For the past 10 months I've been using a FSX setup in my summerhouse. During this period I have gained some knowledge and experience of hardware and software. So I'd thought I'd share this journey with you in case it may help others decide witch upgrade path you want to take and show you the bad and good choices I took. Please forgive my spelling and grammer, I do try, but you know Im not good in this area.
Before January 2010, I never actually used FS for leisure for a number of years, as my main PCs were setup for the business and it was not easy to break out of that'work' feeling when stuck in the same office using the same PCs, beleave me this job does feel like any other job, I still look forward to Friday!
I did miss flying, I tried out a few of games, but I'm no teenager, I just dont like most games any more. I had to get back to flying FS like the old days were. So below is the story of the hardware and software needed to make this work. I've place it here in the hardware board, but could have been in FSX board. I've made it sticky because I'm the boss and Im allowed to
The one phrase that sums up FS very well would be: "you only get out what you put it". You can spend a huge amount of time and effort into FS, but you have to really, so you can get out the enjoyment from the hobby. If you think about it, we are just watching a some pixels on box its up to us to beleave, so we try to enhance the experience to by adding software and hardware to make it more realistic. Part1 - The building
I decided to convert one end of our summer house (self build shed) and turn it into a Flight sim room that can purely be used for pleasure rather than work. First job was security, although I live is safe area, but it wise to protect my investment, so doors changed and alarm system installed. You cant just use any old shed for a FS room, when I built this summer house, It was built well, its insulated and skinned on the inside, proper electric sockets and lights installed, ok Im no professional builder and its not perfect, but to be honest most people can built this sort of thing. Normally you dont need planning permission, but check up on the exact planning rules your self. If you're going to put a PC in a shed then you need to make sure it's waterproof and warm, you dont want to let the temperature drop too low, cold and PCs dont go together well. Because it's a heated structure make sure the void in wall is sealed, NO GAPS! Warm moist air must not get inside cavity or it will condense out on the inside of outer wall and rot your building from inside out. An electric oil radiator is used all year round and set to 14 degrees minimum, so the temperature never falls below this point. Cost is around £100 electric per year for this minimum heating requirement.
When I use the summer house and its winter(which is 9month here in scotland
), I turn on a separate Oil radiator to 21-23degrees, for reference the total cost of this self built building was £2200 + one hammer mark in my hand Part2 - Which FS?
FS2004 or FSX?, that is the question (I ruled out X-plane, not enough addons). I lot of users struggle with this choice, FS2004 is almost sure to run faster that FSX, but FSX looks better. For many users the argument for FS2004 is that they only fly airliners and are not interesting the extra ground eye candy of FSX. But I dont accept this argument, you have to come into land at some point and will look out your window and see the rather bland and blurry FS2004 ground and wish they had FSX. So for me I choose FSX, knowing full well It would be challenging to get the FPS right for me. In the end I made the right choose as with my 'trackir5' you end up looking outside your cockpit almost as much as inside (See latter)
There's not much FS2004 has that you cant get in FSX, there is one personal favorite thay I do miss. 'FS Navigator' is still in my opinion the best FS2004 planning and navigation addon you can get, I have tried many others but FSNAv is just so damn quick and easy to use and you can make flight plans so easy. So I installed FS2004 and FSNav just so I make flight plans for FSX!http://www.flightsimworld.com/downloads/viewfile/435.htmlPart3 - Hardware
I wanted this FS system to be good, but I dont want to spend silly amounts of money, so one option was ruled out and that was to build a real cockpit. I think I'm capable of this task, but I would need more room and to speed £3000 or more to achieve it. Real cockpits can only be made to look like one type of aircraft which may not work well flying a glider in 737 build cockpit. I thought I would try to create a 3 monitor wrap around FSX system using the new ATI Eyefinity card which in theory looks good. I also knew that FSX would not benefit from buying a top end I7 Processors, I did think about an I5, but in the end I knew FSX would only sometimes use core2, but very rarely use core 3 and 4. An I3-540 system would be a lot cheaper and do the same thing as an I7, so instead of spending more on I5/I7, I purchased an I3 and spend extra on water cooler that would enable me to over-clock the I3.
I also want the 'Trackir5' gadget, this is a sensor that tracks your head, and moves the FS view in an relative way to your head it all possible ways, it looks good on a YouTube video http://www.naturalpoint.com/trackir/products/trackir5/http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKxsHFS8mjU
To be honest I was prepared to be let down. I also purchased a flight yoke expecting it to give a better feel to controlling the aircraft,
4GB memory - FSX is 32bit program and will max out at 2GB, so no point in getting any more (unless you want to encode a video at the same time!)
M/B capable of over clocking (read reviews)
2 Hard drives - one for OS, one for FSX. I did consider a SSD, but it does not speed up the FPS by getting one, it just means it loads faster when it starts
3 widescreen monitors
ATI HD5770 1GB GPU
When the parts came, I assembled the PC and got it working first with one monitor, and I then tried to get 3 working with Eyefinity. At this point I came across the little advertised problem that you can only have 3 monitors working if one of them is a display port monitor
After some research, I found I needed a converter, but no one made them at a sensible price! Remember this was Feb2010, the ATI cards had only just come out. So for now the 3 monitor idea was put on hold and proceeded to test and install the other hardware.
The Trackir5, was amazing. I was not expecting how much this simple device would transfer the FS experience, I cant under estimate the feeling you get by moving you head around a virtual cockpit, forget about building a real cockpit, get a trackIr5 and move around the virtual one was better in my view. Here's a few example of how you can use it.
1) Cant quite read the virtual cockpit instrument, move you head close to the instrument, simples!
2) What's the flaps set at?, look down matey!
3) Entering the runway, want check for traffic, turn you head and look out your window!
4) FSX tells you traffic at you 9 o'cloak 3miles, normally you cant be bothered to look, but with trackIR just turn and look.
5) In a circuit and want of keep track of the runway, then do so, look at the runway all the time while turning it's a liberating feeling to able to immerse your self in 3D world and not locked into a forward view, like the rest of you are. How on earth to you 2D fixed panel guys live, honestly I will never ever go back to 2D cockpit panel!
If there's one hardware I would recommend than any other, it TrackIr5, worth every penny.
Now we come the Sietek control yoke.
This turned out to the biggest let down for me, I tried for over 2 weeks to get use to it, but the feeling was just rubbish, every landing was a disaster, the problems are many, I dont know if its just a poor design (I suspect it is), but move the column and the expected movement of the aircraft just didn't match and didn't feel correct. I could just about live with the roll control, but the pitch control was unusable. If you move the column back a small amount, nothing happens, so you moved it a bit more then the aircraft jerks back too much, so move it forward and jerks too much forward, there is also a delay between the movement and the action. The yoke is also very 'sticky' meaning its all or nothing movement. So after this frustration I took it apart and saw the problem. It was all made from sliding plastic parts, covered in grease. Plastic sliding on plastic is never going to move well, I did try added more grease and different types of greas. I also tried different center springs, I did everything to try and make this thing move smoothly, but in the end I gave up the battle, it was just rubbish!, you could use it on a 747 as the delay in a heavy aircraft soaks up the poor control, but trying to land a 737 with this yoke was very hard, up,down,up, down it was a crazy anoying experience. Landing a cessna was a joke with this yoke, and as for the Extra300 you will never ever land it. Yes sure its look realistic having this thing between your legs, and feels good in your hands(hang on, that sounds rude
), but its simple not fit for purpose, nor was the yoke.
So I purchased a normal £10 Joystick off ebay, and it was briliant!, you can land a Extra300 exactly and smoothly and on the spot. My advise about Yokes, go and try one out first. I'm not saying all of them are like this, but this Saitek Pro Flight Yoke System was not usable to land anything but a 747.
It was not all bad news about the yoke system, it did come with a throttle quadrant, this was good, so good infact I ordered another Quantrant (see latter). The pedals are good as well and I've keep using them.
3 weeks later Sapphire made a DP-DVI lead costing £80, so I purchased this in an attempt to get my 3 monitors workings. After 1 hour of some frustration I finally got FSX working with all 3 monitor. It looks nice, but soon after I released there was several problems.
1) FPS was about 40% lower using 3 screens compared to 1 (which I was using up to this point)
2) Bezels of the monitor were off putting, but I can live with it.
3) I could not see my instruments, yes I could look down with my head(using trackir5), but I prefer to see them with my eyes while landing, if I move my head I lose sight of the runway.
The last problem was the biggest, you can zoom out to 0.3 zoom, but it was starting look distorted. The aspect ratio of 3 monitors was just too much of the letterbox effect for my liking. I can see it would work if I had build a real cockpit and just have the 3 monitors as the main view, but I was not going down that road.
I could not live with this 3 monitor setup, so despite the effort put in to this, I scrap the ideal. I then tried 2 monitors, you may be thinking surely this cant work as the middle point is in the middle of bezels!, well normally this would be true, but not if you have trackIr5, you can offset the view so the left monitor contains 70% of forward view and right monitor has forward right view (over the rest of the virtual cockpit).
This actually works quite well, and I used it for several months enjoying it. However with some aircraft I still found some the instruments I wanted to look at while landing could not be seen, so I hit on another idea.
This was a gamble, I would try to use TV for the display, in the past my attempts at using a telly as a flight sim display have not been too good, TVs are made as TVs and not as PC display unit, but I did my research, read reviews and found certain type of TVs work better than other, so I purchase a large 37" 1080P TV, the result with my PC and graphics were in the end brilliant. It took a while, I had to use the VGA connections and NOT the DVI connecter to get the best image, but quite franky this is the best pichure I could get and certainly matches a monitor image. Using a large telly in front of you was far far better then 2 or 3 screen monitors, it just so damn big you can help but get the feeling your actually there. Of cause I may be frying my brain sitting that close to a TV, but hell I only do it 2 times a week, I never beleave or this radiation stuff!
There is one criticism, I just need 600 pixels more to be perfect. 95% of the time you can read everything on your virtual cockpit at 1920*1080, but every often it just a little bit blurry and I have move my head closer, not a bigger, but perfection would be 2600 image. These dont exist yet, but I'm sure when telly goes up 2XHD (4096) I will be first to get a higher res telly for FS
After using this setup for few weeks, I wanted more
There's one thing that doesn't work well with trackir5, that is when you use the mouse to change an instrument setting like the autopilot VSI or heading/altitude. You have to hold the mouse cursor over the knob and keep it there when you click and the figures change, but you also have to keep your head dead still, or else your view will move!. Its not that difficult but I thought to would be better use a real dials rather than touch the mouse at all.
So I started to build a 'input panel' its not a real cockpit panel, because it only has input and not display (outputs). There are several cockpit building website that sell hardware for this task, however I wanted to do this cheaply. So I made up plans to create a wooden panel sitting in front of the TV and that would have dials, switches and buttons that can used to input signals into FS. All of the small parts were purchased from Maplin electronics online. www.maplin.co.uk/
I also purchase two cheap £10 joypads off ebay, which I would cannibalize.
This job is very tricky, but its not complex to understand, PC joypads are simple USB gaming devices you can program each button to do certain task in FS. Now you can use the inbuilt settings in FS for some functions, but you really nead the full paid version of FSUIPC to program more options and have more control over the inputs signal. I removed all the plastic caseing from the Joypads, I then solder wires to the button connection points on the circuit point, you then connect the wires to the button and switches in your wooden control box. Most of it is straight forward but time consuming(you have master an soldering iron, and get a few burnt fingers!). The really tricky bit comes trying to make the rotary dials for controlling thing like the autopilot heading, altitude,VSI rate, OBI and airspeed. For this task I used a maplin 12 stage rotary dial, and cut off the plastic inside the unit so it rotates without stoping. I then wired up the center earth and the 3 sets of 4 wires. This meant when you turned the dial it would give 4 signals(Repeated in 3 sets around the dial). The order in which FS received those signal determined the direction of the dial. Thats the theory, but it was difficult to do. For one thing I was running out of normal on/off butons on the joypad, so I had to try and use the joypads direction stick which uses potentiometer (like joysticks XY asis). The potentiometer itself could not be used(bypassed), so it was case of signal reading of -16384,0 or +16384. That gave me 2 inputs per wire(0 reading cant be used), still not enough so purchased some resisters to get another set of values of around 8192 (+ and -) to give me 4 possible signals per line(-16384,-8192,0,8192,16384).
The next problem was to get this all working VIA FSUIPC, this is a good piece of sofware, but the scripting language used is very basic, pretty much low lever on/off bit language. So getting a 4 signal dial to change the FSX function was to be very hard to do. Anyway I got there in the end and have been using this panel ever since. Its not perfect, the 4 signals of the dial means sometimes the autopilot function like heading goes the opposite direction to what you want, this is because Im turning the dial it too fast. I have since realised my error and my next remake of the input panel will be 12 separate signals via chain of 12 resisters, so this never happens.
Now for sound. For this I used 2 normal speakers on the desk and one sub woofer underneath my chair. The sound output line is split so it goes to both, I turn up the base on the subwoofer, so you only ever hear it when there is low rumbling sound, normal sound come from the front 2, you do feel the vibrations when subwoofer is going. I also added a second sound card, and directed the ATC to come from the headphones rather than speckers
The chair is from a Rover 400!, cost £3 from a charity shop. I needed a chair that can move backward and forward, this is because of all the bits of wood I have sticking out around me. I simple screwed on a few bits of wood to pack it up to the correct hight.
I also have a second monitor by the side of my main TV, this is used for the GPS and traffic radar. This doesn't seam to effect FPS, as this HD5770 Gpu is able to handle both.
In addition to the main PC, I have a secode cheap £50 PC, it is used to dispays flightplans and links to all the various online chart website, it also used for FS Metar, so I can check weather for any airport. Its wise to have theseapllication on an another PC as you dont want to harm the FPS on the main one.
If your thinking what happened to all those parts I didn't use, I did sell all of them on ebay, on average getting 65% of the new value. I did make a profit on the DP-DVI as it was still very rare.