Thursday, May 03, 2007

FlightGear Mini Review

I'm a great fan of open source software. Some of my favorite of these programs are the Gimp (Photoshop alternative), Inkscape (drawing), Audacity (digital recording and editing). These products are the efforts of many people over a long period of time, and reflect a lot of hard work and pride in what they do. For us mortals, they give us a chance to dabble in things like image editing without having to spend a lot of money on a professional grade software package. Plus, the open source ethos is refreshing and inspiring in its own right.

For a while I have known of an open source flight simulator, but until now I hesitated to give it a try. I finally gave into the itch to click the download link. Now I wish I had not waited so long.

The simulator is called FlightGear, and you can get information about it and links to downloads here. You can tell from these screenshots that no, it will not replace MSFS for most people, but it still looks pretty decent. I should emphasize the fact that this is a work in progress. In fact, it is not even up to version 1.0, the latest being version 0.9.10. If you visit the web site don't be scared away by talk of compiling source code and such. There is an automatic installer for windows that works well, and there is a GUI for launching the simulator, as well as a menu driven interface within the sim. There are also installers for other platforms, but I have not tried them.

Why should you consider FlightGear? One reason is if you like open source software. Another is if you just like to tinker. Perhaps a more compelling reason is performance. Your mileage may vary, but I find that it flies extremely smooth, compared to MSFS. There is absolutely no hesitation when I pan the view around. I have noticed microstutters on a few occasions, but overall I don't give a second thought to frame rates. Still another reason: if you have an older, slower computer in addition to your flightsim computer, why not see how FlightGear will run on it? It won't cost you anything beyond the inconvenience of a large download.

The graphics both inside and outside the plane do not measure up to FS2004 (certainly not FSX), but given to performance gain, it's not a bad trade off. The airplane models vary greatly. I've found a few with pretty decent virtual cockpits, such as the Cub, the 172, and the Beaver, and the Warthog. The scenery also varies in quality. Some rural textures look pretty nice at altitude (the haze effect helps a lot), but some of it looks a bit cheesy. The autogen trees are o.k., but the buildings will make you feel nostalgiac for FS98. In fact, I've been keeping an old installation of FS98 on my hard drive, because I like to occasionally run with really fast framerates. However, its probably time to uninstall FS98, because FlightGear runs just as fast, but looks so much better. (I leapfrogged from FS98 to FS2004, so I can't say how it compares to FS2000 or 2002.)

Another interesting feature is that there are several approaches to flight modelling to choose from. I haven't experimented with this much, but it is intriguing.

So I encourage everyone to give it a try. A word of warning, though: to get the most out of this you'll need at least two propellers: one for your hat, as well as one for your plane. Still, if one is able to accept limitations (such as not being able to assign joystick buttons) you can use it out of the box. If you want to stick that propeller on your cap, then you can customize your joystick or just about anything else in this sim.

1. Fast, smooth performance (YMMV)
2. Instant change of time of day or weather.
3. True overcast, convincing from above or below
4. True sloped runways.
5. Aircraft self-shadowing.
6. Chase plane spot view, where the chase plane banks with your plane.
7. Quick start up.
8. It's free!

(I don’t like being negative about free software, but I offer this for those who are deciding whether to download this software)
1. Poor landing effects (sounds are weak, no visual effects like smoke puffs or splashes)
2. Only one season, as far as I can tell
3. Can’t change airplane without restart
4. Not as easy to save and reload flights
5. Sparse autogen, and sparse AI.


Anonymous said...

Not a bad summary there, glad you're getting some fun out of FG. There are actually two seasons, summer and winter. Still far from ideal, of course, but better than nothing...

You're right about the sounds in FG; we could do with some nicely recorded additional ones and would welcome any contributions in that department.

Oh, and there will likely be a new version some time in the next month or two with quite a few nice improvements...

Runnerdad said...

Thanks, anon.!
As for sounds, I bet some of the better freeware addon developers for MSFS would not mind loaning some of their sounds to FG, has anyone in FG development tried contacting them?

I did see some winter textures in the data dir, but I didn't see a way specify a date to get winter textures. I did find one property for time with a very large number. Would this be seconds since 1904, or something like that?

GREAT news about the new version!!

Anonymous said...

Flightgear is a lovely Flight Simulator...add it with those interesting designs found at and it becomes wonderful flight sim. It is really nice to fly around with it.