Hardware - Computers
In this first part looking at flight simulation hardware, key.aero looks at what PC requirements may be needed.
A fast and powerful computer will be the deciding factor on whether you experience a slideshow or fluid and smooth frame rates!
As flight simulation becomes increasingly sophisticated and realistic, we are able to get much closer to what it is like to fly a real aircraft than ever before. However, this comes at a price - not only do we need serious computing power to run flight simulators at high frame rates and levels of detail, we also need to accurately replicate the controls of the real aircraft. The good news is when it comes to choosing the right hardware for our hobby, there is a large selection of devices available including joysticks, rudder pedals and throttle quadrants. There are also more innovative devices on the market that enhance physical and visual feedback such as multiple monitors or ‘TrackIR’ devices. Recently, we have also seen the emergence of more specialised units used for professional training and for cockpit building which shows an interesting trend in desktop simulation.
Those of us who have been involved in this hobby for some time have learned from experience that flight simulators are one of the most demanding and resource-intensive applications on the market. This is particularly true of the most recent version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, FSX. The reason for this is that not only does FS have to map the entire world accurately, it also has to simulate the flight models, generate the weather and display the visual effects of clouds, aircraft textures, terrain textures as well as draw and refresh the gauges and instrument panels in real time. Thankfully, recent advances in hardware technology such as multi-core processors, increasingly powerful graphics cards and faster memory means we can get a computer system capable of running flight simulators at a high resolution while still achieving acceptable frame rates.
This dual core, 2 GB system has an NVIDIA 8800 GTX graphics card. Combined with a large 24” monitor, it is capable of delivering breath-taking performance with stunning visual detail.The CPU
Historically, Microsoft Flight Simulator has always been limited by the processor (CPU). An interesting development came with the release of SP1 (service pack 1), which made it possible for FSX to take advantage of multi-core processors. This was welcome news, because it has resulted in significant performance improvements for owners of dual-core systems compared to their single core counterparts. Recently, we have also seen the emergence of quad-core processors and with these we have so far seen some performance increase; however FSX suffers from the law of diminishing returns, i.e. the larger the number of processors, the higher the overhead. Consequently, there is a much greater benefit in upgrading from a single-core to a dual-core processor than there is in upgrading from a dual to a quad-core device.
The importance of a high performance graphics card cannot be emphasised enough as it will alleviate much of the workload from the CPU. The high level of visual detail in modern simulators is very demanding and a good graphics card can make all the difference between a great flying experience and a slide show. The two main manufacturers on the market are NVIDIA and ATI. - both produce high performance adapters such as the NVIDIA 8800 GTX and the ATI R600, both of which are DirectX10 compatible. This is an important consideration as FSX will very shortly support DirectX10, which will result in improved graphics. Another consideration is SLI (Scalable Link Interface), which is the process of linking two graphics cards together to produce a single output - splitting the graphics load between the two adapters. This, however, is of limited value in FSX unless you plan to run it at very high resolutions (at least 1920x1200) and high levels of anti-aliasing. The reason for this is that FSX is largely CPU-limited at lower resolutions, so rather than investing in an expensive second graphics card I would recommend upgrading to a faster processor.
A high specification computer will pack some serious heat. If your cooling isn’t up to scratch, the system will start overheating, become unstable and lock up randomly. It is therefore vital to install a cooling solution capable of doing the job!Memory (RAM)
So far, you may have gathered that in order to run FSX at reasonable frame rates, you need a high performance graphics card and a fast processor. Memory is also an important consideration. Due to the high demand on system resources, it is critical to get plenty of fast RAM. It is possible to run FSX on 1GB of memory; however we recommend 2GB to get the most out of your system. If you are running Windows Vista, which is also very memory hungry, this becomes even more critical. The faster the speed of the memory, the faster the system can process data resulting in an increase in performance. Currently, the most popular memory is DDR2 (double data rate) which effectively doubles the data throughput from the memory to the CPU.
Hard drives are often overlooked when it comes to the performance of a flight simulator. In order to have fast loading times, it is important to obtain a fast SATA hard drive. When it comes to purchasing a hard drive, one of the primary performance factors to take into account is the rotational speed or the speed at which the drive spins. Typically, the faster the drive spins the better the performance, so I would recommend a drive of at least 7,200 RPM. It is possible to obtain drives that spin at 10,000 RPM, however you will pay a premium. Another factor to take into consideration is the ‘buffer’ - when the CPU requests data, a hard drive will ‘fetch’ it and load some of that data into its buffer memory. A larger buffer size should help keep the data flowing more consistently and should ideally be either 8MB or 16MB. Another thing to consider is the ‘seek’ speed, which is measured in milliseconds. This refers to how fast a drive can find a particular piece of data. Ideally, this should be between 8.5 and 9ms. Finally, in terms of the size of your hard drive, you should look at getting a large capacity drive which, in financial terms, should not be an issue today as drives have come down in price. You can purchase a drive of between 250GB and 400GB quite reasonably these days.
Never under-estimate a good screen. This 24” Dell monitor will give you a great visual experience at a touch under £420.Monitors
While we have learned it is important to buy the best hardware you can afford, getting a large, good-quality screen is equally important. In the case of FSX I would recommend at least a 19”monitor or ideally 21” as it will give you a larger viewing area. It is also possible to get 24”or even 30” monitors, which really do transform the flight simulation experience, but they are significantly more expensive!
To summarise, it is important to remember when choosing a computer, the CPU, graphics adapter and memory are all interlinked and the overall performance will always depend on the slowest component in the system. For example, you can have a fast CPU and lots of memory, but if you have a low-end graphics card this will create a bottleneck in your system’s performance. Similarly, you can have a high end graphics adapter and a fast CPU, but if you don’t have enough memory the system will also experience performance problems. Therefore, in order to get the best out of the computer, you must ensure that these components are equally matched.
Extracted from an article first published in PC Pilot magazine Winter 2007
Filed Under Flight Simulation Features.
Interested in Flight Simulation?
- PC Pilot. The World's Favourite Flight Simulation Magazine
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