Sunday, October 04, 2009

FSX - Best hardware combination of the day

I've decided to blog about this, as it's a question that people ask me from time to time and I keep changing my views depending on what's available at the time.

A couple clarifications first:

1) Obviously, the absolute-best hardware for FSX would be the most expensive hardware you can buy today, with the possible exception of a graphics card, as FSX is not so GPU-dependent as it is CPU-dependent.
2) We're going for bang-for-the-buck here, so I'll list my choice of what you *should* get, in order to have the best combination for the least-crazy money spent. Obviously, a 1TB solid-state disk that costs $25,000 in itself would be awesome, but it falls outside the normal-people category :-).
3) This list is already obsolete by the time you read this post. Yes, the minute I post it, it's obsolete. Such is the nature of the beast, such is the name of the game. If you want up-to-date, do your own research.

That said, here are my picks:

0) Software (yes, I know "best hardware combination", so let's get this out of the way first): Windows 7 x64. Hands down, the best OS to-date. I've been a beta tester since its early days - it's stable, drivers work for 99.95% of the stuff out there and if you like learning new things, this will reward you handsomely. Yes, there are some quirks (and a small issue with adding scenery for FSX, which has a workaround), but there have been quirks with XP too, and once you learn them, you'll coast.

With the Windows choice out of the way, let's make sure we set the stakes for what it is we're trying to define:

On the one hand, we can be looking for a "pure" FSX box, which will run Flight Simulator, possibly a couple FS-related utilities (Squawkbox) and *nothing* else. On the other, we can be looking for a power-user PC which is FSX-oriented, but will also run other software (possibly do some video conversions from DVD to AVI, etc.). Keep this in mind, while you read on...

I came into this article thinking I had a very clear view of what is "out there today" - only to be very surprised in the end. Only just a month ago did I read an article by Hilbert Hagedoorn of, comparing the latest batch of processors Intel had come out with. In there, it was clear that the i7 870 was better, euro for euro, than the i7 920, which was the price-point comparison at the time.

Now, things are different: The i7 870 (Socket 1156), combined with a decent 1156 motherboard is priced at around the same price-point as the i7 950 (Socket 1366) with an X58 motherboard. As such, I'll give both the same mark, as speed-wise, they perform almost identically.

The only differences I could decipher from reading a lot about them are:

1) The 870 runs at a 95W Thermal Design Power, as compared to the 130W TDP on the 950. In the long run, this *will* affect your out-of-pocket electricity expenses. (Score 1 for the 870).

2) The 950 runs 133MHz faster than the 870, non-overclocked. (Score 1 for the 950).

3) The X58 chipset allows for a triple-DDR3 RAM slot combination, with a max 24GB of DDR3 RAM, where the X55 allows dual-DDR3 RAM slots only (max 16GB RAM). (Score 1 for the 950 again).

Are any of the above making a difference when it comes to PURE FSX performance? No, not really. Even the max RAM comparison, which could
theoretically affect performance here makes little difference with FSX being a 32bit application, thus only taking advantage of up to 4GB of RAM. As such, the winner can only be judged on technicalities... and mine will be the 950, because since I am a developer, I tend to have a bunch of other apps running at the same time, and memory becomes a crucial factor in my day-to-day.

For the hard-core FS simmer reader, though, I'd bet my money on the 870, as the power consumption economies are far more important in the long run (one to two years of average expected usage before PC upgrades).

With that out of the way, let's list some more hardware picks of the day:

- Motherboard: Anything ASUS or GigaByte. For the 950, grab a triple-slot motherboard (the ASUS P6T Deluxe v2 is a good selection). For the 870, any of the high-end models will do fine - no big differences there, so whichever you find the cheapest at any given day is good.

- RAM: Here also, speed is important, but more so is budget. Grab the MOST and FASTEST memory you can afford - make sure that you pick reputable brands, if possible go with the motherboard's
compatibility list as these chips will have been tested to comply with standards. Be careful to buy memory that runs at lower voltages, as power consumption (and heat dissipated) play a role here too.

- Graphics card: Flight Simulator X is CPU-bound. This means that there will be VERY little difference observed (perhaps a half-frame or so) if you go from an 8800GT 512mb card you bought awhile ago to a GTX295. Disclaimer: This is NOT true for other games which are GPU-bound, so choose depending on whether you intend to play other games at high-resolution too.

- Hard disk: You will have read in my previous blog posts that I have become a big proponent of Solid State Disk technology. This is more true than ever today, especially since I recommended Windows 7, which is the first OS tuned to work directly with SSDs, using the TRIM command (go here and here if you like further reading about this feature).
For Flight Simulator X, go with a dual SSD disk combination: One for Windows 7 (64GB should be adequate) and one for FSX (128GB for those among us who like LOTS of sceneries loaded). Pay particular attention to SSD speeds- not all disks are created equal, though lately MLC technologies have been coming closer and closer to SLCs (which remain very expensive). A good pick are the Corsair CMFSSD-128GBG2D and its smaller 64GB brother, clocking at 220MB/s read / 180MB/s write speeds, almost twice as fast than their older MLC brethren.
For movies and other data, use your older SATA regular hard disks - they're good enough for me :-).

The above are the most critical parts when building a PC especially for Flight Simulator X. Various other components (DVD recorder drive, Sound cards, etc.) are secondary and this blog post is too focused to talk more about them. I will, however, make an exception and dedicate a line to water cooling, which I've found to be much less problematic than people had described it in the past. If you check your system every six months to make sure the coolant levels are maintained (the liquid does tend to require refills every so often), the system will run better than the equivalent air-cooled one (as fans tend to collect LOTS of dust and cleaning them is far more complicated - for me, anyway - than simply refilling a cooler tank).

Well, there you have it. Please let me know if I've forgotten anything you consider crucial for your Flight Simulator PC and I will try to accommodate!