Should you buy FSX now?
EDIT (18-July-2007): after SP1 was released, performance on my system, as measured by FPS, increased 40%. Stutters were much improved. Multi-core is fully supported. Search this site for “SP1″ for various tweaks and thoughts on SP1. Summary: as long as you have at least 1.5Gb of RAM, a 256 Mb newer video card (preferably 340Mb +), and preferably a dual core CPU, or at least a fast single-core, you can probably adjust settings to get performance to your liking.
A lot of folks are asking this question, so I’ll provide a necessarily biased and early opinion.
Of course for the early adopters that want the newest, coolest stuff, FSX is a must-have. For the rest of the world, unlike FS9, which I could recommend heartily at release time, I suggest caution before jumping in and buying FSX. Microsoft has a number of innovative marketing strategies around FSX, including the opportunity to trial it via a download. I strongly recommend that before purchase. There are significant performance issues for many users. Keep in mind that this trial download covers a limited geographical area. Your performance in urban areas in the retail version will be lower. That said, folks are reporting anything from 1 fps at a busy airport to good frame rates, depending on your settings and system. So it’s well worth trying.
As noted in an earlier post, much of legacy scenery support is not working, which means if you have a lot of addon scenery, you’ll have to wait until the developers catch up. As much of the Software Development Kit information is not yet available, this could be a while. The good news is that MS is releasing this SDK information much earlier than they did for FS9.
Key new features: there are a wealth of new features; I suggest dropping by this link for some details and flash videos. The team has done an amazing job of providing new capabilities. I’ll just highlight a couple. The water effects are stunning with very realistic reflections and waves (This comes at the expense of performance as it requires drawing each frame twice). If you want purpose to your simming, the Missions open up a new world of experience. Geared to everyone from novice to expert, they can be challenging or just fun. With a Mission Creation tool provided, third parties can add missions. The new multiplayer functionality has huge potential.
Terrain: in most areas folks will see a dramatic improvement in the out-of-the-box experience over FS9. The accuracy of roads, railroads, streams, lakes, rivers is greatly improved in many areas. But the improvement varies dramatically on a regional basis, as MS was limited in their data sources. So in Canada and the continental US you will see much more accurate hydrology near cities. Outside the cities it drops off dramatically, to the point where entire major river systems and lakes may be missing or drastically misplaced. In some areas where the accuracy is good, there can be significant anomalies: near Vancouver you will see a large non-existant jetty south-west of Stanley Park, and a large L-shaped land blob in the water further out. The meagre hydrology in Canada and the US is an exception, along with Ireland and Slovakia; those two have almost none. But the rest of the world has much more detailed lakes and rivers, although accuracy varies significantly. If accurate VFR flying is important to you in Canada and the continental US, you’ll need an addon. There are new terrain textures throughout the world, and with the new higher ground resolution, many are stunning. Personally I found those used in the US Pacific North West and Canada to be dull and listless, much inferior to FS9. But the Hawaiian textures are amazing. I’m sure third parties will provide options before too long. Overall terrain elevation mesh is vastly improved. Distant terrain is now displayed at a higher mesh resolution: which makes for a far more realistic horizon; one of my favourite features.
Living World: FSX comes alive with road traffic (freeways only), airport vehicle traffic, water traffic (leisure boats, ferries, cruise ships and cargo ships), animated animals, and of course GA and airline aircraft. When arriving at your jetway, it will swing into position, and vehicles will swarm to the aircraft.
Objects: The number and quality of objects (airport objects, buildings, cars, bridges and bric-a-brac) has exploded. There is a fantastic array available for designers. Many of the older objects are still unusable because of highly visible and distracting LOD pops (changes in shape as you move away/towards), but most of the new ones are much better done. Part of the Mission Creation tool is a new object placement tool, allowing placement of objects while in the sim.
Aircraft: Many aircraft are vastly improved, and there are some great new ones, like the DHC-2 Beaver. I’ll leave review of the aircraft to the experts.
Airports: there are many new airports in FSX, bringing to the total to something like 24,000. Of these there are 40 high-detail airports in the Standard Edition, and an additional 5 in the Deluxe Edition. (Frank, I don’t have a list of which ones are detailed). Locally here, CYVR has been vastly improved with many custom buildings, including the Fairmont Hotel and other nearby structures. Unfortunately a large area of pre-load fill was mistaken for a building and sits unrealistically in the north-west corner of the terminal area. I created an exclusion for this which I’ve published on AVSIM. Locally CML2, Quamichan Lake near Duncan has been added, and CSK8, the Surrey-King George ultralight field. Timely addition, considering the new AirCreation ultralight now included with the sim.
Installation: watch how FSX adjusts your initial display settings. When I installed the retail version, it turned autogen off, had scenery complexity to sparse (meaning most airports were a wasteland of no objects), and had most other sliders close to or at the left. Further it locked my frame rate at 15 FPS. I believe this is a known issue with AMD processers: FSX mis-reads the capabilities.
The FSX files are usually badly fragmented, with some of the files being scattered into hundreds of fragments. It doesn’t seem to matter how much contiguous disk space you have free prior to the installation; I had over 400Gb. So it’s necessary to defragment after installation. After defragging I got about a 10% improvement in frame rates, other folks have reported much larger increases. I’m guessing that this fragmented installation isn’t necessarily the fault of FSX, but perhaps XP doesn’t handle large (14Gb) installations well.
Stutters and blurries: Stutters aren’t too bad, and the “blurries” have been largely fixed. For the brave, add to your FSX.cfg this line in the [main] section and play with it a bit:
This will trade off between performance and blurries. You can find fsx.CFG in <drive letter>:\Documents and Settings\<user name>\Application Data\Microsoft\FSX
Sliders: as has been said many times on the forums, you can’t expect to push your sliders to the right and get good performance with a new toy like this. But in the benchmarks I ran I backed off the sliders to the point where the display was the same or inferior to FS9 in autogen density and various resolution settings, my frame rates are significantly lower than FS9. Settings that most affect performance for me (in no particular order): road traffic, boat traffic, autogen, water detail (high 2.x or above), bloom.
Dual-core: the bottom line here is that due to the threading constraints of the application (ie most of the effort is spent updating the display in a single thread) I do not see much above 60-65% total CPU usage, and I found it’s often closer to 50%. So on average, a second core does not show a huge performance increase. Although technically it can be said FSX is a dual-core application, it’s much closer to a single-core app on the continuum.
SLI: FSX does not support multi-GPU SLI.
System requirements: very subjective! The sim can use up to 900Mb of RAM, so I suggest 2Gb of RAM (which allows for other background tasks). Many folks with 1Gb are reporting OK performance though. Get a video card with as much video RAM as possible, the sim will use all it can get. So if buying a new card, you’ll want a minimum of 512 Mb. For the processor, it’s highly dependent on the features you want, and the performance you want. I defer to those with experience with the newest processors on the market. The specs on the website (256 Mb RAM, 1.0 GHz processor, 32MB video card) are, to put it as kindly as possible, grossly misleading and inaccurate. It’s possible FSX could run effectively on an older computer for IFR flyers with autogen, water detail and many other features turned off or very low.
Community-involvement: Microsoft has chosen to allow the flight sim development team to interact with the general public in forums and via blogs. This has dispelled many myths and solved many mysteries. They also released a beta version to the public so folks could kick the tires and provide feedback. I’m very grateful to the team for this community involvement and support.
Bottom-line: Overall, FSX has been a disappointment personally. I bought a new machine a few months ago partly to run FSX, and it’s just not fun, mostly because of low frame rates, which also makes many of the missions not easy to run. That said, I am fussier than most, and don’t find 15 fps (even with no stutters) an acceptable level of performance. As well, my priorities may differ from some, and I would have preferred better legacy scenery support. Regardless give the trial version a shot: your personal needs will guide whether now is the time to buy FSX.
My system: AMD X2 4200+, BFU 7900GT 256 Mb, 2 Gb RAM, 800 GB RAID-0 SATA-II HD