AVSIM Commercial Utility Review

X Graphics

Product Information
Publisher: HiFi Simulation Software
Description:  Environment texture installer

Download Size:
449 MB

Format:
Download or CD
Simulation Type:
FSX
Reviewed by: Allen Lavigne AVSIM Staff Reviewer - September 3, 2007

Introduction

Having just submitted my review for Active Sky X (ASX), I had to take a break before continuing with reviewing its counterpart: X Graphics (XG). These applications are huge, with lots of options and variations possible, making the task of reviewing them both enjoyable and time consuming.

X Graphics’ textures come in three sizes; 512, 256, and 128 in 32-bit or DXT5 formats, making for a total of 6 levels of texture quality/performance to chose from. Default FSX is 256 and DXT5 format. There are textures and enhancements for clouds, sky, water, sound, airports, lighting, roads and railroads.

Choices can be installed individually according to taste (custom), or chosen from a long list of presets crafted to complement certain atmospheric conditions and themes. Supplied texture sets are static and can be modified to one’s taste as well, then saved as a new theme under a new name, which will now appear alphabetically in the list. If you also have Active Sky X, you can install weather-influenced selections of textures based on a particular location or a flight plan’s weather conditions.

You can buy ASX and XG separately, or as a bundle (saving 10 dollars). I received the bundle, but it is only because of their sizes that I separated the reviews for each package, not that they are in any way uncomplimentary. Nor are they inseparable. You can completely enjoy one without the other.

From the HiFi X Graphics documentation, I quote: "Featuring ultra-realistic clouds, new SkyScape technology, sky color environments, custom effects, modified sun and moon, sound environment enhancements, and water environment choices including wave turbulence/frequency, environment variants & coloring."

There are plenty of screenshots posted on HiFi’s site. There are also 2 XGraphics Videos available in AVSIM library made by Damian Clark of HiFi Simulations. (Library video files)

I use Windows XP, so all references to file paths may only pertain to that OS.

Installation and Documentation

If you bought the bundle for ASX and XG, you will get two folders from which you can install each application separately or together. If you only have XG, there is a text message in the folder called HOW_TO_INSTALL.txt, which you should consult for instructions. Installation is straightforward and there is nothing unusual to report here.

It is only when you first launch XG that you are requested to enter the license key, which involves four blocks of key code. Do not be surprised when you are finished, if XG disappears. It gets minimized to the toolbar regardless of whether you have worked on it or not. This occurs almost every time I opened XG and can be annoying, as I am always waiting for its GUI display, yet it has already finished loading but not on the screen. All you get to see is the small opening screen with a progress bar, and once that is done it disappears: so just go to the toolbar and maximize it. Hopefully this will be fixed in a later build.

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
500MB Hard drive space, more for X Graphics
Internet connection for weather file downloads.

Simply Put: (a brief description of the XG universe)

Opening loading screen Themes page Advanced Install Options

Upon launch, look for XG in the taskbar, as it is minimized after loading (inconvenient).

X Graphics is an application that is only used before launching FSX in order to pre-install appropriate weather-influenced or a user’s desired set of textures, and is no longer used once FSX has begun to load, it can then be closed. Do not press the “Start FSX” button at the bottom of the GUI until you are finished with XG because this will close XG (you cannot load cloud textures into an active FSX session). It can be left open by un-checking the appropriate option under Options. You can also opt to have FSX launched as soon as a theme has been installed.

If you also have Active Sky X installed, the simplest way to use XG is to use its weather-influenced choice of textures. Once you are satisfied with what ASX will be generating in terms of weather, you can then use the options on ASX for installing weather-influenced XG textures, as explained in my previous review on ASX.

That’s all it takes for the easiest trouble-free way to use XG.

For those who like to tweak things, or simply want to influence or create your own varieties of color and texture combinations for which we are spending all this time enjoying, read on. You may also want to tweak just the runway lights to your own preferences (or some other item), and have them load every time you use XG regardless of the themes or weather-influenced choices.

To do this, you make your install once with these choices selected and then go to the Options screen and unselect the items in the list that you do not want changed again (i.e. runway lights in my example). This way the next time you load any combination of textures, the runway lights (for this example, circled in blue in the snapshot above), are not changed. There are 44 boxes you can select/unselect in the Options/Advanced Install Options screen.

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” Widescreen: My screen resolution is 1920x1200 so all the pics will have widescreen aspects.

Flying Time:
16 hours

The next part of this review, which can get technical and long winded at times, will interest those that are interested in the details.

Users of UT USA for FSX: Just my two cents worth concerning the use of this other add-on: you may want to deselect the options for roads and rail under the Advanced Install Options tab on the Options screen before running XG, after installing Ultimate Terrain USA for FSX. Although UT has its own means of installing its own list of road and rail texture choices before an FSX launch, installing XG’s after having done just that could prove to be counterproductive. Even if you err don’t worry, you can get your UT textures back later using its setup tool (deactivate it, then activate it again), no need for drastic steps like the re-installing of any applications. These are in the red circle of the Advanced Options snapshot (above).

Restoring Backups: There is a convenient backup option within the Options page that also enables you to create multiple backups. The initial backup is that of FSX. So if there are textures from the default FSX that you realize you really wanted to keep, you can restore the initial backup, deselect these items in the advanced options page, then return to using themes and custom XG texture installations: your deselected items will remain loaded as the default FSX textures. It would also help to make a backup of your preferences that you can use later if need be. In my case, I deselected bump mapping for runway textures, and left out rails and roads because I have UT-USA for FSX installed.

The 52 Themes:

Not every theme will alter each and every texture option from your previous theme selection. You may go from one theme to another without changing certain textures. However, quite a few are altered. You can tell just how many by fast switching between two selections of themes while observing one of the four sub-page categories of Cloud/Sky/Sun, Water, Airports/Roads, and Lights/Sounds.

Even though you change the viewing, your installed textures as declared as the current installed set (black circle in Theme snapshot above), remain unchanged until you decide that a particular installation is to proceed. While observing these, you can alter some of the theme’s selections to your own preference. You can then go on to make a new theme (safest route), or save the theme being observed (it will ask you if you “really” want to).

So, say you made the error of saving a standard theme and did not really want to? Be prepared by making a backup before playing with the themes. C:\Documents and Settings\*username*\Application Data\HiFi\XGraphics\Sets, backing up the folder “Sets” (anyname) with its contents.

Here are just some examples of themes all using the same FSX situation. They are paired to a theme for daytime viewed east and dusk viewed west at a slightly higher altitude. Most of the daytime snapshots are similar with small variations in the hue and colors (note the inland river), whereas there are a number of the dusk views so different that they are not very realistic in my opinion (pink, orangey). If there is a set that you like a lot but don’t like one aspect (dusk sky for example), this is when you make your modifications to taste and then save the new theme under a new name.

One thing I’ve noticed here is that you should make up a new theme name before altering a theme set. This way you don’t have to change the contents of an original theme to save your changes. However, you can, without saving, load the selection you have which will then be a custom set and not saved, but will get loaded into FSX for the time being and will remain there until you load something else.

ASX settings page ASX Weather map used FSX Graphics settings

I included the settings I had used in ASX, as well as a weather map for the situation to get these snapshots. You do not need ASX to enjoy XG though.

This first group of snapshots are all at 128 resolution and DXT5 format, which is of the lowest quality but best performance.

Theme “Abyss at 128 x DXT5” Theme “Majestic at 128 x DXT5”
Theme “Classic at 128 x DXT5” Theme “Concept at 128 x DXT5”

This next group is at 256 resolution and 32 bit format, the FSX default is 256 with a DXT5 format, so these are a notch better in quality:

Theme “Classic at 256x32” Theme “Concept at 256x32”

And lastly here are the 512 resolutions with DXT5 format sets. (as 32 bit is not recommended for the 512s I have not included them).

Theme “Classic at 512xDXT5” Theme “Concept at 512xDXT5”

Surprisingly, frame rates using the highest quality were fine on my system (out in the US Southwest). Not high, although acceptable but not thrilling to me. You should get a bigger bang for your buck with these 512 x DXT5 sets eye candy wise, not fps wise, as weather systems get more complex and local scenery becomes significant. Personally, I always try for the best quality to the detriment of high fps.

The next few snapshots show the clouds at their highest level of quality: (512 x DXT5) at the same location but from different angles. With both ASX visibility limits set to 30NM, these are real pretty to fly near. These clouds are CBs.

Theme “Concept” Theme “Lucid” Theme “Shadow”

Many Many More Variables:

I quote again from HiFi’s documentation: "Also included are all new roads & highway textures in both dim & bright user selectable choices, including hard winter sets and enhanced railroads. Airport enhancements include photo-real asphalt & concrete runway textures plus hard winter, new runway bump mapping, asphalt taxiways, concrete taxiways and realistic taxiway markings. Lighting enhancements include new runway lighting (with simulated ground glow), stunningly realistic aircraft spotlights with variations for small to large aircraft in 3 separate choices; white, yellow and xeon, and all new aircraft strobe light textures."

Cloud types…roads and rails… lights… runway textures… inland waters… too many to take them all one by one and compare them. The 52 included themes vary all of these to make for a satisfying pool of variety to enjoy. I did notice from the AVSIM forum that the colors of inland waters can prove unnerving: I’d suggest that you find what pleases you and stick with those by loading these once, then deselecting inland waters thereafter using the advanced options page.

Acceptable inland lake colors Unnatural colors of same area
The SKY page Wx-Influence parameters

Towards a definition of the near infinite: Pages for texture types have extra pages in them (tabs). This seeds “trees” containing long lists of variations, inevitably leading to loads of possible combinations. To illustrate the depth of this, lets examine one page: “Sky”.

This page has two tabs, one for “Sky Textures”, itself subdivided further into four categories; Sky Dawn, Sky Day. Sky Dusk, and Sky Night. This tree does not stop there. Other than all having one X Graphics Default texture, there are two subdivisions for sky dawn, with a total of 76 textures to choose from. Sky day has 4 divisions containing whopping 170 separate textures; sky dusk has three with 144, and night has only 3 textures. There is more!

For each of these 393 textures: you can change the six parameters for each that are used in determining its position on a scale of 1 to 10 for the weather influenced decisions when used with ASX (only). I am not going to bore you with statistical analysis of combinations. The point I’m making is for the immensity of the possible variations. Now we are not finished with the Sky page yet.

There is the second tab for Sun/Moon/Lightning Textures, which has four categories with only 21 textures between them. All the other pages have a lot less textures than Sky, except for the Clouds page which has almost half as many as Sky does. Still, there are a lot of choices that can be made.

I have been staying with the Theme page, for obvious reasons…. I also use the Weather influenced engine of ASX, and don’t bother with the parameter influence possibilities yet (too much to do). But it is there for you to play with. If you do not have ASX, you can rely solely on the 52 themes, which in my opinion is already a lot. With the 3 different resolutions and two formats available for each texture, this makes for my definition of near infinite.

To cap it all off, there are choices available for the weather related sounds of rain and thunder. Using the slideshow feature these too can be previewed. Then, there is the randomize button, self-explanatory in its name. You can play with this to see what pops up.

A useful viewing aid for scanning all these textures is on each page/tab: it is a type of filmstrip mimic feature that changes texture views every 1 to 10 seconds (as determined on options page) in five different slideshow effect modes (spin, fade, etc…), thankfully relieving one of the necessity of clicking on each and every optional texture for viewing.

Slideshow

When you first run XG, an initial backup is created which can be re-loaded later if you made too many wrong substitutions on your favorite themes. Alternately, you can also save your new theme’s modifications in a dated backup form, which will be available under a filename suffixed with the date of creation.

There are textures for the sun that emulates the bloom effect in FSX that otherwise is an fps hit, but are quite benign when using the ones in XG.

Bloom-like effects at sunset using 3 different themes.

ext are three examples of snowy concrete runways. Another new item within XG is that some railway line textures have carts painted on them. Since I am using UT-USA for FSX I do not substitute these textures and don’t have snapshots of them.

FSX default concrete winter XG powdered concrete winter XG default concrete winter

Summary / Closing Remarks:

In summary, there are two ways I like using X Graphics. First and best liked is the weather influenced selection available only through Active Sky X, which I find relevant and easy to use. Second, without ASX installed, the use of themes is very easy and most sets produce excellent results without much fuss. Then there is the laborious way if you need to go that way: detailed choices from each and every group, and modification of the weights applied to each texture for their weather influenced selection values. This labor I avoid except for the minimal instances of certain texture exclusions described in the text.

In closing, let me say that this product is well worth its price. This is not just a bunch of textures made to look nice, it is a massive texture installation engine, with the capability of weather-influenced selections being installed when you also have its ally installed, ASX.

 

What I Like About X Graphics

  • Hundreds of quality textures from many categories.
  • Options page allows for flexible exclusions of certain textures from new sets.
  • Themes concept makes easy use possible.
  • Convenient slideshow viewer.
  • Infinite combinations of your choice of textures also possible.
  • Modification of weather influence weights possible on each texture.
  • Multiple sizes/formats helpful fitting for your system and taste.
  • With Active Sky X, excellent weather-influenced installation engine.

 

What I Don't Like About X Graphics

  • GUI minimized after launch, makes me wonder where it is.
  • Some sky and inland water colors unnatural.

 

Printing

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X Graphics

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