As there is an upcoming X-Plane developers conference (Mar 9th and 10th) in Mallorca, I thought that this would be a good time to see, at just over three months after its release, where X-Plane10 is situated and have a sort of “State of the Union” address to see where we are. What works and what does not, as there have been a few comments going around on the situation that needs to be clarified. I will make the point that this post was started before the comments were circulated and so it is not reacting to them, so that makes this evaluation even more timely.
First of all I must clarify that X-Plane is in a beta development cycle and this is the normal circumstances for a major new version release. I do accept the fact that if you are paying good hard cash for a product, it should at least deliver a certain level of quality for the customer and did XP10 in its initial offering deliver that? In this case, IMHO no, but like I said it is still not noted as a formal stable product release but as still in development.
Unlike buying a fridge or a washer, software is a very different product to sell. All big software companies today from Apple or Microsoft, to any small application firm, now use YOU as the tester, guinea pig or the victim, which ever way you want to look at it. ‘Put it out there and see what goes wrong and then fix it’ is now the usual mantra.
For Laminar Research there are a lot of bases to cover, as X-Plane not only covers three platforms (Apple, Windows & Linux) but also has to run on a wide variety of machines that are years old to the very latest GPU-bristling beasts, with a very large number and a variety of graphics cards that all do the same thing in many different ways. So even the basics are very complex and the harder situation for Laminar is that they can’t fix the issues till they know what the problems actually are, and even then running through the thousands of different bugs, it can find itself chasing its own tail by fixing this and then that on that machine, then does something in the opposite direction that it wasn’t supposed to do on another, and to a point we are all stuck in the middle wanting what we want fixed, and then finding something else is now not working so who are we going to blame. Phew!
In time the bugs will be quashed and we will all fly in the same direction a little better, but what of the other issues facing X-Plane 10, in what worked and what did not? To sort that out let us break it all down into its various components.
Frame rate is the usually the number one issue with any simulator, so just ask any MS Flight Simulator enthusiast as they have been battling this war for years. It is not just our problem.
We usually leap-frog each other as faster machines (Moore’s Law) can do more and then it overtakes the needs of the software, which then can then be rewritten further and give you more powerful capabilities. This effect is not just for Flight Simulation but for really all computer software, but Flight Simulation and its close brother in games it is certainly a far more extreme case, especially in relation to graphic cards, as compared to just wanting to just use an Excel sheet or run a Powerpoint presentation. Although Simon in his accounting experience has seen some Mothers of Excel spreadsheets – that should have been converted to sql databases!
So you will always find yourself wanting bigger and faster and something better and more capable to run this graphic intensive software. Throw in a large version upgrade like X-Plane 10 then many of you are going to be left out in the cold, so what do you do just create a half slow version so it can keep running on slower machines or move forward? If you go back say 10 years and say ‘we should stay here because it still runs well on an Intel Pentium® 4′ then what sort of X-Plane version would be using today? Steve Jobs was notorious for this but in most cases he was right, for with the digital age time is constantly on fast forward.
We found the first betas of X-Plane 10 were frame rate heavy everywhere, but then it settled down into roughly 4 main areas 1) X-Plane simulator itself 2) Weather 3) HDR lighting with the 4) custom scenery.
One thing that XP10 is far better at now is that it will run cleaner at a lower frame rate. In XP9 the cut off point was around 19 frames and then the dreaded grey fog rolled in, In XP10 you can go down to 14fr before it gets really sluggish, even 12 if you are really desperate (I was running then on a Mac Mini).
Since then Laminar has focused on the X-Plane core and the weather which I would say has given myself around another 20fr certainly in the last 10.04b6 release, I have also found (iMac 27″ i5 dual core) that i can now run larger airports that were simply impossible even a month ago with the X-Plane10 beta, settings on weather at 40-50% (new scale), most render items at high or tons, texture resolution at extra high, aircraft is usually the EADT x737 and I can still run Peter’s A388 with plenty of ceiling to spare, so my average is around 30fr-33fr. My base line is 25fr so i am above that, the orphan here is HDR lighting as most times it is usually ticked off, HDR needs 20fr+, so your ceiling needs are going to be 40fr+ to switch it on, I can do that but i have to have a clear day (no weather) and only small scenery installed.
And that is where i am situated. At the moment, My iMac is just slightly above the average range I feel, so if you are still only getting 10fr-16fr then you will need to certainly upgrade. How much more can Laminar pull out of the bag, well my guess is the really big gains are over, yes they will still trim it and gain 5fr here and there, the question one asks is what will happen with HDR, as I don’t think it has had much attention on refining that code as other areas. Can Ben Supnik pull a rabbit out of his magic hat? To be successful he needs to pull a 8-10fr trick to make it around 12fr to make it a really viable option and for us to be able leave the tick box on all the time. It is a very big ask but it is not at this point a necessity, as it is a (very nice) luxury to have and in that Ben has the time to do it right.
One thing to note is that the render settings behave very differently than in XP9, If you upped the number of objects over there in cars or trees and roads then your frame rate would plummet, In X-Plane 10 the different way the objects are created means that you can turn up the volume on most to tons or insane and not lose much if any frame rate in the process, but the Texture resolution is still a major frame rate killer at higher settings, as high or extra high are about the best you can use unless you have a dedicated computer to handle the big numbers.
As noted, the HDR is a brilliant addition to X-Plane but at this point but it is far too frame rate intensive to be really practical for many. Any scenery is brought alive by the subtle lighting effects and the moving vehicles and street/sign lighting are next to the real thing, it will come to define the night look of X-Plane if it can be made useful . Oddities are that the lighting will shine through aircraft and the great engine heat blur effect is usually not positioned to be correctly effective
But still even with the HDR ticked off X-Plane 10 still shines like magic, go to any Airport with a major city as a backdrop at night and the lighting flows well out into the distance and with well-lit highways snaking away in different directions creating the perfect cityscape effect, Landing is now sensational in the dark as your landing lights collect the rushing ground and then tightens as you come closer down to the threshold, aircraft lights are simply beautifully defined at close range, however only either the Landing lights or the taxi lights will cast a beam, as the HDR will not show them both on together in their different throws of light.
The weather was the star feature of XP10, Chip has explained in detail most of the issues over the last few months, but the overwhelming feeling is it is very good, yes there will always a better cloud engine out there but the fact is it works and that it defines more than anything else the look and feel of XP10 over any earlier versions of the simulator, and it is certainly worlds away better than the card-like XP9.
At first it was frustrating in the fact it was the worst frame rate killer period, as all you had to do was point your view at the clouds and your computer haemorrhaged and you went straight down to single digit frame rates, now in a workable form it is certainly a must have on all the time feature.
The beauty is there, skim along at 4000 to 8000ft feet and with the puffs all around you and it is lovely stuff, the light coming through is colorful and playful and you try to capture the feeling of its glory on still images or on video as to not lose the moment, flowing through the fog at tree top height is serene and then frightening as a mountain looms out of the murk and you bury the throttle to climb hard upwards out of danger. Of course it yet doesn’t do twister or hurricane type monster cloud bursts that will crush you like an insect, but I am sure that Austin will save that feature for the future.
Yes it still needs more fine tuning but most of us are impressed by it.
AI and Air Traffic Control:
Although connected, the AI and ATC are different items so I have separated them.
AI: Another large difference between XP9 and XP10 is it is busy, movement is everywhere, the traffic we will come to, but the AI aircraft are very well done, to a point the idea was rescued by a brilliant idea by Morten to create aircraft just for the AI and with a very very low framerate hit. It very quickly allowed you to run 10 or 12 AI aircraft with very little penalty and that really made the airspace come alive, early on you could spend hours watching them file in and out of airports and it was very effective in the day and amazing at night, it is not perfect yet as they crowd each other at the end of runways and still land too close together.
The underlying ATC routes are still mostly Auto-Generated and so you have aircraft going in all sorts of directions of like cutting through buildings and then some are doing some very strange things indeed. We will soon be able to soon this when WED 1.2 is sorted but at the moment it is total confusion, I cannot understand why this tool is still not available and still is not out there, why try to fine tune something that still needs critical sorting in another area? It does not have to be the whole WED 1.2 version but something basic for the community just to get these routings knocked into some sort of cohesion – and with that the job of sorting the rest out would certainly be far easier. If Laminar have made a misstep, it has been in not dropping tools and getting this tool out and an A4 instructional on how to use the tool. Chris Serio has shown us what we have to do, but not how to do it.
The aircraft are not as cohesive as they were when XP10 was released, many items have been tidied up but they seem to be darting everywhere and going around everywhere too fast, how many times have you looked back to see an AI under brakes right under your tail? I taxi between 15 – 20knts but mostly the AI’s are well into their speedy 20′s, but some how now that earlier naturalness is missing. You’d think we were all driving like Melbournians (International City of the Tailgater!)
But fun it is, hen you come close to an airport, you had better be on your marks as traffic is all around you and you will take a sneak peek at the local map to see the routes you want into the runways, and for that it is very realistic with the ATC in your ears, they are clever around the airport as well, like when they stop for runways and queue up to depart. For fun, drop 15 AI’s into a small local airstrip and it looks bizarre as they all clamber for every small space.
Four AI’s are about right for a small single runway and 11 -12 or even more for hubs gives you the right balance, and everything around you looks buzzy and busy – So the foundations are great and when the fine tuning is completed AI will certainly be a great XP10 feature.
Air Traffic Control (ATC) : Another banner feature of XP10 is a good ATC, from the outset it all looks very good and clever, just maybe a little too clever, first it is hampered by the same problems as the AI aircraft, because it has far too much to choose from in runways and taxiways, as like the AI, it is also using the same Auto-Generated data. With most airports the traffic routes (patterns) are pretty simple and change around mostly just to suit the weather and so to set this pattern out correctly would certainly help the ATC enormously in sorting it all out.
First you file a simple flightplan and then you look up your frequencies on the local page (menu/location), and file them all into the Com radio. When ready, you ask for clearance while sitting at the gate or at a start-up point and GND clearance then puts you into the system, then you ask for taxi clearance, then when granted you get arrows to point you to where you have to go to, once there you are usually positioned on the end of a runway and you are then passed over to the tower and when ready, then cleared to takeoff, once off the ground you are then passed over to Center to guide you out of the local airspace, from this point i have never got past it any further – a few have but say that it never gives you the correct landing instructions that you need, It is all very good till you run with all this right up to this final Centre handover – but then it has some serious issues to make it work correctly once you leave the airport (local airspace).
The first really big annoyance is the constant repetition of commands, If the CIA wanted a replacement for an effective waterboarding technique then recruiting Chris Serio should be right at the top of their list – it is torture to use, mind numbing in the extreme and the main reason i turn it off once i am heading for my destination. The first part of the problem is that when you reply to the command correctly it keeps asking you again, in reality once you have got taxi instructions you should not need anything again till you have filled out those instructions, part of the problem is, again, those auto-gen ground traffic routes and because they go off into buildings and off the line on the taxiways. It is when you reconnect with the arrows the ATC will also again reconnect with you, if the ATC has a change of plan then fine tell us what to do, otherwise just shut up as it is confusing.
Another is when you have left the runway, as you are barely 50ft off the ground it tells you and hands you off to Center, problem is your flying the aircraft and as you people out there know, your hands are pretty full at this point of the take-off as you are holding the stick to keep climbing and on vector, you’re bringing up flaps, setting up the A/P, adjusting the speed, switching off lights and right in the middle of all this you have to put a in a new frequency and go and double-click the reply, miss it and you have to double-click the reply again or again, meanwhile you are now off course and the aircraft is out of shape because of this slow constant diversion, just a little more time when you are past the heavy takeoff load factor would solve the issue, but then that starts the biggest annoyance of them all, the….”You are off course” message.
“I know i am off course mate, I know”, like this scenario in that i was given Rwy11 out of CNS/YBCS (Cairns), which first of all was far too short for the x737 (but i got it up anyway) then when you are heading out of Rwy11 you have to go hard left about 30º if not you plummet straight into a mountain. I actually was following my perfect flightplan that is used for departure from CNS but the XP10 ATC was having none of it, It just kept screaming at me even when i was at the right height and in the right place – and was wanting me to too fly to a place I really could not go though, which was a big solid mountain (range)….annoying.
Then the next one in “proceed to FL280″, now anyone who uses this simulator knows that a heavy aircraft and certainly a B747 or A380 cannot jump from zero ft to FL280 in two minutes, but ATC expects you to do that and if you don’t then it will keep telling you over and over again, the same problem was with the AI aircraft as well, but that has since been corrected, from then on you have no idea of what is the correct course so how can you keep on it or even find it anyway, yes it does allow you to put in waypoints but that is time-consuming and it can’t cover these details – and because by then you had to simply disconnect the ATC because you were smashing your head against the wall – so I have never been able to reconnect with it again at my destination, If i did it finally told me i had ignored the ATC commands and now the ATC was now going to ignore me? Still with me?!
So throughout all this, one thing sticks in my head, why can’t you use the FMS plan that you entered into the FMC (Flight Management Computer). First of all the information the controller needs is all right in there, your course (Including if you planned your route well SID & STARS), waypoints and your height, so the controller knows what waypoint you are going to and what height it should be when you get there, and you have a course to follow as well even if you are not using the FMS, certainly then if the controller wants to change runways, Heights or even routes then he still knows where, how high and what way point you should be at to continue your flight plan, and if you change your flightplan then the controller then knows that you are arriving at your destination in a different way or direction…That is why it is called a flight plan?
The ATC will in time be like everything else will be sorted and I do see a great system in there, but for the moment it is great to takeoff with then turn it off about 50ft off the runway so you can at least fly the aircraft in some sort of heavenly peace.
I have again split this into two sections OSM (Open Street Map) and Global Scenery
Open Street Map:
The idea was instead of putting down just photographic plates with roads laced on the top like it was in XP9, was to use clever OSM data to create a real network of roads and cities just like the ones you have in the real world. It is clever one and it works to a point but feels that it is not a fully developed one. I think from the outset the idea is so big that it can’t be done in a short period of time, but the problem that has arisen is that it makes XP10 look underdeveloped.
When opening XP10 you are greeted with a look that is like you are on a golf course, a few twiddles of the render settings can bring it suddenly to life, but go 10,000ft up and it still looks awful.
Go down to street level though and the world comes alive with brilliant roads and motorways filled with traffic and it all fits closely, almost to your road map book, think about your local area and no doubt that you can find those intersection landmarks on your screen and zoom around to find your street. Flying into an airport now is simply breathtaking over swirling roads and bustling traffic, sit on a taxiway waiting for your clearance and watch all the traffic pouring by, it makes XP10 feel alive and bustling, turn off the lights and the turn on the HDR and the streetlights and head/tail lights are marvelous to watch, moving around like ants up and down highways, bridges and concrete cuttings are all very well done, big bridges are not in there yet but hopefully will become part of the system in the future.
Put a well designed airport into the OSM and it snakes into and integrates in there as one whole package as it blends into a complete transition from the default scenery to the custom created one. Get the two elements right and it is almost a perfection of a viewpoint and how really good X-Plane can be as a simulator, take a look at EGCC (Manchester) adjusted for XP10, it is breathtaking in the way the OSM circles the airport and the correctly positioned motorways complete the picture – So putting OSM into XP10 was a one of the great features that really works.
My only disappointment is not with the OSM itself but with the scenery designers who are not embracing the system that can turn their airports into perfection, mostly they are not even checking to see if it actually works in XP10 and get it wrong and it stands out like a sore wound, biggest fault is the orthographic plates that were needed in XP9 but are simply awfully atrocious in XP10, OSM is a great tool but ignore it at your peril, soon any airport or scenery not sorted for XP10 will not go into my custom folder no matter how much i like it, and neither will the rest of our Chaotic Crew tolerate it either.
As a side note WED 1.2 is needed to clean up areas around airports and so we have to be a little lenient here, but that does not mean those orthographic plates cannot be pulled out now or adjusted to fit in better with the new OSM format.
Fly anywhere up to 5000ft and with the OSM and the current global scenery and it looks excellent, go higher and it looks awful as you get just markings on your landscape, looking closer at the trees and houses (All SoCal) there is something slightly wrong with the picture, the trees are not the same scale as the houses (too tall, but Andras is working on that we believe) and then the houses are too big against the scale of the highways, it doesn’t quite work. Maybe it’s just a fine tuning problem because when you look at street level, it all looks perfectly to scale and correct – but you feel that when looking down from a higher viewpoint, you need two houses for every one you have now. As everyone’s noticed as well, in SoCal the ‘look’ may be fine, but in Dubai it looks simply ridiculous.
In Laminar’s defense they do note that XP10 can have regional areas built-in and that it will soon change to a more regional feeling. A major omission is the high city buildings, as there is plenty of small to medium buildings. Overall urban textures are not up to par and one of the glaringly obvious problems with the simulator, creating this golf course green visual appearance, go again to Dubai and it is as green as London in the summer.
John Spahn has created Urban_MaXX_Extreme to put plates under the OSM to help the look of the situation and it does work very well and we recommend it, but why return to such drastic measures to fix the issue, this should have been better prepared in the first place and it looks half completed. Laminar are throwing updates in there, but it does need very urgent attention quickly to get this issue working correctly.
A guy named Benny has created a tool called OSM2xp to add location specific buildings, replacing the random, algorithmically generated autogen. Laminar needs to get this or similar tech in-house and reconfigure it quickly for easy use and then let us get on fixing up the local areas around us. Remember everyone, if you haven’t added 3 buildings a day in your local OSM area, you’re falling behind.
Most custom scenery looks excellent in XP10 with all that lovely OSM – but badly made scenery is still as bad as it was in XP9, but now can be even worse if they are the ones not adjusted for the new format as noted before – The big surprise is that any payware or specially created scenery is excellent in XP10, sometimes almost to perfection, and scenery developers have now got a paypal goldmine just waiting ready out there for them to make money – and don’t we need those big airports in Asia, South America and Africa.
But it is all not that bad, just issues to be dealt with – fly around and the scenery is still a major step up from XP9, it feels richer, fuller and is quite detailed at low levels. It will never compete with really good almost photographic scenery like they do over at Orbx, but then again you don’t have to spend big dollars to get it either – for the price it is excellent value – and you get a lot of it, the whole world as a matter of fact.
There are several issues to date 1) the shore line and rivers are quite average and blocky and in fact XP9′s shoreline was better, so i think that will be fixed in an update, 2) there are strange flat surfaces that pop up here and there, Melbourne (YMML) airport is on two levels, from one level you can’t even see the airport on another level unless you go over a steep cliff! – put the same situation out at sea or by the sea and you get a very large majestic waterfall.
Trees against the horizon are odd as well as they turn silver so you see this line of glowing articles climbing over hills and ranges.
Again it is a bug and not a fault and it will be dealt with in time, the only odd thing at night is that when you look at the ground it is full of stars? (2001: A Space Odyssey?).
The water has had no changes and so that is something for the future, but you do get very amazing sunrises and sunsets against the horizon on any water surface.
X-Plane10 is certainly more focused on external changes like scenery and OSM to which many will say that is this really a new visual simulator platform than a flight simulator, but i really find that X-Plane10 is very much like Apple when they dropped System9 for SystemX (coincidence), many loathed the idea as they thought Sys9 was very good and then the new eye candy SysX beta was quite average. But what had changed was underneath and the fundamental basics of the system and that then allowed Apple to be where they are today and with a very good stable operating system, I see X-Plane10 in exactly the same situation and place and believe in a year or two it will be very different simulator from this starting point in its new evolution. It is here for the long haul.
The LEGO airport and scenery building system is new in XP10, where there is going to be an extensive library of buildings and objects to build your own airports and scenery. To date we have had only glances of the system because we still only have at this point a beta version of WED 1.2. The first glances and feelings are still very mixed, the buildings look very bland and of few varieties, working in WED is one-dimensional because you are working in a CAD/CAM top-down format – So you have no visual references to create complex multilayered buildings without using a 3D editor. Object placement is excellent and quick – however you don’t have any references to know what the 3d object looks like as you do in the Overlay Editor and the updated version that came out over the weekend still can’t do much in this area. Documentation on how to use it all is still what you can gather from the X-Plane developers web site.
But at this point there is too little information to make a full judgement on the new system.
Many of the annoying bugs have been quashed in details like aircraft lighting and odd strange things looking out-of-place, High up (Above 10,000ft) was early on a very poor situation that looked a far better prospect after the 10.04b6 upgrade, so Laminar Research have done an incredible amount of detail fixing and bug squishing in a few short months. There are still a fair few to go on with for a short time yet, the slightly worrying thing is the popping up of newer issues that were certainly not there in the earlier versions (Like bad wind turbulence on loading real-time weather).
Plug-ins all work just like they did in XP9, the only one that causes an issue is the xPushback APU (EADT x737 uses it). It is total frame rate killer, 20fr will just disappear the moment you hit the start button, I don’t know it is a EXT power problem or the plug-in is just too old.
Video recording features are far better, but annoyingly still with no sound. Views have more flexibility but some are quite annoying to use. M
Most aircraft cross over to 10 very well and only really old ver8 or earlier created aircraft need to be adjusted in planemaker before being used in XP10.
X-Plane 10 in review
So is XP10 worth your dollars and Euros, unequivocally yes, many are of course still sitting on the fence and wondering if they should do the business, the answer is easy when you consider how many of you that are running daily in X-Plane10 would now go back to X-Plane9? Unless you have severe frame rate problems, go on put your hands up! – No, not many and once you do go back over there to check something or do something else you are shocked in how bland and boring it all is – and when then coming back into XP10 it is certainly a “thankful that is over” feeling.
The X-Plane Developers Conference this week may answer a lot of the questions that are noted here, as well as reveal some secrets they are keeping? Hello, PMDG? It will be very interesting to see the situation in another 3 months, for me the top urgent priorities are getting the Taxi/ATC layouts fixed and to make the city urban visuals more appealing and to scale, if that means for Laminar to hire extra faces for computers then that has to be the case. But it won’t be, we’ve been told as much..
Let us make no mistake, at the heart of X-Plane 10 is a really great solid platform on which to create a world-class simulator, many will scoff at this suggestion, but remember you are only paying $69.95 for all of this, and all the things here that over a short period soon will be sorted and then added to even more, with many more exciting features coming in the years ahead, and they are all free till the next version comes along in 3 or so years. That gives you incredible value for money – my aim here was to be honest about where XP10 is in its short lifetime and i hope it has given you a better understanding of where we all are at this point…for me personally I think we are in a very good place and have come forward at a pretty stable situation at this point. It is certainly not perfect but it is going very quickly in the right direction and up to this point X-Plane has delivered on most of its promises. Overall we have a now really good platform to give us plenty of excitement and pleasure in Flight Simulation.