My Flight Sim Setup by Jon Stratfull June 2007 issue of PC Flight.
Our Fly-ins are a great opportunity to meet fellow members and it soon became clear that a good number have high-end cockpit set-ups. After the event I mentioned to Terry that a series of articles about club members’ home cockpits would be a great source of inspiration and tips for those of us with more humble flightsim setups. Terry suggested that I start things off. Well to be honest I feel like a fraud, with what's just a glorified multi-monitor set up. Hopefully though a few musings might help those of you who are looking to take the plunge. The irony is that thanks to PC and Graphics developments over the last few years my current setup is technically the simplest. In a not-so-powerful Dell Dimension with Intel Core 2 6400 CPU @ 2.13 GHz, and 2 Mb RAM I've installed a Gainward 756mB Nvidia 9900GTX video card. Two Matrox TripleHead2Go units, one on each head of the video card drives six TFT flat screens. These give an external view split across the upper three monitors, while 2D panel views are displayed on the lower three.
Things haven't always been quite so simple! But first off why use more than one monitor? I got into using multi-monitors as FS2002 was coming to an end and as PMDG released the superb 737NG. For the first time here was an aircraft with detailed systems, which begged to be flown from A to B, not just round the circuit or pointed aimlessly around the sky. The 737 is a complex aircraft and getting the most out of it necessitates frequent accessing of lots of different panels; overhead, FMC, radios and so on. Trying to cram that all onto one monitor just doesn't work and I didn't want to keep opening and closing panels, obscuring the view outside or of the primary flight instruments. For other people with a preference for VFR flying, the main aim of multi-monitors is to expand their view of the outside world. Flying downwind and the turn onto finals feels much more real when you can see "round the corner".
Step one for me was to add a second monitor to allow external view and instruments to be split; I wanted bigger, clearer instruments for IFR flying. In 2007 Dual-head video cards are the norm and setting up two screens is very simple. Once the second monitor is enabled in Windows XP or Vista any window within FS can be undocked and dragged across screens. You will see some reduction in frame rate, but it should be minimal. The key I've found is to ensure that FS windows do not encroach, even slightly, onto a second monitor. Any overlap will result in a significant frame rate drop.
It's true in life that we can't get too much of a good thing, and it quickly became clear that two monitors were not going to be enough. At the time I had an Nvidia AGP card and with a bit of research it seemed that adding a second card into a PCI slot would easily allow expansion. Job done, and overhead and FMC now had a permanent home. My second card was relatively basic (and cheap), but by using it to display panels, which didn't require constant or frequent update frame rate drop was kept to a minimum. A year or so later I shelled out more on a single graphics card than on all my previous card purchases combined and bought an ATI card (still in the AGP slot days). Frame rates went through the roof, but this card spelled the end of dual video cards (you cannot mix Nvidia and ATI cards and or I believe install multiple ATI cards in the same PC) and I was back down to a dual head and two monitors. Failure wasn't an option - there had to be a way to get back to my old set-up.
I looked at two options, Wideview and Maxivista. Wideview allows FS running on networked computers to communicate so that for example three or more external views can be used to provide a panoramic view from the cockpit. The idea is that each PC takes the processing strain for its own window(s) so this is probably the best solution when it comes to preserving high frame rates. I downloaded the demo and gave it a try, but it seemed overly complicated to me, and needs Flightsim and the same scenery to be installed on each computer. AI traffic isn't seen across different computers (this is now possible with the FSX version) and I wasn't happy with weather presentation. If I've been overly unfair to Wideview hopefully someone can put the case to redress the balance. A non-FS-related piece of software called Maxivista came to my rescue. Maxivista extends your Windows Desktop across up to three additional monitors on one, two, or three networked computers. Like Wideview you need additional PC(s) and a network, but unlike Wideview all the FS software resides on your primary machine. Just undock the flightsim panel window(s) and move them onto the appropriate monitor. I must admit that I didn't use Maxivista to spread external views, so this may not be the best solution to everyone's requirements, but if I do need to add a monitor or two again, Maxivista will be my first choice.
My heavily modified panel for Rick Piper's HS748
These days there is a much easier solution to multi-monitor for FS, the Matrox superb TripleHead2Go (TH2Go). There's a lot of information available on the net, and the TH2Go is being used by a good number of Club members, who can provide a better source of expertise than I can, so I won't go into great detail here. In a nutshell the Matrox TH2Go is the single best peripheral I've every bought, in fact it was so good I've bought it twice. What previously needed three separate video feeds can know be done through one little back box. Each TH2Go appears to your system as a virtual 3840x1024 monitor and simply connects to your computer via a standard analogue VGA monitor cable. TH2Go then splits the 3840 x 1024 Windows desktop into three separate 1280 x 1024 screens of information, and displays across three independent monitors. By changing the zoom on external views the effect created is to greatly widen the field of view, with some slight distortion at picture edges, which you very quickly get used to. Setup was very straightforward and with a single unit running I found very little drop in frame rate (1 or 2 frames per second); on my own setup adding a second TH2Go for 6 monitors, frame rates dropped by a further 5-6 fps. A new Digital version has just been released. This very cleverly automatically compensates for the monitor bezels, so that the picture you see is totally aligned, eliminating the step between monitors you’ll see in the standard version.
My 6 monitors run by two TH2Gos are not the best solution if you want the highest possible frame rates, but it works well for me. With all six screens running, my frame rates in FS2004 at FlyTampa's St Maarten, with full AI traffic (15-16 aircraft on the field), weather and all sliders, except water effects, at maximum are around 18 to 25 fps, depending on the aircraft and how many panel windows I have open. If I was flying into Heathrow instead of around the Caribbean then I'd probably be looking towards a network solution to boost processor capacity.
The aircraft I fly have been dictated by a mix of types I like, and technical limitations for multi-monitor flying. In order to get the best out of your dual or multi-monitor setup, you'll find very early on that you'll want to edit the panels. This will let you set up different windows to show, for example, a full-screen Captain's panel with enlarged flight instruments, centre panel for engine instrumentation or overhead. You can use software such as FS Panel Studio, or you can do it yourself. I've got absolutely no programming ability whatsoever, but fortunately FS panels are defined by text files, which can be edited using Notepad or Wordpad. With a bit of practice resizing and moving instruments will become second nature. A word of caution - most developers' aircraft are easy to edit, some not. Most panels are made up by a number of gauges, which each depict individual instruments. This approach is great for panel editing but some developers, notably Captain Sim, use a single gauge to define each panel window. This limits options to the equivalent of zooming in on particular segments of the stock panels. It is not flexible at all and I've found resultant frame rates to be very poor.
The approach on all the Flight 1 aircraft I've bought works well, while for the reasons just mentioned, I steer clear of Captain Sim products. The PMDG 737 works well with multi-monitor, but the 747 doesn't - frame rate hit is just too bad. Turboprops have paid my mortgage for the last 15 years, and that's reflected in my FS2004 hangar. Top of the bill is the Flight 1 ATR72. This is now fairly old software, but it is of such high quality that it is still the best overall turboprop simulation available. It flies very well and the accuracy of the instrumentation and systems is remarkable. You won't need to do much editing to make this work across 2 or more monitors. Flight 1, with ATR's co-operation, has done a very good job with the basic design. The company I work for flies ATRs, so I get to see a lot of the actual aeroplane and I can testify to how well it replicates the real thing. If you only ever buy one turboprop, this has to be the one, and with a patch for FSX due as I write these words, its future looks assured.
Next up is Rick Piper's excellent freeware HS748, available to download at Avsim. This flies very well (smooth and stable), looks perfect, sounds just great and there are nearly 100 liveries available. If it had more accurate turboprop engine/prop control (rather than single lever) this 748 would be superb. I've added Reality XP gauges to represent a mid-eighties cockpit. I can't recommend this aircraft enough, it's free so download it today, you've got nothing to lose!
I also use the Flight Factory Simulations (FFS) Saab 340. FFS recently closed shop, so I'm not sure if this aircraft is still available. The VC cockpit is appalling for a payware product, but as I only use 2D panels that's not a problem. I like this aircraft because Saab's systems philosophy, the autopilot functions and EFIS presentation are very different to anything else, and it works very well with enlarged panels across multiple screens. If you like turboprops, give this a go if you can still find it. Finally, another oldie that's still a gem, and the only jet I fly regularly is the PMDG 737NG. Like the ATR, I think this aircraft has stood the test of time and leaves a lot of newer products in the shade. Panel editing is simple and PMDG’s instrumentation is of a quality, which negates the need for other software like Project Magenta. As I'll explain in a minute, I'm hanging my hat on this one!
Plans For The Future
So what for the future? Up to now I've looked longingly at the cockpit hardware, which is becoming increasingly available, but I didn't want to get tied down to a particular aircraft type, and my practical electrical and construction skills are non-existent. Technology has progressed to the point where there's a lot of very good-looking gear, which is plug-and-play and prices are becoming more reasonable. Replacing on-screen panels or instruments with hardware is also a great way to avoid having to add yet more screen acreage.
So I took the plunge and recently ordered a 737NG MCP and EFIS panel made by CP Flight. I bought from the Aviation Megastore in Amsterdam, got a shipping confirmation the same day and received a very well packed box two working days later. Receiving goods in the office is a great way to work out strategy on how to get toys past my wife, and I couldn't help showing these to a couple of our avionics engineers who have 737 experience. To say they were impressed at the quality is an understatement, as these are very professionally made bits of hardware. Installation wasn't completely straightforward and not made completely clear in the documentation, but after a few minutes on the net the penny dropped, PMDG key-stroke allocations were changed to match the requirements of the MCP and hey presto! The difference this hardware makes to the FS experience is quite something. CP Flight's build quality is such that I'll next go for their Nav, Comm, ADF and Transponder units. After that will come an Engravity FMC, followed by a pause while I wait to win the Lotto and can afford a throttle console!
To sum up, my system has evolved, rather than grown by design. New technology, particularly the Matrox TH2Go, which allows us to get much more out of our PCs, and has taken a lot of the hard work out of setup. If you're thinking about moving up from one monitor, give it a go, the results which can be achieved without too much effort, make it all worthwhile.