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Saturday, January 7, 2012

RC Flight Sims - A Practical Comparision

Computer simulation has gotten good enough to be useful for learning to fly RC.  Some might even say a good sim is a modern necessity.  Can you learn to fly without a sim?  Of course, but in the end you might spend more money, potentially a lot more, especially on mangled helicopters.
Another potential advantage to simulation is possibly eliminating the need to join a club to get instruction, and the inevitable dues and AMA membership requirement which is money down the drain  If you are really good with a sim, you absolutely do not need an instructor as long as you still take it easy on your first few outings and fly in your comfort zone.

By "really good" with a sim, I mean you have mastered these essential skills with the aircraft of your choosing:
  • Take off with the airplane out of trim on every flight control axis
  • Land within 5 feet of the spot of your choosing, on runway centerline
  • Land after randomly cutting the power, simulating surprise motor or battery failure
If you can master those three things with any of these sims, you are ready to fly without assistance.  You should still choose a docile first real airplane or helicopter, because simulation is still very different from flying a real, potentially degraded aircraft in a completely different environment and weather.

So which sim to buy?  In addition to functionality, a little forward planning can help one decide.  There is a good basic sim called FMS that you can download for free, but if you are just starting out you will still need a USB controller which is an additional expense. The expense of a sim-only controller can be mitigated by buying a real transmitter and a sim that is compatible with it, then using it for your first airplane.

Here is a quick, practical comparison of three excellent sims: Real Flight, Phoenix, and ClearView.  I reviewed the full version of Real Flight, there is also a basic ($100) version that did not exist when I purchased my copy.

Of the three, only Clearview is compatible with any old USB controller and/or any real controller with a buddy box cable, so it could be a low cost fallback plan if you try FMS with a USB controller, then decide you don't love it.  Real Flight only uses its own USB controller.  Phoenix only uses real controllers, listed on their website.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive comparison of simulator features. I don't have the patience for that. In fact, I find it mostly annoying when peripheral features add complexity without much benefit to everyday flight sim utility.

Along the same lines, all of these simulators have features that I completely ignored, including multiple networked participants and various degrees of a circus-like gaming atmosphere. Real Flight even includes basic shoot-em-up first person gaming. I didn't give points for any of that, rather, I stuck to comparing the basic quality and utility of the flight simulation.  That's it.

Bottom line upfront: You can't go wrong with any of these superb and useful programs, with the possible exception of choosing Phoenix for helicopters only.

Z8RC results:

#1. ClearView RC Flight Simulator v5.34 ($40)
The Good:  Value.  Excellent aircraft flight physics.   Lots of free third party models.  Supports any type of transmitter or USB controller, including computer radio functions via a buddy box cable.  High frame rate makes flight experience very smooth.  Provides the best lit and clearest view in flight.  Downloadable with instant online activation. 

The Bad:  Aircraft torque feels un-modeled except during hover. Helicopter throttle changes seem less sophisticated.  Model quality varies from excellent to toyish.  Difficult to set up some controllers in helicopter stunt mode.

The Ugly:  Photo-realistic model rendering effects not as good as the others.  Each $40 license can only be installed on one computer at a time, so you can't move your controller between say, your laptop and your desktop.

#2. Real Flight v6.0 ($200)

The Good:  Best aircraft and helicopter flight physics.  Superb photo-realistic rendering.  Aricraft torque is present but seems under stated.  Lots of gaming options including first person flight perspectives.  Free public domain models and scenery downlands.

The Bad:  A a little too much gliding distance and float. Free models are downloadable, but the official model expansion packs cost money. Frame rate bogs down on my 64-bit PC when maximum rendering options are enabled.  Too easy to hover 3D airplanes. 

The Ugly:  Tough price tag to swallow.  Requires a proprietary USB controller with no computer radio option and CD-only installation in 2012. 

#3. Phoenix V3.0s Professional Model Flight Simulation ($130)

The Good:  Excellent airplane rendering and smooth flight model.  Best high alpha flight realism.  Regular addition and free download of a a few select Horizon Hobby models. Can use computer radios and mixes.

The Bad:  Poor helicopter responsiveness regardless of model customizations and settings.  Helicopter physics makes advanced maneuvers too easy.  No apparent torque except while hovering.  A similar feel between a lot of the aircraft.  Too much aircraft float.  Although distributed by Horizon Hobbies, the others have a broader selection of Horizon models available by free download or paid expansion packs. 

The Ugly:  Annoying sun angle puts models in silhouette far too often.  Automatically resets when you get too close to the simulated operator.  No third party models and supplied model selection is limited.  Only uses a real transmitter through a special cable with hardware dongle.  CD-only installation in 2012.

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