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Flight Simulator and Your Video Card

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I am not a PC hardware expert. Nor am I a PC hardware hobbyist. In fact, I do not even enjoy working with PC hardware. I do it when I have to, and even then I do it with no particular enthusiasm. It is something I must do every once in awhile to make sure that my computer can do the things I want to do. Simple as that.

However, a good friend (Chris Gaeth, Panther) encouraged me to write this article, given my most recent learning experience in this domain.

I am going to do my best to skip as much fluff as possible in this article and try to get to the heart of the matter. So let's get to it.

Three important facts will lead to the more important discussion points in this article.

1. I have had very good performance with Flight Simulator 2004 for nearly 4 years. I have not been plagued with many of the issues discussed often on flight simulator websites (blurries, stutters, low frame rates).

2. I have a very average computer by today's standards. I'll get into more detailed specs later, but for now lets just say I have a 3.0ghz Pentium 4 computer with an AGP motherboard.

3. Recently, I decided to make a couple of final and inexpensive upgrades to my existing computer. Because my computer does fairly well, and because I have had a good performance in flight simulator, I have chosen to put off a full computer upgrade for at least one more year.

The specs for my current computer are as follows:

Motherboard: Intel Dragonfly D865PERL (800mhz FSB, AGP)
PCU: 3.0ghz P4 (HTT)
RAM: 2GB OCZ DDR400(pc3200) (2x1GB in Dual Channel mode).
OS: Windows XP Pro
PSU: 350W (one 12+ volt rail with 16A).
Monitor: Samsung Syncmaster 770 TFT (old LCD! but still ticking)

Moving On...

3 years ago, I decided that I wanted to get the most out of my flight simulation performance given my average PC. A computer that at the time was even more average than the computer specified above. So I decided to buy the most expensive video card I could find at my local Comp USA. I knew very little about video cards...so I simply bought the most expensive Nvidia AGP 8x video card I could find on the shelf. Little did I know how good of a choice this would be in terms of video card performance and specs.

The card I ended up with:


PNY Technologies
Nvidia GeForce 5900FX Ultra AGP 8X


At the time I didn't know what much of that meant. I certainly didn't know much about understanding video card specs. I just knew it was expensive, Nvidia, heavy, long, and had a huge cooling unit. I also knew that the clerk at the store was confident that I would like it. Which actually made me worry that I wouldn't. But he ended up being quite correct.

I am going to get into more specifics regarding the specs of that particular video card later in the article. For now, what is important to grasp is that for nearly 3 years I have had fluid, non-blurry, 30FPS performance in Flight Simulator with good settings on a computer that could only be described as fairly average at best. I always took this for granted, but definitely spoke to many Hovercontrol members that were not having as positive of an experience with Flight Simulator. What always surprised me was how much better some of these member's computer specs were than my own, but that I was matching them (or besting them) on my FS2004 graphics performance, quality, and stability. I have only recently come to understand just how much the video card had played a role in that experience.

Recently, I decided it was time for me to upgrade my video card.

I figured that since my current card was nearly 4 years old, that even a modest update would produce great benefits. I also figured that price wouldn't be such an obstacle this time around, because even a large step UP from my old card should be inexpensive by comparison to what is considered the most current hardware.

So I set out looking for a decent Nvidea video card. I headed to Newegg.com (highly recommend).

After a lot of searching and review reading, I narrowed in on the:

PNY Tech 7600GS 512MB AGP 8X
Price: $139

My reasoning: I wanted a 7x series card, I trusted the manufacturer (my old card was PNY, so why not), was excited about 512MB of video ram, it was 8X to take advantage of my 800mhz front side bus, there were MANY reviews (most of which were very positive), and the price was right!

How could I go wrong.

...Here is how I could go wrong

I FAILED TO CHECK THE SPECS, UNDERSTAND THEM, AND COMPARE THEM TO MY 4 YEAR-OLD 5900FX VIDEO CARD

So even though I purchased what many would consider to be a decent, well priced, good performing video card, I just took myself a HUGE step backwards in terms of specifications. So lets get into some of those.

For reference here are some links regarding hardware and video cards:

How Stuff Works - Hardware
How Stuff Works - Graphics Cards

OLD CARD
PNY Tech Nvidea 5900 FX Ultra AGP 8x
256MB DDR texture cache
27.2 GB/sec memory bandwidth
450mhz core clock
850mhz memory clock (actual)
256bit memory interface
8 pixel pipelines per clock
350W PSU recommended (amps not mentioned)
$450ish at the time.

NEW CARD
PNY Tech Nvidia GeForce4 7600GS 512MB AGP 8x
512MB DDR2
8.64 GB/sec memory bandwidth
400mhz core clock
270 memory clock (actual)
128bit memory interface
12 pixel pipelines per clock
Unspecified PSU recommended (amps not mentioned)
$139

I would like you to focus on the following specs for a moment:

1. Memory Clock
2. Memory Interface
3. Memory Bandwidth

As you can see, the 4 year old 5900FX ...DESTROYS... the new card in terms of these specs. Compared to the new card, the old card would be considered an over-clocked fire breathing monster. This would explain why it weighed about 10x more, and had a HUGE cooling system on it. Simply put, while the older card had older and slower memory chips in use, they were pushing that memory much, much faster. This required much better components and much more cooling capability. The new card had a tiny little fan, I'm not sure if I ever even made it turn on. The new card's shipping box felt empty when it arrived...the old card's shipping box required two full grown men to lift. (I had to buy them pizza afterwords).

The important point is that the newer card was not better. Not by a long shot.

Now here is a tangent that you might find interesting. While my old 5900FX cranked FS2004 very nicely. It suffered a bit in the new FSX software. The most noticable performance problem came in the form of an inability to handle the new bump-mapping that shows up on most of the FSX default aircraft and many of the scenery components. The older card actually came with support for bump maps, but they were relatively new at the time and thus the card was not designed to handle them at the lighting fast speeds expected today. The end result is that on scenes in FSX where bump mapping was prominent, I would often get stutters and frame rate disruptions. I was able to correct much of the problem by removing the scenery object bump map textures. However the default aircraft remained a problem as they use bump maps in such a way where they can not be easily removed.

So although the newer card did not stand up performance-wise with the older card. FSX seemed to make better use of the newer card because of the MUCH newer grapics architecture it was built around (7600 series vs. 5900FX series). The FX series of Nvidea graphics card would contain for the first time some of the visual capabilities that we take for granted in nearly all games today. At the time, these capabilities were considered "cinematic". Now days, they are considered mandatory. So it is the combination of the older cards horsepower specs, and also being an FX architecture that allowed it to hold up so well for so many years (most other cards would probably have needed replacing after 1-2 years, because games would have made them relatively obsolete).

Moving On...My experience became much more average.

After first installing my new (underpowered) video card, my initial excitement fooled me into believing that things were great. After a few hours, and settling down, I began to realize that something wasn't quite right. It was not that anything was wrong or broken. I wasn't suffering from terrible frame rates, or instability, or Blue Screens of Death....but something just wasn't right.

I was beginning to have the type of FS2004 experience that SO MANY others had written about on the forums at various flight simulation websites. For the first time in many years I was seeing blurries, I was getting strange stutters, and generally unsmooth panning as I looked around.

I would spend the next 3 days experimenting with graphics settings, controlled tests in FS for comparisons, and generally pulling my hair out to fix these problems that the average user might never even notice had they not had a better experience prior.

GET THAT?, I might not have noticed these behaviors that much if I had never had anything better.

These problems were subtle, not show-stopping, but annoying none the less! Especially considering that I went from super-smooth, predictable, stable performance.

Another subtle problem I noticed was that the new card did not seem to play as nicely with the referesh rate on my LCD monitor. If I did not lock my frames-per-second to an exact multiple of my LCD refresh rate, the graphics card would produce very annoying characteristics in the panning views. Not exactly stutters, and not drops in frame rates, but a strange kind of pulsing that could be seen when objects moved across the screen. Most people might not have noticed, but when you have come from something without this problem you notice! I have since learned that this type of problem is not uncommon with lower end graphics cards, as they sometimes lack some of the additional systems necessary to compensate for various monitor refresh rates smoothly.

On the third day I decided to do some reading and see if I was missing some bigger picture. That is when I realized that I didn't know much about video card specs, and certainly had never compared the specs between my old card and the newer one before making the purchase.

I figured like many would, that the newer card was SO MUCH NEWER that it just had to be better. After all, 4 years in the PC world is such a long period of time. Not only do particular hardwire items sometimes become obsolete in that period of time, but often ENTIRE lines of technology will become obsolete. I just never imagined that the specs of my old card would play that big of a role.

The Specs Matter...

Especially memory bandwidth, and memory clock. You could say that besides the particular architecture you are buying (5900, 6600, 7600, 8800, etc..) that the memory bandwidth and clock is where the majority of your money is going. Because you want these to be as high as possible. As these get higher, temperatures get hotter, and materials need to be manufactured at higher qualities. So video cards with good reputations for reliability and stability, but ALSO with high performance are not going to be cheap. They don't necessarily need to cost an arm and a leg, but they are definitely going to be more than the average consumer-aimed video card.

If you take one thing from this article...DON'T SKIMP ON YOUR VIDEO CARD

Flight Simulator 2004 and FSX are both heavily dependent on both graphics card performance and CPU performance. However, a graphics card that can't take instructions and data from the CPU quickly enough (this is memory bandwidth!) is going to give you stutters and general lack of fluidity. The point is...even a slower CPU will benifit from a very fast video card. Because you will reduce the amount of time that the CPU is waiting to provide new instructions and data to the video card. You will see this at key moments in Flight Simulator:

Any time a flight is loaded and many textures need to be loaded into the graphics card. This is particularly noticable at the begining of a flight and also any time that the ground tiles are changing (weather changes, lighting changes, etc). Also any time new batches of autogen scenery are being loaded. This is likely to happen when flying at moderate altitudes accross populated areas. (1000-5000ft AGL). The faster you fly, and the more ground you cover, the more these types of flight simulator instructions are being processed by the CPU and fed to the gaphics card. The performance of the graphics card, and its ability to grab this data and instructions from the CPU at lighting speed, and in large amounts is VERY important.

The Flight Simulator software has been written to take care of graphics related tasks as asyncronously as possible, but when the CPU is waiting to be released from the graphics card when sending instructions and data...that means that other things are waiting on the CPU. This is going to cause many of the problems mentioned on flight simulator forums:

1. Stutters
2. Blurries
3. Frame rate anomolies

Keep in mind, 30 frames per second is only good if it is smooth. With the newer under-powered card I purchased, I was getting 30 frames per second. However, it was a very poor 30 frames per second. The fluidity, and texture quality were suffering.

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?

So while many new users might have kept the new graphics card and trudged along. I knew that I needed to send it back, start checking specs, and find something that had the new architecture I needed (7x series Nvidia) and the specs that could keep up with my older more powerful card (memory bandwidth, memory clock speed).

For just $30 more than the under-powered card, I was able to find that balance. Once I knew what I was looking for. Here are the specs side-by-side for comparison between the old 5900FX (powerful, but old), and the new.

NEW CARD:
EVGA 7800GS AGP 8x
256MB DDR3 texture cache
41.6 GB/sec memory bandwidth
430mhz core clock
650mhz memory clock (actual)
256bit memory interface
16 pixel piplelines per clock
350W PSU recommended (18A on +12V rail).
$169

OLD POWERFUL CARD
PNY Tech Nvidea 5900 FX Ultra AGP 8x
256MB DDR texture cache
27.2 GB/sec memory bandwidth
450mhz core clock
850mhz memory clock (actual)
256bit memory interface
8 pixel pipelines per clock
350W PSU recommended (amps not mentioned)
$450ish at the time.

As you can see the specs on the new card are not out-of-this world compared to the old card. However, the memory bandwidth is nearly DOUBLE the old card. It is operating on DDR3 memory, and has a very similar memory clock speed. The reviews were positive for the card, very few complaints of stability or heat problems, and the price was very moderate.

CONCLUSION:

Video card specs are more important for flight simulation performance than I had thought. With the newer card in place, my computer (specs above) is performing very well in both FS2004 and FSX. By very well, I mean quite playable with around 25-30 frames per second with many options and details turned on/up. In fact, I would say that my FS2004 and FSX performance is about similar at this point.

After learning what I did about under-buying on the video card it made me wonder. How many people know more about their video card than just the model type? Do they know the specs? If they were to upgrade their cards today, would they know what was better?

MOST IMPORTANTLY

What really got me thinking is the number of good folks out there that buy moderately priced pre-built computers from the major manufacturers such as DELL, HP, Gateway, Etc. These types of establishments are well known for cutting corners on the specs, while providing a nice label. For example, one of their game computers might say something like "Designed with the latest games in mind, featuring the powerful Nvidia 8800 graphics chip!". This type of statement is very common, and has been for a while (regardless of the actual model mentioned). However, what they don't mention is the manufacturer, or the specs. The detailed specs of the specific graphics card they include are often not well published. Sometimes not at all.

This holds true for built-in network adaptors and sound cards as well. Many good Flight Simulator enthusiasts have had their multiplayer dreams cut down short by the fact that their computer came with a very poor network adaptor (and associated drivers). Leading to instability, performance problems, and general inability to participate.

FINALLY...an ANOLOGY

Think of your video card as a car at the dealership, waiting to be sold. The model name (7600, 8800, etc) is JUST THE BEGINNING. You have to understand the manufacturer, and the specs of the particular card to understand if it is going to be able to push something like Flight Simulator or not.

I believe that is part of why my very average, and very inexpensive computer has been pushing FS2004 (and now FSX) for nearly 4 years with great performance and none of the graphics problems that we frequently read about in the forums at major flight simulation websites.

I am not an expert with PC hardware, and there are many Hovercontrol members that can give good advice on these matters. However, I hope my experience might help you.











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