Back to the desk job

Evening all.

I said I’d come back, but I didn’t think it would be this soon. Turns out I like writing about flight simulation more than I thought. For the meantime, though, there has to be a change of emphasis for this blog. Which is why, in time-honoured tradition, I’ve re-titled it ‘The Mile High Geek In Exile’, because – for now – I’m exiled from my cockpit-building dream.

Rather than let the time between now and when I can resume construction go to waste, I decided to go back to where I started: Desktop simming. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with desktop simming. Many enthusiasts never build a panel, attempt to replicate Korry switches out of acrylic cubes and LEDs, or use anything more sophisticated than a joystick. That used to be me, back in the day, before my crazy quest began. What killed desktop simming for me was Flight Simulator X.

People have observed that if it takes a ridiculously high-end PC to make FSX go smoothly in 2014, how did Microsoft expect anyone to enjoy themselves in 2006, when it was first released? When CPUs were probably a quarter as powerful as they are now? FS9 – AKA Flight Simulator 2004 – gave reasonable performance on a high-end machine of its day, and you could add payware scenery and aircraft and so on and still get a decent experience if you spent a bit of cash. FSX brought lots of extra goodies to the table, but it killed performance stone dead. I got sick of tweaks and how-to guides that promised frame rates in the 30s in detailed scenery areas but never delivered. The fun went out of it. I focused on the idea of building a cockpit instead, safe in the knowledge that when I did, there would be something bigger and better to run on it. Only that didn’t happen, either.

What did happen is that PCs got better and faster, and then took a giant leap forward with Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs. Suddenly it became possible to fun FSX at high frame rates with lots of payware add-ons, albeit with careful tweaking. This spurred me on to put together a high-end gaming rig to see what performance I could get. Because I had lots of other things going on it took me a few months to put it all together and finally install FSX on it. I was impressed to see 30+FPS in central London in stock FSX, but by the time I added payware for London City Airport and cranked up the sliders, things were getting sluggish again. I knew there were lots of tweaks I could try – and as it turns out, there was one particular thing I did wrong when building the box – but I wasn’t in a position to spend days fiddling at that point, so I put the machine away in a cupboard; and there it sat for nearly two years.

Fast forward to now: Looking for something to do, with the cockpit dismantled and mostly junked, I decided to get the Sandy Bridge rig up and running again. I spent some time tweaking, got better results, and felt pretty good about it – but at the same time I was aware that I was two generations of hardware behind, and since I would need more than one PC in the sim anyway, I was persuaded to splash more cash and put together a rig based on the 4th generation Haswell CPUs. It was at this point that I came across a thread on AVSIM.COM by a chap called NickN, who certainly seemed to know his stuff. He had posted a step-by-step guide to choosing, building and setting up a Haswell-based rig for FSX, and I decided to follow it to the letter and see what happened.


New box specs

Intel ‘Haswell’ Core i7 4770K – unlocked multiplier edition @ 3.5GHz stock
Corsair H80 hybrid liquid cooler
Asus Z87 Pro motherboard
MSI Lightning GeForce 780 3GB DDR5 GPU
Corsair Vengeance 4GB DDR3 1800 CS9 RAM x 2
Samsung 480 Pro 256GB SSD x 2
Corsair RM1000 modular PSU (1000W)
Antec 3 midi-tower case

This was a different spec than I might have bought otherwise. I would generally go with AMD for graphics cards, for example, but it turns out that NVidia has taken the market back in the last few years while I’ve been busy, and is now the default choice for high-end simming.

The box runs Windows 7, because FSX does not run properly on Windows 8.1, and since it’s no longer a supported product Microsoft is unlikely to patch it so that it will. Windows 7 is it for the foreseeable future. Installing FSX for the first time in several years was a fun experience, not least because people have reported that the activation servers have been down and the only way they could activate was by phone. But as it worked out, I could activate online. How much longer that’ll be possible is anyone’s guess. I’m not one for downloading cracks from the internet, but it might become necessary in future. Let’s hope not.


I then made the various tweaks that NickN recommends: not many, as it happens, because he feels many of the commonly-used tweaks are no better than voodoo, akin to buying a £1000 mains cable for your high-end amplifier. He introduced me to NVidia Inspector, a tool I never knew existed. And then, it was time to try it out.

What a revelation. Buttery smooth does not cover it. I’d never experienced performance like it from any sim since the late and lamented Flight Unlimited series. I realised that to do it justice, I’d need lots more bits. I’d need to create a sim station. So I whipped out the credit card again, hit Amazon, and began a spending spree.

What I ended up building, and how I built it, is a story for the next post. But I’ve added some teaser images to this post just to start with…