AVSIM Commercial Utility Review

Active Sky X

Product Information
Publisher: HiFi Simulation Software
Description:  Advanced weather engine

Download Size:
71 MB

Format:
Download or CD
Simulation Type:
FSX
Reviewed by: Allen Lavigne AVSIM Staff Reviewer - July 28, 2007

Although this review covers only Active Sky X (ASX), X Graphics (XG) is installed on my system, and will be reviewed separately later. It is not at all required to obtain both ASX and XG in order to fully enjoy one without the other.

I do attempt to clarify certain aspects concerning the proper usage of this product but this is without any intent to replace the developer’s “help” documentation, which should be consulted first and remains the final word on the use of HiFi products. An excellent source of information is available online from HiFi’s site “without any purchase required”, and should be consulted by anyone wishing an in depth information source about ASX, which is much too long to include in its entirety in this review which attempts to give you some idea of what to expect from this package.

Introduction

Test System

P4 3.2G
2G RAM
ATI X850XT 256Meg
Windows XP (SP2)
Saitek X52 flight controller
FSX/photo scenery patch/SP1
UTerrain X USA
ASX+XG
LCD 24” Wide screen: My screen resolution is 1920x1200 so all the pics will have wide screen aspects.

Flying Time:
23 hours

Well, it has finally arrived: Active Sky for FSX, and the X Graphics environment enhancements. I discovered this 2 minutes after it was posted in the AVSIM “HiFi Simulation Software Support” forum, following which I started a thread that got over 4000 views the first day; proof of Active Sky’s popularity. Having used HiFi’s products for many years now I can understand why it’s predecessor, ActiveSky v6, won the 2006 AVSIM Bravo Zulu Award (Best Utility) as well as the 2006 AVSIM Reader's Choice Award (amongst others).

HiFi’s last pre-release for FSX led us as far as ASV6.5, which did not deliver the same total functionality that users were enjoying with ASV6 in FS9. This latest version was also not able to incorporate the previously popular pro-GE. Now we have ASX and X Graphics. These are available separately for those that prefer the default textures or a different environment enhancement source, or for those that prefer an alternate weather engine to the one offered here. It does not, and rumor has it will not, incorporate GE-Pro (or its FSX equivalent) as the FS9 version did.

REQUIREMENTS:

Windows XP, or Vista
Microsoft Flight Simulator X with Service Pack 1(SP1)
.NET 2.0
Pentium 1.5GHZ processor or MUCH higher (!!) and 500MB RAM, preferably 2 Gigs
200MB Hard drive space, more for X Graphics
Internet connection for weather file downloads.

Installation and Documentation

If you have previous versions installed, you do not have to uninstall them. ASX and XG are completely separate entities. However, any ASX or XG versions must be uninstalled properly prior to their re-installation (by using the add/remove programs application).

Unzipping the download to its folder yields 2 included folders if you have the bundle; one each for ASX and for XG. These can be setup concurrently using the enclosed AutoRunStarter.exe or individually from inside each folder. For more detailed installation information please read the individual HOW_TO_INSTALL.txt files within each folder.

Autorun if you got the bundle XGauge installation Wizard You may get stuck on initial launch.

Running the AutoRun Starter installs each separately by asking you which one to install. By default it installs on C:\Program Files\HiFi\Xengine, but instead I used E: easily. Next queries are from the XGauge installation wizard that will install the XGauge into all existing FSX aircraft panels (as pop-ups that use shift-N to view). You are given the choice to append, insert or uninstall the XGauge into any position in the list of window panels for all aircraft (no choice for individual a/c, but you can edit these later). Append will add it to the end of the lists, and insert will insert it to a position of your choice in the list.

It will not install the gauge in AI aircraft. Once the “launch the program” option comes up, installation is complete. This is in the Windows/Start/Programs listing and can be run anytime between FSX sessions if you wish to change the window assignment for the XGauge.

It is only when you first launch ASX that you are requested to enter the license key, which involves four blocks of key code. You may also get stuck because a security warning can get hidden behind the opening screen, stalling initialization until it is processed. Look for it and take care of it and then you can continue on. This is a minor problem you may not even encounter, but it can make you panic.

As Active Sky X now interfaces with FSX by means of the new SimConnect API, there is no need to ensure you have FSUIPC updated for this application. All documentation for ASX is available without purchase from HiFi’s site.

ASX essentials: (getting going without fuss)

Quick Start: ASX should always be started before FSX is started, and closed after FSX is closed (otherwise you get an error pop-up, surmountable but annoying). Upon launch, ASX always opens to its Main screen, then connects to the internet, loads the user home page for ASX in the main screen’s browser section (the gray part) of the GUI, then begins downloading the current weather if you have automatic downloads selected, otherwise it will use the last downloaded weather. It then will go into a “Synthesis active” stage using the active file.

Installing Wx-Influenced Textures (with XG installed): If you have XG installed, a button/bar called “Install X Graphics Textures” will do a good job of installing textures as influenced by weather conditions at your location. This is done from the report menu (if only one station is to influence the synthesis) or both departure and destination in the briefing menu (when a flight plan is loaded). This button is shaded (inactive) if XG is not installed.

Settings menu: By default, minimum surface visibility is set to 100 SM and upper to 200 SM in the Settings menu (I prefer these set to much lower values). Maximum surface winds are set to 100 knots by default, but I prefer to set this to 15 knots, otherwise: bye-bye birdie with 100-knot surface winds. You may want to check cloud icing to zero as this has caused me problems in the past by catching me in a negligent flight mode. There are also other settings on this screen, which I will cover in more detail later.

By paying attention to just those above items should be enough to get you up and away without unforeseen problems.

Main screen Settings screen
Report screen Briefing screen

ASX menu details: (getting fussy)

Although there are eleven buttons on the left column, there are seven screens, and one help document menu.

Getting/manipulating current weather: On initial launch, ASX downloads the current weather only if you left the “Automatic Weather Downloads” option checked ‘on’ in the Settings menu (default setting is on); otherwise, ‘off’ or unchecked, it will reload the last weather downloaded (LastWeather file), which is critical for continuing a saved flight unaltered.

If you finished the last flight and begin anew on the tarmac, you may wish to get the latest weather anyway. Downloads can be forced by checking the option to ‘on’, then clicking “Apply”, and the current weather will be downloaded immediately. If you wish to maintain automatic weather updates while flying leave this option checked, and adjust the interval period to your taste from between 5 to 30 minutes (or off) in one-minute increments.

This way of controlling when downloads occur is not explained in the same way in HiFi’s documentation. You have to be careful with this option, for if left checked, you will loose your last weather and get it updated to current conditions, which may be far different from your saved situation’s. You can either finish the flight without starting ASX, as FSX will have a limited area of weather saved, or you can load the “LastWeather” file and then refresh the weather.

Advanced users can also edit the ASX configuration file found in Documents and Settings\***usernamehere***\Application Data\HiFi\Xengine\ASX to read True or False before opening ASX to control if or not the download begins upon launch. In my opinion, this “automatic downloads” option should be on the main screen so that you can be aware of its status at all times, or there should be an “download upon launching ASX ” option added.

If you are using a file other than a “last download” such as some historical or saved weather file, upon re-launching of ASX you will not get that one automatically reloaded; you always to get the “LastWeather” file downloaded. So if you had some detailed or historical weather in use, just save it as “LastWeather” file before exiting ASX. To activate the saved file, once loaded, you must also click on the “Refresh Wx” button after loading it. ASX will suspend automatic downloads when you are using saved and historical files, which is handy, in case you forget and start getting downloads again.

Activity bars showing an active download followed by the synthesis active state.

There is an activity bar on the bottom of the GUI, always visible, which has three activity states that turn green when active. There are no progress bars as before, but downloads were fast with my broadband connection. The state “Synthesis active” (green) means that the weather file is being processed, which I prefer to leave to do its “thing” before loading FSX, although it may not matter. The depiction output active state means that ASX is transferring weather information to FSX. These activity states are labeled as “idle” (white text) when completed or inactive. If you have the option to generate virtual stations checked, the synthesis process takes a lot longer to complete.

Collaboration with VATSIM allows users to download the weather from VATSIM’s source for those who wish to fly on their network. I usually don’t use VATSIM so I will not say more.

Setting maximum visibilities: A feature of ASX that I find important is the visibility setting. With this new version we have three: surface minimum, surface maximum, and upper maximum. The delimiting altitude between surface and upper maximum visibilities is 3000’ AGL (not MSL which is the altitude reading on regular altimeters). So if your airport is at 400’ above sea level, your change in visibility limit will come into effect at 3400’ feet ASL. You will not notice any change if both limits are equal, but visibility changes will be increasingly obvious as this difference increases.

The lowest minimum surface visibility, other than zero, is one mile, my own preference. Surface and upper maximums can be set from 0 to 200 miles. With both set maximums at 50 SM, I get the nice blended horizon effects while allowing visibilities to approach a nearly real clear situation. Although there are many days of unlimited visibility, the benefit gotten by limiting the vis (and thus inducing artificial haze conditions) is to enhance the visual qualities and playability of the sim itself (fps) and avoid the razor’s edge horizon often found with native FSX.

An added plus is the gradual blending of textures to the haze, creating an illusion that hides the all too well known “distant type 2 blurries” and reduces abrupt ground texture discontinuities induced by FSX’s engine. Nearer the aircraft, a slight hazing obscures the ground textures just enough to allow for some realism (cities, rivers are visible but not crispy clear) while almost ignoring FSX’s defective blurries. After visiting the forums I’ve noticed that some simmers like this but others would prefer a much less obscuring haze layering. Some liken it to flying in a doughnut hole.

Comparisons of different combinations of maximum visibilities slightly above 3000’ AGL are collaged together in this following picture. I am not trying to establish an in depth analysis, but only trying to give a general idea for some of the different visibility combinations available and their effect. Take note that there are more variations and combinations possible with ASX than with previous versions of Active Sky. The slider allows for all values between 0 and 200, but I have limited my selections to multiples of 5 or 10. I can only distinguish about 5 distinct visibility settings even though there are 200 possible calls (0-200 scale).

Comparisons of max visibility combinations
Below, then above 3000’ AGL Below, then above 7000’ clouds

At lower settings, any difference between surface and upper visibilities can be dramatic; where, as the maximum values increase these differences seem to exhibit less bordering (compare 02-20 to 20-05 and compare 30-40 to 40-40). Limiting both max values to 05 SM, we get a fairly dense hazing effect.

At the other end of the scale, both values set to 200 SM gives us a clear sky condition similar to what the default FSX renders, but I find there is still a remnant of haze barely visible masking the true colors of the ground textures. This is a matter of opinion. At white-out values of 00 and 00, I failed to render anything other than what a 30-30 situation gave (this may be an incomplete analysis as I gave up trying to get 00 rendered as a max).

I made up a METAR to include 4 layers: KOMA 021152Z 16010KT 7SM OVC030 BKN060 OVC120 OVC150. Only above the second layer at 12000 feet do I get a believable overcast sky. With my draw distance set to 80 in FSX, this next row of snapshots shows the layering as seen at different altitudes.

First “overcast” layer Between first two layers
Above ovc120 Above last overcast layer ovc150

From these it does seem that a real overcast simulation can be drawn using ASX’s engine, but not just by using one layer, a few are still required to achieve anything near believability.

The REPORT page: This page, shown earlier, is consulted when you are interested in getting a specific weather station report. Set to closest, it will display your closest station’s weather, or can be temporarily locked to a desired airport such as your destination or alternate.

A graphical series of conditions follows which can be useful at first glance to see if there are clouds, precipitation, etc. It is limited to graphical symbols. A more detailed coded METAR script follows, with a decoded textual weather report below it. There is an excellent table in the documentation called “METAR Decoding Information” with lots of information that will help you decode the METAR yourself. Very useful, for even with some real life aviation experience I still have to think about all those codes to decipher the METAR myself. A great learning tool. From this page you can also choose to install local weather influenced textures (if you have X Graphics) selected according to the conditions at the station displayed on this page. It will not take into account a flight planned route, that is done elsewhere.

The MAP page: With similarities to XGauge, the map page displays by way of graphical symbols (see legend below), weather conditions at stations within a selectable range from 30 to 5000 SM. Care must be taken not to overcrowd the map. This is easily done by manipulating the range and by selecting symbols from stations, airports, route, clouds, precipitation, visibility, and winds as desired. This legend can also be accessed as a popup from this page.

I found this map screen useful to predict weather conditions around and distant from my current position. Cursors allow for the map to move west/east/north/south. You can lock on your position, or not, select a center station, and select the winds aloft altitude display, from surface to FL490 in 3000 ’ increments.

150 NM range with airports 200 NM range with stations
2000 NM range cluttered 5000 NM winds aloft FL180

There are limitations as to the amount of information displayed symbolically, so there is a popup available by placing your mouse pointer over a station as seen in the picture below for KMCI, where a METAR for that station is then detailed in a box. This is very handy for deciding where you would like to travel, or avoid. I’ve also included a map of winds aloft for 6000’ for my intended enroute altitude. Crude directions are symbolized but wind velocities are omitted. You have to go to the report screen and set the location to that of interest to get a detailed list of the winds aloft conditions. A bit limited, and awkward.

Legends for symbols
With route KOMA to KMCI popup METAR for KMCI Winds aloft 6000’ enroute

The BRIEFING page: (A picture of this page is with the group of four pages above.) This is where you can enter your flight plan. You get a popup where you can change the airports, cruising speed, and enroute altitude. What effect these last two have I am not certain, as only the averaged conditions of departure and destination airports influence the wx-influenced selection of X Graphic textures, if you have that installed. You can get a printout of your displayed enroute weather from the navigation log.

The WX-CONFIG page: On this page you can manually configure the weather one station at a time, and impose the METAR range that this station imposes on other stations (up to 80 SM, and “global”).

12 wind/temperature layers including surface can be entered manually using the popup. Values for shear (4 choices), turbulence (5 choices), MSL altitude, wind direction, speed, and temperature and dew point are configurable. Eleven of these correspond to the arrow symbols on the report page for Aloft. The twelfth, surface winds, is amongst the row of symbols above that.

Since this is done for one station at a time, its use would be for setting up specific conditions you would like to try, or to correct errors in the METAR. It can be quite laborious. Other conditions can also be corrected, or modified using a METAR editor which can then be parsed into the overall weather data. However, when adding a layer, unless I added one to the end of the list (i.e. above FL490), I always got an error with closure of the application. You can modify an existing layer without this error occurring, but I do not have the resources to analyze this error.

You can delete a layer if you found, for instance, that it created too much shear when transitioning between layers. This often occurs when the direction change to the next layer is great; you WILL notice it in the flight sim. This lack of a gradual transition is probably a fact of life within FSX and was not readily fixable by the HiFi team. After visiting the HiFi forums here at AVSIM, I see they have been made aware of this and are working on it. I am including one example of questionable wind directions between 12 and 18 thousand foot layers at KOMA.

Wx-Config screen Popup for Wind/Temperature Cloud layer popup
Questionable wind directions (KOMA July 021152Z).

If you want to work on the cloud layers, it is easier and less error prone than with the winds aloft. There is also an option to configure the weather globally (in the application range box). This could be useful for some that don’t want the weather to change much and like a certain setup. This would presumably help to minimize ASX’s use of the CPU if you also set the dynamic rate of change in the settings menu to zero.

For this set of data, once synthesized for ASX, you would “Save File” rather than save a METAR file, as the entire weather file becomes repeated to the configured choices. Although I could theoretically configure up to 20 cloud layers, I tried making several, but these extra layers started to become indistinguishable in an FSX situation, with the diminished visibilities and all the cloud types seeming to come from similar layers,etc. I did not continue past seven layers, and what I managed to configure was not photogenic.

If you close ASX after making all that layering work, don’t forget to save the METAR because ASX will reload the “last used” weather file or download a new one depending on your settings. If you change the visibility to, for example 50, either in the string or in the box for visibility, ASX seems to revert it to 10 as a max, and is listed as 10+ in the report page.

The SETTINGS page: If you are interested in changing the minimum and maximum values for many parameters, there are quite a few here. I will discuss those I have found most useful. The influence of dynamic changes in weather can be set here, and it overrides FSX’s settings. I kept mine at 50% but did not notice much change happening.

The effect of the option “Create Virtual Stations” can be seen in the comparison snapshots below. There does not seem to be too many new stations created (green circles highlight some areas), and not where they are needed (red circles). I was hoping this option would fill in the blanks sort of speak, because FSX depicts clouds in the near vicinity of a station, leaving large gaps that should have clouds too.

One other option that will influence this better, is the CAVOK and the “no data” station generation sliders. Having reset these to 25% each (they were near nil before), I get what you see in the next map snapshot, much more stations with clouds, but still there are gaps hindering true overcast in between stations.

I hesitate using full sliders here, as it seems unnatural to impose full cloud layers to all these places. Nevertheless, I show what happens in the next map snapshot; the white patches, symbolizing clouds, are thicker for a lot of stations but there does not seem to be more virtual stations generated, which might have closed the gaps between stations better. The maps are centered at KOMA with a 3000 NM range setting. Weather was for 072352Z.

Without virtual stations –vs- with virtual stations

CAVOK and “no data” 25% generated and with 100% generated.

Other sliders for turbulence can be set to your taste for realism. Wake turbulence is mimicked here too, but I never got a chance to experience it because I have AI set to only 25% and rarely had any large AI near me. As AI is a performance hog, I avoid setting it higher than to make for a mere presence.

Similar to earlier versions, there is an option to enhance route coverage but none to force the destination weather upon closer stations, which I found useful in earlier versions of Active Sky. I wonder why this was dropped?

In this version, you can allow up to 20 cloud layers to be simulated. I left mine at 6, as I doubt there are more in reality, but maybe ASX can draw interesting layering effects on coverage at these high values, I don’t know. I tried it once, it did take a lot of work in the wx-Config screen making all these layers and it did not make for interesting results.

The DOWNLOAD page: Simply put, this is where you can get archived weather files. It can also be used for today’s weather with the ability to specify which time of which day you will download, but limited to anytime since January 1, 2007. This method also disables automatic downloads.

To avoid disabling the automatic downloads, you can alternately use the left lower side of the GUI, which I’ve circled in the snapshot, where you can also specify an archived date and time. Once activated by clicking “Apply”, it will then update the weather for this date and time onward, but only when you have automatic downloads selected in the settings screen, and will be in effect for the next automatic download, unlike the download page method where the downloads are de-activated after the initial download. It will not change the date and time your flight sim is set to; this has to be done manually.

In this same area, if it is checked for “Force to Real Time”, your computer’s time will be used. This can be specified as GMT or local times.

TUNING in on the COM: The nearest weather station enroute can be tuned in by adjusting your COM1 radio to 122.00: A voice reading of the local WX is heard but no text is displayed. It would be nice if you could choose your station but it takes the nearest one.

Hurricane depiction: Although ASX is capable of mimicking a hurricane, there were none while I was doing this review and there were none in the historical database, which is only available from 01-01-2007 onwards.

I think there was a severe tropical storm in the southern pacific USA region but I could not find the data. The picture I am showing here is borrowed from HiFi’s site. Since I would never fly into a hurricane in real life, I am not usually interested in this feature but may try some “reconnaissance flights”. It has its own graphical symbol in the map screen as shown here.

Hurricane display on map

XGauge: Being prepared.

What you can get from the map screen, you can also get in a gauge called XGauge, which is a popup window in your panel configuration. Although useful to show forward weather, I found it quite slow to load, change symbols displayed, and alter the range. I prefer using the map screen, which is bigger, more colorful, more informative, and seems to load a lot faster when FSX is minimized.

I made a forced global overcast condition, which I show below. What I am trying to show here is that when there are no stations, you may not get clouds, so any real simulation of overcast will be interrupted by clearer areas. You could force stations to be artificially made in between distant stations and force these to have cloud coverage up to 100% by using the settings screen. So unless you have closely placed stations in your vicinity, you may not see a full overcast condition as I previously pointed out above for the KOMA centered area.

XGauge and route; 100NM range Forced global overcast 160NM Too cluttered at 100 SM range

XGauge uses the same graphical symbols as does the map as described earlier which can be individually selected on or off by clicking the various buttons on the sides of the XGauge. Re-loading of data occurs after each change and this is slow. I also found that XGauge could affect performance of the sim, especially when loading in large range values with lots of symbols active. The only benefit the XGauge has over the map screen is in the METAR text depiction by selection the DST button, and you can get the winds aloft at different altitudes using the W+ and W- buttons, but again, performance on my system made most usages of this gauge slow.

PICTURE GALLERY: there are many more excellent photos on HiFi’s screenshots page. These are a few I took myself, with X Graphics installed. Those snapshots that can only be had with weather-influenced textures from X Graphics are tagged with “(XG)”.

Overcast near KBOS Avoiding a storm system
Storm with lightning Inside a storm (XG) Same storm again (XG)
Low vis, low layer (XG) FL410 Haze effect
Nice horizons: (XG)

HETEROPTEROLOGY: The study of TRUE bugs.

It does seem that we all deserve a degree in Heteropterology, the study of true BUGS. The following list of possible bugs was obtained by reading the AVSIM forums and by direct observations.

Since most of these bugs will probably get fixed in future updates, I am not listing all of them in the “What I Do Not Like” box where I list things that work but I did not like.

As of Build 1056, July 8, 2007: (as these may be fixed in later builds)
1) The Tool Tips only stay visible for a few seconds, not enough time to read the full sentence.
2) No express button to clear all weather, or download right away.
3) Winds aloft shift a lot sometimes.
4) Gaps between adjacent distant stations hinder full overcast conditions.

Summary / Closing Remarks

I hope I’ve covered most of this expanse of screens and options which makes up our voluminous new Active Sky X. Surely, I am not going to spend the next year deeply analyzing this application to the detriment of all my other worldly activities. I've got to stop somewhere, so I finish here, leaving some things out, mostly because I rarely would use those options.

In summary, let me conclude that I am pleasantly impressed with this promising new version and knowing HiFi’s excellent support and steady flow of updates, this application will certainly improve with time.

Similarly with earlier versions, there are gaps in overcast clouds when stations do not overlap in coverage. This may be improved upon in the future, as I’m sure the developers, amongst the very best in our flight sim community, will be working on this for some time to come. Both cloud layer and winds aloft transitions are sometimes exaggerated, but this is a limitation imposed by FSX.

Having checked the HiFi forum at AVSIM regularly over the past 5 weeks, all I can report is that yes, there are some minor problems, but they seem to be isolated to gear specific issues for the most part.

 

What I Like About Active Sky X

  • Infinitely better than FSX default’s weather engine.
  • So many settings, options, and variations possible.
  • Minimal effect on performance (fps).

 

What I Don't Like About Active Sky X

  • Limited control of download activity at launch.

 

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