Wednesday, December 19, 2012

FSX - Best Hardware Combination of the day (redux)

Those of you who read my blog will remember I had posted about what I considered 'best' quality hardware, to run Flight Simulator X. As that post was getting quite long in the tooth, I decided to update it here with my thoughts about current hardware...

Reiterating, a couple clarifications first:

1) Obviously, the absolute-best hardware for FSX would be the most expensive hardware you can buy today, with the possible exception of a graphics card, as FSX is not so GPU-dependent as it is CPU-dependent.
2) We're going for bang-for-the-buck here, so I'll list my choice of what you *should* get, in order to have the best combination for the least-crazy money spent. Obviously, a 1TB solid-state disk that costs $25,000 in itself would be awesome, but it falls outside the normal-people category :-).
3) This list is already obsolete by the time you read this post. Yes, the minute I post it, it's obsolete. Such is the nature of the beast, such is the name of the game. If you want up-to-date, do your own research.

Here are my picks, updated for end-of-2012:

0) Software (yes, I know "best hardware combination", so let's get this out of the way first): Windows 7 x64. Hands down, the best OS to-date. I know that most new PCs come out with Windows 8 these days, but there have been several reports of instabilities and problems with FSX (particularly when it comes to joystick compatibility - USB drivers usually require updates) to make me warn against it. Windows 8 has nothing to offer me, personally, as I will not be running FSX on a tablet PC to have any sort of need for a touch screen.

Windows 7 x64 (even with the small issue with adding scenery for FSX, which has a workaround) remains my best choice.

With the Windows choice out of the way, let's make sure we set the stakes for what it is we're trying to define:

On the one hand, we can be looking for a "pure" FSX box, which will run Flight Simulator, possibly a couple FS-related utilities (Squawkbox) and *nothing* else. On the other, we can be looking for a power-user PC which is FSX-oriented, but will also run other software (possibly do some video conversions from DVD to AVI, etc.). Keep this in mind, while you read on...

In my previous post, the choice of CPUs at the time was a bit confusing... Today, things have cleared up quite a bit: In my opinion, the best CPU to run FSX on is the i7-3930K, clocking at 3.2GHz and offering six cores of pure processing power. Runner up for those who can't afford the price tag is the i7-3770K, at 3.5GHz but with four cores available only.

Combine this with the following components, and you'll have a box that is certain to help boost your desired FPS for the upcoming FSX addons which are sure to grab your attention!

- Motherboard: Anything ASUS or GigaByte. The i7-3930K runs on LGA 2011 chipset, while the older 3770K requires an LGA 1155 chipset, so with that in mind, choose a motherboard at the middle of the available price ranges that will offer you those extra items (like USB3.0, eSATA, etc) that will make you feel best.

- RAM: Nothing has changed from my earlier recommendations here: Speed is important, but more so is budget. Grab the MOST (16GB is quite normal these days, with several 32GB options and some 64GB ones that might be a bit on the extreme side) and FASTEST memory you can afford - make sure that you pick reputable brands, if possible go with the motherboard's compatibility list as these chips will have been tested to comply with standards. Be careful to buy memory that runs at lower voltages, as power consumption (and heat dissipated) play a role here too.

- Graphics card: I wrote in my previous post:  "Flight Simulator X is CPU-bound. This means that there will be VERY little difference observed (perhaps a half-frame or so) if you go from an 8800GT 512mb card you bought awhile ago to a GTX295". This is true today too - however, there's a notable exception: There are several graphics cards in the market today that offer *too much* video RAM. Anything above 2GB is actually detrimental to FSX performance (it eats away on your available main memory and causes extra work without offering any real benefit to FSX). Reasons are beyond the scope of this article - if you don't believe me, though, you're free to google your way about this. Note: Another detail to watch here is NVidia vs. AMD - I am one of those who'll go NVidia all the way - purely because I consider visual quality better when it comes to Flight Simulator, plus I consider their drivers more stable. My personal pick at this time is a GTX 670 or similar - just make sure it's at 2GB - no more.

- Hard disk: With the proliferation (and subsequent drop in price tag) for Solid State Disks, my earlier suggestions are even truer today:

For Flight Simulator X, go with a dual SSD disk combination: One for Windows 7 (128GB should be adequate at today's prices) and one for FSX (256GB for those among us who like LOTS of sceneries loaded). Pay particular attention to SSD speeds, while keeping your eye at the price tag. Speeds have improved tremendously over the past couple years and prices are quite decent for what you get.For movies and other data, use your older SATA regular hard disks - they're good enough for me :-).

As before, I'd like to dedicate a sentence to water cooling, which I've found to be much less problematic than people had described it in the past. I've had my system for almost 4 years now and I have found that if you check the components every six months to make sure the coolant levels are maintained (the liquid does tend to require refills every so often), the system will run better than the equivalent air-cooled one (as fans tend to collect LOTS of dust and cleaning them is far more complicated - for me, anyway - than simply refilling a cooler tank).

Well, there you have it. Please let me know if I've forgotten anything you consider crucial for your Flight Simulator PC and I will try to accommodate!

Friday, July 27, 2012


Didn't someone famous once say this?

Of course, in this case, this applies to two topics.

First, the demise of "Microsoft Flight" - who'd have thought it? Only about 95% of the people involved as beta testers and those third parties who tried desperately to alert the development team that the path they had chosen was so wrong... where would one start? The decision to only include a very limited part of the earth (albeit a beautiful one) as scenery? The decision to dumb down weather so that you could only fly in ISA conditions? The fact there was no ATC? No real selection of aircraft to pick from? So many wrongs...

Having been asked from the very beginning to be part of the effort, our team chose to be very pragmatic and careful about our involvement. As a Microsoft MVP, I had to be candid when asked (which was really not very often) but helpful at the same time. As there's still an NDA that's active, I cannot disclose all what's transpired (though I am sure people wouldn't mind anymore), but I can say that we were quite involved with the first alpha - up until the day Microsoft decided to throw a nice curve ball and tell all third parties "thanks for your time... here's the door" (Edit: contrary to what some people might try to convince you to support their self-conceived importance, third parties were all shown the door pretty much at the same time and received a stock email from the same person). That very day, our team agreed there's probably not much future in the MS Flight saga - not because we're anyone important, mind you, but mostly because the legacy of Microsoft Flight Simulator is really all the people who contributed to make it an active, buzzing community. Freeware and commercial products alike, those were the ones helping the product series live and grow. The biggest mistake throughout the years? Not enough communication by ACES / Microsoft with those developers...

...and this brings me to the second topic where "It's... done" applies:

After five fruitful years, I am no longer a Microsoft MVP - my area of expertise is Flight Simulator and, without a platform to talk about, it came as no surprise (even though the MS MVP team in Europe - leads and business alike - were really sad and were trying hard to keep me under a different role). While the award is given for "past contributions", it's easy to understand why, when I felt the way I did for MS Flight, I wouldn't be as active in that community. This is not to say, however, that I will not remain active and helpful to those who still live and breathe Flight Simulator X - that product is far from dead and its community has been alive and kicking.

So - while this post might sound a bit "negative" - it's really far from it - I think nature has a way of filling its void and with Microsoft out of the picture currently (and for the first time, really!), there will be room for other talented developers to prosper. You know who you are! We are all waiting for you to shine!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Flight Sim Labs A320-X team - reporting back home from Munich

The FSLabs team is now safely back home and has posted some more screenshots of the upcoming A320-X. There was an excellent demonstration and discussion of all the technical aspects of systems and flight modeling that takes place inside the A320, but for now you can feast your eyes on the external model and virtual cockpit images here.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Flight Sim Labs A320 - new pictures posted!

I am happy to report that the A320 is progressing very nicely - there were some new pictures posted in the FSLabs Facebook page that you can check out here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Restore your System drive from Windows Home Server - a tip

My main office PC experienced a hard disk crash the other day. No worries, I said, that's why we've invested in the Windows Home Server backup setup, so that snags like this can be resolved with the minimum of downtime, right?


Four days later and several attempts at restoring (I could work in the meantime using my laptop) provided fruitless. I was close to giving up, formatting the new hard disk that came as the replacement and installing Windows 7 anew. I could not, however, ignore the "piss off" factor that was telling me I would not be defeated by a bloody program, especially since this is exactly why we had installed WHS in the first place - so we could restore anything, anytime.

Well, the problem was simple, silly and, as it turns out, easily fixable (aren't they all), but I couldn't really detect it as I never bothered sitting out the entire process (or timing it): When I would start the restore process, WHS would say that it would take about 3-4 hours to restore my disk. As such, I usually started this process at night, before bed, etc. only to find out in the following morning that it had failed with an "unspecified network error". 

The first time, I thought it was the Ethernet switch to blame, so I plugged the PC directly into the router where WHS is connected (topology not important, as it turned out).

The second time, I thought it was the (new) hard disk to blame, so I switched hard disks.

The third time, I decided to read all sorts of blogs and discussions which suggested I had to have the new disk formatted first, but without an assigned drive (C: or whatever), only mount it as an active partition.

The fourth time (I was getting close to throwing the thing out from the second floor window) I finally decided to give the error log some attention and the truth appeared in front of me: The "unknown network error" was in fact a timeout of the DHCP-provided IP address that the WHS Restore CD was getting for the PC's network card, as the router providing the dynamic IP was set (by default) to expire the DHCP lease after one hour (ONLY - what are they smoking?).

Setting the router to expire the DHCP leases after a week and restarting the PC finally got the restore process to finish properly and I am now writing this blog entry from my main office PC.

Let's hope others might read this and save themselves the grief.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A picture is worth a thousand words...

so I wonder... how much are a thousand pictures worth? :)

Here's a small preview of the A320 external model, for your viewing pleasure...

Sunday, July 03, 2011

ILSpy - a free .NET assembly browser and decompiler

My good friend Arno Gerretsen, developer of various famous tools for Flight Simulator model and scenery development, found a very useful undocumented parameter that can be used in one of the base FSX SDK tools, XToMdl.exe to help with scenery object manipulation.

This got me thinking: Knowing that most of the tools developed for the FSX SDK were written in a .NET language (C# or VB), would I be able to detect other undocumented goodies, or even possibly look into the source code to decipher some of the logic and/or see if there could be work-arounds available for known issues?

This led me into a search for tools that can be used to decompile .NET code. Unfortunately, all my searches came up with commercial products that were more expensive than the funds I could allocate (namely: Zero dollars) so I was running on empty, until I bumped into a news article (written in, the Greek software developers community) which explained that there is now an open-source .NET assembly browser and decompiler called ILSpy.

I downloaded and tested ILSpy and found it quite worthwhile, so I can only recommend for inquiring minds who want to know!