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.

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.

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).

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.