FS2020 Hardware Considerations
A key point to remember when designing a PC for FS2020 is that one of your PC components will end up being the bottleneck or limiting factor. The trick is to choose components that work together so that all the items ‘max out’ at roughly the same point. That way you will not be wasting money on a component that never uses anywhere near all of its potential, or conversely be wasting all the other components’ potential because of one under-performing component.
The issue of component balance and bottlenecks in relation to FS 2020 are not simple.
Pricing of computer components
Possibly the most important thing to understand about computer components in general is that they are mostly made of sand (silicone) and plastic, neither of which are particularly rare or expensive. The bulk of the cost of these items comes from the R&D required to develop them in the first place. Companies like intel, who manufacture most of the processors (CPU’s) used in today’s computers, spend most of their annual budget on developing new, faster and better products to meet the ever-increasing expectations of consumers. The total cost of materials and labour is negligible in comparison.
Further, the price that these products are offered to the market is largely determined by value-based pricing. This is based on the perceived benefits to the customer rather than the actual costs of manufacture. Scarcity – whether perceived or real – may be another factor in the final price. Enterprises that are first to market with a new product generally use this method to help maximise products. As competition increases, market prices might reduce as other manufacturers use cost-based pricing to undercut the original provider and grow market share by offsetting price against an established brand.
Markets where there are only one or two manufacturers or providers can often get away with value pricing more easily than those where virtually anyone can set up in business. These are known as oligopolies. They may exist due to high barriers to entry, or where their offerings are unique or hard to replicate such as in the fashion industry.
But this is not a lesson in economics, so let’s get back to the issue at hand.
The most important component of a flight sim computer is the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). It is also probably the hardest component to understand when it comes to which one will best suit your needs. That is further complicated by an ever-changing market where new and more powerful models are constantly replacing older ones.
Commonly used GPU’s range in price from under $100 to around $4500. Most of the top end GPU’s are new releases and are aimed at early adopters with no idea of the value of money. For most FS2020 users, the sweet spot between GPU price and performance will lie in the $500 to $1000 range.
The GPU has the job of producing the graphics that you see on your computer screen. When the screen is static, such as when viewing a photo, the GPU has little work to do. It paints the picture once, then goes to lunch until the user gets sick of looking at that photo.
However, when the screen is always changing, as in a movie clip, the GPU has some work to do. In computer games, the GPU really earns its money as it has to create the on-screen display from a whole lot of variables, depending on what the player is doing at any given time. This might happen between 30 and 60 times every second, with every ‘frame’ being slightly (or sometimes massively) different to the last. The minimum standard frame rate for motion pictures is 24 frames per second. This is because the retina retains an image for about 40 milliseconds (persistence of vision). PAL TV signals (as used in Australia) are at 25 fps, and NTSC as used in American TV is at 30 fps.
What the human brain then perceives is fluid motion as the brain cannot function quickly enough to identify each frame before it disappears. However, if the frame rate drops below a certain level, usually around 10 to 12 frames per second, the brain can begin to identify each frame and the motion looks jerky. Between 10 and 16 frames per second, the image can stutter and cause headaches in many people.
But as the frame rate increases, the motion appears to be smoother. 60 fps seems to be the sweet spot. Most people will not be able to tell the difference if the frame rate increases further. However common opinion seems to be that anything over 30 fps is fine for FS2020.
Computer gamers have long sought the higher frame rates to help provide an immersive experience and trick the brain into believing it is real. A higher frame rate generally comes at higher cost. Further, as computer software becomes more complex, the GPU has to work harder to produce a realistic output.
Different manufacturers produce their own version of each model of GPU. While the basic technology is unchanged and licenced from NVIDIA or AMD, one important difference between brands can be the cooling system. If your PC will be sited close to your seating position when using FS2020, it may be worthwhile to seek out a GPU that has better cooling capacity, as this should run cooler and quieter when under load.
Before we can choose a suitable GPU for FS2020, we need to establish what screens the GPU will be sending their output to. More on that later. First, let’s look at the other hard worker in this team.
The Central Processing Unit or CPU is essential the brain of the computer. It performs calculations and runs software (or ‘programs’). For FS2020, this component is critical for the
There are 2 providers of CPU’s – intel and AMD. Which brand you choose may be based on brand loyalty (maybe due to familiarity) or actual performance results from real world testing. At Aero Circus we usually stick to the intel brand that we know and love.
For the more technical readers, FS2020 can only use 4 cores of a CPU. The recent 10th generation intel desktop CPU range released in April 2020 is also known by its code name of Comet Lake. In this range, Core i3 processors have 4 cores, Core i5 processors have 6 cores, Core i7 processors have 8 cores and Core i9 processors have 10 cores. So, any of these will provide enough cores.
The next consideration with a CPU is the core speed. Here it is simple – the faster the better. The following table lists the clock speeds for selected available processors. We have ignored the unlocked versions (these have a model suffix of “K”) as overclocking should only be attempted by people who have plenty of time on their hands and know what they are doing. Which is not us. In either category.
You can also save a few dollars by getting the “F” version of an intel CPU. These do not have on-board graphics, which is fine when everything is working OK. However, if the graphics card fails, this will help to identify the problem much more quickly and easily, and at least let you continue to use the machine until the faulty GPU is fixed.
Bang for buck
As you can see, speed comes at a price. The CPU Mark column is based on the average actual performance of these CPU’s ‘in the wild’ (source: cpubenchmark.net). The number indicates how each CPU performs in relation to the others in the list.
We have divided that figure by the current price (as at October 2020) to provide a value or ‘bang for buck’ rating. The higher the number, the better value the processor is. From the above table we can see that the higher-end processors offer less value for money than the lower end ones.
The lesson from this is that to maximise performance for money spent, we need to use the lowest performing CPU that will give us the result we need. Buying a higher-end CPU than necessary is wasting money on an exponential scale.
If intel was truly pricing each CPU model based on its benefit to the user, the numbers in the Value Rating column would all be the same. As it stands, buying more gets you less value for money, which is the opposite to what we would normally expect in life.
GPU and CPU Pairing
Real world testing has shown that the pairing of the GPU and CPU will have a pronounced effect on the ultimate experience of FS2020. Detailed analysis of this is beyond the scope of this article, but you should be able to find guidance on this online. The general rule is to increase the capacity of one as you increase the capacity of the other to avoid severe bottlenecks.
Not all that long ago we were amazed at how realistic high definition (HD) TV’s and computer screens were in comparison to what we had endured in the past. But a few short years later HD has become passe. 4K is now the standard for most new TV’s and computer screens on the market, with HD reserved for the budget end of the spectrum. Although there are still an enormous number of sub-HD computer screens in everyday use.
For computer screens there is an in-between resolution, sometimes called 2K but more often referred to as 1440p. It has twice as many pixels as HD but half as many as 4K. For FS2020 purposes it is sometimes promoted as the minimum acceptable resolution to be able to read the cockpit instruments. It is also the level at which the virtual world scenery comes alive.
But is it really the case for a real-world pilot? We will look more closely at this issue later in this article.
Don’t forget the memory
Independent testing has shown that 16GB is sufficient to run FS 2020 without problems. It is preferable (i.e. faster) to use a memory ‘kit’ which consists of 2 sticks of ‘RAM’ at say 8GB each rather than a single stick at 16MB. This is called dual channel mode, and it allow the CPU to talk to both sticks of RAM at the same time which provides the performance benefits. The best part is that it costs virtually no more to set up your new system this way. Just make sure your motherboard can handle dual channel mode (most can).
However, memory requirements may increase with future releases, and if you want to multitask while running FS2020 then forking out the extra $100 for 32GB is probably a better idea.
You do not need to spend a fortune on high end gaming motherboards. Many of the lower end products will do the job adequately. The primary issue to consider is that the motherboard is compatible with your chosen CPU, both in terms of brand (intel or AMD) and generation (pin configuration).
After that you need to ensure that your chosen GPU will fit the motherboard. This involves 2 aspects. First, the type of slot (or slots) that the GPU plugs into must be compatible. These are usually PCIE slots. Secondly, make sure that the GPU will physically fit in the board, as well as the computer case. Some boards may not be suitable due to their physical component layout, so double check with your supplier when ordering.
Next is the memory slots. You should make sure that dual channel memory is provided. You may also like to get a board that has 4 memory slots so you can add more RAM later on to increase capacity rather than having to replace it.
Most of the rest of the options are not necessary. Some boards even have LED lighting and a whole lot of other features more to do with marketing than actual useful performance. One thing to remember though is that if you do decide to get an unlocked CPU (that can be overclocked) make sure you get a motherboard than can handle that.
FS2020 needs around 150GB of hard drive space to install. On top of that you will need Windows 10 and all its friends. But what is not commonly mentioned is that as you use FS2020, it will create on-disk caches of scenery. This is most likely because the cameras are rolling by default every time you fly. According to some reports we have heard, this can quickly chew up the best part of 1TB. So, a 1TB drive is probably the smallest you should consider unless you are prepared to delete caches on a regular basis.
More importantly, make sure the hard drive is a Solid State Drive (SSD) rather than the old type of mechanical hard drive. Otherwise the bottleneck could well be in your storage and much of the money spent on the CPU and GPU will be wasted.
Most SSD’s connect to the motherboard via a SATA cable, however there are more advanced models called M.2 that are up to 5 times faster (and more expensive) than basic SATA models. These can easily be upgraded later if desired.
The faster SSD options will mainly affect the initial loading times of FS2020 and are unlikely to impact the performance of the game itself once it is running.
More power to you
The final part of the puzzle is the Power Supply Unit or PSU. This is one time when size really does matter. The GPU is the biggest user of power in the system, and the PSU needs to be able to keep it well fed. It also needs to have the correct power leads that the GPU requires (either 1 or 2 of either 6 or 8 pin). The rest should be fairly standard.
With PSU’s, if in doubt, go bigger (in terms of wattage). Probably 700W will be enough in most cases. However, you don’t need the super-expensive ones with modular cabling and gold stars on their foreheads.
All the above has assumed that you will only be using the PC to run FS2020. If you are like us, you may want to use it for other purposes. The specs required to run FS2020 will be more than adequate for most day-to-day use.
However, at Aero Circus we occasionally spend time putting together videos using Adobe Premiere software. This is another ‘high end’ user of computer hardware, and our new machine will also need to handle this. This may affect our choice of components, most notably the CPU.
Adobe premiere will show improved performance as the CPU power (both number of cores and speed) is increased. However, as the benefit is mainly in reduced processing times when exporting videos, it is hard to justify an expensive CPU just to provide a shorter wait on the odd occasion that we export a video. In this case we do not believe that the end result, as measured by the final quality of the videos we produce, will benefit from throwing extra dollars at a better processor. Your situation may be different.
Finally, there is the issue of your internet connection. The initial download is huge, but the game also requires a fair amount of bandwidth during play as it constantly downloads data from the Microsoft servers. There is also the multi-player option which connects you with other pilots and ATC ‘players’ in real time.
ADSL is probably not going to cut it unless you live next door to the telephone exchange. A reasonable NBN broadband plan (e.g. NBN50) or equivalent seems to be required.
Finally, it is reported that there will be the option of using a Virtual Reality (VR) headset instead of screens in future releases. If you plan to go down this road, make sure your chosen VR headset is compatible with the GPU.
What Microsoft says
Microsoft recommends 3 levels of hardware, depending on how much you want to spend and what experience you are after.
For entry level users, an intel i5-4460 CPU with a NVIDIA GTX770 GPU is recommended minimum. However, the experience from this is unlikely to be anything but enjoyable or useful. If this is all you have or can afford, perhaps get a hold of the old FSX which should run OK on this system.
Mid-level requirements are an intel i5-8400 CPU with a NVIDIA GTX970 GPU.
Ideal requirements are for an intel i7-9800X CPU with a NVIDIA RTX2080 GPU.
What Microsoft doesn’t spell out are what screen resolutions these will work with. In reality, that is probably the place to start for most users, especially those on a budget.