There are many great things I love about flight simulation. From a range of fantastic aircraft to fly, all without a type rating by the way, to beautiful scenery and fantastic weather, be it day or night. There really is something for everyone. The downside to this though is that 'something' in flight sim terms is often akin to 'a lot'. Take scenery for example, Orbx provide some of the best scenery out there for the GA flyer using FSX or P3D. Heading into Blue Canyon or Telluride is a fantastic experience. However, if you are flying the PMDG T7 into San Francisco, those extra sceneries you are not using will load up as you fly overhead and deplete the ever precious VAS. This could mean the difference between landing and taxiing, or getting the dreaded 'ding' as you approach over the city.
So having the sceneries loaded up that you are not going to use can be a pain. You can of course tell the sim not to load them up by using the 'scenery configuration' settings, but if you uncheck a box and forget to re-enable it next time you want to fly there, then that is a pain as well. Then there are the loading times as the sim rechecks all its scenery and unload or loads the new settings. It is time consuming, time you could be using to fly. Enter Aerosoft's SIMstarter NG.
SIMstarter NG began life as a freeware sim manager. It offered a fresh feel to delving into the backend of the sim, allowing scenery to be saved in sets, along with lots of other little things, like sim settings and such. It was a great tool and one that I found immensely helpful during Worldflight 2014. I covered the event for PC Pilot and the ability to quickly load a scenery set for the area I was flying in was fantastic. So when Aerosoft announced there would be a new payware version, offering more than the old freeware one, I was in.
SIMstarter NG is currently available direct from Aerosoft and Aerosoft resellers as a download only product (some resellers also offer a master back-up CD / DVD service for a minor additional cost). Priced at just €12.56, or the equivalent on currency cross rates, it is cheap to say the least.
Now, with the free version being rather good by itself, is there a compelling reason to upgrade to the paid version? Let us compare and see.
SIMstarter NG has all the features of the original freeware version, with the exception of the number of start profiles available. From the original 9, you can now save 999 different profiles - more than enough for any simmer. Now I could list the improvements made and the new functions added but perhaps the best thing to do is to run through using the actual program, and less of the dry bumph.
Once you have downloaded the small 20MB installer, then run it, and the program will scan what sims you have installed. With that checked, you will be offered a choice of sims. Just click and then wait while SIMstarter NG checks everything over - and you are in. The program will check for updates next and, if any are available, you can tell it the download and install. The program will shutdown, then restart. It is quick and simple.
The heart of the whole program is the flight control manager. It pulls together all the various setting changes you have made and allows you to save them to an individual profile. As mentioned above, you can create up to 999 individual profiles, so there is plenty of scope to make as many changes as you like.
To the left, you can create a new profile or load up a pre-saved one to edit. The main power is on the right. So creating a new profile, we start at the beginning. The first option is to load a saved flight. I find this useful when flying for a VA, where I can select a saved flight parked at a standard gate at a base airport like Heathrow. You do not have to, however. Instead you can select date, time, location, aircraft, the whole works. Nice, you have made those basic choices, below are a few more unusual options. The first offers you the option to not see the welcome screen, which is great if you are starting the sim from SIMstarter NG, however, unchecking this option will mean the next time you load the sim as normal, you will be straight into your default flight.
Below that are the options to select you scenery config sets. I will touch on how to set these up later, but in theory, you can have several different sets to choose from. You just select the one that is truly right for the profile you want to create and you are done. You also have the option of selecting an external Scenery.cfg file if you have such a thing.
The main settings are plenty to get you into the air quickly, but there is also the option to view and set a few extended options. It is not just the scenery which can hold multiple different sets. You can also edit and create sets of DLL.XML files, EXE.XML files and even SimObject.cfg files. You do not have to touch these settings of course, but potentially you could create sets of files which run only the Orbx object flow.dlls when you want to fly into Orbx airports, but another set which turns them all off when flying in Europe. Perhaps a SimObject set which includes or excludes various extra aircraft or vehicles like WOAI. It is a powerful, yet simple system.
Next up, you get the chance to set a few new features. CleanDesk is a cracking little addition which allows you to close down those background apps which could slow down your system. For the most part I leave this option off, but if you think you can claw back a bit of performance by closing down things like Adobe reader and iTunes, then this program will help.
For Windows 7 users, there is an option to restart Windows Aero after the sim starts. This is actually worth its weight in gold as the internal VSync with FSX only works with Windows Aero running.
Finally, there is an option to run the SIMstarter NG client. More on this later, but it is a nice option for those running a network of PCs.
Options for Active Sky Next feature, allowing you to run automatically, and even make changes to Active Sky Next's settings themselves without the need for running the program separately. Like the DLL files and such, you can save multiple different configurations for Active Sky Next.
Orbx makes an appearance as well, with the option to use and select an Orbx region for your profile. And finally in the extended section is an option to use an external FSUIPC.INI file. I have never needed one, but it is nice to have that option, should I need it.
Note. This review was written prior to the changes to FTX Central and the use of unified lclookup, thus removing the need to switch FTX Regions in the FTX Central application.
By now you can get the idea that SIMstarter NG is more like a replacement for the sim's front end welcome screen. That is true, but it is so much more than just a replacement free flight screen. Every option you can change in the sim's settings can be changed here, and in some cases, settings can be set far above what is available in the sim's settings dialogue. The simulator configuration manager offers you all the same choices you get in FSX/P3D. General, Aircraft, Scenery, etc., are all there, and in the same order as you would expect. Furthermore, there is scope to make changes to the cfg file which would normally have you scrambling around in your appdata folder. Take Global Texture resolution for FSX as an example. The standard max setting is 1024, but in SIMstarter NG's options, you can extend that to the full 4096. No annoying fsx.cfg editing to be done. Things common for P3D users, like setting the wide view aspect to true are also here for every user.
There are options for many of the familiar tweaks as well. Runway light scales are there along with Max Autogen trees per cell and so on. All adjustable with simple sliders. There are more than a few settings even I did not know, including things like 'Stick Sensitivity Mode' and 'Dawn Dusk Smoothing', all found in the 'other' tabbed section.
The final tabbed section is marked tweaks and contains all those tweaks found in the various sim tuning guides. High mem fix, CPU affinity, and more are present and all adjustable/switchable.
Best of all, you can create multiple profiles, so you can now tweak to suit individual scenarios.
The scenery config editor is perhaps the place you will see the most. Mostly this is because any time you install new sceneries the editor will ask to run when you start. Like the rest of the program, the scenery config editor is a fresh face for dealing with the back end of the sim, in this case the scenery library. A well stocked scenery library can be a real pain to navigate, especially when it come to moving new sceneries up or down the list. It is also very easy to loose an airport or two in the mass of entries. The SIMstarter NG editor offers a chance to really clean up. Your master config will always need cleaning up. To start with, it is possible to move many sceneries in blocks rather than individual entries. You can also move them to any point in the library by just selecting the insertion point from a dropdown box. Select the point and the moved scenery appears below that insertion point. As well as moving scenery around, you can insert spaces between sceneries that do not affect the way the library works, but does allow you to label and ground sceneries, making it easy to find what your looking for. For example, I split all my airports up into geographic areas, Europe, Asia, and so on. I can now find them easily in the list. I can even colour code them to make them even easier to find.
With the master file sorted, you can create various new config sets which only contain the scenery you want active. It may save a little on VAS by turning some scenery off, but it will increase loading times if you are not loading everything all at once. Once you have chosen the set that is right for you, you save the config, naming it something appropriate, and then you are free to add that to the right sim profile.
SIMstarter NG has more than a few tools on offer. The Livery Manager for example, lets you not only install a new aircraft livery, but also change the position in the menu that the livery sits. This could make it a damn sight easier to find your favourite aircraft. You even have the option of hiding repaints you do not want to see with just a single click. Uninstalling a repaint is just as easy.
The Difference tool really exists to keep track of all of your changes. If you load up the sim and make a change there, the next time you load up SIMstarter NG the Diff Manager pops up and lets you know what has changed since you last loaded the program. It also offers the opportunity to cancel that change if you want. It is as simple as unchecking a box and clicking save. You can also save various different config sets marked here to any profile.
It seems nothing is exempt from SIMstarter NG's ability to potch (A Welsh colloquialism meaning to tinker, e.g. having a good potch). Even the text info displays used to display everything from frame rates to position and fuel can be customised in some way or another, all done using the excitingly named TextInfo Manager. The number of extra parameters you can display is almost mind boggling, with everything from angle of attack to average frame rates available.
Rounding off the tool selection are options to clear your controls, clear the shaders and clear the 'TRUSTED' section of your fsx.cfg. The latter being an FSX only option.
The final set of features I want to touch on with SIMstarter NG is all to do with running things automatically.
On every profile, you have the option to define a Run ConfigSet. This option allows you to automatically start programs you want to run alongside the sim. For cockpit builders it is a godsend and you can set you aircraft software, weather, and hardware interfacing software to run with just one click. Clicking the profile to run, the sim starts and at a specific point, it loads up the rest of the software as well.
This automatic starting does not just happen on your main PC. Users of networked systems can also start the SIMstarter NG client, which allows you to autostart programs on networked machines. It is a cracking, if underrated, feature.
With the original SIMstarter no longer supported, so P3D v3.2 users and up will need to upgrade, the NG version offers exceptional value for money. It is a small price to pay to wield so much pose over your sim.
The specified technical requirements for this version of Aerosoft SIMstarter NG are as follows:
Microsoft Flight Simulator FSX SP2 or Steam Edition, or Lockheed Martin Prepar3d Flight Simulator (v2.4 to v3.3);
Windows 7 / 8.1 / 10 (all fully updated and preferably 64bit); and
Pentium V, 2GHz or similar, 8GB RAM, 2GB graphics card.
To say there a lot going on with SIMstarter NG would be an understatement for a program is feature rich, relatively easy to use and navigate around, and easy to keep up to date. For all its wonder though, it is not without its problems. First up is the lack of the SIMstarter NG client program in the initial download. Only after installing the program do you discover it is missing. Instead I had to turn to Aerosoft's SIMstarter NG support forum to find a link to a Dropbox folder to download the file. It is a feature listed on the product page and it should be available in the download.
Next up is a small issue with loading FSX after I had used SIMstarter NG. Another issue that is not so much of a bug, but more of a user issue, is using the Scenery Manager. Whilst it is possible to move scenery around the library fairly easily, you cannot just 'drag and drop' scenery where you want it. It is a real shame as it would allow you to make quick changes to the library even quicker, rather than selecting the area, then clicking on 'move scenery', then selecting the insertion point.
By far my biggest issue though, is the complexity of the whole program. Everything you can think of is changeable, tweakable, adjustable, and that is a good thing. However, there are no explanations as to what these things actually do. Take the 'Tweaks' section for example. If you know what you are doing, you will be fine, but none of the tweaks listed are explained. There is no 'help' button available to give the novice a clue as to what the 'High Mem Fix' is or what the hell the 'Max. async. batching Jobs' tweak does. Hell I am not even sure on that one. At this point I would recommend turning to the manual, but the manual only does a fair job of explaining SIMstarter NG's own functions. In fact, to be honest, the manual could be better. Looking for how to setup the SIMstarter NG client, I only found the instructions on the last of the 55 pages, and it does not do a great job of explaining that either. In truth, SIMstarter NG needs a series of tutorials to help new users get the most from the program.
Away from the issues above though, once you have mastered SIMstarter NG, you may never go back to the standard way of running you sim. The program is immensely powerful, and with the added features like CleanDesk and the autorunning, Orbx region setup and Active Sky Next configuration included in the program itself, it is hard to imagine ever not using it.