One of the biggest sought after features for X-Plane is that of trying to get a good depiction of weather and clouds, something that P3D (ActiveSky) users often take for granted. I still run both P3D and X-Plane 11 (XP11), so in doing this comparison I still have Active Sky Next (ASN) + Active Sky Cloud Art (ASCA) in mind when I try to tweak settings to look as good as possible. In this article I’ll try to take an objective look at SkyMaxx Pro (SMP) as well as xEnviro and the default cloud set for XP11 beta 9. As it turns out I will probably alternate between SMP and XE for different situations, nothing really wrong with that and more on this later. I also show a few tweaks that can be done to make even the default look better. I may also throw in an ASN P3D shot for comparison just for fun. So lets get started… UPDATED now to include a video comparison
Testing Configuration/Background Info
Some background on these tests. I’m taking screen shots on my system which I run XP11 Beta9 in a clean install with just the addons being tested. Below are the graphical settings I’m using for a single 1080p LCD screen session. My system is pretty powerful and I tend to fly in VR with FlyInsideXP and the Oculus Rift a large part of the time. When not in VR I’m usually running at 5760×1080 over three 24″ screens with TrackIR v5. So for these tests I set it to single screen mode. I left Fraps running so the FPS could be seen clearly between shots. My system is an i7-6700k running at 4.6GHz (i could run 4.7, but I backed it off recently to rule a few things out). I run 32GB of ram at 3200MHz (also have been doing 3466 but backed it off for these tests). The video card is the EVGA 1080 FTW Hybrid. Now off to take a look at each Environment Engine and how they perform.
SMP v4 Settings and Results
Here are the settings for the graphics:
Here is the settings I generally use as of now for SMP (I also like set #5 for cirrus):
Note that I also purchased the Real World Connector (~$20). My understanding is that this connector helps with Metar data in better distrubuting the clouds both horizontally and vertically. Its best to leave the setting “Never Change Visible Weather” enabled, so that if you are flying through a cloud it helps save on FPS when going out of the cloud as it loads up new weather and adjusts. I also have found that leaving the option set to “Always” is also good to leave enabled. Leaving it to always will also allow you to be able to run both NOAA and the RWC at the same time for an enhanced experience.
This brings us to the first round of screenshots. I chose to do a ground vs 11,000 foot vs 33,000 foot comparison for these. Focusing on the distance slider differences at 33,000 feet (airliner territory) where that slider has the most impact. The slider had little impact at lower altitudes for GA flying in my testing I’ve done so far.
Note: These galleries are best viewed if you first click on them to make them larger.
SMP 4.0.1 Shots
Now lets take a look at the different cirrus cloud options.. sets 1 through 6 at the bottom left of the configuration area.
Another comparison here, this time the “Stratus/Overcast Representation”
Here is a shot I took tonight after more tinkering, turned out rather shockingly well
xEnviro v1.06 Settings and Results
Switching gears now to xEnviro 1.06, we can take a look at the settings that xEnviro offers.
These settings are what I typically use. If you switch to maximum cloud settings, on a 1920×1080 res, you tend to lose about 7 or 8 fps. I also found the brightness of the clouds to be a tad high, so i lowered that down. I also turned off Post Processing, which tends to raise the gamma in the image too high. I always keep the weather settings on “Real Mode”.
I have seen some odd issues with the current version of xEnviro. I’m sure they are working on fixes to these. For instance.. in the next shot, take a look at the fog and how it seems to just end in a square towards the middle of the image.
The other issue is in VR, if you use version 1.06 you get weird fog ghosting and image ghosting. The only resolution to this at the moment is to use version 1.04, but even with 1.04 there are some issues, often fog related as well. So for now I either use SMP or default cloud mods/lua scripts when flying in VR.
Performance wise you tend to get the max cloud distance depiction without a big sacrifice on fps, where you do take a hit is, as i mentioned above, if you try to use the maximum option under the cloud settings (about 7-9 fps less). The optimal setting for XE clouds is still pretty good in terms of how far you can see clouds and what is produced.
Default Clouds and Mods
With some effort even the default clouds in XP11 can be made to look much better and less dark. As of now, when I use defaults I’m using a combination of LUA script + some packages for cloud pngs found on the org, in my case Clouds Gold 1.4. I had tested CloudsHD v2 but found them to be a little too “cartoony” in nature. In the initial screenshots here, though, these are default cloud pngs that come with beta 9. I’m going to leave out the default cloud set, as we all basically know what they look like.. pretty dark. Ill instead show my better sky lua script (modifed) versions.
Here are the settings I used for this first set of mods:
You’ll notice in the slideshow below, that the shot at around 33k in altitude, the color seems to dark.. i later modified this line to correct for this to this entry:
set(“sim/private/controls/atmo/atmo_scale_raleigh”, 19) — Less dark blue —
I also have cloud shadows projected on the ground working with the last line in the file and it was further talked in about in my other article on the site.
Here are the latest lua script settings i’m using for default clouds. They are getting closer to what I want though still slightly washed out when above the cloud deck:
Comparison between SMP, XE and Default Clouds with Mods and also ASN with P3D
Now to bring it all home, lets do some sample comparisons between the three products to see how each generates the same set of Metar data. Again, with SMP its using the RWC to generate a more accurate overall depiction of the clouds. With default clouds I also tend to use the NOAA weather plugin for more accuracy.
Here is the actual Metar data taken from KAGC before I did this comparison as well as an actual outside picture of the clouds taken from about 10 minutes from the airport.
And now the comparison between all three choices:
By looking at these images compared to the real world photo, I came to the conclusion that ASN/ASCA for P3D still crushes the competition in terms of realism and how closely it matches. It could just be that SMP was using “old” metar data (and so was the default engine apparently).. I should have checked the metar in RWC to see if matched when I took these. I think perhaps it was just missing the overcast layer.
Comparison Round 2
So I followed up and did one more set of shots based on updated Metar data:
Metar online is showing:
While SMP Metar (looking in the XP flight settings) (shows clouds at 5,000 feet and then higher up overcast at 8750)Resulted in this SMP image with RWC enabled again (more cloud cover this time much closer to the ASN shot in the slideshow above):
Below is the Metar Report that NOAA shows and the Default depiction (with my mods and Clouds V1.4), which is pretty close to the real report if not exact.
SMP with RWC at 35,000 feet
XE at 35,000 feet (5 fps better than SMP here)Default with Mods at 35,000 feet
So it felt like from a ground level standpoint and maybe even with these 6,000 foot shots, perhaps the NOAA plugin ALONE was doing better than RWC. RWC at 35,000 feet seems to be throwing in an extra layer. More flying/testing needed to know for sure, however XE seems to show the best looking high altitude of the bunch again, but seems to be missing an overcast layer (too many holes, but SMP had holes at this altitude too, just not as widespread).
UPDATE: You get better representation of layering and breaks in the clouds when you use RWC (which also uses NOAA data), but, you can also use BOTH at the same time by setting the RWC settings to “always ignore x-plane settings”, which is the default I already use as is. You do need to change this to automatic though, to be able to manually change the weather in the sim.
I still contend that for XP11 alone, and for GA flying, SMP wins in terms of realistic textures, especially as you get closer, the clouds feel volumetric and really get a sense of cloud movement. All three options in XP can still give you cloud ground shadows and have with my system.
I had issues with SMP with being able to turn off “real” weather and just customize the weather manually. It was suggested online that this was possible, but given my difficulty i’m not so sure. I tried all the various checkboxes in the RWC to make this possible. With XE you also cant just customize the weather manually, its all real or nothing, however, I do like that you can select CAVOK to clear out the weather. The developers of XE have a nice roadmap and there are future changes coming, including historical weather, as well as the ability to set a wind cutoff, which is important for GA flyers not to get blown off a runway in “real” high wind situations.
One other thing I kept running into at times was getting “weather download failed” in the XP settings, it was preventing me from getting real weather. The workaround seemed to be to just change the pull down at the bottom to manual after it “failed”, though technically it did update the layers, switching to manual allowed it to get loaded without it reverting to clear.
All three of these choices can provide much better results than the default cloud set with XP11. I’m finding that SMP tends to be more realistic when there are lower clouds and when flying at lower altitudes, especially (i think) when using NOAA alone and not the RWC plugin. With SMP though, accuracy is lost at higher altitudes due to lack of coverage and a slider level of about 1/3 or so. Most of the time I fly in the Oculus Rift, so for me, turning up the slider in SMP is not an option due to FPS loss. So ultimately in VR at least on high altitude flights i’d probably opt for xEnviro, once they (or FlyInside) fixes the VR issues. Generally speaking in 2D i’d still run with SMP for GA flights and use XE for high altitude big tin flights as well. At lower altitudes both SMP and XE are about the same in terms of performance/fps, once you get to 35,000 feet, XE wins by around 5 fps on the same system at 1080p and with better coverage.
Overall, if you have some cash to spare, you cant go wrong with any of these options mixing and matching or just go with default clouds and some Lua script mods, though the main payware products still have a ways to go before they catch up with traditional P3D style products like ASN or even REX with historical weather and custom weather options. But again, XE is at least planning for some of these enhancements in their roadmap.
Updated note: There is a rumor circulating and it appears to be pretty firm based on a REX blog post, that they will be entering the X-Plane market sometime soon with their own weather product, hopefully one based upon their upcoming SkyForce 3D project.
Stay tuned to this article for updates including a video comparison as well, in the near future.
Here is a parting shots from above Pittsburgh (this is on my full install setup, with Ortho4XP Zoom Level (ZL) 17 and overlays turned on. Both of these were taken with xEnviro, which turned on pretty good with this set.