The purpose of this document is to present my take on the necessary hardware to build a first class gaming system. Since my gaming interest is strictly flight simulators (combat sims to be exact), naturally I bias all my remarks in that direction. I will cover building a computer from scratch as well as the selection of gaming controllers and all other supporting devices that can help give you a competing edge. Hope you find this helpful.
This topic can be a really controversial. The debates spew on for miles in message boards at the various gaming sites over what I'm going to editorialize here. Because I've been at this for a pretty long while now however, I think I understand most of the arguments and will do my best to present all sides. In the end of course, this is just my humble opinion.
This is probably the least of the controversial topics on this subject. To play the games (flight simulators) most of us consider worthy, you will need a fast computer. I'm not going to mention anything specific because it will be obsolete by the time I hit the "save" button. So, I'll just say: Buy the fastest computer you can afford!
The cheapest route to take is to buy a machine which has the graphics, sound, network adapter, etc. all on a single motherboard. The problem with that is, those components are going to be lower-end devices and may not live up to the standard you demand for whatever game you're wanting to play. One thing you've got to keep in mind is gaming is a different ball game from just surfing the web and sending email. I highly recommend building a machine from scratch.
There is, of course, a priority to where you should focus your spending. The only device that doesn't seem to me to fit logically in the priority list (though I've ranked it third) is the graphics card. In one sense, I want to rank the GC first because unless you have a decent GC, it doesn't matter what other hardware you have because you may not even be able to play the game or it might perform so badly that it isn't even worth playing. With that said, here's my priority list:
If you can afford it, buy the fastest CPU on the market. That will give you the best longevity and force you to use the latest motherboard, memory, etc. as well. All these things add up to a machine that will give you at least a couple to four years or so of competitive edge. Now, I have to admit that I don't take my own advice here.
I typically buy the fastest CPU in the "second tier" at the price break between the really expensive
and the expensive
. For example, my current CPU is an Intel Core Duo E6600 which cost me about $300. The "top end" at the time was the E6800 which was over twice the price of the 6600. Intel also offered the E6300 and the E6400. So, you see, I chose the best in the "second tier." To me, that's a good way to go.
2. Power Supply
People tend to minimize the importance of a good power supply. Don't make that mistake. Without good steady power, you are going to have problems with your graphics card, hard disk, and all those USB ports you are going to load up with all those game controllers you are going to plug in. On my latest computer, I went all out and bought a 750W PS. My thinking was: I don't want to have to buy another PS for a good long while. Hopefully, this PS will take me into at least a couple more upgrades.
3. Graphics Card
Do not skimp here! You can have the fastest CPU on the planet and if you have a piece of junk for a GC, your CPU is going to spend most of it's time serving the graphics rather than doing what it should be doing. Worse, your game may not even play if your GC is too cheap. Your priority on a GC should be on the same level as your CPU. I like to think of them as a team. They are only going to work well together if they are complementary.
4. Sound Card
This can be surprising. I never put much emphasis on a sound card and just put the most basic $29.99 card in my computer. This is a mistake. Just like a cheap video card steals cycles from your CPU, a cheap sound card will do the same thing. You will be amazed how much difference a quality sound card can make in the performance of your system.
5. Hard Drive
The performance of your hard drive can be another big surprise. It is very tempting to buy one of those cheap, high-volume drives in your machine instead of paying a premium for a high-speed drive (e.g. Raptor 10,000 RPM). A good, high-speed HD can make a huge difference in the performance of your gaming experience.
6. USB Ports
Almost all plug-in devices these days are USB. The most important preparation (other than outfitting your machine with lots of USB ports) is to install a good power supply. If you have "dirty" power, you are going to get all sorts of strange behavior out of your USB devices. If you need extra ports and choose to buy a PCI USB card, be sure it is a quality one. If you choose to go with an external USB Hub, be sure it is a powered one (i.e., it has it's own AC adapter that plugs in an electrical outlet) rather than one that gets its power from the USB port it plugs into.
7. Game Controllers
Though not technically part of a computer system, game controllers used to play a flight simulator are as important to the simmer as having good frame rates. There is nothing worse than crashing or missing a good shot because your plane rolled left because your joystick suddenly developed a mind of its own. The discussion of game controllers is pretty broad so I am limiting my presentation strictly to the controllers used for flight simulators.
Some gamers prefer a single joystick used together with the keyboard while others prefer a full-blown HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick.) Some gamers prefer to use rudder pedals while others desire the 3-D (twisty) sticks for rudder control. Much debate and preference abounds resulting in many choices and quality levels. Depending on the gaming community, these preferences, as well as the brands of controllers, can get pretty controversial. Here is my take on this subject.
There are realistically only four manufacturers of game controllers on the market today. I list them here in progressive order based on price.
These are very much the so-called "starter" controllers. They are very cheap (cost) and very cheap (quality.) Lots of people refer to them as "Logicrap." If you use a Logitech stick for more than a couple of months, you'll be looking to buy another one. Most of the Logitech sticks are 3-D.
Saitek controllers are well made and offer a very nice "mid-tier" quality and are reasonably priced for the average flight simmer. Their best offering is the X52 Pro
which features a stick and throttle combination with lots of switches and rotaries. The X52 is a very popular choice among the Aces High crowd. Their other stick is the Aviator
which is a good choice for a "starter" controller.
To me, CH Products is the last word on gaming controllers. They are simply the best and the best bang for the buck. CH is by far, the most popular and most commonly found controllers flight simmers tend to use. They are not cheap (cost) but they last forever! I have been using CH for over ten years and still use the parts from my original set. In fact, I would probably still be using my original set if USB had not replaced GamePort.
The main-stay of CH's controllers are the FighterStick
, Pro Throttle
, and Pro Pedals.
That's about $300 worth of investment and worth every penny. It is worth mentioning that none of the CH sticks are 3-D which means rudder pedals are essential for full aircraft control.
The best on-line prices I have found for CH Products gear is Provantage
Thrustmaster's flagship product is the HOTAS Cougar. This controller is designed for the most serious of flight simmer. The Cougar is made of metal and weighs a ton. The Cougar is very much the "luxury controller" of the industry. It is very pricey (about $300 for the stick and throttle) but is an exact replica of the controls found in the F-16 Falcon aircraft. The biggest reported negative about the Cougar however, is the need for significant after-market mods required to fix various problems with pots and other internals. Some people have claimed to spend as much as $1000 modding their Cougars. But, if you are looking for the closest replica to F-16 controls, the Cougar is it. Thrustmaster also makes a Force-Feedback stick as well as a USB joystick but the Cougar puts Thrustmaster on the map.
The Viewing System
Virtually moving your heard around inside the cockpit during flight is one of the most important aspects of flight simming. If you do not have good Situational Awareness (SA -- ability to see what's around you during combat) , you are not going to live long and you are certainly not going to enjoy the game.
There are basically four viewing systems available to the flight simmer.
This is the basic system that every game supports. Each view position (look up, look left, etc.) has an assigned key command and will either snap or pan (based on configuration preference) your head to that position when the key is pressed. Some of the well established flight simulations (e.g. Aces High) use the "Keypad Viewing System" which organizes the numeric keypad on your keyboard such that multiple keys can be held down at the same time and obtain a view "between" the view the keys would individually produce. The keypad matrix works like this:
The "5" key is the "Look Up" view. The "1" key is "Left-Rear", "4" is "Left", etc. If you hold "5" and "4" down at the same time, you will get a 45 degree up view to the left, etc. Several flight simulator games use this viewing system or something similar.
2. Joystick POV (Point-Of-View) HAT switch
This viewing system is essentially the keyboard system moved to the joystick's POV hat. For games using the "Keypad Viewing System", you can set up your 8-way POV hat to perform all the views except the Look-Up ("5") view and then assign another button to do the "5" view. That means you can look all the way around you with the POV and then hold the "Look Up" button while pressing a POV view and you'll get the 45 degree up view in that direction. That will give you 17 views total which covers almost any view that you can accomplish in real life.
A few games (e.g. IL-2) allow the mouse to be used to move your "head" while in the cockpit. Mouse buttons can be assigned to adjust the "seat" position so that you can change the angle of the view. There are "Zoom" commands too that allow you to zoom the view in and out.
4. Infrared Tracking
This system consists of an infrared camera that mounts usually on top of your monitor and tracks a reflector somehow mounted on your head. It works similarly in concept to the Mouse Viewing System except that you move your head to adjust the view rather than moving your mouse.
There are six basic axes (degrees of freedom) that you can move your head. With the most basic infrared tracking system, you can move the view up/down and left/right. This system is referred to as 2DOF (Two Degrees Of Freedom). In addition to up/down and left/right, the other possibilities are roll left/right, lean left/right, raise up/down, and lean in/out. Those are the six axes (6DOF).
The most commercially successful infrared tracking device is the TrackIR4 Pro
by Natural Point. TrackIR4 supports 6DOF and Aces High is one of the few flight games that supports all six axes.
Now here's where I depart from the crowd. Everybody is jumping to LCD monitors and abandoning the poor ole CRT. Everybody, that is, except me.
My 19" Vewsonic CRT began to flicker a little and show signs that it was ready to give up the ghost so I got to looking into replacing it with an LCD. The more I researched, the less enthused I became with the LCD. For me, I just don't think LCDs work well for gaming.
The biggest reason I chose to stick with a CRT is because my favorite game, Aces High, does not support the wide aspect formats (e.g. 5:3 - 1280x768) and if I were to go to LCD, I'd really like to go to widescreen format for non-gaming reasons. I would have to force the monitor to "normal aspect" (4:3 - 1024x768) which would show the "black bands" (letterbox). Now, I don't have a problem with letterbox but LCDs work best at a specific resolution and if you use something else, the display doesn't look as good. CRTs don't have that problem of course. Another thing that bugs me about LCDs is they can't reproduce a true black color. I think that makes the color reproduction slightly inferior to CRTs. It could just be psychological for me but I have to say that it bothers me. Also, I have not seen an LCD yet that doesn't produce just the slightest ghosting around objects that are moving around on the screen. CRTs absolutely do not have this problem. That's huge to me. Finally, you just can't get the resolution from an LCD that you can with a CRT. I recently bought a Dell P1110 21" Trinitron (it's actually a Sony) CRT from a guy who had replaced it with an LCD. This sucker does 1800x1440 and looks fantastic in Aces High. There is not an LCD on the planet (that I've found anyway and certainly not for an affordable price) that can touch that.
So, in my opinion anyway, I think a CRT is the best monitor for gaming. Plus, you can find the big 21" ones around for $50 or less (I payed $35 for mine) from folks dropping them for LCDs. In all fairness, I must tell you that there are plenty of guys who will argue with me about this and say their LCD looks wonderful in Aces High. I think it has become a little bit like the old vinyl versus CD war that broke out in the early eighties. I'm still not certain that CRTs are better for gaming but I love my 21" CRT and I'm sticking with it at least for the near future. I'm not telling you to go with CRT, I'm just making my case. You do your own research, you decide.
Ok, I have to admit to being completely wrong about this monitor thing. After much research and message board banter, I decided to give a 24" LCD a try. Wow! I was so wrong! Because I wanted to maintain a similar resolution I was getting with the 21" Trinitron, I decided on a widescreen 24" LCD and purchased an Acer P241W
. I love it! The CRTs are hereby retired.
The Sound System
For whatever reason, sound has just never been something I cared about. One year, for Christmas, my wife bought me a Logitech X-530
5.1 surround speaker system for my computer. In case you don't know what 5.1 means (I didn't), that's the two normal stereo speakers, plus two rear speakers, a center speaker, and a sub woofer. That thing was pretty impressive although the sound would often disappear from the rear speakers, the sub woofer wouldn't always work and all that was even worse when I got into a game. I continued to use it although not overly impressed. I was using a cheap old Soundblaster card I bought at Best Buy for $29.95 or some such thing. I had no idea that was the problem. Then, when I upgraded my computer, I bought a Soundblaster Audigy 2 ZS
which is a pretty high-end sound card and I was amazed at how much better my X-530 system sounded through that card. For the first time, I noticed that I could tell when a bandit was sneaking up behind me just
from the sound! That's when I realized that a good sound system can actually give you an edge in a dogfight.
So, if you want to gain a little more edge in your air combat, you may want to look at improving your sound system. It does make a difference.
The Microphone and HeadSet
Some people like to wear headphones while gaming. There are a number of very good 5.1 headphone sets around. One that gets lots of praise is the Medusa 5.1 ProGamer
by Speed-Link. 5.1 headphones actually have multiple speakers in the ear cup so you get true surround sound. This can definitely give you an edge in air combat as well as deepen the immersion factor considerably.
In addition to great sound, most headphones come with a good quality microphone as well. This is important as most flight games support some sort of voice communication system. Aces High happens to have a very nice built-in voice radio. This means, of course, you need a microphone. As for me, I don't use headphones as I prefer to get my sound through my Logitech X-530 system, so I had to go out looking for a quality microphone on a headband that didn't include headphones. I found the Labtec LVA-7330
on ebay for less that $10. The quality is great and as a side benefit, my TrackIR reflectors clip right on the headband so I don't have to wear a hat while using TrackIR.
Other Immersive Goodies
Here a some other gadgets that can make your flight simming experience more immersive.
- The Buttkicker Gamer -- Attaches to the center post on your chair and vibrates your seat at low frequencies. Plugs into your sound system so no special drivers are necessary. Ideal for headphone wearers where the subwoofer is turned off or in situations where turning down the sound is desirable.
- Game Commander -- A voice recognition system that allows you to issue voice commands to your game and have them translate into keyboard commands. For example, if you play a game that supports an AI wingman and the Control-A command sends the radio command to your wingman: "Drop your fuel tanks", you can train Game Commander to send that Control-A command when you speak the words "Drop Tanks." Game Commander is great for games like Microsoft Flight Simulator because it will allow you to actually talk to the control tower rather than plow through the on-screen menu.