AVSIM Commercial Utility Review

Ultimate Weather FX

Product Information

Publishers:  Zinertek Technologies

Description: Add-on to improve weather visuals.

Download Size:
84 MB

Format:
Download
Simulation Type:
FSX & FS9
Reviewed by: Jeff Shyluk AVSIM Senior Staff Reviewer - July 4, 2009

FOREWORD:

"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." - Charles Dudley Warner

If there is one thing that can define your experience with Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS), it will probably be the weather. Rookie sim pilots should start with clear weather and no wind, real-world General Aviation pilots may want to simulate the weather they expect to find for their next Visual Flight Rules hop, and white-knuckle enthusiasts will want to try to land a virtual 747 in Hong Kong with zero visibility and horizontal rain in a hurricane-force crosswind.

Flight Simulator comes with a decent interface that allows sim pilots to choose the weather they would like to see. The climate is generated in "cells", which correspond to geographically placed weather stations on the world map. These cells differ from actual weather cells, which are mobile and are created in the Earth's atmosphere. The difference is important, as when you fly from cell to cell in Flight simulator, the weather can change drastically and with unexpected violence. Sim pilots with experience in MSFS tend to discover the limitations of the FSX weather generation system.

Ultimate Weather FX from Zinertek addresses this situation, but strictly in terms of appearances only. Ultimate Weather FX is an add-on that changes the look of the sky and the clouds, but it does not change the underlying method that MSFS uses to create weather in the first place.

A new dawn breaks over the horizon, with the assistance of Ultimate Weather FX. Precipitation in FSX is unchanged, but rain and snow effects are updated in the FS9 version.

INTRODUCTION:

"If you don't like the weather out the front door, go out the back door instead." - Eastern Canadian Folk Saying

Ultimate Weather FX is a small add-on that provides some new visuals for the sky in either FSX or FS9. Primarily, I will look at how the program runs in FSX, although there are more features available to the FS9 user. Specifically, both versions will provide new content that updates the look of the sky and clouds, but the FS9 version also adds visual enhancements to rain and snow as well. This is because FS9 uses different programming to generate precipitation. FS9 users can enjoy a greater variety of rain, snow and sleet, whereas FSX users won't see any change or improvement in precipitation.

As I mentioned earlier, Ultimate Weather FX doesn't make any changes to the method of how the simulated weather is created in either FSX or FS9. "FX" is shorthand for the word "effects", so this add-on is concerned only with making changes to MSFS visuals. If you do want to make changes to how the weather is generated, Zinertek recommends purchasing Active Sky from developer Hifi Simulation Software.

In addition, Ultimate Weather FX can make changes to the anti-collision and taxi lights of your aircraft, and to runway lights on the ground. The change boils down to a tweak of the configuration file in Flight Simulator that controls how the lights look. The runway light changes are included with Ultimate Weather FX. However, for changes to the aircraft lights, you will need to have installed A2A Software's 3D Lights Redux package.

Approach in the blackest night over Simferopol, on the Crimean peninsula. Ultimate Weather FX adjusts the hue of the runway lights, giving them a "filmic" look in my opinion.

I can see where this review is headed. By looking only at a default installation of FSX, I am going to miss seeing Zinertek's advances in precipitation effects, weather generation, and lighting options. If you are like me, and you are running default FSX, then you end up missing a large chunk of what Ultimate Weather has to offer. I believe that the majority of FSX users do not have the add-ons that Zinertek is recommending, so I feel that I can still put up a reasonable review based on that starting point. If I ever do come to get Active Sky and 3D Lights Redux, I will be sure to add on to my review.

INSTALLATION & DOCUMENTATION:

"If you don't like the weather you see now, wait five minutes" - Western Canadian Folk Saying

Ultimate Weather FX is around 84 MB. The download for the file is fast, and set-up is easy. Clicking on the executable file will automatically install Ultimate Weather. Copy protection is a standard software key that you need to get from Zinertek. The actual set-up is very fast at under a minute, and is not at all complicated.

Two decisions are required of the user: are you using FSX or FS9, and do you have 3D Lights Redux installed? Based on those criteria, you would choose how the installation should proceed. Otherwise, the process is automatic.

When installing Ultimate Weather FX, you will need to choose which version of MSFS you use: FSX or FS9.

Ultimate Weather FX keeps your original files backed up, in case you want to revert to them later. Simply uninstall the program, and your original weather files will be restored. If you install a weather generator like Active Sky, the Ultimate Weather files will be over-written. If you want to see them again, simply re-install Ultimate Weather.
Zinertek provides a concise six-page .PDF file to help users understand the basics of weather in FSX and FS9. It also describes how Ultimate Weather FX co-operates with Active Sky and 3DLights Redux.

OBSERVATIONS:

"Weather forecast for tonight: dark. Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning." - George Carlin

Ultimate Weather FX doesn't change anything about how FSX operates. It just alters the look of objects in the sky. It's difficult for me to say whether these changes are actual improvements. I think that sort of judgement depends on the aesthetics of the user. The changes do make differences within FSX. Many of the changes seem rather subtle to me, but some are more dramatic.

Testing the capabilities of the Acceleration F-18 in Ultimate Weather.

Perhaps the biggest visual change is that the cumulus clouds seem to be more detailed. With the exception of the cirrus clouds, the clouds in Ultimate Weather FX seem more detailed, but I think I noticed details in the puffy cumulus the most. Detailed clouds make the sky look more dynamic. When larger clouds interact, their outlines can be perceived as new shapes. In technical terms, this is called a "gestalt" observation, but if you prefer, it's the same thing as gazing at the sky and seeing floating bunnies and horsies. Over time, as FSX shuffles the clouds around, the interactions shift, and new shapes appear. With less detailed clouds, this effect is reduced.

I think the biggest subtle change is in the colour of the daytime sky. Zinertek has lightened the sky to a small extent, desaturating some of the more strident blues by a tiny amount. This is tricky to judge. All of the time I have spent in real aircraft, I have looked at the sky through Perspex windows. This transparent material, in my opinion, makes colours slightly desaturated as a certain portion of the colour is lost to refraction and reflection (up to 8%, according to official Perspex research). In other words, Ultimate Weather FX does a better job of simulating looking at daytime sky through glass. The sky seems a bit more realistic nearer to the ground, where you tend to see more washed-out blues due to terrestrial light scatter as well as atmospheric perspective. Put simply, the colours of the sky nearer to the ground are affected by the fact that the atmosphere is thicker there, and that the ground itself will change the colour of the sky. Again, the effect is best judged based on the user's own aesthetic opinion. I will show you some clear daytime images later on in my review.

High noon in FSX is one of the blandest-looking times to fly, as far as I am concerned. Midnight is even blander, as there is no sun. The solar light at noon is at its purest because it travels through the least amount of atmosphere in a straight path from the sun to our eyes. Dawn and dusk provide visual drama because the sun's rays pass obliquely through the atmosphere, and become scattered as they have to pass through more air. It is at these times that we see the widest range of colours that stir the heart and tease the imagination.

Science 101: How the light from the Sun is affected on its journey through the Earth's atmosphere. Particles in the air will deflect rays of light. The more air that sunlight has to travel through, the greater the chance that blue light waves will be deflected, allowing longer red waves to pass through. That's how we get red sunrises and sunsets, which are simulated in FSX.

I've often considered some of the weather add-ons I have seen over the years for flight-sim as being too garish by dawn or dusk. Over time, I've taken many opportunities in aircraft to study the crepuscular sky. Now I see that whatever colours a designer can come up with looks like washed-out canvas compared to the vivid colours Mother Nature cooks up on her airborne palette. Bold, bloody reds, searing vermilion, fiery yellow streaked with lapis lazuli, endless shades of blue and flashes of green that are swallowed into deep ultramarine. Few artists have the skill to conjure those colours as they are seen from the sky, as perhaps from a jetliner that's chasing the sun around the curve of the world.

Too much poetic license? As far as Ultimate Weather FX is concerned, I feel that their twilight colours are in places too garish and in other places too tame to capture a realistic view of the sky. I feel the same way about the default FSX, so again, is there an improvement or merely change?

COMPARISONS:

"We may achieve climate, but weather is thrust upon us." - O. Henry

More screenshots are in order. What I have done is assemble equal views of each of the cloud types in FSX for both the default clouds as well as the ones provided by Ultimate Weather FX. The cloud types are Clear (no clouds), Cirrus (cloud base altitude 30,000 ft.), Cumulus (5,000 ft.), Stratus (2,000 ft.), and Thunderstorm (5,000 ft.). The cloud coverage is 100%, with maximum density and view distance, with Bloom turned on in DX9. Each cloud view is shown in dawn, day, dusk, and night during springtime conditions. I used the FSX Advanced Custom Weather Menu to generate these specific views.

Clear Sky Dawn:

Here we see dawn on a clear day, FSX on the left, Ultimate Weather on the right. Ultimate Weather uses a desaturated palette of blues, compared to FSX. I measured the colours using the HSB scale of Photoshop (H= Hue, S= Saturation, B =Brightness). Where the hue and brightness (or luminance) would be relatively close, the saturation would vary by up to 25 %.

Clear Sky Day:

This is noon, with FSX on the left, Ultimate Weather on the right. Notice how the gradient of blues from Ultimate weather is more gradual than that of FSX. This simulates the scatter of light in the lower portion of our atmosphere, as well as a greater degree of reflected light from the ground.

Clear Sky Dusk:

Sunset, with FSX on the left, Ultimate Weather on the right. There are some differences near the horizon. Note how the distant hills are rendered in the lower left with hazy atmospheric perspective in FSX versus Ultimate Weather. Also, note how Ultimate Weather creates a larger light bloom around the sun. FSX, however, uses a wider spectrum of sunset colours. Is one more realistic than the other?

Clear Sky Night:

Midnight, with FSX on the left, Ultimate Weather on the right. Not much difference in these shots, at least to the naked eye. Both versions use hues that are near black. Ultimate Weather's night hue is maybe up to 5% lighter than FSX.

Cirrus Dawn:

I've placed the densest possible cirrus clouds into an otherwise clear sky. FSX is on the left, Ultimate Weather is on the right. Cirrus clouds present problems in Flight Simulator. They have to cover a very large area from high aloft. Due to limitations in textures, cirrus clouds can look like repetitive "tiles". The default FSX cirrus clouds can look like they repeat across the sky. Zinertek's solution was to make the clouds a lot wispier. While this may give their cirrus a more varied look, it also greatly reduces the coverage of the clouds. Personally, I do not at all like the wispy, insubstantial cirrus, but I present this visual comparison so that you may judge for yourself.

Cirrus Day:

FSX is on the left, Ultimate Weather is on the right. Here we can clearly see the difference between FSX and Ultimate Weather Cirrus. I must emphasize that the cloud density is set to its maximum. The Ultimate Weather cirrus seems barely visible. Cloud shyness?

Cirrus Dusk:

Sunset shows cirrus clouds in relief, with FSX on the left, Ultimate Weather on the right. The Ultimate Weather clouds appear to me to look repetitive in this shot.

Cirrus Night:

Nothing much to see in either of these night time screenshots, as they look very dark and very similar. FSX is on the left, Ultimate Weather is on the right.

Cumulus Dawn:

Cumulus clouds are large and varied, and will provide a dynamic-looking sky. With these screenshots, I've loaded the sky with cumulus. Aesthetically, this may not have been my wisest choice, as there are too many clouds. However, I wanted to keep the weather conditions as controlled as possible. FSX is the left screenshot; Ultimate Weather is on the right. Notice how the Ultimate Weather clouds individually show more contours and present a more complex silhouette. This makes them appear more life-like. As well, the FSX clouds seem to reflect a different spectrum of the dawn sky than the FSX clouds, which is both curious and interesting.

Cumulus Day:

Cumulus clouds show good detail by noontime daylight. FSX shows on the left, Ultimate Weather is on the right. The Ultimate weather cumulus clouds by day look lighter and more detailed than their FSX counterparts.

Cumulus Dusk:

FSX is on the left, Ultimate Weather is on the right. Zinertek uses highly detailed cumulus clouds. What with the brighter apparent reflection of ambient light as well as the greater level of detail, the Ultimate Weather clouds look striking at sunset. I think the Zinertek cumulus is an improvement over the FSX clouds, but I present these screenshots so that you may decide for yourself.

Stratus Dawn:

Stratus clouds are intended to sit very close to the ground. Sometimes I put a stratus layer near a cumulus layer aloft to make for some visual diversity. However, for these screenshots (FSX on the left, Ultimate Weather on the right) the stratus ends up below the flight level. I could add a visibility layer in with the stratus to simulate low-lying fog. Notice how the clouds interact with the hill in the lower right corner: the FSX stratus seems thicker than the Ultimate Weather stratus, but the Ultimate Weather version looks more detailed.

Stratus Day:

By daylight, we can see more differences in the stratus although you have to look close to see them. The FSX screenshot is on the left, Ultimate Weather is on the right. If you look closely at the Ultimate Weather version, you can see buildings through the mist. If you are looking for a solid cloud cover to blanket the land for IFR approaches, the Ultimate Weather clouds may be too translucent for your needs.

Stratus Dusk:

The FSX screenshot is on the left, Ultimate Weather is on the right. Lit from behind, the Ultimate Weather clouds look wispier than the FSX stratus. The Ultimate Weather clouds appear to take on more of the orange evening colour of the sky.

Stratus Night:

Night occludes visibility here. It's difficult to see any clouds at all in either the FSX version on the left or the Ultimate Weather version on the right.

Thunderstorm Dawn:

Thunderstorm clouds are the superstars of the sky! Very large, very loud, quite active, and sometimes destructive, a thunderhead is a massive force of nature. On the ground, the approach of a storm is like the view of a train as seen by a bug on the rails. Only the bravest pilots in the strongest planes will seek to fly into a storm. In a jetliner, it's a safe precaution to circle around thunderheads. If you have to ride into one, be prepared for vortex winds to toss your aircraft around like dice in a cup.

The ultimate weather in Ultimate Weather? Flight Simulator struggles to come up with a convincing thunderhead cloud. It's not so much Ultimate Weather's fault, but rather a shortcoming in the way clouds are generated in FSX.

Thunderstorms in FSX seem a lot tamer than storms in the real world. A single thunderhead anvil cloud can loom larger in the sky than any mountain. However, there are no clouds in FSX that approach that magnitude. The best that Flight Simulator can do is to stack cumulus-style clouds on top of one another to approximate vaguely the mass of a storm cloud.

Dawn thunderstorm screenshots, with FSX on the left, and Ultimate Weather FX on the right. Both cloud sets look suitably ominous from below. The FSX set depicts a storm about to pour rain, as the clouds have flat bases. The Ultimate Weather clouds are choppier, hinting at the turbulence at the forward part of a thunderstorm.

Thunderstorm Day:

I have the FSX screenshot on the left, and Ultimate Weather FX on the right. The FSX clouds look darker and stormier to me. The Ultimate Weather clouds are choppy, and have that dangerous "cottage cheese" look that signals a violent thermal inversion and possibly a tornado. Of course, Flight Sim never generates tornadoes, which is good because you never want to fly near one.

Thunderstorm Dusk:

The FSX screenshot is on the left, Ultimate Weather is on the right. Thunderclouds at dusk look a little strange lit from underneath and below without some haze or precipitation, but this was my standard set-up. I like the look at the edges of the cloud base on the Ultimate Weather version. Again, the Ultimate Weather clouds have more detail, making them look more turbulent.

Thunderstorm Night:

For the final set of cloud studies, we will look at thunderstorms at night. FSX is on the left, Ultimate Weather is on the right. As with the other night shots, there's not a lot to see. The usual lightning and flashes are available to both versions of weather, but they do not show up in my screenshots.

Miscellaneous:

Here are some before-and-after screenshots of various sights in FSX and then FSX with Ultimate Weather FX:

BEFORE AFTER

PERFORMANCE:

Test System

Intel Core 2 CPU 6600 @2.40GHz x2
2 GB RAM
NVIDIA geForce 8800GT Superclocked Edition
RealTek AC'97 Audio
Win XP SP3, FSX + Acceleration
Thrustmaster Top Gun Afterburner II
Logitech MX Revolution Laser Mouse
MS Digital Media Pro Keyboard
Saetek Pro Flight Rudder Pedals
TrackIR4:PRO
TrackClip PRO
XBOX 360 Controller
DBS Walk And Follow

Baseline FPS: 35
Product FPS: 45 (!)

Flying Time:
18 hours

"Don't knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people couldn't start a conversation if it didn't change once in a while." - Kin Hubbard

I've tried to assess my default FSX frame rate to find a median between high and low frame rates during normal usage. My baseline median appears to be around 35 frames per second for default FSX under good, controlled conditions. With Ultimate Weather FX, my frame rate jumped to 45 under the same conditions! Something this good automatically makes me suspicions. Either there's a flaw in my testing (entirely possible), there's something strange going on with my computer (again, possible), or most pleasingly, the optimized Ultimate Weather cloud textures are much less demanding of FSX than the default clouds. Loading up massive banks of storm clouds barely made a dent in my frame rate, which again was a pleasant surprise.

I should point out that these are my findings only, and probably depend heavily on my aging computer rig. Sim pilots with other hardware may have different results. In addition, I can only guess at how the clouds would look in FS9. I do know that it is possible to optimize FS9 clouds for better looks and performance, so I would guess that FS9 user might see some frame rate gain using Ultimate Weather FX.

All of this aerial goodness does come with a drawback in FSX: the visibility layer. In FS9, if memory serves, overall visibility is controlled by a slider. In FSX, you can make the air translucent by using a visibility layer. You define a base and a peak for the layer, and then adjust how much fog you would like. Placing such a layer at high altitudes can simulate ice crystals aloft, which causes an ersatz filtered sunshine effect. A fog layer placed on the ground should make for challenging IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) landings.

However, the visibility layer in FSX has certain aesthetic drawbacks. For one, you can never make the layer fully opaque, so it may be possible to see the runway through the cloud. Adding a thick stratus layer right on top can help make more convincing clag. As well, the visibility layer has very sharply defined lines, which makes any dramatic weather effect look pixellated and artificial when viewed from above in clear air.

In FSX, Ultimate Weather FX refuses to render visibility layers when you look at them from above. For instance, let's say you wanted to land in the Pemberton Valley, and you were approaching from an altitude of 10,000 feet. You want fog in the valley, so you render 3,000 feet of pea soup. In default FSX, you would see a harsh-looking white layer above Pemberton. With Ultimate Weather FX, you see perfectly clear weather all the way to the ground, no fog at all.

A visibility layer in FSX. This can look artificial and weird. Ultimate Weather works around this by not rendering any visibility layers that are viewed from higher altitude. In Ultimate Weather, this valley would look as if the weather was perfectly clear, until the moment you descended into the invisible fog...
... when you actually get into the visibility layer, the fog looks like this, which is identical to the fog in FSX. In Ultimate Weather, this transition can be swift and disorienting.

As you descend to the runway and pass 3,000 feet, you should be enveloped in fog. In FSX, you can see the visibility layer as you approach it. When you go into the fog, the sky turns white. With Ultimate Weather FX, you never see the visibility layer until you fly into it. One moment, unlimited visibility, the next, wham! Socked in! The experience is jarring and not very welcome, in my opinion.

BEYOND FSX:

"Kaniktshaq, qanik, anijo, hiko, tsiko, tsikut, hikuliaq, quahak, kanut, pugtaq, peqalujaq, manelaq, ivuneq, maneraq, akuvijarjuaq, kuhugaq, nilak, tugartaq, nahauliq, uvkuag" - Twenty words in the northern Umingmaktormuit language that describe snow or ice.

As I mentioned before, Ultimate Weather FX is designed to work with other add-ons. Zinertek recommends Active Sky from HiFi Simulation Software, as well as 3D Lights Redux from A2A Software. As I do not yet have those add-ons, the best I can do for now is to present to you screenshots from Zinertek's website that show these effects. Also keep in mind that FSX uses shader-based weather instead of the animated graphics used for precipitation in FS9. This has the result that FS9 can depict a wider range of precipitation values than FSX, despite FS9 being the older version of the simulation. I will show you the screenshots from Zinertek's site in the hope that they represent how Ultimate Weather FX looks in FS9.

Images from the FS9 version of Ultimate Weather FX, also with 3D Lights Redux. Obviously, FS9 users are going to see a much greater variety of precipitation than FSX users with Ultimate Weather FX. The rain and snow look most impressive in these shots.
Images are all courtesy of Zinertek.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

"There's one good thing about snow, it makes your lawn look as nice as your neighbour’s." - Clyde Moore

To recap, Ultimate Weather FX from Zinertek is a small program that updates the look of clouds, sky, and runway lights in FS9 and FSX. If you use FS9, you can expect impressive variety in precipitation as well. If you have 3D Lights Redux from A2A Software, you can enhance the anti-collision and taxi lights in your aircraft. Ultimate Weather does not at all change the way weather is generated in MSFS. For that, you will need an add-on such as the one recommended by Zinertek: Active Sky from HiFi Simulation Software.

The moon's a balloon in Ultimate Weather FX.

Ultimate Weather provides new textures for clouds and sky. Mostly, the textures and effects are more detailed than in default FSX, with the exception of cirrus clouds and the visibility layer. However, I did notice a large boost in my frame rates, which is always nice. Even loading up massive racks of storm clouds and other foul weather did not seem to slow FSX down. This effect might just be due to my system configuration, so I cannot promise you would see equal results.

This utility is a relatively small file. It takes under a minute to install, and it keeps a backup of your default FSX files in case you decide to uninstall it.

If Ultimate Weather improves the look of FSX (or FS9), I'd say that's a matter for your own personal taste to decide. Ultimate Weather FX definitely makes changes to MSFS. As they say, "A change is as good as a vacation."

 

What I Like About Ultimate Weather FX

  • Improved frame rates overall!
  • Intelligent changes to the design of clouds
  • Impressive-looking precipitation (FS9 only!)
  • Easy to install and uninstall, with automatic archive function

 

What I Don't Like About Ultimate Weather FX

  • I need to acquire Active Sky and 3DLights Redux to get full value from this product
  • Issues in FSX with rendering of visibility layer when viewed from above
  • Cirrus and stratus clouds too wispy, cirrus clouds almost unsubstantial
  • Cannot improve on FSX precipitation (although this is an issue with FSX, and not Zinertek!)

 

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