“What do I need to run Flight Simulator?” Chapter 1

This is the most common question I get whenever I do an event.FSSetup.com  To cover this, I run a website just to answer this question at FSSetup.com, which gives an excellent overview of everything you’ll need on one page.   But I thought I’d expand on the subject a little more in this blog as well.  Given the huge range of options and users’ needs, this will be an ongoing subject.

Soo…, to kick the discussion off; at a basic level you’re going to need several things:

-Microsoft Flight Simulator Software
-Computer
-Flight Controllers – Yokes, rudder pedals, etc.
-Flight Simulator Addon Software – Freeware and Payware

 
Flight Simulator Software
The lastest available version of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series is Flight Simulator X (FSX). Since its release there have been 2 service packs released and an addon. My recommendation, if you are going to purchase the software is to get Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Gold Edition. That way, you don’t have to worry about applying the service packs. FSX Gold Edition contains the “Deluxe” version of FSX as well as the “FSX: Accelerator” addon, which brings the software up to it’s latest service pack level and adds a bunch of other features as well, such as another helicopter, a P-51 Mustang racing plane, and a Northrop Grumman F-18 Super Hornet with carrier landing capability, more missions, and several other features. It typically costs less than $30US these days.

The Computer
This is the hardest part of the question to answer.  FSX is designed to run on Microsoft Windows, and, as is typical of high end gaming software, can be very taxing on computers. You do not want to try to run FSX on a slouch of a computer.  When FSX came out in 2006, it brought many computers to their knees.  But most computers these days should run the software well.  I just loaded it on Kelly’s Dell Studio 17 laptop from 2008, and it runs quite well on it with the graphics options in FSX set relatively high.  It uses Windows Vista 32 bit and has got a T8100 Core 2 duo processor with 4 GB of system memory and an ATI Radeon 3650 graphics card with 250 MB of dedicated graphics memory and the ability to use up to 1.5 GB of shared system memory.

What Makes a Computer Work?
As a quick background, the computer is made up of a number of components. At the top level, the main components you need to be concerned about when purchasing a computer for FSX are:

CPU – the “brain” of the computer, it is in charge of moving the data around
Graphics Card -
converts the data into something that can be displayed on the screen. Graphics cards that work best with FSX have their own graphics processors and memory. It’s important to distinguish the difference between Graphics Memory and System Memory.
System Memory – stores the data the CPU is using, data access times are relatively fast.
Disk drive – stores data for long term storage, data access times are relatively slow.

 
The difference between system memory and disk drive storage is that system memory is “fast access” storage for the data that the CPU is working with right now, but when you turn the computer off, the data in system memory is erased. The disk drive stores ALL the data you might need, like in a storage closet, and the data remains even after you turn the computer off. Disk drive storage also typically stores 500x – 1000x more data than can be stored in system memory. The problem with disk drive storage is that it is accessed much more slowly than system memory, so the CPU doesn’t work with the disk drive data directly, first it moves the data from the disk drive to system memory, and then it works with with the data by moving it in and out of system memory as required. Graphics memory is similar to system memory, except that it is meant for the graphics processors; the CPU does not typically work directly with graphics (card) memory

As you become more advanced in understanding how a computer works, other important components you might care about are the Motherboard, which connects all of the components of the computer together, the CPU fan, which cools the CPU (heat is your enemy), and other components I’ll discuss in later posts.

What Does FSX Want?
FSX is mostly CPU bound, so to get reasonable performance, you should get the fastest processor you can afford, preferably something with performance of at least 2.0 GHz, such as an Intel E6600 dual core CPU or better.  The graphics card is the next most important piece of hardware you can purchase, and should have at least 1GB of dedicated gaphics memory available.

Next, the computer should have at least 2 GB of system memory, preferably 4 GB or more. As far as the memory is concerned, the “latency” of the chips is more important than their speed rating. Speed rating of the system memory only becomes important if you are considering “overclocking” your system. When the CPU requests data from the memory, it has to wait for the memory to be ready to release that data, since it is typically thinking at a speed 3 or 4x faster than the memory can move the data. So the lower the latency, or the shorter the CPU has to wait to get data, the better. Latency also can be called the “timing” of the memory, and typically looks something like 4-4-4-12. The optimal system memory latency specification depends on the type of memory your computer needs, so do a comparison between the several options you have available for the computer you might be looking at.

Finally, you’ll want to get the fastest access disk drive you can afford. It’s better to have a 128 GB 10,000 rpm disk drive than it is to have a 1024 GB (1 TB) 5400 rpm disk drive. This is a case where it is true that how you use it is more important than size, bigger is not necessarily better. The rpm, or revolutions per minute, specification refers to how fast the disk is moving when it is working, specifically, the number of times it spins completely around in one minute. If a 10,000 rpm drive isn’t available, a 7,200 rpm drive is still noticeably faster than the typical 5,400 rpm disk drive. Size, however, is still important. You’ll typically want to save about 80 GB for your FSX installation, and I would estimate a minimum of 100 GB for the rest of the software you will need on your computer. It’s also better to have two disk drives if you can. Put the operating system and your general software on the first drive, and put FSX and all of its support software on the second drive. When you have two drives, the CPU can typically get the data it needs faster because it can read off of both drives at about the same time. You’re also better off getting disk drives of the SATA variety than the much older IDE variety. SATA and IDE are specifications which describe how the disk drives are wired to the motherboard. SATA is typically much faster than IDE.

FSX was developed before mulitple processors were available, so, while it has some multi-threading capability, it doesn’t have a lot, and will mostly run on only a single processor of your CPU. The speed of the CPU is more important than the number of cores it has. This also means you don’t need to worry about getting an SLI graphics card setup, as, once again, the speed of the graphics card is more important than having multiple graphics processors. A single graphics card will do just fine, the faster the better.

Conclusion
What I just described are the optimal specs for a computer if you want to get the most you can out of FSX.  But don’t let all the jargon worry you.  As I pointed out in the beginning of the article, I loaded the software on a mid-range performance Dell Studio laptop that is three years old, and it runs fine.

A great place to go for reviews and other more detailed help in choosing hardware is TomsHardware.com. Also, the forums at Avsim.com and Flightsim.com are other excellent reference sources for anything flight simulator related, including hardware questions, with lots of people available to help you with your questions. Don’t be afraid to sign up for access to and approach these forums with whatever questions you might have. And of course I’m available as well. You can either email me or post questions at the forums at Flyingscool.com.

Well, that’s too much information already, so I guess I’ll stop here for now. Next up, I’ll discuss the computer I just built, and compare the performance of various computers I have had experience running FSX on.  But if you’re ready to get going now, don’t wait for my next posts, check out FSSetup.com for a description of everything you’ll need to start flying in Flight Simulator X today :)

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