Flying All Over the Planet

I’ve been enjoying the new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 which features the ability to fly anywhere in the world with often amazing displays of detail and realism, including live weather effects.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s several written reviews (IGN, Polygon, Gamerant) and a few showcase videos:

Approaching Santa Cruz in a Daher TBM 930
(notice all the detail in the cockpit: sunlight, reflections in the windshield, etc.)

I’m running MS Flight Simulator on my 16″ 2019 MacBook Pro, an ultrawide LG monitor (3440 x 1440) and a Logitech G Pro Flight Yoke system with rudder pedals.  (A yoke is much easier to fly with than the keyboard controls.)  It’s a pretty immersive experience:

(For all of these YouTube videos, you’ll want to go full screen
and force the highest resolution, not just leave it on “auto”.)

Be aware that right now, as with all the newest graphic cards, every flight yoke and joystick is pretty difficult to find anywhere at normal retail prices ($165-ish) as the release of this game (and the pandemic) have driven them out-of-stock everywhere.

Even with the whole world available to explore, it’s particularly fun to fly around places that you know very well from the ground.  I’ve created a couple of longer videos of such flights – here’s a tour of the Santa Cruz area, including the boardwalk, downtown, Scotts Valley, Felton and north along the coast as far as Año Nuevo:

Some locations (like Santa Cruz above) benefit from detailed photogrammetry data providing lots of realistic detail. Other locations get carefully handcrafted buildings and objects (particularly at select airports), while the rest of the planet gets more generic textures and topographical information from satellite data and auto-generated details like trees and buildings. For example, the generic buildings populating the ghost town of Bodie are very out of place in my little tour of the Eastern Sierra – from Bishop to Mammoth and on to Mono Lake and Bodie:

Lots of folks are already making add-ons that you can drop in to enhance the rendering of a particular location or add a particular plane.  Here’s one great index of available add-ons for MS Flight Simulator.


The 16″ MacBook Pro (2.4GHz 8‑core Intel Core i9) can actually manage to run MS Flight Simulator on my ultrawide monitor with just the laptop’s built-in AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU but at lower Medium level settings. This game can be very CPU and even network intensive (the world does not fit on your hard drive) so the game can bog down even if your GPU has cycles to spare.

For higher quality settings, I’m using a Red Devil Radeon 5700 XT graphics card in an external GPU enclosure (connected via Thunderbolt) running MSFS 2020 on Windows 10 via Apple Boot Camp.  This setup allows for something between High-End and Ultra settings at 3440 x 1440 resolution.

Update (Jan 2021): I’m since been able to get one of the new, next generation GPU’s: an overclocked Radeon 6800 XT and I’m now able to run smoothly at even greater than “Ultra” settings from my 2019 MacBook Pro.  It looks fantastic!

Note that you’ll likely need to go through a bit of hassle to successfully configure these AMD graphics cards under Boot Camp.  See the egpu.io forums and bootcampdrivers.com for help. The Nvidia cards don’t require workarounds for Boot Camp but they’re not supported at all on macOS, whereas the AMD cards work under macOS without doing anything.

And now in virtual reality: I’ve also picked up a very high resolution HP Reverb G2 VR headset which makes for a truly amazing and engrossing experience.  With a proper VR headset, you get that incredible, brain-fooling trick of virtual reality immersion – of seeing and hearing only the virtual world around you, no matter which way you look.  With the Reverb’s incredibly high 4320 x 2160 resolution, I can’t run at the highest graphics settings (even with that new GPU) but it doesn’t matter – that feeling of immersion is so captivating – feeling like you’re actually sitting in the cockpit.  You’ve got to directly experience it though to believe it.  Watching a video recording shown on a fixed screen in front of you can never convey it.  I’ve written more about experiencing virtual reality here.

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Troy Dawson

VR headset and seated / cockpit games do go together great!

You’ve motivated me to convert an unused Coffee Lake hackintosh into a Windows gaming box for Flight Simulator (been reading good things about it but just too busy at work), I’ll try it on my 55″ Samsung display first but a headset sounds fun!