Update: We fixed a few grammar issues within the review. If there’s anymore let us know. It’s a huge review so apologies for any we missed.
The Flight Sim Labs A320 is a study level simulation of the Airbus A320 platform that released for FSX on August 24, 2016 with the P3D version releasing on January 20, 2017. The price tag has come under fire as for being what many call “too expensive” for a single aircraft. For years this add-on was highly anticipated as the community craved an in depth A320, but does it hold up to the long-time hype? Is it worth the high price? Based off of the Prepar3D version, we’re going to do our best to cover this highly detailed Airbus simulation.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot to cover in this review. Simply due to the complex nature of this aircraft and the level of detail, there is a lot to take in. Also, we need to consider you: the reader. As a result we’ve decided to give you a few more tools to help you make the most informed decision possible before purchasing the FSLabs A320X. These are:
We have also embedded a few videos from other content creators to provide more in-depth explanations on certain aspects of the systems. None of us on the FSElite team have flown the A320 in real life so can’t comment on those aspects per se, so hopefully you find them useful combined with our views and opinions.
The wait has certainly been an agonising one for simulation fans, Airbus enthusiasts and jet engine lovers. After all, 6 years ago FSLabs promised the world they would deliver the most realistic and detailed simulation of the A320 available for a home desktop. But why is the A320 so important and widely anticipated? Well for years we’ve been accustomed to realistic GA aircraft and heavy Boeing aircraft. There are many reasons why this has been the case, but one of the primary reasons is simply because of the complexity of modelling essentially a computer within a computer. The A320 is a highly automated and smart aeroplane with its own set of ‘laws’ and logic – one that has taken FSLabs multiple code re-writes to get correct and working with the limitations of desktop flight simulation.
The aircraft itself is also one of the most popular aircraft in the world. Developed by Airbus and had its first delivery back in 1987, the A320 has received multiple variations and remains a close competitor to Boeings 737 family. With over 7500 of the A320 in the air today, it’s obvious why people are desperate to try out their favourite short-haul aircraft in the sim – both in normal operations and challenging emergency situations.
Installing the FSLabs A320 takes a few steps, but ultimately is not very hard and is very convenient. The installer allows you to select several different options such as texture quality, 2D pop-ups or no pop-ups, and more. FSLabs has made it possible to reduce VAS usage by selecting the lower quality textures which is a smart move on their part. This aircraft uses a ton of VAS, and I’ll cover that more in the performance section, but FSLabs has taken steps to help reduce the VAS and I think they deserve a ton of credit for that.
Once installed you will want to read the documentation provided by FSLabs. I’m not just saying that either! This isn’t an aircraft many people can just hop in and fly. It’s a very accurate simulation of the A320 and you’ll want to make sure you know how to configure different options and settings, as well as operate the plane. Flight Sim Labs provides four well written documents for the A320. Included is a Basic Tutorial, Checklist, Introduction Guide (must read), and a Normal Procedures document. If these are all read through, and the Checklist is used, you’ll be able to start using this aircraft with minimal issue.
After installing the aircraft I loaded it up into the sim and checked everything out. In the cockpit they’ve modeled the newer style LCD displays, which I like more than the old CRT’s. Fun fact, the new LCD’s were originally certified and installed on the A340-500/600 and A318 then eventually became a standard feature on the A330 series and the rest of the A32X series. Besides looking a little different and being lighter, the LCD’s biggest difference is the synoptic pages that are slightly different. No, I didn’t check if FSLabs got that right, I trust them, but I think that’s a neat fact about the LCD’s.
I’m using the suggested 2048 textures and I thought that the VC looked good. I wouldn’t say great, as I believed the textures seemed like a strange mesh of photoreal and original work. They’re a bit bland and I expected a higher quality. Take the panels by the LCD screens. Some areas of it look washed out and a far cry from the soft blues that the A320 cockpit is known for. Lesser used areas have also been partially ignored from the same level of detail. A few blurry textures on the back panels, the jump seats, etc prevent the FSLabs A320X from being suberb. This was probably done to enhance performance, but as we progress into an era of 64-bit sims, let’s hope to see an update here. What impresses the most is the smaller details. Whether that is scratches, dirt and general debris from hundreds of flying hours, there’s lots to show you this is a well-used aircraft.
Look closely at the glare shield and you’ll notice that behind the buttons of the autopilot, you can see where indicators and text would sit. To demonstrate this effect, I looked at the autopilot panel and in particular the alternative mode selection. For example when flying HDG, you’ll see TRK displayed to the side quite clearly. You’ll know you’re not flying in this mode as its not illuminated, but the fact it’s not just a texture that appears emphasis the attention to detail. Of course, when you select them during flight, they’ll illuminate beautifully just like the real thing. Unlike other aircraft, they aren’t just textures that appear, they’re already part of the modelling itself, which makes it feel very authentic. This attention to detail is also present in the overhead switches. Even when the LEDs lights are off on the button, the text behind them is clearly visible and in the right light, you can see it even from the seat of the cockpit. Ultimately, the cockpit looks and feels like an A320, which is the most important aspect when simulating said aircraft.
Something I’d like to talk about before looking at the external model is the inclusion of using the tiller to steer during taxi. The texture on the tiller is well done, but the function itself is missing, which is actually quite frustrating. In the real aircraft, you press the button in the center of the tiller that allows you to disconnect the nosewheel steering. You press it and then use the tiller to steer while you taxi. You would expect in the sim, you click that button and it will disconnect the NWS, however, in the FSLabs, you need to manually use a hotkey to disconnect / connect. It’s easy to use, but it’s a shame both options don’t currently exist.
Externally, the aircraft has moments are greatness. This particularly shines for the texturing and labelling on the engines and vents. It’s one example of where FSLabs have designed something truly revolutionary. Regardless of zoom factor, the level of detail on warning labels, aircraft placards and other body text is completely legible and accurate to the real plane. Want to know the PSI of the tyres, you can check. Want to know which areas of the engine you should never touch? Then you can. This is the kind of modelling that excels the FSLabs from competing products and should compel you to realise that this is a serious product for serious simmers.
With that in mind, it’s important not to overlook the areas that are beginning to show their age. The modelling of the engines and landing gear look less detailed and don’t share the same high quality. The inner cowling of the engine design looked a bit rugged and the tyres look oddly disproportionate. I also found it odd that the chocks have been modelled, yet when you connect the GPU, there’s no GPU cart etc. It sounds picky, but you can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed in some aspects when the majority of this airplane is so well done. It’s frustrating as there are other areas that simply scream detail unlike any other aircraft before. Take the wings for example, once the flaps are deployed and spoilers are used, you can see pressure gauges and other wiring. The wings even flex like the real aircraft. Hit some clear-air turbulence and you’ll see them wobble. For me, it’s the inconsistency of the detail that spoils it for me.
Some of the greatest aspects continue to come from the things you never realised that mattered before. Let’s take external lighting for example. The A320 has 2 sets of navigation lights. SOPs for airlines differ, but essentially, it’s a convenient way for airlines to still operate if one set is INOP. With FSLabs ensuring this is the most realistic add-on available, it stands to reason that they would both work – which they do. What makes this outstanding is the fact that both are modelled in the external view. And not just the lighting itself, but you can physically see the bulb and the slight placement change of the lights themselves. Of course they splash onto the ground just as in real life as well. Speaking of lights, make sure you watch the taxi/landing lights the next time you switch them on/off. Not only is the light beam highly realistic, but they have accurate ‘light-up’ times also.
The FSLabs A320X comes with a lot of neat new features I haven’t seen in any products before. They’ve paid close attention to keeping things realistic and I’d say it really helps make this add-on feel more immersive. I’m noticing a growing trend of keeping simple features that have always existed, but presenting them in a way that is realistic. That’s apparent in this add-on, and I hope it keeps the trend growing as it makes flying more enjoyable and much more intuitive.
Before you start flying you’ll obviously need to fuel the aircraft, right? We’ve gone from a time where we use the payload manager inside of our sim to load our planes, to external payload manager applications. In more modern times, we’re able to do this through our FMS/FMC/MCDU, etc (which can be done with FSLabs A320X) and even through our own tablet devices. Now, taking it one step further, we can load up the actual A320 fuel panel. This is a 2D panel that will allow you to load the aircraft with accurate fuel in real time, as well as see where the fuel is being loaded. This is rarely seen by pilots as this is a fuelers’ area, but the fact this has even been created just adds to the value of the product. I’ll admit, I am lazy and complete the process through the MCDU, but with the option to do it through my tablet, I can simulate it however I see fit.
Keeping with the theme of innovation and ease of use, one of the coolest features is the included AOC. As a real-world dispatcher, I find this really interesting and serves as a great tool for the virtual piloting community. What I don’t think a lot of simmers realize is that pilots do not often type in every waypoint in the flight plan, as it’s loaded in via a datalink. They also don’t always listen to the ATIS (some airlines have policies requiring it) as they can request it and via text. They can also request a METAR for airports the same way – meaning you can always be one step ahead of the weather. Essentially, real world pilots can use the MCDU for a range of functionality and FSLabs have incorporated some of these features into their product.
As I mentioned, pilots use a datalink to upload the flight plan into the MCDU. Us virtual pilots can also import a flight plan uplink via Vatsim or PFPX. If you’re flying on Vatsim you use the pre-file system to submit your plan and then you input your flight number and the MCDU. This will then look up the plan from the Vatsim servers and download it into the sim and load your flight plan for you. Simple! You’ll still want to check it over and also add in your SID and STAR when needed, but it does most of the work for you. This is a very cool feature which I love about this aircraft. If you’re using PFPX, the process is documented in the end of the Introduction guide. You can save your OFP to an AOC folder. Once saved you’ll get a message in the MCDU saying “AOC ACT F-PLAN UPLINK” and the flightplan has been inserted to your MCDU. Again, like the Vatsim option, you’ll want to check over it and add the appropriate parts, but it’s all there just like in real life. Very cool feature and one that I use frequently!
Furthermore, you can also retrieve an ATIS or METAR via the AOC, just like in real life. An ATIS request does require a Vatsim connection, and as I found out, a controller with a properly setup ATIS. Just be aware that you won’t be able to pull every ATIS on Vatsim. The METAR doesn’t require anything special for the most part. It will look for AS2016, ASN, Vatsim, IVAO, and then NOAA weather in that order to grab the requested METAR.
For a METAR request you can go into the ATSU, then AOC Menu. In here you’ll be able to do a “METAR REQ” and you’ll automatically have your departure and arrival fields which you can request a METAR. The METAR will be delivered via an ACARS message and you’ll need to go to your messages to read the report. It’s important to understand that this is an automated ACARS message that is presenting the weather at the time of request (it also gets sent to your dispatcher). The message will stay in your received messages. You can check the weather for any airport from any distance, but don’t forget, once you near closer to TOD, you’ll want to request the landing airfield’s METAR otherwise it will be out of date.
It’s a great feature that means you don’t need to leave the sim to collect weather and keeps you immersed the whole time.
During the flight, you’ll begin to notice that the sound system in the FSLabs A320X is pretty fantastic. There’s a huge range of sounds with the aircraft and each location has been accurately recreated. This means that regardless of where your camera view is, the sound engine will generate accurate ambiance to your experience. For example, going to wing-view during pushback will ensure you hear the rattle and clank from the galleys to the safety briefing being shown by the cabin crew. Push your camera to in front of the engine and the sound system will generate totally different noises including the sound of the slats being deployed and the windmill effect of the engine during high-winds.
Head back to the cockpit and you’ll hear a very different sound environment. The realism continued here as well. Open a door and everything is louder. Switch on the brake fans and you’ll hear the high-pitched whirl of the fans desperately trying to cool them down. You’ll hear every sound and lose yourself in the simulation trying to guess where the sound came from and why it was made. Everything feels and sound very organic. You’ll hear even the minutest details including the hold door ‘thump’, the click from the latching of the window to the shaking of the hundreds of cables and buttons behind the console as you hit turbulence. Additionally, the aircraft actually uses a runway database to figure out where the lights are in a runway to create an accurate “bump” sound effect as you roll down the runway. Take your nose wheel off the center and you’ll notice it disappears. It’s a very neat and innovative feature.
As you push back and taxi, try to catch the PTU “barking dog” sound, which is also accurately modeled. The famous sound effect has never been accurately simulated before, and now FSLabs have managed to achieve it. But what is it and how does it work?
The annoying “barking dog” sound that the real-life A32X is famous for having is coming from a system called the Power Transfer Unit, or PTU. The PTU is designed to ensure that the hydraulics are pressurized adequately while the airplane runs on one engine. Normally each engine is pressurizing its own hydraulic system, but when the aircraft is running with only one engine, it requires the PTU to help out. The PTU will only run when the pressure falls below a certain level, and so it turns on to pressurize and then back off once it’s back to a normal level. Repeat this over and over, on, off, on off, and you start to see why it goes “bark bark bark”. On occasion you may continue to hear it for a short time when the second engine is turned on.
Many other add-ons have included this in the engine start up sequence, but that’s not accurate. It’s not just a sound you hear when you start an engine, it’s a sound you hear when a system is running. This has been accurately modeled by FSLabs. You’ll only hear the PTU when you should hear the PTU and I find that to be really cool. It’s also worth noting that this isn’t just a sound effect as the aircraft is actually pressuring the right system, allowing for the right systems to be functional.
The Fly-by-Wire system is smooth, accurate and works like a dream. Included are the four different flight laws of the FBW system and it’s very cool to play around with the protection systems and failures. The four different flight laws are:
- Normal Law, which provides all of the protections for speed, pitch, load factor, yaw and banking. This is your everyday flying experience.
- Alternate Law, which provides all protections except for banking.
- Abnormal Alternate Law, which provides only load factor and yaw protection, and;
- Direct Law which provides no protection and forces the pilot to manually fly the aircraft and manually control the aircraft via trim wheel and rudder pedals.
I could go into the detail about how each law works, but I believe that Youtuber Blackbox711 does a much better job at visually representing it. You can see from his video that FSLabs have provided an in-depth and accurate simulation of the various control laws. This isn’t easy as there are tons of variables and dependencies. Again, you’re purchasing a product which promises to be the most accurate simulation of the A320 and this again proves that fact.
Jumping into the MCDU now and again, each page you would expect from the A320 is present. The INIT page allows you to program flight details, including flight number, cost index (which is modelled) as well as fuel and wind data. Although right now you can’t input specific winds for each way point, you are able to tell the aircraft the strength of the wind and in which direction for the overall flight. This will then accurately predict your fuel burn and ETA, which you can then cross check with your flight planning information.
As you would expect from, data from the aircraft can be inputted easily by double clicking (e.g. take off speeds and weights) and you’ll be able to set up or change a range of options using either MCDU. For example, throttle detent zones, cabin ready logic and more.
With the current version of the A320X there are a few key features missing from the MCDU. This includes the equal time point and secondary flight plan. The lack of secondary flight plan is odd considering that a competing product has this functionality. It’s promised in a future update but as of yet, no indication of a timeframe has been mentioned.
During your time with the FSLabs A320X, ensure you make time to watch battery load on the overhead. As you manipulate the aircraft and different systems and can see the load on each battery fluctuate. That’s a small detail, but one that matters. Again, it’s all in the attempt to create an ultra-realistic, living and breathing aircraft. Not only will you wear the batteries out, you’ll need to replace them, along with oil and ensure that your tyre pressure is up to scratch.
Something else that you need to be mindful of is that you need to watch the cabin temperature. Depending on the circumstances you’ll see the temperatures fluctuate accordingly. Turn off the packs and open the doors and you’ll see a change. Only open the front doors and you’ll see the front of the cabin change and not the back. Cloud cover can affect the temperatures as well. It’s all very dynamic and I think it’s a great addition to the immersion this add-on offers.
This is more than a simulation, this is a living aircraft that will react to every action that you or the environment will throw at it. This is true in cases of bad weather as hitting enough turbulence will cause the autopilot to disconnect just as in the real aircraft. You’ll have to manually take control and ensure the trim is correct before you can put it back into autopilot mode. I generally also like the way the aircraft feels with hand flying in weather. It feels heavy enough to know you’re flying a large passenger jet, but at the same time, a small gust of wind will require you to take corrective action.
With great system simulation comes great failure simulation, and FSLabs delivers in this category. There are many different failures you can setup to occur while flying the aircraft. They allow you to customize when it happens as well by setting a specific speed, altitude, and a time delay. If airborne you can also activate the failure instantly if you so wish. You can run through so many different things and you can pile up the varying failures to create an intense situation. If you like the challenge of working a failure, then this is something you’ll enjoy about the FSLabs A320X. They’ve went the extra mile and even created animations and effects for certain failures such as flames and smoke.
My personal favorite is the bird strike failure. This isn’t just some failure where the engine turns off, FSLabs went through and created animations to make this a very immersive event. When you select a bird strike failure you’ll actually see a little black bird fly past your windshield right before you see your engine flame out. It’s fun to watch from the external view as well. You see the bird ingested into the engine and the subsequent flame out that happens afterwards. It is very cool to see and very immersive. Additionally, the engine doesn’t “just turn off”, you can see the N1/EPR (depending on engine variant) slowly decrease and sputter out. This is something to give a shot if you already own the aircraft.
Other features that make the FSLabs A320X standout is the ability to select kilograms or pounds, the use of 2D panels and that each screen will pop-out including the MCDU. As you would expect, both navigation screens work independently from one another allowing you to draw NDBs on one and airports on another. Equally, you can split having terrain data on the pilot’s side and the weather radar for the pilot not flying. All of these smaller details mean a lot to me and only improves the user’s experience with minimal impact.
And whilst it does improve the experience, some traits feel a little dated. Let’s refer back to the ability to select KG/LBs in the MCDU. Doing this is really easy. But unlike other add-ons in the same price range, it doesn’t save to the livery your using. You load up your favourite USA airline, you’ll have to go into the settings, change it on the fly. Easy. But go back to Europe, you’ll have to go through the same process. It’s mildly annoying and when you start thinking of these small missing features of other products, you begin to realise that this is really is a product stuck between 2 time zones. Another example of this would be the ability to save panel states.
The flight sim community is used to this practice from many other products available. The ability to save a panel state, load the aircraft it be exactly how you left it is a level of realism I enjoy from other aircraft out there. For some reason, you can’t do that to the same effect with the FSLabs A320X. Sure you can save the panel state and load it up, but you’ll have to jump through a couple of hurdles to get there. It’s not the same as quite literally quitting the sim, loading it again and be put back in the same position as before. It’s odd because I felt like once I had finished the flight, I didn’t care much for putting it into a sterile condition for the next crew as I knew that regardless of how I left it, it would load with engines running anyway.
There are loads of realistic features to the ‘Bus. From the complex nature of the fly-by-wire system to the MCDU, it’s worth remembering that this is still a simulator and some things will always be a “sim-ism”. By that, I mean that the way we operate things in the sim will be different than in real life due to making things easier for the user. Some areas such as invisible clickspots by the landing lights make things easy to do, enhancing your experience. On the other hand, some of the user-interaction does drive me insane. For example, on the real A320 to use the spoilers you must push the level down and then move it backwards. FSLabs has modeled that and while I admire the commitment to realism, I don’t think it is necessary to make use an awkward left click, right click system to simply deploy spoilers. The same system exists with the fuel cutoff switches. You must use this very awkward system of left and right clicks to push, pull and move the fuel cutoff switches. I don’t feel that this sort of thing is really needed or adds anything other than frustration to this simulation. I don’t like having to do so much to accomplish such a small and simple task.
Whilst trying to resolve this quick, I attempted to had a look at shortcut commands. I found it odd that some of the shortcut commands in FSX/P3D work one way, but not in reverse. For example, on my throttle I have my spoiler arm mapped to a button. As I go through my checklist and arm spoilers for departure I can hit the button and arm my spoilers. Once I get airborne I can’t then hit it again to disarm the spoilers, I have to manually go and click the lever with the aforementioned awkward system. Just the same, I can use a mapped button or the shortcut to set parking brake, but I can’t then use that to disarm the parking brake because it is just constantly applying the brake rather than using the FSX/P3D parking brake. It’s not a big issue in the grand scheme of things, but it does add a bit of frustration to the simulation.
Like with any product, despite how long it may be in development, there are always things that could be improved. It’s only a few things, but they’re things that really bother me. Will they be changed or corrected? Hopefully so as FSLabs have released a few updates address concerns raised by the community and they’re open to listening to ideas.
Something that was addressed early on was performance.
The performance of the FSLabs A320 is something you’ve got to think about and really ask yourself what is more important to you before you buy this aircraft. Do you want to simulate systems and operating an aircraft, or do you want to also have nice visuals? You’ll likely have to compromise or pick one or the other with this add-on. If it is visuals you want I will tell you right now this add-on is not for you, sorry. At least not until P3D becomes a 64bit platform.
This aircraft uses a lot of VAS. Consider for a moment I am using the suggested settings from FSLabs and I am on P3D V3 and I was never at a point where I had more than 1GB of VAS available. Granted, I started most flights off with a scenery, but even when arriving at an airport with nothing more than an AFCAD, my VAS was always what I consider “tight”. I could remove scenery, I could turn down my settings even more, but I enjoy simming for both the systems and procedures, but also for the visual experience and being able to fly over things I can identify. This is ultimately a user preference thing, but like I said, if it is visuals you want, beware.
FPS also suffered a bit for me. I do run an older system and many of the newer systems out there will perform better, but I routinely had FPS hovering around 20 (even at cruise), when I normally get 30. That’s really a matter of the systems and all that’s going on behind the scenes. That’s the trade-off we must accept in this hobby, for now at least. The more accurate the systems and the more that is going on behind the scenes, the more of our system resources that are being used, and subsequently the worse performance will be. So, for those who value beauty over simulation will be disappointed, but those who want accuracy will enjoy the realism in the system. Despite what’s going on, it is still impressive to see the computer within a computer function relatively well.
The value is really in the eye of the beholder. This isn’t as black and white as it is with most add-ons we review because it isn’t really clear to me who the intended customer is. Is it for the niche I think it is, or is it supposed to be something anybody can fly? I think that it really depends on what you want to get out of this add-on. I feel as if the FSLabs is a niche aircraft due to its complexity. It is certainly a good add-on with lots of minute details, there is no questioning that. However, I think for one to find it as a good value you’ve really got to fit into that niche I believe this add-on is. After all, there are so many details unknown to the common user that you’ll have to really dig into the manuals to discover.
You do get two engine types, but only one aircraft type. The two engines are both true to their real-life counterpart. Everything from sounds to fuel consumption is accurately modelled, which ensures operators for both are covered. But fundamentally, they are both an A320 with the same handling (apart from changes to power from the powerplants). Sadly, there isn’t a sharklets option included or the ability to add any other customer options. Understandably, this has been done to ensure the simulation is true to the same plane if it were in the real-world skies. We’re promised we’ll see variations on the A320 family in updates in the future, but right now, there’s no word on if there will be a price to pay.
If your goal is to learn about and simulate the A320 systems and a “pretty” sim, perfect modeling and high fidelity texturing is not a big deal to you, then the FSLabs is probably a worthwhile investment for your sim since the value is in the systems modelling. I’d highly suggest this addon for anybody who loves to learn systems, failures, etc. It’s worth every penny as long as you’re using it within P3D. This value will only increase when we are able to use the FSLabs A320X when we make the jump to the 64-bit platform of Prepar3d V4. Considering the hit on VAS and FPS, I really can’t suggest getting this for FSX. Although it is gone now, when the add-on was originally released for FSX, FSLabs was telling FSX users to convert their sim to DX10 to avoid an OOM. Even then there were still a lot of OOM complaints. Of course, if you already have it for FSX, you can pay the upgrade price to P3D for an additional $40, which makes it fairer than some other flight sim product purchases.
If you’re more of a casual simmer and you don’t want to go too far into the systems, then I’d say stop, back away from the computer and breathe. You almost paid way too much for an aircraft I don’t think you’d enjoy. Like I keep saying, this is a niche aircraft and if you don’t fit into that niche you’re wasting your time and money. There are other A320’s you can buy that are more suited for you.
The FSLabs A320X is without a doubt the most realistic simulation of an A320 you’ll find in the simulation world. It is full of detail that surprises and the quirks of the real aircraft. With some excellent attention to detail, it proves a stable and solid product for anyone willing to learn and master a complex airliner. Yet with so much work having gone into creating this high level of immersion, some of the more user-friendly features have slipped the A320X. The lack of save states and livery specific options are almost expected of an add-on of this calibre. This is where I find reviewing this product difficult. It’s certainly a fantastic aircraft with technology far more advance than any other A320 simulation on the market. It promises what you buy: a realistic A320 simulation within a desktop sim. Beyond that, there’s a distinct lack of polish to some areas which make it feel a bit of a burden when you compare to other add-ons in the same price region. For many, this would be the perfect product and one with plenty of life, but for me it isn’t quite what I wanted.