Flight Simulator Hardware

So you always wanted to become a fighter pilot or a race car driver, but you’re not a millionaire and you’ve never gone through the rigorous selection process of which you’re probably unlikely to pass.  Thankfully it’s the 21st century, and the next best thing to virtual reality can be built right at your desk.  Racing and flight simulation has been an ongoing genre in PC gaming since the beginning, and the one common characteristic it has had is that it requires bleeding edge hardware to run the latest entries.

On top of that is the mind boggling amount of joysticks, flywheels, pedals, and other gadgets that help put you “in the seat”.  In this three part series we’ll take a look at the best and most cost effective ways to build a system to fulfill that need for speed.

The Computer Itself

Like we covered in How to Build a Gaming Computer, you can get away with building a decent gaming computer without taking out a second mortgage.  Unlike building a general gaming computer, we have some specific needs to address.  Immersion costs in performance just as much as pretty graphics and many simulators are tooled for specific hardware setups.  Don’t be fooled by screenshots of gameplay ether.

Flight simulators in particular tend to look like last generation games, but because of the massive amounts of physics being calculated they’ll run a machine to its limit even on the lowest settings. And, on top of all of this, there are a few extra hardware features you need to consider that are usually pointless in a gaming PC.  Multi-monitor support is usually something reserved for power users, not gamers.  Simulators however are among the few games that make use of a multi-monitor setup.  Something you should be aware of is that stretching across multiple monitors can really tax a video card on its own, and running a graphics intensive video game on top of that can push it over the edge.

If this is a must have feature, be prepared to go premium or go home. Before going into optimum hardware choices, let’s go over something really important.  Simulators are not like standard gaming, you don’t just turn shadows off and tweak some settings and expect a buttery smooth sixty frame a second.  These things use everything to simulate air drag, weight, inertia, and even heat (both environmental and internal).  When things start running slow, the simulation starts to break, and this makes the simulation unplayable.

When you see the list of minimum requirements, you should probably disregard those and look to overshoot the recommended to have a good experience. Because of this, you really need a quad core processor.  Simulators use the processor a bit differently than normal gaming, and some like Microsoft Flight Simulator X use it for the primary graphics while the complex physics are actually handled in the video card.

Because of this, it is recommended that you go with an Intel Core i7 series, even if you are trying to get away as cheaply as possible. One of the main reasons is that many simulators are built for specific hardware systems, and most are built for Intel and Nvidia setups.  That doesn’t mean that you are totally left in the cold if you are an AMD/ATI fan, but just know that you will never get the performance out of some simulators that Intel/Nvidia setups will.  It is very important to do the research to get the best experience.

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