Which Flight Simulator Software is right for you?
Back in the early days, we didn’t have much choice when it came to selecting flight simulator software. When I was a teen back in the early 80’s, I had a Commodore 64 computer. I had a version of flight simulator which ran on the Commodore 64 computer. In those days you only had a small selection of airports to fly to and from and typically only one type of aircraft. I spent many, many hours flying the Cessna around Meig’s Field in Chicago.
As time passed, the sophistication of the various flight simulator software titles evolved from just one aircraft and a few airports to any aircraft one could imagine and an entire globe full of airports with tons of eye candy to look at while flying from point A to point B. Today, flight simulator enthusiasts have many different software platforms to choose from when it comes to setting up their flight simulator.
I’m going to break down the options you have in the various flight simulators available today and provide a brief description and even some opinion regarding each of the available options.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
I’m starting off with Microsoft Flight Simulator since I very much consider this the grandfather of all today’s flight sim applications. While Microsoft discontinued their popular Flight Simulator franchise many years ago, many enthusiasts continue to use their two previous editions of Flight Simulator 2004 (FS9) and Flight Simulator X (FSX). Actually, the first several titles I’m going to list below were all born from much of the original FSX code. As I stated, many still use both FS9 and the original FSX boxed edition today. However, due to their age…I feel for those looking to get started in this exciting hobby entertain other available options.
Dovetail Games – Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition
In July 2014, Dovetail Games announced a licensing agreement with Microsoft to distribute the popular Microsoft FSX via Steam. Dovetail Games made a few minor tweaks to the application to help improve performance and fix many issues which Microsoft had failed to patch before they mothballed the flight simulator projects. The Dovetail Games Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition (FSX SE) is still available to purchase via Steam for $24.99. Since the release of FSX SE, many third party payware add-ons or DLC have been made available.
While FSX SE remains a 32 bit application, with the impressive list of available add-ons (which most have been optimized to function well with FSX SE) this simulator remains an excellent starting platform for the brand new flight sim enthusiast.
Dovetail Games – Flight Sim World
Around the same time Dovetail Games announced their licensing agreement to distribute the above mentioned FSX SE, they also announced they had plans to develop their own flight simulator platform. Just last month, Dovetail Games announced and released Flight Sim World as an early release (beta) product. Flight Sim World currently sells for $24.99 on Steam.
At this point in time, not a whole lot is known about the future of Flight Sim World (FSW). There’s a wide variety of opinions regarding this simulator and how much support it will receive from 3rd party developers. I recently wrote an opinion piece regarding my experience with FSW which you can read here.
In a nutshell, Flight Sim World is not a complete re-write. There’s still a lot of the old FSX baseline code which exists within the sim. However, Dovetail has developed it into a 64 bit application and of course this is great news from a systems performance perspective.
Unfortunately, the “what we don’t know” about Flight Sim World is about the only thing giving me some pause. The way I see it, (and this is just my opinion) but as FSW is born from FSX…if Dovetail doesn’t get the 3rd party developers involved and allow them to develop the content we all expect to see in a sim, then this may never get off the ground.
The Importance of 64 Bit
Before I proceed with my article, I just want to touch on one very important piece and that is the importance of a 64 bit application in today’s modern technology world compared to the older 32 bit architecture.
I’ve written many pieces regarding the obstacles we’ve all faced in trying to wring out as much performance as we can from the older 32 bit applications like FSX (and early versions of P3D). As we drifted further and further away from the date the original FSX code was developed, we’ve pushed harder and harder on that ever important envelope referred to as VAS or Virtual Address Space. Essentially available RAM.
Unfortunately, simply adding more RAM to a PC isn’t the solution. A 32 bit application (like FSX) will only utilize up to 4 GB of available RAM regardless of the amount available in the PC. Running down to the local hardware store and buying an extra 8 GB of RAM will do nothing to help prevent those pesky OOM’s or Out Of Memory Errors. Of course, these OOM’s are (for the most part) self-inflicted by piling on visually stunning add-on payware in the form of ground textures, enhanced airport scenery and highly detailed study level type aircraft. In other words, for the most part….the base FSX application works well until you begin adding the eye candy.
Let’s continue with the list….
Lockheed Martin – Prepar3D
In 2009, Lockheed Martin announced they had negotiated with Microsoft to purchase the intellectual property (including source code) from the Microsoft ESP side of their flight simulation division. ESP was the commercial side of Microsoft’s business in developing flight simulation applications. Prepar3d version 1.1 was released in 2011, P3D v2 in 2013, P3D v3 in 2015 and finally Prepar3d version 4 (64 bit) in May 2017.
For me, P3D v4 has become my personal standard and it is what I use for my day to day flight simulation enjoyment. While P3D v4 (just like versions 1-3) still very much contain original baseline ESP code, and much of the base scenery hasn’t been updated since the days of FSX….the 64 bit architecture is a noticeable “night versus day” difference maker for this very popular flight sim application.
Unfortunately, the only real drawback to P3D comes down to their EULA or End-User License Agreement. To put it mildly, it’s confusing. Essentially, P3D is licensed under the following structure:
Academic – ($59.95) Designed to offer the academic community a platform to develop hands-on STEM lessons. While the academic version of the software is the same as the professional version, there is a watermark visible signifying the acceptable use of the license. The academic license is provided at a discount for students. Currently, there are no requirements to prove eligibility for the academic license.
Professional – ($199.00) The P3D Professional license does allow for training, instruction, simulation and learning.
Professional Plus – ($2300.00) The P3D Professional Plus license is designed for real world business customers who are going to use the software for extensive training purposes.
Developer – ($9.95/Month) Registered software developers can subscribe and receive two full copies.
I’ve written about the confusion of how the P3D EULA simply doesn’t offer a license for basic entertainment purposes only. It is for this purpose, I personally purchase the “Professional” level which does specifically identify simulation as part of the acceptable use of the software. I feel this is also the right thing to do considering that I do often stream and record my flights on YouTube, Twitch etc. Plus….I’m not a student.
All versions of P3D are still available for purchase on the Prepar3D website and all are offered at the same price. So if you are truly interested in the P3D platform, I would saddle up with the brand new P3D version 4.
Before I venture away from the topic of P3D allow me to address one thing. Many are upset, disappointed etc. with the fact that Prepar3D version 4 is simply a 64 bit update of the original ESP code. Meaning, much of how P3D looks by default hasn’t changed since FSX hit the store shelves almost a dozen years ago. While I truly understand what many are saying….I must also remind everyone that P3D has never been directly marketed to the general consumer for mere entertainment purposes. The real target audience of P3D is the commercial, professional and academic side of things and I suggest that perhaps…just perhaps the criteria is just different.
Needless to say, I for one am extremely pleased with P3D v4. If Lockheed Martin had followed the suggestions from those demanding a new game engine, the wait would be much, much longer. P3D v4 is performing extremely well on my gaming system and is allowing me to finally enjoy ultimate realism without the need to worry about the crash due to running out of memory.
Just a reminder, my list is not ranking the titles in any particular order. X-Plane has been around for a number of years and it should be noted that X-Plane was the absolute very first to release their flight sim platform built on the 64 bit architecture. Their recent release of X-Plane 11 has been making news and is certainly a worthy consideration. One of the great things about X-Plane is the community behind it. It truly reminds me of the old Microsoft Flight Sim days where the community truly worked together to develop quality freeware add-ons. Unfortunately, for the FSX, FSX SE and P3D titles….most add-ons will be payware (with a few exceptions).
For me personally, while I do own X-Plane 11, I’ve really found it to be a struggle to forget the old Microsoft ways of controlling the sim application. Fortunately for my old mind, much of how FSX was controlled (again from the application level) is absolutely the same in the most recent version of P3D v4. Plus my extensive collection of add-ons continue to work well.
Freeware/Open-Source Alternatives and a warning
There is an open-source alternative to flight simulation software available from FlightGear. While I’ve never spent any time testing or flying using the FlightGear flight simulation software, I know others do use it and there are methods of importing planes from Microsoft Flight Simulator into FlightGear. In addition, there is also an on-line client for the VATSIM network called SquawkGear that will allow you to use FlightGear to fly on-line. It is extremely encouraging to see developers like FlightGear contribute to the flight sim community with their open-source program.
Unfortunately, there are some individuals who have taken the open-source code from FlightGear, made a few minor modifications and are attempting to market the product under various names such as Flight Pro Sim, Pro Flight Simulator etc. I first learned about this back in 2010 and blogged about it here and here. But please….don’t take my word for it. Read the official statement released by FlightGear and judge for yourself.
What should you choose?
Unfortunately, we all have different interests and we all have different budgets. If you’ve previously been involved with the flight simulation hobby and are looking to get back in…then I would recommend either Prepar3D v4 or X-Plane. What we know about these two platforms should prove these will both be around and will see continued improvements and enhancements for many years to come.
However, if you are brand new to flight simulation and are looking for simply an entry level starting point to help you understand some of the basics of flight and serve as a litmus test if you want to pursue the hobby further, then I suggested giving the new Dovetail Games Flight Sim World a solid look. While this sim is in early access (beta), the current price of $24.95 won’t be money wasted even if you decide in six months you want to move to P3D or XP. I’m very impressed with the tutorials in FSW and believe they can be most helpful in helping you achieve a better level of understanding in the principles of flight. I believe this to be extremely helpful.
As time permits, I do plan to feature more flight simulation content on the GrizzlyBearSims YouTube Channel. Most likely, I will provide some videos from Flight Sim World and of course also Prepar3D v4. While I do own XP 11, I’m really just not comfortable enough with that platform to do it justice.
I hope this information has helped you. As I recently discussed, I truly believe 2017 will be a great year for flight simulation. I wish you the very best in your new aviation adventure.
Until next time…
June 21, 2017 - 12:45 pm
a little surprised no mention of Digital Combat Simulator… especially considering its considered by many to be the premiere combat flight sim on the market.
June 21, 2017 - 1:03 pm
Very good question and very good point. But you sort of answered your own question in a way. While I don’t own DCS, I do agree it is an awesome combat flight simulator. But it is just that…a combat flight sim. My article is addressing just the standard flight simulators (of the non-combat variety).
Thanks for reading and commenting.
June 21, 2017 - 1:07 pm
ok gotch 😉 i missed the “standard” part.