Really? Photoreal for FSX of the entire continental United States? Naw, couldn’t be. The entire 48 states with usable, clean looking, fairly up-to-date add on scenery! Yep, it is finally available and at a very reasonable cost.
Where and how much? Right here at the AVSIM store and $199.00 (temporarily on sale as I write this for $159.00 including a new 500 GB USB v3.0 hard drive) Even at the $199 price, the scenery is actually only about half the price – the other half is the delivery vehicle – a new high tech v. 3.0 (fastest) 500 GB capacity USB drive that is yours to keep. Most of these little guys require two standard USB ports and they will work just fine in the version 2.0 slots that most folks have, just at v 2.0 speed.
OK, exactly what do I get for my money? Well, I’m not totally sure as Sim Savvy is trying to over-deliver for the initial batch of customers and you could very well receive a lot more than the USA. I also understand that all the initial purchasers will continue to receive free updates as the scenery resolution increases. There will probably be a minimal shipping charge.
Let me tell you what I received for this review. One very small FedEx box with an even smaller 500 GB USB hard drive almost full of BGL scenery files. There is a dedicated windows folder for each state by name and grouped as Eastern, Central, and Western. Each of the individual states has a sub-folder simply entitled Scenery. It is these Scenery folders that hold the many BGL files. The number of files and size depends on the number of counties, parishes, etc. geography, complexity and whatever.
Just to give you can idea on file sizes, I moved about a dozen states to my primary hard drive for my convenience. I made a folder aptly named MassiveScenery just off my root directory. There I copied Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Washington, Idaho, California, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Texas. There actually is a rhyme and reason to that grouping that I will explain as we go along. I live on the gulf coast of Mississippi so I naturally started at an airport and area that I was already familiar with.
Although, the final release may be slightly different, here is what I received for review. Alaska has separate Landstat files, and Hawaii is in the works.
The delivery disk contains several other large files - 5 Landsat folders representing Alaska, Canada East, Canada West, Greenland, and Mexico. (60 GB) These are 38 m scenery files and are not evaluated in this review. Europe is covered with 15 GB of low resolution satellite data and an experimental folder with 100 or so smaller files that define the country borders for the high fliers. Jet traffic stuff.
I also have MegaSceneryX for Hawaii that works well with some other additional custom scenery files. If you have not been exposed to photoreal scenery you need to tell yourself that you should spend some time with it before making any rash decisions. There is no doubt there is plenty of room for improvement in the future. This will most likely occur as better resolution scenery. This release is mostly expressed as 1m/pixel. This equates to 1 meter (39 inches or 100 cm) per pixel on your screen. It seems to me this is a drastic improvement over the standard FSX background scenery level of something on the order of 38 meters/pixel. The big improvement is you are looking at the real thing, rather than a lot of similar neighborhood and buildings as the FSX default, albeit a couple of years old, but usually newer than you will see on free Google maps.
As a reference, FTX/Orbx produce add-on airports for their Pacific Northwest scenery that are generally 1m/pixel with as low as 15-30 cm/pixel for the small, immediate airport runway and ramps. The best (highest) resolution that I have heard of for add-on scenery is 7 cm/pixel for an Aussie airport. These type packages are usually reserved for modern, high end processors with matching graphic cards and are just the immediate airport area. They are also a couple of light years ahead of the competition. Unfortunately, I don’t see Orbx producing the entire USA until some other method of storage is invented and we all win the lottery.
You should also keep in mind that photoreal scenery is usually best viewed from some magic altitude. This altitude varies by individual user but is most likely between 2,000 – 6,000 feet AGL. This is very subjective, as it depends directly on the quality of the scenery and your graphic card and monitor. One thing is for sure, you can be too low to enjoy it. Many other factors influence what you see on your screen. One easily adjusted factor is the FSX graphic slider settings.
When asked for the recommended settings, Sim-Savvy stated “you know, I have messed around with those sliders and I really don’t see much difference”. Not liking that response, I fired off an email to my MegaSceneryEarth support folks and asked for their latest suggestions for their FSX photoreal scenery. They keep refining their suggestions and added a couple of more at my urging as they were overlooked.
In the absence of any specific suggestions for slider settings, I started with these. These will depend on your specific setup and the number of add-ons running at the time. Most everyone will agree that Autogen and AI traffic are two high resource hogs. Most of the other settings have conflicting settings or weak reasoning for those settings. I find, nothing better than trial and error.
Some users may have difficulty finding the sweet spot with these settings and the few additional lines of code added to the fsx.cfg file. My suggestion is to only change one item at a time and plan to spend some time experimenting. The time spent can be very rewarding. I don’t think there is one set of settings for all users so be sure to make good notes and record your progress and individual settings.
My simple changes while preparing for this review was to reduce the Autogen to zero (far left) when using photoreal scenery and to push the Complexity slider full right or near full right. The Level of detail radius setting seems to be very noticeable – the higher the number or further right gives the sharpest, distant view. You can use these tables as starting positions. Advanced users will probably use the fsx.cfg file for their settings. Some will exceed the slider’s capabilities.
I decided to use the same add-on aircraft throughout the review, different paints for different days. I chose my experimental single engine, retractable gear, turbine powered military trainer, the IRIS Raytheon T-6/A in Navy colors. Several reasons for this choice – fast cruise (250 kts), good visibility, easy to show altitude or speed in screenshots, good autopilot.
So what does it look like?
I started by loading Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. Louisiana wasn’t very appealing so I headed east. As I crossed over to the Florida panhandle I used KNPA – Pensacola NAS to check out the ‘Add FSX runway’ feature suggested by Sim Savvy. As with practically everything else nowadays, there is some good with the bad. I personally do not care for the plain vanilla photoreal view of the runways. With a click or two, you can add or remove the provided runway overlay. I like the look of the concrete runway with defined edges, lines down the middle and runway numbers.
My first job after getting out the Navy was at Kennedy Space Center, so that seemed a natural place to check out the scenery. I have several thousand hours in the right seat of small Cessnas in the area.
Although this may appeal more to real pilots than to flight simulator pilots but the photoreal scenery represents the real thing. I have tried to make direct comparisons between what default FSX has to offer and this Sim-Savvy package. In most cases the photoreal scenery wins hands down. The FSX default scenery is crisper and cleaner but we all know it never matches up with what is really out there.
As I cruised around the Space Center, I found it interesting the amount of detail that is apparent to those intimately familiar with the area. To a sim pilot on a cross country flight from Miami to Augusta, maybe less so. One thing that is instantly apparent to all is the abrupt end of the scenery at the water’s edge. This goes back to the source data. Remember, the source of the data is the USDA (agriculture department). The intent is for the farmers to use the photos and images so they are not concerned at all with what the photos look like a mile or two offshore or how it looks to a flight simulator pilot. You will see similar stuff with Google or Bing satellite scenery.
Hopefully, each of the screenshots can be clicked and zoomed for more detailed analyses. In the absence of a standard, I decided to use 16:9 as the aspect ratio and to make the screenshots rather large to show more detail as the purpose of the review is to show you the scenery.
After a few hours of flying with the scenery, I don’t even notice those blotches. I guess it is like living close to an airport – after a while you don’t even hear those planes overhead.
This is a left wing view of the Space Center general aviation airport – KTIX. This may be a very good example of the look you should have with the photoreal scenery installed on your pc.
In the old days, I would be in Restricted Airspace in this screenshot. Sometimes to break the boredom we would make a bee-line for the launch complex on a dark night and turn at the very last minute to avoid meeting our local FAA officials and the loss of our pilots license. I guess it wasn’t all fun and games for the Air Force guys on interceptor duty scrambling the F-4s out of Patrick AFB. When we saw the afterburners light we headed for the deck and turned out the lights. Those fast movers couldn’t pick us up doing slow flight and 10 feet over the river. I’m surprised they let us grow up.
Looking for a nice built-up area to compare scenic shots, I turned south towards Miami. I have flown this general flight path hundreds of times and this scenery package has that look and feel of the real thing here. I just have to avoid looking to my left as all I will see are a series of right angles where the photoreal scenery cuts off. That shouldn’t be a problem for us simulator pilots – nothing is really real anyway. Right?
Because I had the Fort Lauderdale airport add-on scenery previously installed, it popped up and stood out as I approached from the North. I spent a bit of time just checking out the area at different altitudes. I assume many of you readers are heavy metal drivers and others have the biz jets zooming in and around KFLL. It is a wonderful regional airport that can handle any size or type of aircraft, real or simulated.
As I was doing research for this review, I came across some very high resolution aerials. Unfortunately, they are not free but I have one small area to show what may be possible sometime in the future. Maybe Microsoft Flight will use some real scenery such as this. Keep in mind, this is just to show the clarity of a very small area and I have no idea how difficult or how expensive it would be to convert this for FSX use.
Here are three similar screenshots taken from 2,000 feet (AGL), 10,000 feet, and 24,000 feet. This should give the Piper Cub pilots, the Piper/Mooney/Cessna pilots, and all those new B737 NG drivers a good view of South Florida using Massive Scenery America.
Check the altimeter readout for each screenshot. F12 view
Ok, on to another state. During our recovery efforts from the devastating destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, we had many volunteers from Michigan. One couple that came several times kept talking about Traverse City, so here we go to KVTC. This represents the small general aviation airports and small towns in the Big 10.
This is a direct, one for one, comparison of the default FSX scenery with the Massive Scenery America for Traverse City, MI.
The airports look like real airports in the Massive Scenery America and of course doesn’t have the cookie cutter boxed look of the FSX scenery airports.
No more instant cutoff of the subdivisions at the airport boundary as in FSX scenery.
Next, we are off to Troy, New York. Why Troy of all places? Well this was my best friend’s home town and home of Rensselaer, a great engineering school on par with MIT. This is upstate New York and is much greener than the Florida and Michigan views. This is very typical of the views I see while out exploring on a beautiful day.
This is where the FSX scenery seems to all look alike no matter where you are. Those with the wide screen monitors will appreciate these shots.
Although, I haven’t seen the area recently or have I seen it from a small plane, but it sure is a beautiful area as shown by the photoreal scenery.
This is also a good time to tell how I am moving about so rapidly and how I am switching out the scenery for the screenshots. I’m sure there must be at least a few readers that never use the FSX default ‘MAP’ feature. If so, you are missing one of the neat little gems of the program. This is evidently overlooked by many of the seasoned veterans, but it is one very useful utility. By simply grabbing my little airplane icon I can slide from state to state, change to an altitude of my choice, direction of choice, and even find the name of a city or airport when I am temporarily disoriented (lost). Captain Mike Ray’s Airplane Stuff book has a great explanation of the Map Toolset.
The changes in elevation seems to be one of the major weak spots of the FSX default scenery. And on the flipside, the same elevation changes are where the photoreal scenery shines – much more definition and more colorful.
While you are out just “seeing America” you might want to use the ‘MAP’ toolset for a superfast (Warp9) method of moving from state to state. You can also use it to change altitude. I guess everyone knows how to move about with the SLEW key (Y) with F4 for rapid Up and F1 for coming back down.
The one page instruction sheet that accompanies the USB hardrive clearly walks you through adding the BGL files to the FSX Scenery Library. As most of you have discovered, there is a stacking order or priority of the add-on scenery. This will add the last file (state) you installed at the top of the heap with a check mark in the box. Those checked items are active and the unchecked are not. Meaning if an item has a check mark, that scenery will be used in the current session, if the box is not checked then it basically does not exist and is not loaded in the current session but remains ready for use when you add the necessary checkmark. Here is an example.
It was about this time in the review that I asked Larry, the owner of Massive Scenery, for some suggestions for areas to highlight. Although a little hesitant, he finally stated “I like my own backyard – Durango, Colorado”. So tighten your belts, we are off the Southwest Colorado. I have visited the Denver – Colorado Springs area several times and already know about the scenic small mountains and golf courses. Check out Arrowhead golf course if you are ever in the area.
I was really not prepared for how poorly Microsoft presented some of the Western states. I jumped to Colorado and snapped a few screenshots around Durango and then off to Colorado Springs. The improvement from the FSX default to the Massive Scenery is really dramatic in these shots. The FSX default scenery is so poor that I kept checking the sliders and rebooting to see if something was messed up.
Everything was set correctly, it is just a lot less than I was expecting. If the higher elevations and Western states happen to be your home or choice of flying area then you should be thoroughly impressed with this photoreal scenery.
I was going to show you 3 or 4 more states, but, Larry sent me an email to announce that everything you have seen will be dramatically improved in the very near future. Massive Scenery is dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on a deal to purchase all 50 states with 50 cm scenery. What this means to us, is all states will be tremendously improved. This is one of those leaps in technology – kind of like going from an 80286 processor to an i7 in one leap.
But, first we are off for a quick stop in Idaho. I spent some time in the hills at the Navy nuclear power prototype training in Idaho Falls a very long time ago. Actually at the other end of the state, near the Washington border with Spokane in view, there is a very scenic golf resort with probably the most unique floating green in the world. The place is Coeur d’Alene and it has an airport, KCOE, so time for the FSX challenge. Yea, right.
I honestly did not know the FSX default scenery looked so bad out west. This is really a dramatic difference and it is just going to get better and better.
Our next stop will be Southern California to check out the John Wayne – Orange County airport near Santa Ana. Same story, FSX on the left, Massive Scenery America on the right, like I have to tell you. KSNA Santa Ana, California.
One last comparison.
Here is one of my favorite small town airports – Anacortes 74S – a nice, quiet little island town surrounded by the Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. This places it northwest of Seattle and due east of Victoria, Canada. (Our review editor’s home) This one is on the list for special treatment by Orbx as a future add-on airport for their outstanding Pacific Northwest scenery package.
What I have done for this one is to compare PNW (Orbx), default FSX, Massive Scenery America and a high resolution vertical shot of the area. Each has something of interest.
Starting in the upper left and moving clockwise – FSX – High Res Image – PNW – Massive Scenery America. Click on these guys and check the details.
Next, we have a 3 way comparison taken from a ‘downwind to land’ position. In this series, FSX actually seems to be presentable as opposed to some of the Colorado and Idaho shots – I guess it could be because we are actually in the shadow of Microsoft’s home office in Redmond, WA.
These are much closer in quality and FSX even looks good here – other than it doesn’t represent the real view and the cookie cutter runway cutout.
Pacific Northwest (Orbx) – PNW – is a big step up and superior to FSX although it also is mostly just an enhancement of the FSX scenery with a little near photoreal added. But, it is by far, the best scenery available for FSX, just in very small areas.
The Massive Scenery is not as crisp and sharp as the others, but presents the real life edition and shows Anacortes as it is. That is one of the amazing features of having the entire United States as photoreal scenery that loads into FSX. It is instantly flyable with each and every state at the same quality level.
I spent several hours flying around Houston Hobby, Chicago O’Hare and San Francisco and planned to include those areas in this review but after a while they all begin to look alike and the comparisons are so similar. So to give our review editor a break and let you finish reading this so you can make the decision on when and what to purchase, they will stay on my storage drive. As a bonus, I included a few of those screenshots at the end of the review.
I think we have made enough stops for you to fully understand the substantial upgrade in scenery quality that is available when moving from the FSX default to the Massive Scenery America.
Now it is time for the big announcement.
This came about while I was writing this review and may still not be finalized as you are reading this. I will tell you what I know as of now. All 50 states are scheduled for full replacement within the next year, maybe even the next few months. This is going to be very intense work on a state by state basis but, Massive Scenery has agreed to purchase new scenery for all 50 states at 50 cm/pixel. Some refer to this level as the half-meter version. Just a few months ago, this was unheard of on a large scale or even on a one state basis. It wouldn’t surprise me if the 500 GB drives have to be doubled or even tripled in capacity to accommodate the full set of 50 states at 50 cm. Oh Wow!
As I mentioned, this is going to be very labor intensive and I guess we can all lobby for the pecking order the states are released. My vote goes to California, Hawaii, West, Southeast, East, Northeast, Alaska, then everything else. You can start stuffing the ballot box anytime you wish. Last I heard, this new high resolution version was going to be an upgrade of sorts and the talking price was the equivalent of $1.00/state or a $50 up front payment in advance with receipt on a piece meal basis (you get it as soon as it is available). I heard that Arizona will be the first state released in full high resolution. Hello Grand Canyon.
My first thought, when I read the email was this will carry my flight simulation into the future so fast I will think Scotty and Spock came back in time and beamed me into the future. This should do nicely as we continue to wait for Microsoft Flight and the PMDG NGX. It will be interesting to see which of the three ends up on my desktop first.
So much for the theory that photoreal scenery makes everything flat and there are no 3D or elevated views. Duh!
I can’t think of anything more to add. Make sure you click on the screenshots to see the zoomed view. I think most of our PCs will handle 5 – 8 states at a time without a groan. If you are still in doubt about whether your type of flying would benefit from having this Massive Scenery, then I recommend you spend some time at the SimSavvy web site. I ‘m sure you could request one of the users to post some screenshots of any specific location, either on the forum or email them you.
I’m not sure how long Sim-Savvy will keep this up, but you can request a free state of your choice and they will send you a 16 GB thumb drive loaded with your requested scenery – totally free. You just have to return the thumb drive for the next lucky Simmer. It sounds like they plan to fill the drive to capacity each time so you may get a bunch of extras.
Email Larry at WoodsonL@sisna.com For Priority handling just mention this AVSIM review.
Go get it. (The AVSIM store price should never be more than competitors, save $40.00 now) You could consider the High Resolution upgrade as a net $9.00 with the $40.00 savings)
Send email to Sim-Savvy attention Larry - WoodsonL@sisna.com request a free state of your choice for postage fees on a returnable thumb drive. Mention this AVSIM review and ask for free postage both ways.
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