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Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002
By David Chong
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7821-2943-9
Chapter OneGround School
This chapter contains information that novice pilots and veteran aviators alike need to get into the air with Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002. It begins with tips for optimizing your system's configuration and program settings. We then look at Flight Simulator 2002's in-game settings and discuss peripheral devices that help create an accurate simulation experience.
Configuring the Simulation
Flight Simulator 2002 is one of the most advanced programs on the market today in any field. The simulation pushes the performance of modern desktop systems to the very edge of their capabilities, with demands on everything from raw processing power to displaying graphics to sound mixing. However, it can function equally well on a system that just squeaks by with the minimum system requirements. All that's required is a little bit of tweaking with your system and Flight Simulator 2002 itself. This section will help you do just that.
Optimizing Your System
There are a few things you can do to make sure that your system is fully capable of running Flight Simulator 2002 at a reasonable level of performance. Obviously, you could go out and buy the fastest computer with the most advanced features available, but that's not a very realistic solution for most of us. Still, there are some relatively inexpensive upgrades that will make a huge difference in the performance of your entire system, Flight Simulator 2002 included:
* Buy a 3D graphics card: While cutting-edge graphics cards run hundreds of dollars, video cards with slightly dated chipsets can be found at affordable prices. For example, you should be able to pick up a card based on the Voodoo 2 or Voodoo 3 chipsets, the ATI Rage chipset, or one of the older NVidia chipsets for under $50. These cards are inexpensive for a reason: they're older and generally feature 8MB or 12MB of Video RAM (VRAM). Flight Simulator 2002 requires at least 8MB VRAM, and your performance will definitely be better if you spend a bit more and get a card with at least 16MB RAM. Make sure the 3D graphics card you buy is a hardware accelerator, not a software-accelerated 3D card. Many cards call themselves 3D just because they can take advantage of Windows Direct3D software, but there is a great performance difference between 3D software acceleration and 3D hardware acceleration.
* Install more memory: Memory (also referred to as Random Access Memory, or RAM) is extremely inexpensive these days, and it's one of the easiest components for users to install by themselves. You should upgrade in whatever denomination you can afford, although the price point for 256MB chips is ideal (as of this writing).
The first step in getting the best performance out of any program is to ensure that you're getting top performance out of your Windows operating system. Since Windows is behind every program that runs on your desktop, it makes sense that any program will only run as well as you have Windows configured. Below, you'll find a few techniques for optimizing your Windows configuration.
Most of the following changes will require you to change system settings. For maximum safety, write down the original settings before you implement any changes. This way, you'll be able to easily change them back in case you experience a problem. Also, you will often be asked to reboot your system in order for changes to take effect; do this each time the option is offered, to help ensure stability.
Perhaps the easiest system optimization you can perform is to defragment ("defrag") your hard drive(s). As you store and erase information on your computer over time, related materials end up spread all over the place. The defrag process cleans this mess up, putting all related information together. Defragmentation can take over an hour on larger drives, so be sure to schedule the operation when you won't need the computer for a while.
To defragment your drive, follow these steps:
1. Close all programs; e-mail, communications programs, virus scanners, or any other applications that periodically access the hard drive will force the defrag process to start over.
2. Click Start, then Programs, then Accessories, then System Tools, and then Disk Defragmenter.
3. At the Select Drive prompt, you should be defaulted to the C: physical drive. If so, click OK; otherwise, use the drop-down menu to select the C: physical drive before clicking OK.
Virtual Memory Settings
By default, Windows 95 and 98 use a system called virtual memory to let your computer act as if it has more physical RAM than it actually does. Virtual memory has many advantages, but it does come with some drawbacks as well. First, information stored on your hard drives is retrieved much more slowly than information stored in physical memory. Second, Windows dynamically controls the size of your virtual memory cache, meaning that it constantly monitors your need and changes its size as necessary. This is a burden on your processor and does cause some performance degradation.
To fix this in Windows 95 and 98 (for later versions of Windows, please consult the operating system's Help), do the following:
1. Open System Properties in Control Panel by selecting Start, then Settings, and then Control Panel.
2. Select the Performance tab. Make a note of the amount of memory you have installed, as shown at the top of the dialog box.
3. Click the Virtual Memory button on the bottom of the window. On the next screen, select "Let me specify my own virtual memory settings" by clicking the appropriate radio button.
4. In the boxes below, select your fastest hard drive from the pull-down menu. Some people have installed newer hard drives as a drive D: or higher; if you have a newer and faster drive installed, select it instead of your C: drive.
5. You want 640MB of memory in your system, as a total of your physical RAM and your virtual memory. Remembering the amount of memory installed in your system from the display above, enter an amount that will add up to 640MB in the Minimum and Maximum fields. So if your system has 256MB of physical RAM, type 384 into both fields to give you a total of 640MB. By setting the minimum and maximum to the same size, your computer won't waste processor cycles managing it.
Optimizing the Simulation Settings
Flight Simulator 2002 is fully customizable, allowing you to tailor the simulation's processing demands to your computer's specific configuration. You can set the simulator to display sparse terrain with no frills, full-screen 3D with accelerated high-resolution graphics and computer-controlled planes filling the sky, or anything in between. This wide range of options means that a wide range of computers can successfully run the simulation. You can access all of the simulator's options through the Settings screen, shown in Figure 1.1.
All settings in a demanding program like Flight Simulator should be seen as compromises. Unless you have the latest and greatest hardware across the board (processor, motherboard, RAM, graphics card, etc.), you probably won't be able to run the simulation with all of the settings maxed out. However, that's not really necessary for an excellent sim experience. All you have to do is learn to balance performance with features.
The simulation can push your computer to the limit. Go beyond the limit, and Flight Simulator 2002 will run too slowly to be enjoyed. Every feature you turn on takes up some of your PC's resources, so the trick is to figure out which features are important to you and which you can live without. Your ultimate goal should be to tailor the settings to give you performance within the bounds of your computer's capabilities, while still delivering all the features that you want.
The central compromise in all settings is speed versus quality and quantity. On one side of the equation are smooth motion, crisp control response, seamless instrument displays, and generally fast performance. Weighing against this is the natural desire for an environment that looks and feels as real as possible, with highly detailed graphics, dense terrain features near the ground, air traffic and dynamic scenery, and other features that simply make everything look better.
Your first stop should be the Display Settings menu. This controls all aspects of the look of the simulator, which has the greatest overall impact on performance. The first tab is the Scenery menu. This section controls all of the specific scenery settings. Before fiddling with the individual settings, try the drop-down Global Scenery Settings menu. If your system is near the minimum requirements, try choosing Low here. Medium befits the recommended system, and High is best for systems that exceed the recommended requirements. Choose the Extremely High setting only if your computer is truly cutting-edge.
Note that each setting's impact on performance is also greatly dependent upon where you fly. Flying over Denver, the water effects setting will have little effect on performance, but the terrain mesh will have a huge impact because of the mountainous topography. Conversely, spend most of your time crossing the Atlantic at night and in fog, and there will be no difference in performance even with terrain texture qualities maxed out, since no terrain textures can be displayed!
Below is a general look at each Scenery setting. As noted above, your mileage may vary depending upon the conditions and locations in which you fly.
* Scenery Texture Quality: Scenery Texture Quality controls the appearance of the surfaces of the scenery in the simulation. Everything you see in Flight Simulator 2002 is made up of polygons, which have "painted" surfaces used to suggest details. For example, a building might look like it has windows, doors, trim, and so on, when it is really just a flat wall with those details painted on it. The higher the texture quality, the better those details will look.
* Terrain Mesh Complexity: This setting governs the distance between each elevation point on the ground, which determines the size of the polygons that make up ground features. More polygons mean more detailed terrain. Polygon count is also a sure-fire way to slow down performance, so be careful with this one.
* Terrain Texture Size: This controls the distance at which you see complex scenery. The higher this setting, the greater the distance at which you'll see detailed, high-resolution terrain. Obviously, this will take its toll on performance, so use it sparingly.
* Autogen Density: New for Flight Simulator 2002, the Autogen Density setting creates trees, buildings, and other appropriate objects in places where specific ground objects haven't already been placed. This helps the world look more realistic and populated. The denser the setting, the more often you'll encounter these objects. Autogen causes a moderate performance hit.
* Scenery Complexity: All of the scenery objects in the simulation are controlled here. Higher settings mean more buildings, trees, roads, towers, and everything else that sits on the ground. This can cause a significant hit on frame rates, but it's also one of the frills that makes flying the simulator enjoyable if you're using visual flight rules or sightseeing. Conversely, if you mostly fly at high altitude or in inclement weather, you won't notice much difference except when landing and taking off.
* Scenery Effects: This setting should be kept fairly high, as most special effects appear rarely and the overall performance hit is negligible. If you want to see jet contrails and the Extra 300S's smoke trails but your system is bogging down, this is the setting to adjust.
* Maximum Visibility: Absolute maximum visibility range before things are fogged out at the horizon is handled here. The higher you set it, the farther you'll see into the distance. This setting has the greatest effect on slower computers. If it's important to see your immediate surroundings, trade distance for local quality.
* Water Effects: This turns on wave action along coastlines. If you fly close enough to see them, you'll take a performance hit, so beware-you don't want to be pushing 12 FPS and then wander into a beach area, as your frame rate would drop and you might be unable to control the plane.
* Dynamic Scenery: This setting adjusts how much dynamic scenery, including air traffic, appears. The more dynamic scenery you select, the more your PC's resources will be taxed.
Similar setting options are included for the aircraft models in the game. If you like using the chase plane or tower views, use higher settings on the Exterior Texture Size and Global Aircraft Quality options. And if you use the virtual cockpit for anything other than occasional sightseeing, you'll want to use a higher quality there. Checkboxes for the individual effects (shown in Figure 1.2) do have an effect on performance-turning off shadows is one way to gain an extra frame or two immediately. Reflections look beautiful, but they also cost quite a bit of processor time.
The last tab in the Display Settings menu is called Hardware. The resolution you use will have one of the most significant effects on your frame rates. A minimum machine should use 640x480, and you can go up from there depending on your system capabilities. Note that 3D visuals work only when flying the simulation in full-screen mode, so always use this setting if you're pushing your performance with a true 3D card. Hardware Rendering Options improve the overall texture quality, but they do have a noticeable effect on performance.
Much of the enjoyment when flying a simulator comes from getting as close as you can to the real thing. There are a few things that you can do to help re-create some of the authentic flying experience, and this section examines those methods.
The Flight Controller
One of the most significant ways to enhance your experience with Flight Simulator 2002 is to use full-featured controllers. While any two-button joystick performs the absolute minimum pitch and roll functions, having a controller similar to the ones in real aircraft helps you feel like you're really in a plane. Since you don't have any other physical sensations of flight (no inertial forces, no wind in your hair, no smells of engine oil), the controls in your hand are really your only physical tie to flying and, therefore, are extremely important.
A joystick is the most practical way to control your simulator. It can be used for Flight Simulator 2002 and as your primary controller for any other software title that makes use of a standard joystick. This makes it an investment in fun that can cover multiple games, which certainly makes the most sense for those concerned with the bottom line.
Excerpted from Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002 by David Chong Excerpted by permission.
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