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Genre: Flight Sim
Min OS X: Any Version    CPU: 601 @ 400 MHz    RAM: 256 MB    Hard Disk: 250 MB    Graphics: 800x600

December 24, 1999 | Dan Radmacher

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The 747 lurches in heavy wind, buffetted by the heavy turbulence. Rain splatters on the windshield and lightning flashes, followed by loud claps of thunder. Visibility is near zero as the heavy aircraft lurches over the mountains just west of Denver. Suddenly, the computer notifies the pilot that one of the four jet engines has given out. The pilot keys into Air Traffic Control and requests an emergency landing. The jet tilts into a turn as the pilot struggles to balance the thrust between the three remaining engines. More lightning flashes, more thunder crashes. The pilot imagines how frightened the passengers must be.

The jet descends toward the airport as the pilot punches in the frequencies for an ILS landing. The rain and wind pick up as the pilot struggles to keep the jet on the glide slope. Looking out the window is essentially useless, so the pilot will have to rely on instruments and the comforting directions from the tower. The flaps go down, slowing the plane and increasing the lift. The pilot puts on just a little more throttle and noses down a hair to keep on the glide slope. The gear goes down next. Peering through the windshield, the pilot can just make out the dim glow of the approach lights through the clouds and the rain. The edge of the runway approaches as the pilot bleeds off throttle, struggling to keep the jet on the runway's centerline as the computer warns of wind shear and the plane drops with a gut-wrenching lurch.

Finally, the jet sails over the edge of the runway. The pilot pulls the throttle back more and pulls the nose up. The wheels touch the pavement with a screech as the pilot puts the engines on reverse thrust and applies the wheel breaks. The jet swerves on the wet runway, but the pilot corrects as speed bleeds off quickly. The jet rolls to a stop and the pilot pries his fingers off the yoke and wipes the sweat off his brow.

Try that in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000.

The latest version of X-Plane, the hardcore flight simulator from Laminar Research, is as hardcore and extensive as ever. It also looks much better than previous versions, taking advantage of (actually requiring) 3D acceleration. A word of caution, though: X-Plane doesn't like Voodoo cards. I tried it with an 8MB Voodoo 2 Game Wizard with the MesaGL libraries installed. The only way X-Plane would run with that configuration was by bumping up the memory allocation to 80MB and presetting the resolution to 800 x 600. Even then, trying to fly anything more complicated than a Cessna led to jerky performance and some very strange artifacts covering up parts of the screen.

Installation of a Rage 128-based card solved all problems. Presetting to 800 x 600 is no longer required, though X-Plane's window only takes up an 800 x 600 portion of my 17-inch screen if I don't. X-Plane wants all the processor you can give it. A 233MHz G3 often got bogged down, leading to warnings that X-Plane was running too slow and would decrease some graphic options for better performance. A 400MHz chip upgrade eliminated that warning, though there were occasional minor pauses.

Fly the Friendly Skies
X-Plane 5.0 has a revamped interface, much less Mac-like than 4.0 (included on the CD-ROM as X-Plane Classic). Beneath the new look, things are quite similar, though. Different menus allow you to change aircraft; set your fuel and weight load, instrument and reliability; check out the 6,000 or so different airports; start a journey en route; view weather or virtual real-world maps; and file flight plans. You can also change your views or watch replays.

Of course, the interface that really matters is the cockpit instrumentation. X-Plane simulates a variety of instrument panels, including analog and digital. Though the levers and dials tend to look the same from plane to plane, the configuration varies greatly. The instruments include full radio stacks, optional global-positioning systems, ILS, and navigation receivers. Instruments can either be adjusted in the virtual cockpit using the mouse or, for many, by using keyboard equivalents or mapped joystick buttons.


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