Stephen

Behind the Screen : March 2016

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Behind the Screen : March 2016
 
As I sailed into the beginning of March 2016 I was totally unaware that I was going into one of the most significant periods of my life in X-Plane. Change? A big change. At the other end of the (very, very long) month my world had changed beyond every aspect of the way I interacted with the simulator, it was a good change, but also one well overdue.
 
Overall the changes around you with X-Plane happen at a small snails pace, but it is relentless in moving forward, changing and using more and more of your resources and it is bit like climate change in that suddenly you find yourself knee deep in water were as not very long ago there was plenty of the higher ground between yourself and drowning...
 
In X-Plane terms this climate change is called...  headroom.
 
When I was a simple novice and X-Plane9® was all the rage then my humble but then powerful iMac "27" could fly with abandon, headroom was a laughable 60frames of carefree living...  and then came X-Plane10®.
 
At first X-Plane10 was a shock to the system with its gorging puffy clouds and framerate wrecking deeply layered data tiles and not to mention the high killing HDR lighting engine. But overall with a lot of fine-tuning (autogen low) and keeping the cloud count down with rarely running the HDR the iMac was in reality very quickly back into the green zone. And over the years it has performed very well at that level.
 
But the tide was very quietly and slowly coming in on me. Not to mention the above X-Plane10 features, it was the subtle effects that hurt the most. Those data tiles went even more heavier and then to the maximum in HD (High - Definition) and finally they were extended to over double the visual distance and that was not just a lapping of the water but a small wave coming in.
 
Then the scenery started to get serious. Addon payware scenery was once very, very light was now getting very, very heavy and complex with hundreds and thousands of objects, great textures and loads of brilliant animations. Then the third aspect of the triangle in that the aircraft went from being really cardboard thin to airline complexity and then the inclusion with small recreations of real world systems that became seriously complex and the development of complete 3D virtual cockpits that had you working just as hard as the real jockeys do in the real world (There is the two of them remember to your one here).
 
Put the three together and that is over the last few years a big movement of change. To be fair developers have done wonders to keep their work framerate light, but complexity is still more complexity and if you want realism it has to be done and adding in more and more to the thickening mixture and yes don't forget those 4K livery textures...
 
But it is the scenery that usually breaks the dam. Late 2014 I burnt out my 512mb graphic chip trying to grind out images of extremely heavy scenery. It was replaced and upgraded to 2gb of graphic power and a 512gb SSD drive that did wonders for my machine. I had some headroom back. But the problem was in there I still had those old 2009 i3 processors to do the grunt work, so it was like funneling the lake through a small tunnel and in time those generators are not going to spin enough to clear the overwhelming flow.
 
First signs that they were in real trouble was when Carenado created their own data set for their G1000 gps system. It is a huge thing of data and stored in your X-Plane root folder. It worked but you could see the numbers were getting line ball. By this time most of my significant scenery packages like Aerosoft's Heathrow, New York's JFK, Dubai, Sydney and the worst in Aerosoft's EHAM Schiphol which always brought my iMac to its grinding knees anyway were mostly left unused and had been for long time. Lots of autogen and objects...  in your dreams.
 
Very quickly in early march two occasions showed that finally the game was up and I would soon be needing scuba gear to keep my head above the waterline, or below it.
 
One was the release of Carenado's Sirrus SR22 and again it was a G1000 data glut that did it. To be fair and using very low light scenery and being mostly overwater. The iMac did do a great job in processing it and the review was not compromised, But you could note it wasn't happy with the sheer weight of the work it had to deal with.
 
Another aspect was Richard E Nunes excellent Galeo International Airport SBGL. And for some reason my iMac just simply hated the scenery, it was a horrible torrid time to process that scenery (over two weeks?) and the worst scenery review I have done (not in content but effort), so when Richard released his latest work in Santos Dumont airport SBRJ I found myself again trouble, to be fair both sceneries are what I reviewed and SBJR airport is quite framerate light (The city buildings behind are not) but the overwhelming factor is that to continue to review these ever heavier and more complex sceneries then a line had been crossed. Almost everything else was totally scaled back to get these sceneries just to run, and the point here is it was me and my equipment that was the issue here and not the scenery (or aircraft). To be fair to the reviews and give a more accurate description of the full effects with X-Plane running at higher settings then the iMac just simply couldn't cut the mustard anymore and it was showing with the very early signs it was pushing my graphics card too hard and it could fail again.
 
A lot of discussion and a straight point was made by a developer friend that the game was up.
 
Apple Mac's that have been my life, income and soul for decades were off the table because of simple mathematics, they are simply too expensive at that level of performance in Australia, but the aspect of updating them is even a worse problem and you just can't fit a huge graphic engine into Jonny Ive's sleek curved masterpieces. There was also a major factor that many developers of X-Plane product who will only develop in Windows (all product should be multi-platform), so a lot of product that needs to be reviewed or mentioned can't be done on the review site, and this was one of the main reasons I had to go windows.
 
So a crash course on the wonders of windows was required. It is far more difficult than you can imagine because of not just simply changing to a new system platform was required, because that is quite easy as most computer OS's and mostly structured the same with just different titles for different things and different inputs to get the same results, so that part is easy.
 
The hard part is constructing a machine (dubbed early on as Frankenstein) that can do the work that needs to be processed and more importantly can have the power to survive anything that X-Plane, developers and the world of simulation can throw at it for a few years at least (headroom), but my view is that with all the huge change that simulation has gone through the last few years I think we are in a sort of slightly more level period of change and the needs of ever more huge amounts of chip processing and graphic power, but virtual reality headsets could prove me very wrong there.
 
So it comes down to the classic Einstein equation...
 
The maximum power you can get = The least amount of cash I can actually afford
 
You know it will end badly, and I am also lucky as I can live on baked beans and toast for months to recover.
 
Both came true...  The biggest problem is that you just can't with X-Plane be...  well compromised.
 
You need what you need and this will mean taking a serious crash course in the thousands of different system options to get that one system that will deliver the goods at that right affordable price.
 
You need the newest fastest chips? and an i7, the biggest most powerful graphic engine you can shove under the bonnet and an SSD drive. The SSD drive I installed last year in the iMac has made me a total convert, and I needed a 512gb minimum as my current X-Plane needs 300gb and more just to be installed so a 256gb is just too small.
 
Like an Olympic sport once your off you are off and the race is on to get the right deal. Fully built systems on the web are very price competitive, made for gamers and are packed with power. One stop shop. But they don't actually deliver (In Australia) because you can't specify certain items or are paying for features and items you don't need, so in most cases you overbuy to get the specifications you want and are stuck with the rest, underbuy (to your cost) and you have to severely make compromise on items you do want in say the chip power (i3) or an average graphic engine.
 
The only option is to have the machine ( Frankenstein) built up locally of the many diverse parts that your require. You can at least control the price that way, as in this case of either broke or bailiffs. In most cases you would recycle your old machine to support the purchase of the upgraded one. But I still need my iMac as it is still my preferred machine for editing and building the reviews and has a decade of applications that are just too valuable to lose. This will make the windows just a X-Plane dedicated workhorse and nothing else going in there in time to dilute the simulator application.
 
So the huge choices start. Chips or processors was quite easy as a powerful i7 was the go until they had to be changed as we will see in a moment. The graphic card is of course the major component of running X-Plane and you have a lot of choice. All GTX 900 series cards are good, but would an early GTX-960 be already to old? GTX-970? I wanted the GTX-980 then there was the choice of the GTX-980Ti. A first quote sent my jaw to the ground and jail suddenly seemed a good option. The problem with the Ti is that it does give you a whopping 20% more power, but comes with a 40% more cost? I settled for the GTX-980, now I also wanted to over clock, and that adds the K to the GTX-980K graphic engine specs. Then the chip is required to go K as well and then your calculator burns up as with just adding in that one single letter as it sends your costs spiraling skywards. The guy at the computer stores starts shaking his head in an expensive pattern and starts rolling his eyes in an "oh dear" moment.
 
Upping to the "K" means a far bigger chip, a more expensive GTX graphic card, a more far larger power supply to keep the monster running and then the extra component of a water cooling system to keep the machine from not blowing its innards up like a Vietnam movie and cool enough to not make your room look like a Ridley Scott set...  in other words expensive. 
 
The word "dedication" comes into the story here, dedication to the review site and dedication to the X-Plane simulator.
 
Frankenstein's final specs are: Intel Core i7 6700K CPU 4.00GHz /64bit - GeForce GTX 980/SSE2 - Samsung Evo 512gb SSD for the major components and a 700w power source and a water cooling system that could run the Queen Mary 2.
 
Victor the computer creator looks me in the eye and says "What the hell are you going to run on this thing... It is a monster!" and it is.
 
But for the "The maximum power you can get = The least amount of cash I can actually afford" equation it is not a bad price under the AUS$3000 mark. "dedication" that word again...
 
So a small apology in the amount of reviews that were quite slow during March, but there was a huge amount of running around and a lot of extra fixtures to buy and more time getting the machine hooked up and running X-Plane in a basic form. It is slow work and none more so just resetting X-Plane to run on a different platform. Getting the Apple and the Windows to say hello to each other was a nightmare just in itself, it is still a face-off in the fact that one machine's firewall will not get through the other machine's firewall and so everything still at the moment has to shifted via an ExFAT drive. 1 million 600 thousand! X-Plane files had to be transferred twice on in first to the drive and then secondly into the SSD over a full day and a half, yes that is progress, but X-Plane and little X-Planes in the folders are hundreds and thousands of little small files that all takes a slow time to move.
 
All, yes all payware and plugins aircraft had to be re-registered with keys that some serials have not been used for years or forgotten. Many still are not running. Another of the window features is the required "Microsoft  C++  Redistributable  2013  64bit" for the SASL plugin, easy yes...  well no.
There are more than one C++ components to be installed. In fact you need the C++ 2012, C++ 2013, C++2014 and C++2015 components in there is you want to make your aircraft fly again. Finally there is the Python application and  CustomSBDatarefs to be installed and finally X-Plane will work?
 
Well no...  because you can't just move your Mac X-Plane app to WIN and it will work? A trick from Ben Supnik is to create a double X-Plane root folder (name it "X-Plane 10.45 WIN") then run the latest X-Plane installer app, select the new X-Plane root folder and in the "Options" section you can change the basic X-Plane app from Mac - Windows - Linux as you require.  Then you can move it over to the Windows machine and then rebuild up your X-Plane root folder with all the major working components of Global scenery, Custom scenery, Resources, Aircraft and other two thousand and more items that makes X-Plane work.
 
And you wonder why I was sleeping and collapsed at my desk...
 
And finally it all works and I am now flying X-Plane. No time yet to fine tune the systems or X-Plane and I will cover that and performance in this forthcoming April edition.
 
Early signs are good. Take a look at the early release preview post of Pilot+Plus's Geneva
 
News! - Airport Release! - LSGG Geneva from Pilot+Plus
with the review windows version:
Scenery Review : LSGG - Geneva Airport by Pilot+Plus
 
And you will see the difference some powerful computer power can make, and a word to the developers in that a slow computer and low resolutions can also hide a lot of flaws, so even very small texture mistakes and not aligned objects now really stand out.
 
The point to all this is there is a line to performance and dedication to X-Plane. You can still try and keep the flame lit and still use X-Plane9® before upgrading to X-Plane10® and I certainly understand as you can see above in getting a machine to be competitive with the simulator is very costly and most don't have these sums available or want a loan round your neck to achieve it. Most give simulation away because of the cost and I can understand the sad fact of that. No doubt Laminar Research try their best to make X-Plane as efficient as possible and in fact it is in its basic form, but it is everything else that is blowing that ever decreasing headroom into the teens of framerate stutter hell.
 
My position is slightly different, as I review on this site and beta test aircraft and scenery. It is only fair to not only yourself and the developers to see and understand the aircraft, scenery and thousands of different aspects that go to make up the X-Plane simulator in its correct context. Sadly my beloved iMac can't do that anymore and it is only fair that I do deliver the right points and images that are required for running a review site. I don't think at any point in the past I did under-serve in a review or test the correct aspects of what was require for the correct judgement, but I am wise enough to know when the line has been passed over and was willing to change for that. These changes have to be the benefit of this review site and X-Plane as a moving forward simulator. 
 
X-Plane11® still maybe a twinkle in Laminar's eye. But it is coming and when it does then what extra power will you need to process it, my guess (and it is still a only a guess) is that 2017 will be the year. So if you are looking forward and in one of the earlier considerations of this windows computer upgrade was now would be the right time to start saving.
______________________________________________________________________
 
So very little actual flying got done in March and I am slightly behind with reviews, most were put on hold as they were sceneries and I thought that the benefits of waiting now to do better justice visually for the hard work that developers do was worth the wait.
 
Long distance flying is one thing I been restricted from doing for a few years because it closes down the computer for a full day. I try to minimise that a lot by flying overnight while I am sleeping on tried and trusted routes that I know I won't get nasty scenery crashes, it is flying high mostly in the dark or over water anyway so you are not missing anything visually. Now with the windows extra machinery that can change things a little bit in that I can fly on one and edit and do the site on another computer and so I am now more productive than ever.
 
As many of you know I follow the Formula One circus around the world with shipping the cargo (and cars) from race to race or port to port. So it was time to dust off the old B777 and put it to work. I found it earlier to be slightly old, but a current update v1.8.3 (available now from your account at the X-Plane.OrgStore) has breathed new life into the old girl.
 
First race was in Australia, so the haul from London (Heathrow) to Melbourne via Singapore is a dozy of huge nautical numbers to cover and takes two full days (In this case nights) flying. Second lift was from Avalon (YMAV) by Melbourne to (OBBI) Bahrain was a crushing 14 hours flying time to where the race is this weekend (2-3rd April), then on to Shanghai in China in two weeks. Huge distances to cover in a short time, twice now on the iMac and next on the Windows to China will be a great comparison. One thing that really stretches X-Plane is long haul, It is good to run the simulator over long distances and you really learn on how the simulator is really performing in these runs, I will note the results next month.
 
So March became a watershed month in change for me and this X-PlaneReviews site. The benefits of this computer upgrade when fine tuned will be to the benefit to all in the developers and you the users in that we all want the best and deliver the best in great editorial and great visual images and of course the best information on the X-Plane simulator.
 
But March kept on delivering right to the very end and died not quietly but with a great sadness...  We lost David Marshall (dkm) as one of the great contributors to our X-Plane community. It is an extremely sad loss as a friend as these sites and reviews are built on their work and their opinions and their experience that was very much always appreciated though our correspondence. Our final notes were not of aircraft or scenery but banjo's, because that was another of David's great talents and what a way of remembering him...  Thanks David and god bless you.
 

Stephen Dutton

2nd April 2016

Copyright©2016: X-PlaneReviews

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