Before I begin, I want to clarify something: this is NOT a review of the A320-X by FSLabs. This is my initial first impressions over a heavy weekend of flying. Despite the fact the aircraft came out over two weeks ago, it was only last Friday was I able to sit in the flight deck and start experiencing this aircraft. Over the weekend I did a range of flights, testing out different approaches, varying length of flights, turn-arounds and much more. Obviously, a weekend with one of the most in-depth aircraft isn’t enough to form a solid impression, but I wanted to put together what I thought.
So let’s start with installation. Firstly, I was a bit taken back by 2 installers and a PDF full of instructions. Usually it’s click install, put in your details and let the rest handle itself. As any reader should do, always read the instructions first as these provided some details on how to install everything (including FSLab’s Spotlights) correctly. I liked how it came with pictures and detail and not just a standard .txt file. Whilst there are a few PC restarts required, the experience was pretty easy. Next up, was installing liveries. Whilst many of us are used to in-built livery installers, FSLabs provide their own solution of simply extracting an executable file which simply and quickly installs the livery to the aircraft. No fuss required. In the future, it would be great to see a centralised place to see what I have installed and a quick option to de-install.
Before continuing, I read through some of the documentation to ensure that I had everything configured. Again, it’s really important you read through the introduction manuals as it gives VITAL details on how to configure your hardware, sim and other utilities. Now, someone did mention to me that it seems to be a lot of changes to your Sim settings for just one aircraft. Whilst I agree that it takes longer than usual to set up, if you’re using FSUIPC then configuring for one aircraft compared to another should be normal. Not only that, but I haven’t had any impact on other add-ons either (I checked PMDG’s 777 and A2A’s 172). Regardless of changes, this is the BEST way to enjoy this aircraft. The development team have worked hard alongside their experts to give everyone the most realistic way to program your simulator to ensure the best experience possible.
As you load the aircraft, you’ll notice the amount of ‘loading’ that goes on. Leave the aeroplane alone! It needs around 60 seconds to fully load all of the systems. It’s a really complex aircraft with loads of behind-the-scenes stuff, so touching something here will probably give you some bad results. This alone gives the impression this is one of the most in-depth simulations created for Flight Sim!
Anyway, enough foreplay, what about the flight deck.
Before I share my opinion on the FSLabs A320-X virtual cockpit, I want to share some background. I work for one of the largest airlines in the world that operate an Airbus 320 Family fleet only. As a result, I work on them daily, which gives me great insight into the visual side of things. I’m not a pilot, but have shed loads of time within the flight deck and cabin itself. Because of this, I would like to think that my opinion is well informed on the subject of the flight deck.
The most obvious competitor is Aerosoft with their A320 Series. I’ve used it for years, and it’s a solid and excellent aircraft, developed by some extremely talented people. Aerosoft have always been clear that it’s designed to be suitable for a wide range of users, whilst being accurate for anyone to fly A – B from the view of the pilot. For years, we’ve been accustomed to how the virtual cockpit looks. I believe Aerosoft did a good job at creating what people would perceive to be accurate, whilst I believe that FSLabs have done a great job at creating a realistic flight deck.
A good example of how the two differ would be from the switches on the autopilot panel. The way they look and glow when they’re ‘on’ is visually different. Whilst Aerosoft’s looks good, FSLabs have ensured that it looks accurate to what the pilot would actually see. The soft yellow-glow lighting is more true to life and how the naked eye would see it. This is also the same for the gear lever and in particular, the flap selector. I much prefer how FSLabs have rendered if in their simulation due to the modeling and detail included. For example, where the pilot would use the spring to allow movement, it’s clearly defined with more attention given to the geometry. The texturing and detail is much more realistic compared to the competition.
The modeling in my opinion is great. Everything looks to be in proportion, with nothing looking too big or rough around the edges. In particular, I really like the level of detail down by the throttles. They are extremely well done with every little detail included. Scan you head further down to the communication section, and every button is modeled, all clickable and complete with animation. Again, it’s attention to detail that makes it stand out from the competition.
With technology progressively moving since development of the FSLabs A320-X began, certain areas of the aircraft feel a little dated compared to other areas. Take animation for example. Commonly used areas of the flight deck such as the gear lever aren’t as well animated as I would like to see from a 2017 product. I imagine this saves on memory usage and helps the frame rate. On the other hand, the animation for the tray table and window blinds are very well done. Personally, I would prefer the effect to be the opposite and see that effect on more commonly used switches and levers. Whilst saying that, the flap selector animation is really well done, and shows how it would be done in real life (with the pull-up and pull-back mechanism).
With a long development process, we have to be objective and consider at what point in development do the team look back and go “we made this years ago, should we update it?” I imagine the team have internal debates about this frequently.
As I continued my look around, I took notes of the texturing.
- I installed the 2048px textures
- When zooming in, text was crisp and clear.
- Dirt, scratches and mud can all be seen in different areas, all adding immersion
- Less commonly used areas are slightly lesser in quality
- I installed a texture pack from the forums for the glare shield to make it a bit brighter – default was a bit too dark for my liking
- The PFDs were crisp and clear.
Thinking between the trade-off for performance and detail, FSLabs must have had a hard task in ensuring they struck the right balance. The texturing is of an extremely high detail. As I noted above, there’s scratches off of some of the services, dirt hiding in the corners and even dust on the PFDs. Again, there’s a remarkable amount of detail in the text labels placed around the flight deck. From different zoom levels, it is readable and clear. No idea how the guys managed to do it, but it works really well. In less commonly used areas, some compromise was made to ensure the aircraft ran as smooth as possible. For example, the pilot’s seats are flat, and the texturing is lower res on objects such as the fire extinguishers. The sacrifice made here didn’t impact my enjoyment of the aircraft and it’s rarely noticeable when using the aircraft under normal flying conditions. Especially when your eyes are fixated on the clearly rendered displays.
As for the general appeal of the Flight Deck, on the whole, it looks really good. The main panel looks really well done, with excellent renders of both switches and displays. Every switch and button in your view is clickable and has an effect on the aircraft itself. This level of detail is where it really impressed me. In fact, if you look closely enough at the switches, you can see the level of depth there is to them – literally. You can almost see how LED lights in the background which will light up when pressed. This is really obvious when clicking the switches (e.g. fuel pumps) on the overhead panel. In certain angles, they are dark and basic. Yet, when light hits them or you move your camera, you can see they are full 3D models with accurate texturing just waiting to be “lit” up by the lights. Again, it highlights the quality of the simulation.
Relating back to my earlier comments on the development cycle of the aircraft, another element that is less polished is the aircraft landing lights switches. They are perfectly functional and simple to use (took me a while to get my head around the click spot system after using other aircraft for so long). I will add that the texture work looks different compared the surrounding areas and in particular the navigation light switches.
I want to talk about the exterior model in part 2, as there’s loads to talk about, but I would like to draw your attention to how the aircraft lights work – and especially at night in the fog.
Firstly, the navigation lights reflect softly off of the ground. The effect looks great. Now my favorite effects comes from the beacon. As soon as you flick it on, the bottom of the fuselage, engine cowling and even the wing-tips all reflect the red glow from the flash of light. It’s a really subtle effect, but again, part of the polish from FSLab’s product. Further to that, when switching on the landing lights, you won’t illuminate the ground unrealistically. No, far from it. Instead, in real time, the lights will drop down from being flush against the skin of the aircraft, and will then light up individually. The effect is then a full beam of light from the accurately modeled lights and spread beautifully across the ground. The same applies to the taxi and runway turn-off lights. The effect is extremely realistic. Suddenly, 3rd party effect which you’d pay $25+ for are already included in the product!
As I was panning around, I happened to notice that I was getting pretty good performance for such a sophisticated and in-depth add-on. Having spoken to other users, their experience is also the same. With a few stutters here and there from the complex calculations, the simulation is still very smooth. To further help, you can adjust some of the settings from within the MCDU to help with some performance gains. For a desktop PC calculating the performance data of an entire aircraft (which houses its own computers), as well as the sim itself, this is really impressive and clear that FSLabs have worked hard to squeeze as much optimisation as possible.
I’ll come onto a more detailed VAS usage in part 2, after I’ve used the aircraft in flight. However, some quick thoughts:
- I have been using the latest version of the FSLabs (at the time of writing version 220.127.116.11)
- VAS was in-line with expectations of other complex add-ons
- Using the recommended settings with the aircraft did lower the quality of my Sim. As a result, I used my usual settings, yet had no issues
- I was able to do a long 2 sector day (London Gatwick – Gran Canaria – London Gatwick) with no issues
- I attempted a 4 sector day around Europe (busy airports), but had an OOM on finals during my 3rd sector
- I use Active Sky 16 (high overcast settings), GSX and other goodies on medium texture settings
- It’s worth pointing out that I am using Nvidia drivers 373.06 as more recent drivers have reported VAS leaks
- I’m using Prepar3d version 3.4 hotfix 2
As with all add-ons, you need to be sensible. A complex aircraft like FSLabs’ A320-X in a complex airport, with lots of AI and weather will probably cause you to have issues. This is definitely not a fault of the aircraft. We just need to ensure we carry the right balance between eye-candy and performance. From my experience, VAS was not an issue at all. Considering the ins and outs of this aircraft, I’m surprised how little foot-print it does have. Also, it’s worth noting that between original release and the most recent update (18.104.22.168), FSLabs were able to improve the VAS usage considerably. I’m confident they’ll continue finding ways to improve the simulation.
As I sat here in the cockpit, the next thing to grab my attention was the use of sound. Sound within the Sim is one of my most important factors when considering the immersion factor.
Without a doubt, the FSLabs A320-X has some of the best use of sounds heard in our simulator. Every subtle click and beep can be heard. I was blown away when I could hear the *thumb* of the aircraft door close. Even more blown away by the fact that when the doors are open, outside noise is exaggerated and can be heard more clearly. This is a fantastic use of sound. The same can be said when opening the flight deck window. After I switched on the brake fans, I jumped out of my skin in excitement when I heard the infamous high pitched groan. Of course, the PTU can be heard in all of its barking dog glory. Sound is absolutely my favorite feature of the FSLabs A320-X.
The element that most impressed me was how volume adjusted according to altitude and speed. This is really advanced technology and sucks you right into the sim. There is a real sense of movement through the air as you hear the sound of the engines disappear into the wind. Something else I noticed was that depending on where you are in the “cabin” will also vary the sound you hear. In fact, I installed the easyJet safety demo and hear it play during taxi. Again, these details demonstrate the effort and thought that went into creating a truly immersive environment.
Whilst taxiing around airports and you can hear the rattle from the canisters in the gallery behind you, the thuds of the wheels going over bumps and dirt on the taxiways. What is really impressive is how FSLabs have modeled the way the aircraft will make a runway “bump” when taking off. By creating a runway database upon loading the aircraft, the aeroplane will be able to tell if it’s on or left/right of the center-line. If on the line, expect to hear your wheels force itself over the light creating a really pleasing sound effect. Again subtle effects, yet clearly a lot of effort went into this.
So much work has gone into creating an immersive experience with the FSLabs A320, which has amounted to countless hours of work and dedication. With all this in mind, I would love to see a different way to load the A320-X’s panel state. I appreciate the complexity of the aircraft, the number of “computer within a computer” scenarios and the number of processes happening – as a user, I would prefer a different way to handle it. Right now, you can shut the aeroplane down and save the panel state quickly via the in-sim menu. Loading it back up is just as simple. I personally would prefer a way to shut down the sim and load the sim again with the aircraft in the same state as I left it.
As I continued to prepare my initial delivery flight from Toulouse to London Gatwick, I followed the step by step check list to ensure I started the aeroplane correctly. Everything ran smoothly. The MCDU was easy to program.
Some of the highlights for me on the MCDU:
- Crystal clear display
- A bit slow to respond to key presses. Not sure if intentional as per the real aircraft, but can lead to some frustration
- Like I said, having some issues with integrating it with PFPX so have to type the routes manually. When I key in my departure and arrival airports and select INIT REQUEST, I get some random route
- Some elements of the MCDU aren’t implemented yet (including secondary flight plans and detailed winds)
- HOWEVER, you can input headwind (HD) or tailwind (TL) components, which impact the flight time, fuel etc in the flight plan page
- Holds, alternates, SIDS, STARS and more work really well
- The MCDU also acts as the options section, as well as fuel and payload management
- One of my favorite features is the ability to see Vatsim/IVAO ATIS information in the MCDU itself, as well as METAR reports.
There’s so much detail and work that is happening with the MCDU and my points above are just small snippets.
Something that was added recently, and something I haven’t seen from other add-ons before, is the ability to see METAR and ATIS information directly within the MCDU. I love this function so much and makes life so much easier.
My key message is, the MCDU is easy to use. Sure, there’s some missing functionality, but it’s more than usable and what’s there is seriously complex stuff. Something I did note was that after I performed a Go-Around during a flight, the MCDU wouldn’t clear itself, even after engine shut down. I pressed a bunch of buttons (educated guessing, not anti-ice for example!) and I eventually cleared it. After a while, I researched how to clear it and realised that this is accurately modeled. Just another example of how other experiences have “hand-held” me through the simulation of the Airbus. Not to say there’s anything wrong with that, but if you’re after a true-to-life simulation, this is it.
With the MCDU programmed, engine started, I released the parking brake and tested the ground physics on a single engine. I was blown away – literally! Didn’t even need to touch the throttles and I was moving and gaining speed at idle. I think this is the first time I’ve seen this truly done accurately within the Sim. From my understanding, the aircraft knows if it is raining (or snowing), what surface it’s on, the weight and how many engines are running. As a result, it calculates accurately the velocity the aircraft should move and so forth. Again, it’s highly complex stuff that is not done by other developers. This really is a huge advancement in flight simulation technology and another testament to the level of detail here.
It is a great feeling knowing you’re doing your bit to protect the virtual environment when conducting single-engine taxiing.
Approaching the runway, I started the 2nd engine in plenty of time to ensure I didn’t have any issues with oil temperatures. PING – and suddenly an ECAM memo popped up saying I needed to set the throttle to idle detent. Never seen this before so thought I broke something massively. Again, moving the throttles meant everything was back to normal. The engine was now running, flaps were set and we were ready for take-off… except… I forgot to set the seat belt sign! Not a big issue as we’re only ferrying the aircraft over, but I did this multiple times and had to delay my take off due to the cabin not being secure.
And this is what this aircraft is all about – immersion. And this is what impresses me most about the FSLabs A320-X. Before, things like this wouldn’t really matter in the simming world, but actually, this is a big deal for real life crews. Ensuring the cabin is secure, ensuring cabin temperature is correct, making sure the oil is hot enough, etc. Small things we take for granted in Flight Sim suddenly become a problem for us. The best example of this was during an approach where I had to go-around for forgetting the seat belt sign. Of course, you won’t ‘break’ anything by continuing your approach, but now you have to not only think of flying, but all the other elements of a pilot’s typical day.
I’ve barely scratched the surface with the plane. There’s countless amounts of quirks and detail that spending just a weekend with it doesn’t do it justice. Nor does this first look impression. FSLabs have created a truly revolutionary plane. Some are regarding it as one of the most advance aircraft ever to be seen on a desktop PC. I’ve mentioned multiple times that this is a simulation within a simulation. You’re not paying for an aircraft, you’re buying an experience – an experience no other developer has created for an Airbus product. The detail in small things is what is drawing me back to the aircraft time and time again. The realistic lighting and system, the immersive sound system and the dynamic ground handling are just a few ways FSLabs are revolutionizing your simming experience. I’ve not even touched upon flying dynamics, the external modeling, my first flights, night lighting and so much more. I’ll be back in part two with another in-depth look in my time with FSLab’s A320-X.
This is part one of two on my extensive first impression article. Over the next few days, I’ll be collecting my thoughts on
- External modeling
- Flying dynamics
- My 4 sector day (including go-arounds, ILS, visual approaches, etc)
- Other features of the aircraft
- Night lighting
- ..and more.
If you have any comments or feedback, please let me know in our Discord channel or in the comments below.
FSLabs will be issuing an update for the A320-X to work with Prepar3d 3.4 Hotfix 3 in the coming days. Once released, I can load the aircraft up again and finish up part 2. Apologies for the delay!