Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mini-Review: PMDG 737 NGX

Earlier this month, PMDG released their long-awaited 737 NGX product.  The initial product release consists of the 737-800 and 737-900 models, with other 737 variants forthcoming as optional expansion packs.  PMDG's servers were overwhelmed with enthusiastic flight simmers around the globe picking up their copies of the plane - and also a rogue denial-of-service attack apparently originating in China.  I decided to wait about a week and let the initial excitement die down just a touch.  I finally picked up the NGX about two weeks ago, and have spent a fair amount of time with it since.

Here we see the PMDG NGX 737-800 model in all her glory, in an American Airlines repaint:

For our test flight during this review, we will be doing a quick charter run from Miami International Airport (KMIA) to Jose Marti International Airport (MUHA) in Havana, Cuba.  The above screenshot was taken on the initial climbout over south Florida.  Flight time will be about 45 minutes, which is just about enough time to do a quick rundown of all the features of the NGX.

As with PMDG's previous flagship level products, the NGX comes with a full set of 2D panels.  Here is the main 2D panel for the captain's seat:

Here is another 2D panel for the dome lighting directly overhead:

Here is another 2D panel for the captain's FMS:

Here is a 2D panel for the center pedestal, controlling the radios, transponder, and TCAS:

Here is another small 2D panel controlling the fire suppression controls:

And another 2D panel for the overhead switches, including the lights, pressurization, and hydraulics:

Here is another 2D panel for the INS:

And here is a smaller 2D panel for just the overhead lights - this is a smaller version of the overhead panel, designed to not obstruct the pilot's view while flying:

Now here are a couple of screenshots of the 3D virtual cockpit, which is my preferred way to fly.  The Florida Keys loom somewhere down below:

PMDG has spared almost no detail when modeling the NGX.  Every switch makes a click, and with few exceptions, actually does something.  Boeing supposedly gave PMDG unprecedented access to the schematics and design documents of the real 737 NG series, and PMDG used this information to model every last bit of a 737 NG in the NGX.  I understand Boeing is providing PMDG with similar access to the 777 for their forthcoming 777 product, as well.

Flying the NGX is a bit like peeling an onion.  (Then again, I think this is probably true of every PMDG product I own!)  Veterans of the old PMDG 737 series (FS9-only) or the iFly 737 NG will have no trouble getting the NGX up in the air quickly - probably without even reading the tutorial.  To a lesser extent, any flight sim veteran should be able to get the NGX airborne with only a modest learning curve.

However, there is a gotcha: systems that are not modeled in other 737 NG products are modeled on the NGX.  In gory detail.  For veterans of other 737 NG products, this will occasionally lead to some unexpected issue popping up, due to the fact that the NGX actually models a particular system that others do not.  One example: on my maiden flight of the NGX, I simmed an American Airlines flight from KDFW to KAUS.  I ran with about 1/3 fuel load.  About midway through the flight, I get an alert that the hydraulics system is overheating!  Never seen that one before.  Well, it turns out that the real 737 NG uses fuel in the center tank as a heat exchanger for the electro-hydraulics pumps.  If you don't have at least around 2,000 lbs. of fuel in the center tank, there is no liquid there to collect the excess heat from the hydraulics pumps, and they overheat.  Good to know.  This is the kind of detail you can expect to see in the NGX.

Similar to the PMDG MD-11, there are other bits of eye candy modeled as well.  Things like the pushback sequence, and ground connections for the MD-11.  You can even chock the wheels when you are parked at the gate!

Now I would be remiss if I did not mention one of my most favorite features in the NGX: the Heads-Up Guidance System, or HUGS.  Sure, PMDG is not the first developer to introduce a HUGS in a product - the Wilco/feelThere ERJv2 models a HUGS in the Embraer E-175 and E-195, for example.  However, PMDG probably has the best implementation of a HUGS I have ever seen.  Notice how the color of the light changes when you peer through the HUGS to the outside windscreen, for example:

The HUGS is a wonderful innovation for pilots, as it provides them all the instrumentation information they need without having to look away from the window.  Pilots can integrate the instrument data along with the visual external cues to increase situational awareness - for example, if the airspeed is too high or too low, the pilot can adjust the throttles accordingly without even taking his eyes off the approach.

Another nice feature of the HUGS in real life is that you can see the data being presented at any viewing angle.  Notice what happens in the HUGS in the following screenshots when I pan to the right in the 3D virtual cockpit:

Amazing!  This is the level of detail you can expect with the NGX.  Using the HUGS makes a smooth landing in normal conditions a snap almost every time.  You never have to pan away (or zoom back far enough) to monitor the instruments while landing.

Here are a few other pictures of the exterior model as we fly over the Florida Keys:

Key West is down below: NAS Key West (KNQX) on the right, and the smallish Key West International (really?) Airport (KEYW) on the left.  With a runway only 4800' long, it's hard to believe that AirTran and Delta actually run Boeing 737-700s (severely weight restricted) on scheduled service out of there to Orlando, Tampa, and Atlanta.  Remind me to try that flight when PMDG releases the 737-600/737-700 expansion models for the NGX:

Touching down in Havana.  Welcome to Cuba!

Another nifty feature of the NGX, not shown here, is the ability to dynamically configure the airplane's fuel, payload, and features through a special menu on the NGX.  If your pet airline uses the Collins instrument panel instead of the Honeywell instrument panel, changing it is easily done in just a few mouse clicks!  You can also save configurations for a particular repaint.  Some of the repaints from PMDG even come with configurations that accurately reflect how that particular airline configures its 737 NG.  Very cool.

So you may be asking, what are the downsides to the NGX?  Not many.  Here are a few I can think of:

  • I have experienced a few intermittent freezes and crashes.  However, this may have been a product of having my graphics sliders set too high on the new flight sim rig I am testing out.  I need to run some further test flights with more realistic settings to gauge whether or not this is a big problem.
  • Performance did seem fairly reasonable on both my laptop and my main flight sim rig.  It may tax some older systems or video cards much more than some other add-ons.  PMDG has spent a great deal of time optimizing the NGX, and there is definitely a balance to strike between having lots of detail versus reasonable performance.  I think PMDG did a smashing job of finding the right balance with the NGX - for most of us with decent systems and video cards, we will have our cake and eat it, too.
  • Price is US $70 right now, for a limited time only.  It will jump to US $75 when the first expansion model (the 737-600/737-700 series) comes out.  This seems on the high side, but is actually a tremendous value for the features and level of detail that you get.  Plus, you get to control how much you want to spend: if you want all the variants, you could potentially blow as much as US $150 or more.  (Thankfully, not all at once!)  If you don't care about those and just want to fly a 737 NG of some sort, then you'll get by just fine with the base model.
  • Complexity will put off some novices.  I love a certain amount of complexity myself, but if you don't, then you might consider giving the iFly 737 NG a go instead.
In short: PMDG will no doubt clean up on all the 2011 Flight Sim Product of the Year awards.  It won't even be close.  Which is really too bad in a way, because there are also a lot of other interesting aircraft coming down the pipe in the not-too-distant future.  However, PMDG has definitely earned it with the NGX.  Serious flight simmers will definitely want to add this one to their collection.  The NGX is fun to fly, and will reward extensive study of her features for a long time to come.  Don't miss it!

Rating: *****

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