Wednesday, December 19, 2012

FSX - Best Hardware Combination of the day (redux)

Those of you who read my blog will remember I had posted about what I considered 'best' quality hardware, to run Flight Simulator X. As that post was getting quite long in the tooth, I decided to update it here with my thoughts about current hardware...

Reiterating, 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.

Here are my picks, updated for end-of-2012:

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 know that most new PCs come out with Windows 8 these days, but there have been several reports of instabilities and problems with FSX (particularly when it comes to joystick compatibility - USB drivers usually require updates) to make me warn against it. Windows 8 has nothing to offer me, personally, as I will not be running FSX on a tablet PC to have any sort of need for a touch screen.

Windows 7 x64 (even with the small issue with adding scenery for FSX, which has a workaround) remains my best choice.

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...

In my previous post, the choice of CPUs at the time was a bit confusing... Today, things have cleared up quite a bit: In my opinion, the best CPU to run FSX on is the i7-3930K, clocking at 3.2GHz and offering six cores of pure processing power. Runner up for those who can't afford the price tag is the i7-3770K, at 3.5GHz but with four cores available only.

Combine this with the following components, and you'll have a box that is certain to help boost your desired FPS for the upcoming FSX addons which are sure to grab your attention!

- Motherboard: Anything ASUS or GigaByte. The i7-3930K runs on LGA 2011 chipset, while the older 3770K requires an LGA 1155 chipset, so with that in mind, choose a motherboard at the middle of the available price ranges that will offer you those extra items (like USB3.0, eSATA, etc) that will make you feel best.

- RAM: Nothing has changed from my earlier recommendations here: Speed is important, but more so is budget. Grab the MOST (16GB is quite normal these days, with several 32GB options and some 64GB ones that might be a bit on the extreme side) 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: I wrote in my previous post:  "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". This is true today too - however, there's a notable exception: There are several graphics cards in the market today that offer *too much* video RAM. Anything above 2GB is actually detrimental to FSX performance (it eats away on your available main memory and causes extra work without offering any real benefit to FSX). Reasons are beyond the scope of this article - if you don't believe me, though, you're free to google your way about this. Note: Another detail to watch here is NVidia vs. AMD - I am one of those who'll go NVidia all the way - purely because I consider visual quality better when it comes to Flight Simulator, plus I consider their drivers more stable. My personal pick at this time is a GTX 670 or similar - just make sure it's at 2GB - no more.

- Hard disk: With the proliferation (and subsequent drop in price tag) for Solid State Disks, my earlier suggestions are even truer today:

For Flight Simulator X, go with a dual SSD disk combination: One for Windows 7 (128GB should be adequate at today's prices) and one for FSX (256GB for those among us who like LOTS of sceneries loaded). Pay particular attention to SSD speeds, while keeping your eye at the price tag. Speeds have improved tremendously over the past couple years and prices are quite decent for what you get.For movies and other data, use your older SATA regular hard disks - they're good enough for me :-).

As before, I'd like to dedicate a sentence to water cooling, which I've found to be much less problematic than people had described it in the past. I've had my system for almost 4 years now and I have found that if you check the components 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!