iPhone Gems: X-Plane Airliner, Helicopter and Extreme
Last September, Laminar Research pushed the iPhone envelope with the release of an iPhone version of its X-Plane 9 flight simulator, an application that was sufficiently impressive in sophistication and features to receive our 2008 App of the Year Award. Unlike so many of the other iPhone apps released at that time, it was a nearly computer-quality piece of software that just happened to fit in your pocket—a tribute to hard work and a strong use of the iPhone hardware.
Since that time, Laminar Research hasn’t sat still; it has offered significant and free updates to the original X-Plane application, as well as releasing three additional apps for users interested in other categories of aircraft: X-Plane Airliner, X-Plane Helicopter, and X-Plane Extreme. Further, with the release of new features and new variations on the original X-Plane, Laminar has continually updated the entire series to include the same common features between them, so when new scenery or instrument panels are added to X-Plane Airliner, the original X-Plane has also benefited from this, wherever appropriate.
When X-Plane was first released, we wondered whether Laminar Research would sell additional versions to provide support for additional aircraft and scenery, or whether it would expand or update the existing version. It now appears that the company has taken a hybrid approach by introducing new versions of X-Plane to cover new categories of aircraft while at the same time updating existing X-Plane versions to provide new aircraft and scenery. Consequently, X-Plane continues to get better, as do the satellite versions of the app, which may appeal to different users.
The Original X-Plane 9, Updated
Although we have already fully reviewed the original X-Plane 9 application, we wanted to mention some of the significant updates that it has undergone since that time, particularly since the changes also apply to the three new themed versions of X-Plane. While the general interface design and flight model has not significantly changed, Laminar Research has added two new aircraft, new scenery, and new instrument panels to the original application, all provided as free updates via the App Store.
The original X-Plane app provided you with a choice of four aircraft: the Cessna 172, Cirrus Vision, Columbia 400 and Piaggio Avanti. In a more recent update, the Piper Malibu and Beech King-Air were added to this mix.
Further, the world of the original X-Plane iPhone application has expanded well beyond the three airfields at Innsbruck, Austria, now offering you a choice of six different regions to fly in, including Hawaii, Alaska, and three distinct areas of California. Each of these regions are complete with multiple airfields and navigation aids and appropriate scenery to match. Further, there has been a noticeable improvement in the quality of the scenery, even for the original Innsbruck location.
In addition to the original general aviation instrument panel, two new instrument panels have also been introduced: a heavy standard console, and a “glass” EFIS console.
Although these were developed primarily for the other X-Plane applications, they have also been brought to the original X-Plane aircraft where appropriate—for example, the King-Air uses the new heavy standard instrument panel, while the high-tech Cirrus Vision uses the EFIS panel.
Incremental improvements have also been made to the general flight model to provide a more realistic flight experience for each of the different aircraft; this is particularly obvious with regards to the glide performance of the various aircraft. External views of aircraft have improved slightly and now also provide beacons and other aircraft lighting.
Although it seems small, one other significant addition to the X-Plane interface is a “Pause” button which can now be used to pause the action while still accessing features such as your instrument panel and radios, making it far easier to make in-flight adjustments to your controls. Many of these new features, such as the newer instrument panels, have been introduced in the other themed versions of X-Plane that we discuss below.
As its name implies, X-Plane Airliner ($10) offers you a selection of six “heavies” to let players practice their airline pilot skills. Your choices of aircraft range from classics like the Boeing 747 through to cutting-edge aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the massive Airbus A-380—the largest passenger airliner in the world.
In keeping with the airline theme, X-Plane Airliner also provides a more appropriate selection of regions that you can fly in, such as New York, Chicago, and Miami.
The general interface controls and design remain the same as for the other versions of X-Plane, although additional, more relevant controls have been added based on the aircraft type, such as support for trim and speed brakes in addition to the standard throttle and flap controls.
X-Plane Airliner provides the same realism for its class of aircraft as the original X-Plane 9 application, with the type of handling and response you would expect from these aircraft. If flying a plane in X-Plane 9 is like driving a normal car, then flying in X-Plane Airliner is like driving a tractor-trailer. From a realism point of view, about the only thing missing is the sound of screaming passengers as you attempt to pull maneuvers that most airline pilots would get fired for. The only really detracting factor here is that while flying with these big heavy jets will certainly be enjoyable for the serious aviation and flight simulator enthusiast, this particular app may be of less interest to casual users looking for something more on the “fun” side—you’re not going to be doing aerobatics in a 747. iLounge Rating: A-.
X-Plane Helicopter ($10) provides a much more unique entry in the X-Plane series, since the handling characteristics of a helicopter are significantly different from a traditional fixed-wing aircraft. Instead of simply throttling up and speeding down the runway, you are given control of the collective and throttle together, and must manipulate these to control the helicopter. Upon initial startup, X-Plane Helicopter gives you a few tips to get you started.
As with the other X-Plane apps, you are provided with a choice of different aircraft that you can fly. Although the selection in X-Plane Helicopter is currently limited only to four different types, the variations should provide aspiring helicopter pilots with different challenges. Choices include the standard Bell 206, the Robinson R-22, and the military Blackhawk and Sea King helicopters.
For some variation from the other X-Plane applications, a different selection of regions is also available, which are intended to be more suitable for helicopter flying both in terms of terrain and scenery. Locations include such places as the Grand Canyon, Juneau, Alaska and Provost, Alberta, which is great in that Laminar isn’t just recycling old levels without thought as to what the flying experience will actually look like.
Other aspects of the flight model and user interface work pretty much as expected, although you’re naturally dealing with helicopter style controls. Most fixed-wing pilots and aviation enthusiasts consider helicopter pilots to be a special breed, and the nature of X-Plane Helicopter certainly bears this out—the app is about as easy to control as a real helicopter, which is to say, extremely challenging. Unless you fly real helicopters, you can expect to spend some serious time getting the hang of this one. Like Airliner, Helicopter is an impressive piece of software, but it’s not quite as universally appealing to flight sim fans as the standard version of X-Plane. iLounge Rating: A-.
The final and most recent entry in the X-Plane series is X-Plane Extreme ($10), the Lamborghini version of the X-Plane series. In X-Plane Extreme, you’re given a choice of four high-performance “extreme” aircraft: the F-22 Raptor, SR-71 Blackbird, B-1 Bomber, and B-2 Stealth Bomber.
Again, a choice of different flying regions is available, and more specifically suited to the types of aircraft you will be flying.
Another area where X-Plane Extreme differs from the other X-Plane apps is with regards to air traffic—in X-Plane Extreme, you are no longer alone in the sky. Other aircraft will be present, both on the runway and in the air, allowing you to practice formation flying or chase vehicles through canyons and over other terrain. Although this feature is presently unique to X-Plane Extreme, Laminar Research indicates on the main X-Plane app page that you can expect to see this feature appear in the other versions as well. In fact, the developer has indicated that these additional aircraft are the primary reason that aircraft lighting has been added to X-Plane in general—to allow you to more easily see other aircraft in the sky.
For those who may be curious, there are no weapons included on any of these aircraft or in any of the X-Plane apps. These are simulations designed to provide the flying experience, not combat simulators designed for tactical purposes.
Although X-Plane Extreme may seem like a simple repackaging of the original X-Plane with different aircraft, the reality is that all of the X-Plane apps require very complex flight modeling to provide realistic flying experiences. High-performance aircraft naturally have a much more sophisticated set of control and propulsion systems, and are therefore much more difficult to provide realistic flight simulations for. The fact that X-Plane Extreme on the iPhone can provide the same apparent level of sophistication in its flight dynamics as its desktop counterpart is a serious demonstration of what the iPhone platform is truly capable of. iLounge Rating: A.
It would be easy to dismiss these three new X-Plane applications as merely attempts to sell X-Plane in “expansion pack” form, but the reality is that the developer continues to add significant value to the original X-Plane application, having now released seven updates to the original X-Plane, each more significant than the mere 0.01 incremental designations suggest. Rather than confining the best and newest features to the different X-Plane applications, Laminar Research has done a very good job of maintaining feature parity across the entire series—a fact that led us to want to provide additional coverage for the entire X-Plane lineup rather than just dismissing the later releases as cash-ins.
That having been said, it’s obvious that Laminar is still trying to figure out how to handle pricing for the X-Plane series on the iPhone, and is doing so without emulating its approach towards the full-featured computer version of the software. On Mac, PC, and Linux, users currently pay $39 for a version of the software that includes “global scenery” and 40 aircraft, while each of the iPhone versions currently sells for $10 and includes a more limited subset of planes and backgrounds. Here, you have the advantage of paying a lower entry price and getting only a handful of planes that interest you; there, you pay a higher price and get much more to choose from. It makes sense, but somehow, Laminar’s original $5 asking prices for the nichey Helicopter and Airliner versions of X-Plane struck us as making more sense. Unless you’re hooked on pocket simulations, buying all four versions on the iPhone for $40 seems like a bad idea given how much better of a package you get in the computer version for less.
Thus, though we view the four X-Plane apps as appealing to users with interests in different categories of aircraft, offering fans of certain craft the ability to enjoy different scenery, too, our advice to iPhone and iPod touch owners would be to pick one or two X-Plane apps that interest you and save your cash for other apps—or consider the full-fledged computer version instead. Going forward, it would be great if Laminar released a single, massive X-Plane iPhone app for $25 or $30 with a similar omnibus approach, recognizing the comparative scope of the computer version, while preserving less-expensive versions at $5 and $10 prices for people who don’t need or want as much content. For now, all four of the current X-Plane apps are strong options for different types of aircraft simulation fans, and we look forward to seeing how Laminar continues to evolve them over time.
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