PC Pilot

The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith


The CPU is only part of the "feedback loop" you need for optimum control. Control is all about what you can see, and this is the province of your video hardware, which consists of a video circuit board that plugs into a lengthwise socket (called an "expansion slot") on your computer's motherboard, plus the video monitor itself, which plugs into the video board.

Some computers have the video circuitry built into the motherboard. While this saves a few bucks, it obviates choice: if you want to take advantage of improvements in video, you can't simply unplug the old board and swap in a new one.

Apart from trading up to a faster CPU, the biggest boost in computer performance comes from employing so-called local bus video, which (unless it's built in) requires a special slot. Without a local bus (either the older, cheaper VESA standard or the newer PCI bus, optimized for the Pentium—both standards produce about the same results), the CPU has to take time out from its busy schedule to process all the video information. A local bus breaks this bottleneck by bypassing the CPU. With local bus video, even an entry-level 486-powered machine can look like a screamer on-screen.

The electronic specifications of the video circuitry determine the highest graphics standard that will be displayed on-screen (EGA, PGA, VGA, XGA, etc.) as well as its connection to the monitor (RGB, analog, etc.). The physical characteristics of the monitor (see below) will determine the quality of the display: color fidelity, saturation, contrast, and brightness, for example.

The minimum standard you want is VGA. This is the highest standard to which most computer games now conform (with over 300,000 "pixels," or picture elements, the "dots" that comprise the image you see on the screen), although most games are downwardly compatible with the lesser standards: EGA, CGA, and so on. (Never mind what these inane acronyms stand for—they're contrary and confusing—just keep your eye on the pecking order.)

Above VGA there are a number of emerging higher standards (like Super VGA, XGA, and 8514/A), but very few programs support million-pixel graphics…yet.

Again, the key performance specification here is speed: how quickly the board can process the video information and send the signal to the monitor. Nearly as important as the local bus standard is the chipset used to process the video signals. More and more chipsets are optimized for Windows; so-called accelerator boards. Alfred Poor, a pilot and flight sim expert who writes the "Aerodrome" column in Computer Shopper magazine, points out that Windows accelerator cards don't necessarily improve video performance under DOS, which is where it counts for virtually all simulation software.

Currently, the hottest DOS-based graphics scores are racked up by video boards using the Tseng ET4000/W32 chipset, including the Hercules Dynamite series. The computer magazines publish definitive reviews of almost all of these boards; the most helpful are the reviews that compare several boards at once.

The (Really) Big Question: Which Monitor?

Flight simulations look better the bigger the screen they're presented on. They look sensational on twenty-inch monitors (measured diagonally, from corner to corner, as is the norm for TV sets), but these beauties cost $3,000. For that matter, a thirty-seven-inch Mitsubishi industrial-strength data monitor makes games look like they're on Cinerama, but now you're talking $10,000.

Okay, that's not reasonable. The hot price point, where high technology meets lowball marketing, seems to be around fourteen-inch color VGA monitors, which can be had for under $300. But no smaller: thirteen inches looks…and feels…dinky, and twelve inches is altogether too cramped.


There's another way to get flight simulations on a big screen, but you might not be pleased with the results. Several VGA cards are now on the market that feature TV-compatible output in addition to a computer monitor output. Their TV output conforms to the NTSC TV broadcast standards, so you can connect them to the video input jack on your TV set [but not the antenna jack; it's a "line-level" signal, not Channel 3.]

This means you can display on any TV screen—no matter what the size—whatever is on your computer screen, and record it on a VCR as well. But the picture will look nowhere near as good as it does on your computer monitor. Why? Because a TV set can only display about a third as many pixels as your computer monitor—a low-resolution 100,000 pixels versus VGA's 300,000 pixels. HDTV's million-plus pixels will change all this, someday.

Computer-to-TV signal converters all have a degree of flicker as well. Again, this is a hard thing to quantify; it's best to see with your own eyes what's offered before you decide.

Going up just another inch from the usual, to fifteen inches, can cost almost twice as much as a fourteen-incher. Seventeen inches is the biggest practical size for monitors, and not just because they cost as much as a Rolex; they can weigh close to one hundred pounds and throw off enough heat to make a small room uncomfortable.

The bare minimum? A monochrome VGA monitor (black and white, not amber—black and white is better for graphics; amber is primarily for text), capable of clearly differentiating among sixteen shades of gray. These may be had for about $150—and better you should have really good black and white VGA than a lower-standard color EGA or CGA.

Although brand names are relatively unimportant in everything else connected with computers, when it comes to monitors, brand names are, if not allimportant, at least significant. Sony, Zenith, NEC, Mitsubishi—each of these companies uses proprietary technologies that stamp its products with singular "personalities" which may affect your choice.

Sony's famous Trinitron picture tube (used in Sony's TV sets as well as its own—and others'—computer monitors) is widely acknowledged to have the most pleasing overall picture quality. But it is soft and fuzzy compared to the crisp, cool look of, say, NEC's justly famed MultiSynch monitors. And some people object to the Trinitron's "signature" horizontal stripes.

So choose your video monitor not by comparing the specs or reading the reviews but by seeing it in action—preferably with a system unit, video board, and software similar to your own—at your local computer store.

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