremely detailed (all the NY piers are there). Setting roads and objects to their default settings sort of removes the suggestion of flying over a real city but the rest of the terrain stays as detailed as it is.

When you leave new york in MS flight simulator (which fits easily on a single layer DVD) there’s not much to see. Grey and blue lines suggest where by approximation main roads and rivers should be. The terrain is dull with autogen scenery roughly corresponding to what it thinks the terrain should look like based on the limited data it has. It’s a desert of dullness out there.

more on opera mini

The reason my previous blog post was rather short was that I was running into the maximum amount of character limit imposed by opera mini. I think it’s a bit odd to have this limit for a textarea but I suppose there’s a reason for it.

Anyway, I really like this browser. It’s good enough that you can actually load the wordpress userinterface in it. It’s even usable! Though navigating it is a bit hard because opera mini basically transforms the page into a one column layout intended for small screens. So that means that all the controls are on a separate row. This works best for pages that are accessible and have the important content before the navigation. Of course the content of the wordpress userinterface is the various controls and there are a lot of those (30+)!

Other sites I tried were the new york times, slashdot, geenstijl.nl, nieuwnieuws.nl, nu.nl, osnews.com, tweakers.net (some of these sites are dutch). They all rendered fine and very fast compared to the native browser of my phone (renders the full page). Whatever opera is doing is working really well. Of course some sites have poor accessibility. For example, the nyt frontpage is a mess of advertisements, links and two line page introductions. When you squeeze that into opera mobile the result is not pretty and it is pretty hard to find your way through this mess.

The message is simple: if you want your websites to be usable on the soon to explode mobile internet market (and why wouldn’t you want that?) you will have to adopt xhtml  non table based layouts and conform to accessibility guidelines. Incidentally, this will also boost your google ranking. Basically google can be compared to a screenreader. Compared to a blind person using a screenreader it is actually pretty stupid. You need to point out what is important by using semantic html rather than font tags. If everything is a div or plain text in table cells decorated with css or font tags then you have no semantic information in the page. This will make it hard for google to separate the relevant information (like the title header of your page, important keywords in the text that you bothered to highlight) from the irrelevant stuff (navigation, footer, etc.). It will also make it hard for screenreaders to transform it into something readable and it will be totally unusable on hundreds of millions of mobile phones.
Of the sites listed above opera mini did a reasonable job. It did as much as can reasonably expected of it. I’ve used opera’s full mobile browser as well, it does a slightly better job. Opera mini does most of the processing serverside however. This has two important advantages: less content is sent to the phone and the phone spends less time rendering. Both these things save a lot of time. Using opera mini was the first time I had an acceptable browsing experience on a mobile phone. Pages download in seconds instead of minutes. The back button actually works pretty well. So does the cache (so you can go back and forth between the frontpage and articles linked on the frontpage) in a reasonable timeframe.

The user interface is pretty good (though clearly not designed for the nokia 9300 which has a widescreen (half vga) with the navigation buttons on the side instead of the usual narrow screen on most phones. The formfactor is actually really good for browsing and reading websites. A particular problem was that the menu button on the phone was not integrated with the browser menu. So there are two different application menus one activated with one of the navigation keys and one activated with the menu key. Also some of the keys have an unexpected result. The full keyboard features an escape button which usually can be used as cancel button. Using it when entering a url it actually behaves like an OK button.

Despite these minor annoyances, I intend to keep this browser. I like it.

X-plane Global Scenery

A few months ago I posted a review of x-plane and compared it with ms flightsimulator. My conclusion was that while x-plane is technically superior, ms flightsimulator looks better because of the quality of the included scenery with ms flightsimulator and the lack of proper v8 scenery for x-plane.

Well, they fixed the problem:
Global Scenery. The people from global-scenery.org have processed terrabytes of information from all sorts of sources and have come up with a mostly autogenerated scenery pack for x-plane of close to 60GB. It ships on 7 (seven!) dvds. Check out the screenshots. It’s advertised as the most detailed scenery, ever. I believe they might be right … for auto generated scenery.

You can get scenery for ms flight simulator based on the same data for some areas. But here the technical differences enable x-plane to draw far prettier landscape then ms flightsimulator. Of course ms flightsimulator also has lots of non autogen scenery with e.g. the statue of liberty and the empire state building looking more or less recognizable when you fly over New York. X-plane on the other hand has lots of buildings of more or less the appropriate height aligned with the very detailed roads it generates from actual map data. In other words, you’ll see every block in manhattan with buildings inside them. The result definately looks like New York.

I’m planning to buy this software as soon as I have a new PC. I’ve had lots of fun with x-plane already. My current hardware is too old to properly enjoy all this new stuff but I will make sure the replacement will run this stuff well.

Oh yeah, this is just a 1.0. More features (3d forests, more planet surface, custom objects) are planned.

x-plane vs ms flightsimulator

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.