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Microsoft Flight Simulator: 5 things I learned playing the new ultrarealistic flight sim

Flight sim fans have been waiting more than a decade for this all-new version.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
3 min read

There's a new version of Microsoft Flight Simulator driving a lot of PC gaming attention right now, in part because it's the first ground-up new entry in the long-running series since 2006. The new version, besides stunning graphics and realistic physics, benefits from being able to stream in real-world cloud-based mapping data in real time, drawing from what Microsoft says is over 2 petabytes of Bing Maps content. That means the game will livestream 3D maps from wherever you're flying in real time, but that also requires a robust internet connection. 

Flight sim fans don't necessarily consider themselves gamers. Often they play Microsoft Flight Simulator, the gold standard of realist flight sims, and nothing else. They can have entire PC setups with multiple displays, expensive flight control sticks and pedals and the latest graphics cards and processors, but they wouldn't know Master Chief from Q*bert. (The game retails for $60, but it's "free" for Microsoft Game Pass subscribers.)

The first flight sim I ever played was Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer back in the late 1980s on my Tandy 1000. I have not particularly kept up with the genre, but the hype around the 2020 version of Microsoft Flight Simulator got me interested in strapping in and giving it a go. Here's what I discovered. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

You can buzz your house 

Naturally, one of the first things I did in Microsoft Flight Simulator was to take off from JFK airport and attempt to find my Brooklyn apartment. Guiding myself by local landmarks from the Statue of Liberty to the Gowanus Canal, I quickly found my neighborhood, and by following the elevated subway tracks, was able to buzz right by my building, which was rendered at a decent level of authentic detail. It feels a lot like the 3D view in Google Maps, with satellite images skinned over 3D structures. 

Good luck playing with a keyboard and mouse 

On my first attempt, I went with the keyboard-and-mouse control option on my gaming laptop. But, during the tutorial, one of the very first instructions was to take control of the yoke by using the number pad. My laptop, of course, did not have a separate number pad. The game didn't seem to recognize this, or if it did, it didn't care. I could have gone into the settings and tried to remap some of the controls manually, but instead I switched to a gamepad, which worked better. Obviously the best option is a high-end flight stick, but many of the top models are sold out right now

Dan Ackerman/CNET

You need a hefty PC to play

The "official" minimum specs to play the 2020 version of Microsoft Flight Simulator is an Intel Intel Core i5-4460 CPU, Nvidia GeForce GTX 770 (or Radeon RX 570) and 8GB of RAM. I say, good luck with all that. I'm using a laptop with a Nvidia 2080 GPU and Core i7-9750H right now, and that's just about acceptable, if I drop the resolution to 1,920x1,080 pixels. And, the game takes up almost 130GB of hard drive space, so better clear off some room. 

Read more: Best gaming laptops for 2020

Sorry, Mac gamers

The biggest hint is that this is called "Microsoft" Flight Simulator. And unlike some other Microsoft software products like Office or Skype, you can't play this game on a Mac. MacOS systems can play a similar game called X-Plane, but it's not as advanced. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

It's included in the Xbox Game Pass for PC subscription 

Xbox Game Pass is a secret weapon for many gamers, with tons of great games included for a set monthly subscription price. The Game Pass for PC and Game Pass Ultimate versions include Microsoft Flight Simulator, which normally sells for $60. Game Pass for PC is currently $5 per month for a limited time, and Game Pass Ultimate, which includes both PC and Xbox games, is $15 per month.