Review by Doug Horton. This article continues the review of Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D Flight Simulator software product. This is a continuation of Part 1.
Highlights of Differences between Prepar3D and FSX
There are many underlying improvements in Prepar3D (through version 1.4), which set it apart from FSX.
- Blurred scenery (land textures that are of low quality because textures are not completely loaded yet) are reduced because Prepar3D uses multiple cores for rendering ground texture instead of just one core. This can be seen in processor usage if you open the Windows Task Manager, Performance tab. In the sample image, high activity can be seen on physical cores 1, 3, 5, and 7 during scenery loading of a new flight.
Windows Task Manager shows high activity on cores 1, 3, 5, and 7 while scenery is reloading.
- Higher quality graphics – Users will experience higher quality graphics, including more realistic rain and snow with the modernized shader model 3.0. Higher quality graphics can also be obtained by the increase of texture limits which can be set as high as 2048 x 2048, or even 4096 x 4096, instead of the FSX limit of 1024 x 1024. Developers can also utilize higher resolution terrain with the increased texture limits.
- Selections and positions of multiple monitor settings can be saved in flight files, including panel and scenery window locations across multiple monitors. Prepar3D remembers the settings when restarting Prepar3D and/or restarting a flight. See below for an example.
- Internet multi-player capability –users can collaborate with others worldwide to train for the missions or tasks within the Prepar3D environment.
- Multi-channel capability – users can use the power of this new feature to operate Prepar3D with multiple computers, for creating expanded views, all the way up to 360 degrees.
- Sensor camera options – users can experience night vision and infrared sensor camera options to enhance military missions or training for night flying.
Sensor camera view – courtesy of Lockheed Martin
- Realistic scenery – millions of square kilometers of the earth have been checked and upgraded to accurately represent the urban environment. High resolution 12 cm content has been added for specific locations.
- Underwater environments – Users can enable coastal bathymetry from the U.S. Geological Survey, to make their simulation experience underwater with submarines.
- User interface screens have been updated and are larger, consistent with users operating larger monitors than when FSX was released. On my 24” 1920 x 1200 (16:10) monitor, the Prepar3D Display Settings UI screen measures 13.6 x 10.2 inches, compared to 8.5 x 6.4 inches in FSX – with the visual area is 2.5 times greater. Shown below are comparitive sizes of the interfaces.
Comparative sizes of Display Settings interfaces in Prepar3D and FSX
Prepar3D includes an enhanced developer toolset for creating new training solutions. To aid in rapid development, Prepar3D is compatible with Windows 7 and Visual Studio 2010; it offers a Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) user interface, an external simulator capability that provides enhanced control of the simulation code, new code samples updated in the Software Development Kit (SDK) documentation and support for the latest 3Dstudiomax tools.
Operation with Multiple Monitors
One of the most useful enhancements in Prepar3D is that the program remembers panel and scenery window locations when flight files are saved! This happens regardless of computer reboots, restarting Prepar3D, and/or restarting a flight that was saved when multiple monitors were being used. In a simple test, monitor settings were even saved after disconnecting a second monitor and later reconnecting the second monitor.
This feature cures a significant issue in FSX, whereby with restarting of the program or saved flights, the user must often reposition and resize panel and scenery windows, including undocked windows, as applicable. For a simple test, I set up a 17” normal aspect (4:3) monitor to the left side of my 30” widescreen (16:10) monitor, keeping the 30” monitor primary and extending its image to the smaller monitor.
This required using the Windows Display setup function and NVIDIA Control Panel multiple monitor setup functions. You’ll know this action has been completed correctly if you can move your mouse cursor back and forth between monitors.
Next, I copied the default FSX Cessna 172 Skyhawk folder from (my FSX folder)\SimObjects\Airplanes to (my Prepar3D folder)\SimObjects\ Airplanes. I selected this aircraft because it has an IFR panel option with a 2D control panel that nearly fills the screen. Incidentally, the IFR view is not accessed by sequentially pressing the A key in cockpit view. Rather, it’s selected in the 2D cockpit view by making one press of the W key.
FSX Cessna 172, copied into Prepar3D, with fall colors
After the Cessna 172’s IFR panel was displayed, I right-clicked on the panel and selected Undock Window. At this point, the window title bar changed to read “IFR Panel” and the window could then be moved by dragging it with the cursor in the title bar area. I then resized the undocked IFR panel window to fit the 17” monitor as shown in the accompanying image, which shows a 17” 4:3 monitor on the left and a 30 16:10 monitor on the right.
Prepar3D remembers panel and scenery window sizes and locations for multiple displays.
Finally, I named and saved the flight, and I then tried rebooting, restarting Prepar3D, and restarting the flight multiple times. In all cases, the undocked, resized IFR panel was displayed on the 17” monitor and the 30” monitor displayed scenery only. No further undocking, no dragging, and no resizing with Prepar3D! Try this with FSX, and you’ll usually need to redo the undocking, dragging, and resizing for each Windows reboot, FSX restart, or flight restart. Finally, a solution has been developed that will fix this longstanding problem and make operation of multiple displays much simpler!
Note that the example provided above is a simple case, with only two monitors connected to one graphics card. Newer cards allow more monitors, often without the need for two cards connected in NVIDIA SLI or AMD Crossfire configurations.
Though water display settings for FSX are for seven gradations of shader models1.x and 2.x, Prepar3D water settings are five gradations of shader model 3.x. The water is quite similar to that of FSX, though the water display selections are quite different. First, recall in FSX that there are seven display choices for water: Low, Mid, and High 1.x; and Low, Mid, High, and Max 2.x, with these being the only settings for water effects.
In Prepar3D, there are three types of water settings, which are based on shader model 3.x: Reflection, and if the Bathymetry selection box is checked, Clarity and Refraction. Otherwise, the settings for Clarity and Refraction are grayed out.
Water and Bathymetry settings, from Menu, Options, Settings, Display, Scenery UI
(with version 1.2 or later)
From the Prepar3D Learning Center, with Prepar3D version 1.4 installed, here are explanations of the water settings:
- “Reflection Detail: This slider determines what scene elements can be seen reflected in the water surface. Higher settings will increase realism but will also lower the framerate.
- “Refraction Detail: This slider determines what scene elements can be seen though the translucent water surface. Higher settings will increase realism but will also lower the framerate.
- “Clarity: This determines how clear the translucent water surface is and also determines the visibility levels when the camera is under water. This slider will not affect performance.”
For reflection and refraction, the five water settings are:
- Sky, Clouds, Sim Objects
- Sky, Clouds, Sim Objects, Terrain
- Everything (previous setting plus Buildings)
Clarity is set by a slider that goes from zero to 100 percent. The matrix of images below, from the Learning Center, shows the water effects for different settings.
Matrix of images for various settings of water effects, from Prepar3D 1.4 Learning Center
There is no current capability to download real weather in Prepar3D, except with an add-on program such as Real Environment Extreme (REX). Consequently, the display setting in FSX for downloading winds aloft along with real weather data, is not present in Prepar3D. However, add-on developers are expanding their products to Prepar3D, and the addition of this and other features are becoming available.
A comparison of scenery views in FSX and Prepar3D, taken from northwest of central Seattle, Washington, shows that they look nearly the same. The two screenshots were staged with configuration and display settings as close as possible, given slight differences, such as available water settings. One difference is that with zoom set for 1.0 in both images, the actual zoom is slightly higher in Prepar3D, showing the downtown buildings closer.
Clouds are about the same in both images, though there is a slight difference in the water images, likely due to use of shader 2.0 in FSX, and shader 3.0 in Prepar3D. The only other difference is that the contrast of the scenery seems to be slightly better in Prepar3D, perhaps due to the reprocessed scenery.
Scenery view in FSX, northwest of central Seattle, Washington
Scenery view in Prepared, northwest of central Seattle, Washington
How does framerate performance of Prepar3D compare to FSX with similar settings? To answer this question, I once again used the FSXMark07 procedure, as described in my article in AVSIM Reviews.
To run this performance benchmark on your computer, follow all instructions in my benchmarking article, and then copy the Bombardier CRJ 700 from (your FSX folder)\SimObjects\Airplanes to (your Prepar3D folder)\SimObjects\Airplanes to make this aircraft flyable, overwriting as necessary.
Flyable Bombardier CRJ 700, copied from FSX to Prepar3D
When you follow the FSX Mark07 instructions to load the Global High configuration file into Prepar3D, two display settings should be changed to make an “apples to apples” comparison.
On the Prepar3D menu, Options, Settings, Display, General tab, set Global texture resolution to “High 512x512”.
On the Scenery tab, set Water effects to “Sky, Clouds, Sim Objects”, to be comparable to FSX, and make sure the “Bathymetry” checkbox is unchecked.
With the same hardware configuration, you can now run benchmarking flights for both FSX and Prepar3D, preferably after a fresh reboot and fresh restart of each program. I achieved frame results that were so close that they were statistically the same.
The multiplayer function has been completely reworked in Prepar3D, compared to Flight Simulator X and Microsoft ESP. According to Lockheed Martin, this feature is for use with collaborative (military: “distributive”) training. Prepar3D includes an ongoing redesign of the FSX and ESP user interfaces for multiplayer use in Prepar3D, and the multiplayer function uses direct IP connections for stability.
Changes include resizable text chat windows, for example, among other new features. I’ll be posting a turorial on Prepar3D’s multiplayer feature as part of this series or articles about Prepar3D.
Virtual cockpit view of my aircraft, with multiplayer host’s aircraft at 10 o’clock
Planned Graphics and Performance Upgrades
As I began writing the first draft of this review, I was running the initial release of Prepar3D. Later, I was able to run releases 1.1 and 1.2, and subsequently, Lockheed Martin released versions 1.3 and 1.4, which provide many additional improvements. LM plans to provide continuing updates to Prepar3D, including performance improvements, and in response to asking what further improvements are forthcoming, I received the following response:
“One of the biggest contributing factors to the performance in Prepar3D, ESP and FSX is the rendering system. Because the heritage FSX software was in development long before (modern) graphics hardware even existed, much of the architecture of the rendering system and its interface to the core simulation are intrinsically CPU-bound. As this leaves the heritage software unable to take advantage of modern-day video card technology, the parallel and programmable GPUs are left underutilized by the core software. This problem is being addressed head-on with a fundamental overhaul to the architecture and an upgrade of Prepar3D to DirectX 11. This upgrade will provide significantly improved performance and will leverage features such as hardware instancing, computer shaders, GPU particles, tessellation, and multi- threaded rendering.”
Tessellation provides more triangles and elevations in scenery objects. Examples include screen images of surfaces that appear to be contoured instead of flat, such as stone walls and tile roofs. DirectX 11 is included in Windows Vista and Windows 7, though users must also have graphics cards that are DirectX 11 capable.
Prepar3D is an impressive update of the legacy Microsoft Flight Simulator series and the FSX-based ESP commercial development platform. Prepar3D solves the problem of no further updating of FSX or ESP since their respective release dates, and it also solves an inherent legal problem in that FSX can only be used for non-commercial purposes. For example, several commercial users, such as flight schools, and government functions such as military flight training, are now utilizing Prepar3D as a valuable product for use with various aviation and other training devices.
Prepar3D introduces many new features, one of the most interesting of which is the ability to operate underwater, along with adjustable water features, including bathymetric data, reflection, and refraction.
Prepar3D’s performance is initially comparable to FSX, with planned improvement to take advantage of DirectX 11 features and modern hardware features such as offloading some CPU functions to graphics processors. Home cockpit users and others operating with multiple monitors may choose to operate Prepar3D, even if only for its capability to save screen and panel positions, as that’s been an huge issue with FSX for multiple monitor users.
Finally, it’s also very impressive to see that Lockheed Martin has committed to continuous improvement of the Prepar3D product, having released four version updates since its initial release.
Lockheed Martin has reworked and updated many of the core components of the ESP product into Prepar3D, to provide an expandable product for aviation and other training. The updating of over 10 million landclass tiles is impressive, and the scenery seems to have better contrast and be more eye-appealing than the FSX default scenery. Also, to aid work by add-on developers, the Prepar3D team has released 64-bit development tool with a patch to the version 1.4 SDK.
Any add-on product that works with FSX should also work with Prepar3D. Though not officially supported, products from earlier Flight Simulator versions may be compatible also, such as my operation of the FS2004 Cessna Skylane 182S in Prepar3D. This is especially appealing because I fly a real Cessna 182S with four other owner/partners.
Several well known developers are modifying their add-on products for Prepar3D. At the time of writing, these developers included Carenado, Flight1, Fly Tampa, FSDreamteam, FSUIPC, Orbx FTX, and REX, for example. Many of these developers have modified their product installers to set up their products in FSX and Prepar3D simultaneously, with side-by-side licensing (SBSL), which will be most appreciated by those considering installation of Prepar3D.
The Prepar3D website includes a gallery of images from a few add-on developers.
The question many readers will ponder is whether Prepar3D is a product they might purchase and install as the virtual successor to FSX, at a current selling price of $199. U.S. Academic licenses are also now available for $49.95 U.S., and there is a program for developers to license two copies of the program for $9.95 U.S. per month – all of which were announced in conjunction with the release of version 1.3.
My guess is the many Flight Simulator users will embrace Prepar3D, migrate add-ons to it, and begin spending their flight simulation time with it. This trend will likely accelerate after the planned release of Prepar3D version 2.0.
Look for the latest news about Prepar3D.
The next article in this series will describe the revisions and updates in Prepar3D version 1.1.