The default panels that come with FS9 and FSX are functional and work well for the base simulation. GPS in both sims is quite powerful navigational tools, but its GUI is not very friendly or simple to use, nor does it look realistic when used in the default airliners.
For years, many enthusiasts have been making panels to look better or do a specific chore better. Some are made to fit with either the default aircraft or the variety of add-ons. One such offering comes from a payware company called Friendly Panels. The basic premise behind “friendly” in Friendly Panels comes from the fact that all (or at least most) panels are displayed in one window. As the monitors get bigger or more numerous, Friendly Panels allows more to be displayed at one time without the need for “pop-up” panels that are covering parts of the main panel.
The designers of panels have to strike a fine balance of “realism” vs. functionality and take into account various resolutions and setups for our favorite sim. While freeware versions are the labor of love, they do not have to satisfy anyone but the author. They are a gift for others to use and be thankful for. Those who don’t like them can simply look elsewhere.
Payware panels on the other hand, have the responsibility to do what the authors say they’ll do, and they also have to meet certain functionality criteria that will make users want to buy their product. The people at Friendly Panels have taken on that task and I will try to examine whether they do what they say, and how they fit and enhance the basic simulation with which we all like to spend so much time.
Installation and Documentation
The first thing to note is that these are three separate products, each with its own price and installer. Each product comes as a download that features an installer and when you pay, you will get the serial number. In addition, each panel works both in FSX as well as in FS9.
The 737 panel comes with two panels, one for the 737-400 and one for the 737-800. Since there are no -800 Boeings in FS9 by default, the installer creates an FP copy of the default 737-400 with the 800 designation, and with a set of instructions on how to alias those to the freeware airplanes such as POSKY’s new generation 737’s. In FSX, the situation is reversed since there are no default -400 series Boeings. If the user has both the FS9 and the FSX installed, the automatic installer creates a thumbnail and the folder, but you will have to manually move the airplane to FSX. The documentation explains how to do it. After you manually copy the default 737-400 from FS9 into FSX, you will have both the -800 and the -400 versions available.
The 747-400 is present in both FS9 and FSX, so the installation is completely automatic unless you want to use those panels with other 747 offerings. In that case, you must manually edit and alias the panel to your plane and do some panel.cfg tweaking to fit the VC gauges to the plane you intend to use it with (of course the model must already have the VC).
The 777 is absent from FSX and the Friendly Panels manual tells you how to copy the default FS9 Boeing into FSX so that you can use the panel there as well. I have also successfully aliased the Friendly Panels 777 2D panel to the outstanding freeware MelJet 777 in FS9. The MelJet 777 doesn’t come with a VC so the process is quite simple, and there are is no need for complicated panel.cfg editing.
Each panel installation has a separate routine for FS9 and FSX. It takes a few simple clicks and the installer does the job well. It is important to note that the default airplanes are left untouched and that you will still have the original Microsoft offerings available. What the installation does is make a separate copy of the default airplanes and renames them with the FP prefix. Then when you enter the aircraft selection menu, you will have both regular 747-400, for example, and right underneath you will have the 747-400 FP version.
Each panel has one user manual for the panel and one for the accompanying FMC. Both are in PDF format and explain basic functions so that new users will be able to use these, if they follow the instructions. In addition, you can download the manuals separately from the Friendly Panels website to study and explore the features before you buy the product itself.
The FMC manual is pretty much the same for all airplanes, as they all seem to be based on the 737 version. In 74 and 77 manuals, there are several erroneous references to the 737 instead of the 747 or 777 that might be confusing to some.
The authors recommend the resolution of 1240x1024 although the minimum requirements are 1024 x768, and even at that setting the panel displays well.
It is important to remember that these are the 2D versions of the panels only, and that you cannot add the virtual cockpit to the plane that doesn’t already have it. For example, in FS9 there is no VC for the POSKY 747 or the MelJet 777, so you will not be able to add one. However, the default 73, 74, and 77 have the VC, and Friendly Panels do their best to adjust these with new gauges. The manual says:
gauges of this panel have been adapted to B777- 300 FS9 virtual
cockpit. However, as
the other hand, if you’re going to use the gauges of this
panel in the VC of any other
Fair and to the point in my opinion. So you would not be expecting something that this package never says it does.
Boeing 737-400 and -800 2D Panel
In FS9’s default 737-400, the add-on panel looks great. All instruments including the throttle console and radios are on one screen, as well as the partial section of the overhead, which can be turned off or on via the icon. The only pop-up panel that needs to be opened separately is the replacement for the GPS with that of a new FMC-CDU. If you wish, you can also open the throttle quadrant and radio stack in the separate window, as well as the MCP for selection of the various modes of the EHSI. No need though, especially if you running a bigger monitor at the higher resolution, or if like me, you are using several monitors to display your panels. This is where the friendly in Friendly Panels is at its best and does what it says – all necessary cockpit instruments are displayed in one easy to read and easy to adjust window.
There is another area though where friendly is not so friendly anymore. If you haven’t upgraded to dual/quad core and are still running your P4 or AMD equivalent, you will definitely notice a frame rate drop. All those gauges and higher resolution take their toll, and my Nvidia 6800 GPU was definitely experiencing slight side effects of the good-looking panel. Nothing major, but the drop in FPS was there. However, if you are not hardware outdated you may have better results to the point that you will not notice any adverse effects in the sim.
Most of the gauges in this panel are new or at least they appear to be. The default MS gauges that are incorporated fit seamlessly in both FS9 and FSX, so the overall feel of the panel is better. In the 737-400 panel, the PFD and MFD are improved and radios are all new. The background panel bitmap is sharp and well done during both the day as well as at night. The night floodlights are not over-done, and backlit gauges provide enough information even with the flood lights turned off.
The EHSI is all new to the 737-400 and has numerous settings and modes that add tremendously over the default panel. There are seven display modes for the EHSI, controlled by the MCP and they show everything you would need, except for the traffic in FS9. In FSX, the traffic mode displays surrounding aircraft and acts like a mini radar gauge, but without TCAS warnings and conflict resolution suggestions.
Another very friendly part of this panel is the FMC and the VNAV mode, not usually found on the panel add-ons. The CDU replaces the default GPS and you can control everything that you are used to doing with the GPS. Just like the default GPS, you can select direct-to points, get airport, nav-aid and facility information, and transfer frequencies to your radios. Unlike the GPS, this unit offers the VNAV implementation and adds the VNAV button to the autopilot.
The plans are imported from the FS directly, but you can manually select the altitude and speed crossing for each point in the plan if you wish to do so. Once you enter the cruise altitude, the CDU will automatically calculate your speeds and altitudes for each waypoint. This isn’t very detailed since all cruise speeds are set automatically at 280 knots. You will probably want to enter them manually. Nevertheless, it is a nice feature and a worthwhile upgrade from the stock GPS.
One thing I don’t care much about is that all climbs and descents are performed at MS standard 1,800 FPM, so you will have to adjust your VS on the autopilot panel.
As you get close to your destination, you can load and activate your approach by choosing from a variety of approaches that are found in FS database. Again, this is the same feature found on the default GPS, but the user interface is much more intuitive and easier to use.
Approaching the airport, you may select the menu option on the CDU and enter your destination identifier. When done, you will be able to look up all runways available, frequencies for ILS and ATIS, and transfer them into your radios with a few simple mouse clicks. Very user friendly and easy to use.
Among other features on the FMC-CDU, you will find fuel consumption calculation, as well as your ETA to each waypoint. ETA is displayed in Zulu time, but there seems to an error as the clock keeps going past 24 hours, and you will sometimes see 30:19 ZULU time, which I believe is a bug.
In FS9, I have also encountered several other anomalies, mostly related to lights and bitmaps. For example, certain knobs are only visible when the lights are on, and when the lights are off there is nothing in their place. Next, I noticed that the PFD will not display in VC if you undock your 2D Panel and move it to another screen.
Despite those glitches, I liked both 737 panels (the -400 and the -800) in FS9. In FSX, they are also nice, but not as big of a change vs. the default provided by Microsoft.
A special note to those who use TH2GO. Currently I run 3 monitors hooked up to TH2GO, and three more hooked up to a secondary video card and secondary VGA output on my main GPU. These panels are perfect for undocking and moving around as there are no big blank backgrounds associated with them.
In FS9, they can easily be placed on the second, third or fourth monitor and they will not cause performance issues. In FSX, the situation is similar to default panel because as soon as you move them off the main screen, the frame rates plummet, at least it did on my system. That is probably due to the way that FSX handles multiple monitors, so for the most part I stayed in FS9 as the performance was much better and I didn’t have any issues while moving panels off the main screen to other monitors.
Boeing 777-300 2D panel
The panel bitmap is good and sharp and just like the 737 panel, all sub panels are incorporated in one window. The panel is also friendly to undocking and moving, but there are several issues with the CDU.
First, the good stuff. The panel comes with lateral and vertical mode autopilot and there are seven display modes selectable on the MCP. The only difference between the FS9 and FSX versions is the lack of GPWS and traffic information in FS9. The FMC is choke full of data, and it will tell you your fuel at waypoint, distance to go, fuel estimated at the next waypoint, fuel remaining, and all kinds of wind and altitude information. It will also show the speeds for take off and approach, but those are generic and the authors admit in their manual “Weight and wind data are taken from FS. Speeds are for conditions at the end of the page, you probably need to use other reference speeds to take off.”
The gauges seem very similar to default, except for the PFD, MFD and the all new CDU, which replaces the stock GPS. Just as in the 737 panel, it is quite unusual for the add-on panel to include the VNAV functionality, but this one does. Again, there are limits to what it can do, and you will have to fiddle with speeds and VS settings if you don’t like the “calculated” numbers.
Then there is the bad stuff. First, some buttons are mislabeled or the commands associated with them do something they are not supposed to do. The FMC Comm, Hold, and Dep/Arr buttons on the CDU are all mixed up, and open up information pages unrelated to the button that was pushed.
Second, I e-mailed their technical support asking if they have plans to fix it. However, I have not heard from anyone – it has been over three weeks. Their web page was last updated in November 2007, as of this writing, and there is another web page that says it was updated in January, but it only directs you to the old page. So here we have an example of how payware shouldn’t be done.
If this was the case with freeware - no problem, it will get fixed when it does, and since no one spent any money on it, some users may be willing to fix the situation themselves. Since this is a payware panel, the expectations are a bit different. Bugs will always be there, but the difference between good and bad payware is how the authors respond in addressing the issues. This is one area that Friendly Panels is definitely not up to task.
Finally, no matter how small the company is, they should keep some sort of forum/FAQ/support board where users can help themselves if no one from the company can. There is no such forum, nor is there a FAQ with commonly encountered problems.
The 777-300 panel is nice, but there are bugs. If you don’t mind trying to fix it, you will have to edit the FMC-CDU gauge. There is no bitmap in the panel folder where you can quickly cut and paste mislabeled buttons. The panel is functional and works, but the potential buyers should be aware that there are issues and that currently I couldn’t get support for it.
Boeing 747-400 2D panel
The panel background is done well, just like the other two panels. The window can easily be undocked and arranged over several other monitors. Similar to the other two panels, this one comes with the new PFD, MFD and FMC-CDU. The VNAV mode is also included. The features present on the 737 and 777 panel are all included here and the only difference between FSX and FS9 version is that the former has the traffic information and GPWS included. Here I thought that things were getting friendly again…
Well, sort of. The bugs with mislabeled buttons from the 777 didn’t make it here, thankfully. However, there are other bugs that are unique to this panel. First, a couple of main switches (avionics and auto brake) are invisible, and so are the mini icons for the sub-panels. In order to make them visible, you have to set the time in FS to night, turn the panel lights on, and then switch to daytime again. At least that is how it works on my computer. Not friendly at all.
Next, I tried to load the plan and it took me a while to figure it out, but the EXEC light on the CDU doesn’t work. “Cool, it even simulates the burned out bulbs”, you might think, but you would be wrong. There is no way to replace the bulb and your EXEC light never comes on. Granted this is not a biggie, and if you know that you have to push EXEC on the CDU after you make changes to your plan, you will do it with or without the little yellow light reminding you to do so. However, the new users or anyone following the instructions will be confused and frustrated, so this bug is another thing that spoils the overall impression of this panel.
The three panels I reviewed here have the potential to be good add-ons. They are unique because they merge all sub panels together in one window, while still looking realistic and they include the unique feature of VNAV functionality and FMC-CDU interface. Therefore, the authors have succeeded in that the panels are functional and they also look good.
Between the three, 737 is the clear winner, as it provides four panels for the price and it works as advertised. The 777 and 747 panels are somewhat unfinished or rushed without proper testing, and with no support so I believe they fail to meet the minimum acceptable criteria for payware.
Finally, all panels do what the authors say they do and the manuals are offered for free on their website so that you can see what you will be getting before you part with your currency. In the 737 panel you actually get a good value and decent enhancement over the default ones. For the other two, you might have to decide for yourself. Do you wish to pay for something that has glitches and bugs, but has the basic functionality? If you do, the panels will work, but you will have to learn how to live with a few imperfections.
What I Like About Friendly Panels 737, 747, 777
What I Don't Like About Friendly Panels 737, 747, 777
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