For a pilot in training, adding a home simulator setup is an easy and cost effective way to study and practice various aspects of aviation. With technology where it is today, it doesn’t take investing a fortune to get up and running with a sim. Buying simulator equipment reminds me of running. All you really need to run is a pair of shoes, some shorts and a t-shirt. You could probably equip yourself to start running for under a hundred dollars. Ask an avid runner what they need, though, and you’ll probably get a list of several thousands of dollars worth of gear; top of the line custom fit shoes, moisture wicking running clothes, a gps watch, special sunglasses, water bottle holsters, gels – you get the idea. It’s as simple or as in depth as you make it. You can get deep into your credit card limit with simulator gear if you want to, but let’s look at a few things you need to know if you are looking into a simulator, as well as some techniques to save a few bucks while you’re at it.
You obviously need a computer, and many of today’s latest simulators demand a high performance machine. Perhaps not having a top of the line machine is what’s keeping you from setting up a sim. Don’t fret – let’s see where you are. If you aren’t sure how to check the specs of your computer, try the following:
- On a Mac, click the apple and select “About This Mac.”
These are the specs of my iMac running X-Plane 11.
- On a PC, try something like clicking start and then right clicking on Computer, then selecting Properties. Or if you have a “My Computer” icon, right click and select Properties.
My PC is fairly old, but it runs X-Plane 9 well.
Write those specs down so you can compare them to the required performance of a few different simulators we’ll discuss in a moment.
Which Simulator Should I Get?
The market has produced several simulators that will provide you with a good product. I was running the Microsoft Flight Simulator series for some time, and enjoyed them, but I have converted to X-Plane in the last few years. I currently run X-Plane 11, and love both the product and the community surrounding it. I’m pleased with the interface and the visuals and there are lots of great add-ons to try out; new airplanes, airport scenery and other little plugins to enhance the experience. Microsoft stopped developing their flight simulators after Microsoft Flight Simulator X, but it’s still a good product, especially if you don’t have the latest, greatest computer. Here are my four recommendations to check your computer’s performance against, in order of my personal preference:
– my first choice, available to download here
. Try the demo if you are unsure if your computer will run it. The demo is free and will run exactly like the full version. Minimum requirements:
- CPU: Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 CPU with 2 or more cores, or AMD equivalent. (Dual-core CPUs slower than 3 GHz should try the demo before purchasing.)
- Memory: 8 GB RAM
- Video Card: a DirectX 11-capable video card from NVIDIA, AMD or Intel with at least 1 GB VRAM
– While I skipped 10 and went straight to 11, this version (download here
) has a lot of the benefits of the new feel of X-Plane, without quite the system hit of X-Plane 11. Minimum requirements:
- Dual Core, 2.5 GHz or faster processor
- 4 GB of RAM
- A video card with at least 1 GB of VRAM.
X-Plane 9 – I was on X-Plane 9 for a couple years and have the DVD version. You can order it here and watch one of my videos using X-Plane 9 here. Recommended system specs:
- A 2 GHz, dual-core CPU,
- 2 GB of RAM,
- a DVD-ROM, and
- a DirectX 9.0c-capable video card with 128 MB of on-board, dedicated video RAM (VRAM).
Microsoft Flight Simulator X – Although this is now on the older end of things, if you have an older machine, you might find this to run better. Available as a Steam download for purchase. Minimum requirements:
- A 1.0 GHz CPU,
- 256 MB of RAM for Windows XP SP2, 512 MB RAM for Windows 7/Vista,
- a DVD-ROM, and
- a 32 MB DirectX 9 capable video card
A Word On Performance
Beyond the minimum requirement for a given simulator, you might also see that there is also a “recommended requirement” for your computer. This is because within the simulator, there are different sliders to adjust the performance of the sim. Most of them are related to the quality of the graphics, be it the airplane or the surroundings. What this means for you is that the settings can be set so that the simulator runs optimally on your particular computer. The most prevalent judge of performance is frame rate, which can be displayed in the corner of your screen. After turning up settings, you might notice your frame rate has dropped from 40 frames per second (fps) to, say, 30. Generally, the higher the frame rate, the smoother the simulation. If the frame rate is too low, the simulation looks choppy. All that to say that once you have determined you have the right simulator for your computer, you can follow either a logical process of tweaking the settings for a good frame rate, or check out the recommended procedure from X-Plane.
This display from X-Plane 11 shows a frame rate of 34FPS.
Don’t You Need A Joystick?
You will need some way to control the airplane. While it’s technically possible to do so with a keyboard and mouse, you won’t get much out of it that way (although if you are testing the X-Plane 11 demo, this will get you by until you decide if it works for your computer). Some avid simmers have elaborate setups with a yoke, throttles, rudder pedals, multiple monitors, and customized panels. Don’t let that intimidate you into thinking that’s what you need, or where to start. A simple joystick like the Logitech 3D Extreme
works great for basic simming. I used that one for years. For a closer experience to the airplane, a yoke is a great addition. I currently use the CH Eclipse Yoke
, which has the yoke, thumb rudder pedals and throttle quadrant in one unit. It’s easy to clamp to the desk and then put away if need be after a session (especially if you are on a shared computer with another family member). I also have the CH Pro Rudder Pedals
and really enjoy them. I have used the Saitek Yoke/Throttle Quadrant
and Saitek Rudder Pedals
in the past, and they are a great product, too. I have my eyes on the Honeycomb Aeronautical
Yoke and Throttle Quadrant coming out soon. They have a lot of excitement and anticipation built up for their launch. Also on the mainstream market are various panels
that can be used for various switches and controls. They are a bit pricey in my opinion to model features that I can map to a button or keystroke, but other simmers seem to love them. Explore the options and see what you like, but remember: a simple joystick is all you need to get started (browse a few here
Believe it or not, this is a home simulator. Custom built products like this can take the world of simming to new heights. Many thanks to Rob Archer for contributing this photo.
PC or Mac
As if the PC or Mac debate isn’t big enough on it’s own, now into the mix is which one runs the sim better. I’m not here to address the debate, but to give you some insight and perspective. I’ve run X-Plane on both systems and I know that both Mac and PC will run X-Plane beautifully. Like any computer, the performance boils down to the power of the machine. I’ve heard that X-Plane was designed on a Mac, and whether that’s true or relevant or not, the bottom line is that either works fine. I personally use a Mac. As a recent convert from PC, I use mine primarily for video editing and the creative side for which Macs are known to excel. For the same money, perhaps I could have built a PC with higher specs, but I love my Mac and have a great time on X-Plane with it. While I’m sure not everything out there is cross platform, whichever system you have or choose to get will do well in the world of flight simulation for a given set of system specs. What this translates to for Mac users is that you usually pay a little more per bit of performance and can’t upgrade your system like you can a PC. However, simmers are adding external GPU’s (video cards) to their Macs. It might be a game changer but it’s something I’m still looking into.
If you are looking to enhance your skills as a pilot while having a blast doing it, then I’d encourage you to get a simulator setup. For a $35 joystick and a $60 copy of X-Plane 11, you are a licensed sim pilot for under a hundred bucks. Once you’re in the club, I’d encourage you to take it slowly. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the add-ons, plugins and extras. Don’t view the sim world as a buffet, where you have to get a little bit of everything on your plate. Instead, look at it like a blank canvas. Start with a sketch and just get going. You’ll find new colors and textures to fill in your painting along the way. Just don’t forget to put the gear down on your painting before you land. Might want to sketch a checklist. Enjoy your flying!