PMDG's just-released 737NGX is an exceptional achievement in flight simulation realism. On what basis do I make this assertion? Granted, what each of us consider when purchasing an add-on depends on our personal level of experience with FSX's default aircraft and particularly with previously installed add-on products, current interests, and for most of us, the time we care to invest in our hobby.
As fidelity to real-world aircraft advances, computer system's performance can be an issue as well. Can any add-on product, especially an exquisitely modeled commercial transport aircraft, meet all these expectations? I believe PMDG has done just that with this product.
While it can be flown shortly after installation without elaborate setup (just set flaps and advance the throttles), those with a modicum of experience with other simulated air transports will quickly learn to program its Flight Management Computer (FMC) and prepare the aircraft properly for flight. Those who want to perform flight preparation, in-flight, and post-flight procedures exactly as would a real-world pilot--and handle unexpected challenges realistically--will find that every aircraft system--electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, fuel, pressurization, etc. is exhaustively and accurately modeled--and that every flight deck control--switch, lever, rotating knob and so forth works exactly as in the actual aircraft. You can confirm this for yourself by following the corresponding parts of Boeing's actual documentation, which is provided.
Now to a degree, this is also the case with PMDG's earlier and other providers' add-on transport aircraft; what is exceptional in my view is its manner of implementation: you really can (and should) operate and fly the 737NGX exclusively from within its virtual cockpit (VC).
This is not an idle claim; views are provided to access anything you need anywhere in the flight deck; every control can be accessed and used entirely within the VC. Conventional 2D panels are available (curiously, the throttle quadrant excepted) for the die-hard, but they're really not necessary. The acid test might be considered entering data into the FMC; I find that quite easy within the VC not only because a keyboard 'text bar' is offered, but also because I can quickly position this (and any other 3D object) just as I want it using another add-on, "EZdok" (see the System Set-Up topic below), to figuratively reach down by my right elbow from the captain's seat.
This plane's visual appearance, including animations, together with its recorded sound effects add much to the sim pilot's sense of immersion, whether in external views or from within the flight deck--more about this in the text that follows.
Of course all this doesn't come "free" in terms of realized frame rates--yet the developers' programming skills are evident in that, in my experience, this plane's visual performance, especially its smoothness, exceeds that of several others I have in my "virtual hanger".
A note about my system set-up:
I've remarked above that each individual's expectations are a very personal thing--and I'm no exception (I'm a 25 year PC sim "veteran"). I've been looking forward to this product's release for some time (as have many others) and so have upgraded my computer system in anticipation to take full advantage of it (see the 'Test System' box).
Along with the usual add-ons for scenery, more realistic airports, air traffic and the like, in this review I'm using two very useful additions: Saitek's X52 hardware stick and throttle controls, and EZdok, software that implements various "camera" views programmed to the X52's hat switches and its various buttons. With these I can quickly access any needed part of the flight deck without hunting for (and trying to remember) a particular keystroke combination--<control><shift><G> anyone to initiate TOGA? And if you take a look at Angle of Attack's videos (see the Flight Deck section below for links) I'm sure you'll appreciate EZdok's power and convenience as you'll see it in action there.
Others will prefer flying with a yoke and pedals, of course, but the principle is the same. The objective is to achieve as much realism as possible while avoiding unnecessary distractions. And with this setup I find flying within this plane's VC not only practical but a joy as well!
Even if you use just your mouse and a few memorized keystrokes (perhaps augmented with TrackIR as well) you'll find the NGX VC easy to navigate, especially "turning knobs," as the cursor interface is designed to tell you how it will turn (generally the left mouse button decreases; the right button increases values such as altitude, heading, frequency, etc.)--and by color coding which concentric knob is applied.
Installation and Documentation
Installation currently is by download only, and it's a big one! PMDG's installer software is conventional (though there have been isolated problems with validation reported, I had no difficulty with that). At the time of writing there is a 'hot fix' correcting an occasional computer freeze issue. And a 'service pack' already is planned to clean up minor issues that inevitably arise despite PMDG's unusually exhaustive development and beta testing. Note that the 737-600/700, and possibly other variations have been announced for later release.
(In my experience an application freeze, though rare as long as there is ample memory and running in 64 bit configuration, may be caused by unexpected interaction between the controller hardware/software, view management software [in my case EZdok and/or TrackIR], the aircraft add-on and with FSX itself.)
The current package comes with two variants each of the -800 and -900: with winglets and without winglets, all in PMDG's "house colors". A constantly increasing number of airline liveries are available for download; all are free. Also provided is a redesigned Livery Manager applet used to install or uninstall liveries.
Regarding documentation, with the 737NGX these are a world unto themselves. Printed and bound copies of Boeing's manuals have been available for purchase, either separately or in a "Chief Pilot's Flight Manual" set for some time before release:
These are relatively expensive (I opted for the Flight Crew Training Manual, so I can attest to their quality). The really good news is that the above-mentioned Flight Crew Training Manual, Flight Crew Operating Manuals Volumes 1 & 2 as well as the Quick Reference Handbook are provided free (in Adobe pdf format) contained within the 737NGX download. In addition there's a PMDG "Introduction" pdf--it's 132 pages long!
Contents include "PMDG and the Art of Simulation"; "FSX Set Up for the PMDG NGX" (this is must reading to avoid problems later); some hardware- and third-party software-specific notes, a section on how to use the other manuals, how to interact with the 737NGX's controls, the various configuration options available and their sub-menus, numerous selectable failure modes and "maintenance" actions provided.
Finally a section called "Things the Beta Team Wanted You To Know," which discusses among other things peculiarities of the actual 737 NG to be aware of, as these quirks are built into the NGX model as well!
And there are the all-important tutorials. With this initial release you get "NGX Tutorial 1" which covers what you need to know from setting up the included flight plan from London Gatwick to Amsterdam Schiphol in the FMC through each phase of flight, including shutdown. Following will be a second tutorial covering startup from a 'cold and dark' panel as well as a more complex flight plan continuing on to Innsbruck, Austria.
The Flight Deck
In a departure from Avsim's usual review format: I won't be listing and illustrating a mind-numbing (in this case) list of features implemented in the 737NGX. Instead I'm referring the reader to a set of large format videos in HD prepared by Nick Collett, a member of Angle of Attack's development team in the UK. As you may know, AOA produces crew training videos for flight simulation, including a set now in development and soon to be released for the NGX.
Please click on any of the following that interest you. I suggest you start with "Nick's 737NGX Cockpit Thoughts" in which he shows and describes virtually everything within the flight deck. Be warned, though, it's over an hour long, so you may want to just "sample" these enough to get the idea.
As you watch the video, notice the almost unseen things that make this flight deck so authentic--the fingerprints here and there, dust and worn fabric, glare glinting off the display units, molded buttons on the Control Display Unit (CDU). Also notice little details of which we're usually unaware, such as serial numbers stenciled on the glass. It's these many touches that give us the feeling of "being there" rather than looking at a conventionally painted panel screen, however well executed.
Next up is Nick's 737NGX AFDS/EGPWS Impressions (35 minutes) for autopilot and Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System details as seen while airborne. Of particular interest here is PMDG's implementation of terrain avoidance depicted on the navigation display (ND), based on FSX' underlying surface elevation mesh data.
While we're at it, you'll find a webpage 737NGX EZ CAMERA SETUP with illustrations of typical camera views together with setup instructions. (The camera view configuration file "cams.ecs" that I am using is "737.rar" contributed by Kosta.)
And here's a feature that to most of us ATP types will be unfamiliar: the Heads-Up Display (HUD). I've grown to appreciate it flying the Boeing T-45 Goshawk and F-18 Hornet for carrier landings, but here it is on a commercial transport! Who would have thought--an aid to precision landings, without once looking down at the panel!
Another of PMDG's innovations introduced with the NGX, is a set of aircraft and panel equipment options accessed from the panel's CDU, rather than from an external utility or FSX's Add-ons menu. In fact, changes can be made immediately without closing and reloading the plane.
With this feature you can, for example, select a particular airline's specific equipment list, or another combination of your choice, such as:
And much, much more.
Failures customization is, as you would expect, comprehensive to say the least. And failures aren't just random events, though you can opt for these by system type; there also are "service based" failures--wear based on service time (and even rough handling) is tracked, and parts eventually break unless timely replaced. Consequently failures will occur--and it's up to you to deal with emergencies successfully.
Failure options are turned off by default; on the other hand your interest level can be sustained over time as you discover and investigate further the depths of this amazing implementation.
Finally, there's an option set that lets you reduce feature content, if necessary to improve frame rate performance with less robust computers. There's also a facility to set up key commands specific to certain NGX features, such as operation of individual entry and exit doors. Even specific sound element volumes can be adjusted. Speaking of sounds, the flight deck is alive with the unique sounds of various devices as they come online. While the engine sounds are obviously authentic, you'll hear others such as motor sounds while flaps are in motion (from an outside view)--details not usually recorded.
When all's set up as desired, you can save that flight deck configuration--the same for all PMDG aircraft in your collection, or separately for individual liveries (by aircraft tail number) to be reloaded at will. I should add that there's no requirement to first load a "sample" plane to re-initialize FSX; any of these 737's, when loaded, go through a self-imposed stabilization cycle of 20 seconds or so. Then, if you want, you can load a previously saved panel setup, "ready for takeoff" for example, which again initializes FSX to that condition. All this is a testament to PMDG's attention to usability features--I suspect you will see similar flexibility in future PMDG products.
Outside the plane
Again, the 15 minute video and commentary shows airframe details in a far better way than would printed words and images: instead see Nick's 737NGX Walk Around. Among the many details you'll notice, there are the internal structures visible within the open wheel bays and particularly within the wings while spoilers are deployed during touchdown.
Not only is flap operation very smooth, exposing details such as actuator struts, but their motion is timed to correspond with the actual aircraft--this takes some getting used to from the flight deck! While I'm at it, I should mention I was surprised by the flap lever animation as it moves into and out of each flap position detent. I hadn't experienced that since my ride at the controls of a Class D simulator at United's Stapleton (Denver) training center during an Avsim conference more than a decade ago.
Look closely while in an outside view during landing and you'll see the landing gear On landing, struts compress and then the engine cowlings move into their reverse thrust configuration. Once the engines have been shut down you'll doubtless be impressed with the photo-realistic fan blades and related engine interior details as well. Landing gear struts are complete with hydraulic lines to the brakes. By the way, conventional or carbon brakes can be specified, providing corresponding maintenance values reflecting their wear.
Interior details of the flight deck are visible. Captain and first officer figures can be seen through reflective cabin windows--pan up close and you'll notice they're moving around, occasionally looking out at you. What fun!
Cabin entry and emergency exit door animation is impressive; handles rotate just as they do with the actual aircraft, exposing interior cabin details. The optional retracting stairs add a nice touch too.
Perfectionists are sure to be impressed by the precisely positioned pitot tubes, probes and other sensors, antennas and lights, door details, vortex generators, air intakes and even fasteners, making this arguably the most accurately rendered aircraft available to date.
Speaking as a hobbyist rather than as a professional pilot, I can't say more about this product's fidelity to the actual 737 NG flight and performance characteristics than that it "just feels right" when flown by hand. Under autopilot control its performance is precise, exactly following parameters as entered in the computer display unit and MCP.
Yes, you have to apply drag with spoilers under certain conditions to keep this very slippery plane within programmed speed restrictions (STAR or ATC constraints), as I presume real-world pilots do. All I can say is that the flight model was developed to Boeing specifications and the development team was--according to PMDG's head Robert Randazzo--significantly influenced by their real-world pilot contacts. That's good enough for me!
I believe flight simmers seeking realistic air transport operation will find the PMDG 737NGX product offers an experience level never before seen in our hobby.
To me this product adds strong evidence that whatever the future holds, FSX will remain an enjoyable, challenging vehicle with which to learn and explore the world of flight.
What I Like About The 737 NGX
What I Don't Like About The 737 NGX
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