AVSIM Commercial FS9/FSX Utility Review

Active Sky Evolution

Product Information

Publishers: HiFi Technologies Inc

Description: Comprehensive weather engine software utility.

Download Size:
79 MB

Format:
Download
Simulation Type:
FS9 / FSX
Reviewed by: Alan Bradbury AVSIM Staff Reviewer - November 18, 2010

Always take the weather with you

The great thing about MS Flight Simulator is that it has always been a ‘sandbox’ that you can make your own. And when it comes to doing that, beyond adding aircraft, the next big thing is of course scenic additions and utilities to improve the fidelity of the sim. Of these, a major step up in terms of realism is to enhance the weather depiction, which is exactly what HiFi’s Active Sky Evolution is about.

The culmination of many iterations of Active Sky over the years, which first showed up in 2002, Active Sky Evolution is thus well named, being a finely-honed product thanks to all the previous work it is born from. So, let’s take a look at where Evolution has taken us….

Clearing the clouds of confusion

Before we get into the meat of Active Sky Evolution (ASE) and what it does and does not do, it’s probably worth clearing up some possible sources of confusion where weather depiction in FS is concerned, since some readers may never have contemplated tweaking the weather aspect of their sim. When you do get into that kind of thing, all sorts of acronyms and terminology come racing at you, so let’s make sure we know what it all means, and what exactly we are getting into.

Straight out of the box, without having any add-ons installed, all recent versions of Flight Simulator include a considerable ability to customize the weather in a number of ways. The most obvious, and one which everyone will probably have tried, is to choose one of the preset weather schemes when creating a flight in FS. For the more adventurous, one can tweak the various wind, temperature, cloud coverage and precipitation settings to have the weather of one’s choice.

Alternatively, one could simply connect to the world wide web and have Flight Simulator search online for a weather report, which it will then use to generate the weather in the simulation based upon that report. Flight Simulator does this by searching for real-world METAR reports, so the data it uses to generate weather in FS should (theoretically at least), produce exactly what we would see out of the window if we were really flying around at the location the METAR report applied to. Of course it doesn’t, and that’s where things like Active Sky step in.

The term METAR, in case you were curious, is an acronym originally formed from the French Meteorologique Aviation Regulliere, although the US Federal Aviation Administration and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority prefer to define a METAR as a Meteorological Terminal Aviation Routine Weather Report, which makes it a bit more apparent how such METARS are created  and what they actually are. I.E. they are typically an hourly weather report at a specific location (usually an airport, but sometimes from a remote weather station, anchored weather ship, patrolling meteorology aircraft, or even a satellite up in orbit).

To do all that fancy weather generation based on METARs, FS therefore needs three elements: 1: some kind of weather data (either user selected or a METAR it has downloaded). 2: some means to interpret that data and generate weather from it (which is invariably referred to as the flight sim’s weather engine). 3: a set of graphic clouds with which to depict the weather usually referred to as a cloud set). FS by default does have all these things, but as with most things in the sandbox that is FS, they are all capable of being improved in some way or other by third party add-ons.

Because of all that, there are a number of different ways to go about enhancing the way FS deals with weather depiction. You could add a custom cloud set to it, which will not affect how FS interprets weather data, but will improve how the weather data it does interpret will actually end up looking in the sim. Alternatively, you could add a utility which has a more sophisticated weather engine, which would improve the way FS interprets the weather data it has to convert into a simulation of what you see in the sky and experience in the wind and turbulence.

For these different aspects of FS weather generation and depiction, there are some utilities out there which do everything, one such being REX (Real Environment Extreme), which adds custom high resolution cloud sets as well as its own weather engine, so it is a one stop shop for enhancing the weather. But Active Sky Evolution is more focused in what it does than REX, concentrating on purely on how the weather is interpreted. Thus there are no graphical cloud set enhancements with ASE (it will use whichever ones you have installed), as it simply concentrates on reading and depicting weather data better than anything else out there, and it has to be said that it is massively capable in that regard.

Thus the typical ASE user is likely to use it in combination with an enhanced cloud set, although they could just as easily use it with the default FS clouds if they wanted to. Many choose to use the enhanced clouds sets which come with REX, but forgo its weather engine and instead use the superior weather interpretation capabilities of the ASE weather engine.

Now all that is cleared up, it should be more apparent what all the stuff I’m banging on about in this review actually means, so let’s get on with it…

What you get

Active Sky Evolution (ASE) is available as a downloadable product at a cost of $59.99, although at the time of writing it was discounted to $49.99. The download comprises a 79Mb zipped file, which when unzipped installs automatically and will require around 200Mb of hard disk space to do so. It’s worth noting that owners of some previous versions of Active Sky (specifically, Active Sky Advanced) can get the latest Evolution version as a free upgrade, so you might want to check that out at the HiFi website if you already have ASA.

The installation adds a few things; the Main ASE program of course, plus a HiFi Windows menu listing which provides quick access to a number of other features. Among these, you can access the documentation, which comprises a sixty four-page PDF Manual, a five-page Release Notes Word document, plus there is SimConnect link as well as a link to a little installation wizard which will painlessly install XGauge into your FS aircraft. XGauge being a little weather ‘radar’ gauge and moving map. So, let’s check all that stuff out.

First up, the Main ASE program. This can be fired up from the aforementioned Windows start menu listing or a desktop shortcut, and it initially takes the form of a web browser, which enables the program to dynamically link to product news at the HiFi website, search for updates, find help articles and such. This is relatively novel in comparison to the approach taken by most FS utility GUIs, but it has to be said that it is a useful method since the scope of ASE is fairly broad and it can look confusing at first.

ASE fires up to reveal a browser-style interface, which provides links to help files and articles, plus a means to download updates and other such useful stuff. Up at the top, you can see that this is also where the main program can be got at, by simply clicking on the icon buttons.

Thus building in a familiar browser-type interface as the initial window which you see upon cranking up ASE makes it very apparent where help can be found and is certainly a friendly way of doing things because of that. It also means that you can read articles relating to ASE while it may be downloading patches or updates. This is an attractive alternative to watching an installation progress bar creep across your monitor.

When you’ve downloaded any necessary updates and read any news via that interface, the main ASE program functions can be fired up from that same browser-style window by clicking on the row of icons up top, and what you then see is a very modern and clean graphical user interface with a colourful friendly look to it which belies the complexity under the hood. We’ll look at this in more detail later, but for now, let’s see the other stuff you get for your money.

The Release Notes (an MSWord file) highlights some potential issues and provides solutions to the odd thing you might have to adjust based on what other FS add-ons you may have, such as tweaking FSUIPC settings and matters relating to some high-end add-on aircraft, including the PMDG B747 amongst others. Other stuff here includes specifics relating to upgrade versions of ASE and tweaks to SimConnect should you need info on that. There are hyperlinks at the end of the document for bug reporting and technical support too.

If all that sounds worrying or confusing, I should point out that all of that tweaking stuff proved largely unnecessary for me, and I have quite a lot of add-ons, including the PMDG 747 and a payware version of FSUIPC, so don’t panic as it is clearly geared more towards making the documentation comprehensive rather than being indicative of a vast array of pitfalls to be steered around. All this stuff, incidentally, is mostly covered in the main PDF manual too, so if you never look at this document, you’d probably still be good to go.

The PDF Manual runs at sixty-four pages and is clear and to the point with a pleasant look to it. At such a relatively high page count, you might be inclined to imagine ASE will take some studying before you can get into it, but it has to be borne in mind that much of this content covers the fact that ASE works with both FS2004 and FSX where there are some very minor functionality differences. Given that everyone’s FS set ups are different, it has to cover all bases, which it manages very well. As such, there are a number of tweaks people may need to make to get things running smoothly with any particular set up they might have. So it is fair to say that the documentation is comprehensive rather than lengthy and confusing, and you certainly won’t have to read it all.

The PDF manual is lengthy and comprehensive, but it still manages to keep things friendly with a good clean modern design to its pages which lends itself to being easy on the eye, so as far as FS utility manuals go, this is definitely one of the better ones in that it manages to avoid looking like the instruction manual for a washing machine.

Aside from tweaking and getting it all up and running, the PDF documentation explains what all the various options and buttons do, but most of this is apparent from the GUI itself so you won’t need to spend a lot of time reading before you can start using ASE. That said, it is nevertheless nice to know that you can find out more about things from this manual if you should wish to do so.

The XGauge utility is simple to use and walks you through installing it into your aircraft with just a couple of options to select. These being mainly what window from your view menu will have the gauge show up in. It is similarly simple to remove the gauge via this little wizard utility if you want, so it’s a painless affair to get all that going. All that remains is for you to approve the XGauge loading up into the FS the first time you fire it up, and you’ll have a nifty little gauge in all your aircraft which will give you a moving map and weather status info.

XGauge is a nice bonus which comes with ASE, enabling you to add a custom weather gauge to your aircraft cockpits, and it is simple to install thanks to this tidy little installation wizard
The ASE XGauge in the cockpit of the default FSX Cessna. As you can see from the buttons along the left and right sides of the gauge, this offers some pretty comprehensive data and is somewhat akin to the ACARS gauge which comes with Flight Keeper, so it’s certainly a useful bonus if you don’t have that Flight Keeper ACARS gauge. It also means that you don’t have to alt-tab out of FS to know exactly what the weather is doing at that precise moment. This would be quite a futuristic capability for the average GA aircraft, but despite not depicting an actual real-world gauge, there are indeed cockpit instruments out there which can do this kind of thing, so it is nevertheless realistic in the broad sense.

ASE in action

When everything is installed and you’ve given the manual the customary three-second glimpse before racing to see what your shiny new weather thing does, this is where ASE really starts to shine. With fifteen icons along the top of the GUI, it might initially seem confusingly complex, but each one is clearly labeled making it more than apparent what each one does, so it is easy to dive right in and start playing around. Clicking on any of those icons either enables that function, or takes you to a specific page with all the relevant controls for those options, depending on which icon you choose.

Despite the massive capabilities of ASE and what is going on under the hood, this means it could not be simpler to get into. So you find there is an extremely powerful tool at your fingertips, which is not only childishly simple to use, but also very pleasant to look at. Below are some screen grabs of a few of the many pages ASE has, with a brief explanation of what they do.

I could bang on here about this or that feature of course, but it is probably simpler to show you a few screenshots and list what everything does so you can see for yourself if it is something that would appeal to you, so here goes…

The main ASE GUI is a pretty thing, but its attractive appearance belies the power it grants you to customize weather and the vast array of information it can provide you with as you fly. This is Briefing page, which provides stacks of useful en-route data for your flight
The Map page in ASE, and as you can probably work out, the weather wasn’t great that day in England!
If you prefer, the Report page will give you a summary with a series of icons and arrows for wind speed and direction. Moreover, you can get one of these for any location you care to choose, which is a real plus for choosing Atlantic Tracks, airport approaches, which SID or STAR to use etc
If you want to create your own weather rather than use real world METARS, or even enhance an existing METAR-generated weather scenario, there is a vast array of stuff you can do via this Wx Config page

Features

So although ASE looks like it might be complicated upon first acquaintance, it is actually remarkably simple to use, and given how much it can actually do, it has to be said this is a triumph of graphical simplicity and interface design which is like a lesson on how to do things right. I daresay a few other software companies could doubtlessly learn from this (yes, I’m talking to you Adobe, LOL). If you refer to one of the GUI screenshots in this review, along the top of the user interface you will see fifteen clickable icons, from left to right they are:

MAIN - this takes you to the main browser page you started out on.

REPORT - this gives you a graphical depiction of the weather at a specific reporting point, using easy to understand symbols. MET/REPS - this links to any reports FS pilots using ASE have filed, and you can add to this too. Thus accurate custom reports are also available if any pilot has chosen to add to the information pool which ASE can draw upon, and since it is possible to do this with a single click of a button on that page and a few quickly typed lines, lots of people do so. Thus if you fancy flying ‘storm finder’ missions, you really can do that and help other FS users, which is actually a great little mission feature for any intrepid pilots out there.

MAP - this shows you a map of any selected station you care to type in and the weather you will currently find there. Thus you will be able to determine which runway is likely to be in use.

BRIEFING - this gives you masses of pertinent information for you filed flight plan, including altitude-specific weather based on what you key in, which is great because it means you can climb or descend to find more favourable winds based on what info you can find here.

WX CONFIG - if real world weather from METARS is not what you want to use, this lets you create custom weather for any location you care to choose, and it is a powerful tool too which goes way beyond what any other FS weather engine is capable of, so if you want to fly into your very own hurricane or some such, you really can do that) WX FINDER (as the name suggests, will find specific weather for you, so if you want to know where it is snowing, belting down with rain, or gloriously sunny anywhere in the world, this is for you.

GRAPHICS - this page will let you create custom ‘snapshots’ for both FSX and FS9, so if you have multiple cloud sets installed, you can choose to configure if and how ASE will use them.

OPTIONS - rather obviously, this will let you configure various options in ASE, but this is quite flexible, since you can choose things such as VATSIM weather, or add thermals if you like. You might find this has another use too, since with the ability to create massive amounts of cloud layers in ASE, you might want to tone down some stuff, as it is definitely possible to bring FS to its knees if you go overboard in creating huge amounts of detailed weather, and you can do that, since the possibilities are fairly limitless.

SAVE – this will let you save any custom weather you have created, or any real world weather you took a shine to and saved.

OPEN – this will let you open any custom weather you may have.

HISTORICAL – this is a great feature, which will allow you to load up weather for a specific date and time of day in the past, although unfortunately, it will only go back to January 1, 2007, but even so, that’s still pretty cool.

REFRESH – this will update online weather without having to wait for the preference time for online updates.

HELP – this will crank up the manual for you

START FS – depending on your preference setting, this will crank up FS2004 or FSX for you, although you can have FS running before you start up ASE if you like.

The secret of simplicity…

What is not apparent from all of the above however, is the heart of what makes ASE so good and just how smart everything is that is going on in the background when you choose from all those options. So don’t let that simplicity of use fool you into thinking ASE is in any way a simplified engine under the hood.

To give you just one example of this built-in cleverness: if you want the weather for an area where there is no reporting station, ASE is smart enough to take the data from the nearest four surrounding stations and then quantify that data based on time and relative distance to give you the most likely weather settings for locations that would otherwise have no weather depicted in them at that location in FSX.

How that pans out in FSX is that you will get much better weather depictions in remote destinations where traditionally the weather is a bit lackluster. So if you like flying across the vast expanses of Russian, Chinese or African airspace, or the Pacific or Atlantic, you’ll automatically get much better weather depiction than would otherwise be the case without ASE. It’s full of little clever things like that, which you don’t have to worry about although you can if you want to. It’s far more likely that you’ll simply enjoy the fact that they happen.

Test System

A desktop PC with an ASUS P5 KPL SE motherboard, running 2Mb of DDR 3 RAM, an ATI Radeon 4800 PCI-x graphics card with Jan 2009 Catalyst drivers.
Windows XP Home with Service Pack 3 and DirectX 9.0c.
Saitek Cyborg EVO joystick, Saitek rudder pedals and Track-IR 4.
I also used the cloud set from REX with it.

Flying Time:
200 hours

Conclusion

As you’ve probably gathered by now, ASE is a lot more than simply a means to interpret METARS. Being more in the nature of a ‘hand of God’ weather creation and customization tool, which also happens to do a cracking job of interpreting METARs and other weather data sources, and having done that reports information to you when you are in flight in FS2004 or FSX courtesy of a fantastic little cockpit gauge.

Power is nothing without control, but ASE manages to make such powerful abilities easy to master and is flexible to implement in that you can cherry pick just how much or how little you want it to do for you. As such, it is readily apparent that the many years HiFi have spent in honing Active Sky versions, has resulted in a masterful ability to offer such complexities in a brilliantly user-friendly fashion.

This was especially apparent to me for it was I who reviewed a much earlier version of Active Sky for AVSIM a number of years ago, and as impressed as I was by it then, this current version shows what experience can bring to the table to make things even better. As good as it was, ASE is much a revolution as it is an evolution, and it is all the better for working in both main versions of FS too.

So once again I am in the fortunate position of reviewing something which it is easy to recommend, and even easier to praise. I personally use ASE in combination with the cloud set that comes with REX, and doing so really makes for a killer combination in FSX which is hard to beat.

Anyway, what are you waiting for? Go and get Active Sky Evolution and it will be blue skies all the way, unless you prefer it the rain, or have thermals, or hurricanes, or blistering sunshine or…

 

What I Like About Active Sky Evolution

  • A simple, intuitive and graphically clean interface makes even complex weather generation tasks simple to achieve. You can learn what things do simply by playing around with it, leave it to its own devices, or get right in there and mess with everything, the choice is yours.
  • A plethora of options means it really does add the missing pieces to FSX and FS2004, especially with more complex weather system effects such as vertical air movement simulation and serious storm activity, so everyone from glider pilots to those flying the heavies will be satisfied with what it can do.
  • It’s probably a must-have for FS2004 in particular, since it adds a lot to the air mass simulation.
  • The XGauge is a great bonus, which adds good value to an already worthwhile package.
  • The manual is comprehensive and does a good job of covering workarounds which other FS add-ons might otherwise make problematic. This is an especially thoughtful approach to ensuring as many as possible customers will be happy given the variety of set ups FS users might have.
  • A one-stop-shop for realistic weather depiction that will work just as easily with the default FS cloud set as it will with more fancy ones such as REX et all.

 

What I Don't Like About Active Sky Evolution

  • Not very much really. There are of course one or two things which require one to make adjustments to FSUIPC and make some decisions as to how and in what way one will depict things if some other add-ons are part of the FS set up, but given the breadth of options ASE covers and the fact that there are so many things it could potentially affect in a positive way, any tweaks which might prove necessary to benefit from all that make such concessions easy to live with.

 

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