Analysis: X-Plane 10 & the Radeon HD 7970 [VIDEO]

After looking at benchmarks and reviews, I decided to purchase the XFX Radeon HD 7970.  On paper, this thing is a powerhouse, and one of the best consumer-grade cards on the market.  I don’t do any gaming per se, and will only use the card for casual video editing, and Laminar Research’s X-Plane 10.

For the past few months, I have been monitoring the myriad issues with X-Plane 10 and AMD’s Radeon HD 7970 graphics card.  XP10 is a brand new piece of software, and the HD 7970 is a brand new piece of hardware.  With any new software and hardware, issues are to be expected; however, it’s been three months, and very little has changed.

Neither X-Plane 10 ($80) nor the Radeon HD 7970 ($580) are cheap.  Both involve substantial investment and dedication.  With costs that high, the consumer expects high quality, compatibility as stated on the box, and excellent performance.  If these expectations are not met, market forces should work their magic and force the hand of one or both parties.  Unfortunately, we have not seen much movement on either front; although, we have seen a few updates from AMD, each one better than the last.  At this point, we are now getting messages like, “The 7970 works flawlessly on every game except X-Plane 10.”

This leads me to the purpose of this article.  We’ve heard various reports of “issues” with the HD 7970, but what is really going on?  In spite of the various issues, what kind of performance can we expect out of the HD 7970 at this time?  I’d like to attempt to answer those questions on a basic level, and provide some insight into the software, hardware, and growing image problems.

Personal Interactions with Laminar Research

First, let me talk a little about my personal experience with Laminar Research, which has been very good.  Of all the bugs I’ve submitted, I’ve been contacted by Austin once, and Ben multiple times.  For the most part, I feel Laminar has been very responsive to the bugs I’ve submitted.  This is very important.  People like updates on “their” bugs, even though it isn’t always practical from the development side.  Overall, they are extremely smart and talented, and seem like genuinely nice people.

As a fellow developer, I understand the importance of good bug reports, especially considering the fact that X-Plane supports three operating systems.  Without reliable bug reports, Laminar Research, Microsoft, Apple, etc., could not do their job.  Many bugs are found prior to production use, but many more are found after release.  It is the reason we release patches and updates.

Damage to the Reputation of Laminar Research & AMD

At this point, it is clear that there is some damage being done to both Laminar Research, and although inevitably less, AMD.  The reason I say Laminar is enduring the most damage is because the HD 7970 and other AMD-based hardware work flawlessly and shine in tons of games.  When users see their card working as expected in every arena except X-Plane 10, they will inevitably point a finger at Laminar Research.

Also, threads like this certainly aren’t doing Laminar any favors: [1].  This thread regarding the HD 7970 was posted at the official X-Plane forum in January: [2].  Although Ben Supnik addressed the bug with candor at the beginning of February on the X-Plane Developer blog, we haven’t heard much about it since that time.  The last update came in the form of a blog comment in which Chris Serio basically restated what was in the blog post:

We don’t know if it’s a bug in the driver or not. We’re doing as much as we can to figure out the cause.

First, I’m not sure that is an acceptable answer after this amount of time, even if AMD is the culprit.  People want details.  People want to know that they are diligently working on this issue.  Also, I don’t know how much longer this can go on without seriously damaging the reputation of X-Plane 10, which is an amazing simulator in every other regard.  This is really a make or break moment for XP10, especially with the numerous FSXers leaving after the disappointing release of Microsoft Flight.  If it is to become more successful, this issue will have to be wrapped up in the short-term—the very, very short-term.

General Performance Results

The link below is a spreadsheet that shows some basic observations and relationships between rendering settings and frame rates.  To compute these results, we used the area around KJFK airport due to overall population density.  The same overcast and broken cloud layers were present in every single test.  I used Fraps to determine average frame rates, as well as the in-game frame rate indicator.  In order to show the artifacts and flashes, we had to use Fraps, which causes frame rates to be reduced while recording.  The performance results in the spreadsheet will be accurate, but please ignore the frame rates seen in the upper-left corner of each YouTube video.

Download HD 7970 Performance Results [Excel spreadsheet]

System Specs:

  • Intel Core i7-2600 (3.4 GHz)
  • 16GB DDR3 RAM (1333 MHz)
  • OCZ Vertex 3 SSD
  • XFX Radeon HD 7970 (3 GB, Core Edition)

Outside of the performance problems, the single biggest issue I saw was the presence of visual artifacts, flashes, and flickers on objects and various surfaces within X-Plane.  This greatly impacts the XP10 experience, and seems limited to the HD 7970 card.  I also have an HD 6870, and while I experience some performance issues, I do not see these kinds of artifacts and flashes.

Below are several videos, which show the type of flashes, flickering, and visual artifacts detailed in the performance spreadsheet.  Each video corresponds with a note number on the spreadsheet (see the notes column on the far right).

The combination of default roads and very high distance detail seemed to exacerbate the flashes and flickering.

Changing the road setting from default to extreme, while keeping very high distance detail, seemed to reduce the flashes and flickering slightly.

The following combination of settings, which included the “default” road setting and “very high” distance detail, produced strange red flashes, flickering, and other visual artifacts.

Turning on HDR exacerbated the flashes, flickering, and visual artifacts in many instances. A sharper reduction in frame rate was also seen, which seemed to hover around 24 FPS with the following settings.

The settings here are the same as those in “Note 4,” except anisotropic filtering, which was increased to “4x (hardcore).”

Microsoft Flight & Flight Simulator 2004

On a side note, I also loaded up both Microsoft Flight, and the antiquated Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004.  I jacked up every rendering setting I could find, and guess what?  Both performed flawlessly.  Now, I’m not going to switch to Flight or Flight Simulator 2004, but I think you see the point.

Conclusion

Well, as you could imagine, it’s very disappointing to write this article.  I was hoping the first article would be more positive…maybe how to fly an ILS approach in XP10 or something similar!  At the very least, I hope that Laminar Research is giving the problems with AMD and HD 79xx series video cards the highest priority.  These issues need to be fixed before the cityscape and overpass bugs, if possible.  It’s about making XP10 playable for everyone (i.e. making it truly stable).  The cityscape nuance is certainly not mandatory, but something we like to call a “nice-to-have.”  In my opinion, the overpass bug should also take a backseat to the AMD and HD 79xx bugs.

In the mean time, keep submitting bugs to Laminar Research and AMD, and don’t be afraid to express your frustration.  They cannot do their job without feedback and bug reports.

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  • Muskoka

    Very well written, concise and too the point. I currently use a 6970 2gb card, and fortunately don’t have any visual artifact issues, only some minor performance issues when near clouds, which seem to get better with every release. It does get a little tiring when you continually see peoples concerns with the 7 series of video cards being blamed on AMD drivers, when the cards do perform stellar in most other situations, even those involving OpenGl. Common sense tells you this is a XPX issue, based on the positive findings outside the XPX environment, yet some individuals (not developers) will defend their stance that it’s a AMD issue, kind of sad in a way.

    • Nick

      Do you know if this issue has been resolved yet as the original posting was near the release of the HD7970 and the drivers may have moved on since then? I am considering a new GPU and dont want to make this mistake if there has been no progress with x-plane.

  • Den Spiess

    Has there been any resolution to this? i am in the market for a video card specifically for X-Plane and the HD7970 is on my list, perhaps not after reading this.