Microsoft Flight Simulator Performance and Benchmarks: Your PC May Need an Upgrade

2020-08-23

Microsoft Flight Simulator has a storied history dating back to 1982, and the 2020 release is easily the best looking and most advanced version ever. The game links to Bing Maps to pull real-time weather and traffic data, and lets you fly anywhere in the world and get what appears to be a realistic representation of what it looks like — , naturally. But to get the most out of Microsoft Flight Simulator, you're going to need a powerful PC — even the can't keep up with maximum quality settings when using the fastest around (RTX 2080 Ti). Also, we recommend at least 100GB of , because load times even from an SSD are lengthy.

With the right hardware, Microsoft Flight Simulator is a visual masterpiece of the world around you. Naturally, one of the first things I did was to take off from my local airport and fly over my house, where I could see my car and my neighbor's cars parked in the driveway. My kids and I thought that was pretty cool. My wife was a bit more concerned with the privacy implications.

What is the right hardware to run the game, though? That's what we wanted to find out. The list a Core i5-4460 or Ryzen 3 1200 CPU and a GeForce GTX 770 or Radeon RX 570, and recommend a Core i5-8400 or Ryzen 5 1500X and a GTX 970 or RX 590. You'll also need Windows 10 (build 18362 or later), and the Microsoft Store version we used for testing relies on DirectX 12 — the game is also available on Steam, however, apparently with DX11 support. Finally, 2GB VRAM and 8GB of system RAM are listed as the minimum, with 4GB VRAM and 16GB system RAM recommended.

Based on our testing, you'll want more like 6GB of VRAM and a much more recent GPU if you're hoping to get a buttery smooth 60 fps (frames per second ) or more, and we'd steer clear of 4-core CPUs. You can also pretty much forget about 60 fps at maxed-out settings on today's hardware.

Intel GPU Testbed

, ,


(2x 16GB)

(2004) 

In a similar vein, you're not going to be running Microsoft Flight Simulator at 4K and maxed out settings with anything close to 60 fps — not on today's hardware. CPU bottlenecks are likely to keep you below 60 fps even at 1080p ultra, but at 4K ultra? The RTX 2080 Ti managed 33 fps. We're skipping ahead, and you certainly don't need ultra settings (the high and even medium presets look quite good), but the point is that this is a game that will punish both CPUs and GPUs for years to come.

Before we get into the testing, let's again note that we're using the Microsoft Store version of the game, which Microsoft kindly provided to us for testing purposes. In my opinion, the Microsoft Store remains one of the worst digital distribution platforms imaginable. It's far more finicky about starting downloads, and there's no good way to transfer game downloads between PCs. Except, in the case of Microsoft Flight Simulator, there is. Hallelujah! Sort of.

AMD GPU Testbed

, ,


(2x 16GB, for 3900X and 3600)
(2x 16GB, for 3400G)

(2004) 

The Store download is only about 1GB and needs to be installed from the Microsoft Store on each PC. (I know, most people only have one, but I ran the game on four different PCs for this article.) That's less than the size of the latest AMD and Nvidia drivers (combined), and I'm long since past the point of worrying about a 1GB download. However, an additional 95GB of data gets downloaded when you launch the game the first time.

Normally, this would all be protected data under the WindowsApps folder, but for Microsoft Flight Simulator, all of this data resides in your user AppData\Local\Packages folder and can be freely copied to another PC. That's a win for hardware testers, at least. The game also downloads 'live data' that it caches locally, with a default cache size of 8GB. (I cranked that up to 64GB, just because I could, plus I wanted to avoid any extra downloads happening during my benchmarks.) I'm not sure what the use of the local user's AppData folder means if there's more than the one user on a PC, though — I wouldn't want a shared PC to end up with multiple copies of the game data, which at 100GB or more each isn't exactly storage-friendly.

Unfortunately, a bigger issue than the storage and download requirement for some people is going to be the game's always-online requirement. If there's a way around it, I couldn't find it. I set up one PC as my Microsoft Store designated offline PC, disconnected from the internet, and the game launched okay. However, a prompt came up before the main menu telling me to insert my Microsoft Flight Simulator disc, with no way around it — not even reconnecting to the Internet helped. I had to exit the game and relaunch to get it to run. Consider yourself warned.

Now let's get to the testing. As usual, I cleared out all the old GPU drivers (via ) and installed the latest versions for Microsoft Flight Simulator, both of which are 'game ready:' and . Testing is also done on a 'clean' PC, so there aren't a bunch of background tasks potentially hogging resources or causing interference. You can see the full specs of our testbeds to the right.

The test sequence consists of the autopilot coming in for a landing at my local regional airport. I'm in western Washington state, so there are lots of trees in view, plus some hills, rivers, buildings, and clouds. I left the flying to the autopilot just to ensure consistency of the benchmark. It's entirely possible to find more demanding ways of testing performance, so consider this a baseline measurement rather than the final statement of how fast any specific hardware combination will run the game (for example, flying in stormy weather would be more taxing). 

Microsoft Flight Simulator Settings Analysis 

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Settings AMD (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Settings Nvidia (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Microsoft Flight Simulator Settings Ultra (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Microsoft Flight Simulator Settings Ultra (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Microsoft Flight Simulator Settings Ultra (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Microsoft Flight Simulator Settings Low (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Microsoft Flight Simulator Settings Low (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Microsoft Flight Simulator Settings Tuned (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Microsoft Flight Simulator Settings Tuned (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

There are a bunch of settings to tweak, easily reaching the point of information overload. We appreciate the attention to detail on one level, but when numerous settings have almost no visual or performance impact, why bother with providing the option to turn them off? There are 26 advanced graphics settings, but only nine of those actually cause more than a tiny difference in performance. (Note that we tested the settings with a Core i9-9900K, however, so some of the settings may have a more noticeable impact on performance with a slower CPU.)

We're going to focus only on the settings that caused at least a 4% change in performance here, rather than trying to provide descriptions of every individual setting, and you can see the resulting performance in the above charts. We tested at 1080p ultra, and then turned each setting down to the minimum value for comparison. All of these tests used the GeForce RTX 2060 Founders Edition and Radeon RX 5600 XT, both of which are 6GB GDDR6 cards. Let's run through the most demanding settings, in order from top to bottom (as seen in the game).

Starting with Global Rendering Quality, this is the overall preset. There are four options: low, medium, high, and ultra (plus custom, if you tweak any of the advanced settings). This is the quick and easy way to 'optimize' your settings, though it's only a coarse adjustment. Going from ultra to high improved performance by nearly 50% (48%) on the RX 5600 XT and 35% on the RTX 2060, which is a great first step. From high to medium, performance increased another 30-37%, while the low preset increased performance by 32-40% compared to the medium preset.

All told, low quality more than doubled performance compared to ultra quality (nearly triple in the case of the RX 5600 XT), and there are still one or two settings you could adjust (like resolution scaling), if you're trying to run the game on a potato. It's worth pointing out how much faster Nvidia's roughly comparable GPU performs compared to AMD's GPU, though Nvidia doesn't gain as much performance when lowering settings. That might be due to nearing the CPU bottleneck, but it doesn't explain the relatively weak RX 5600 XT performance. 

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Low quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Medium quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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High quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Ultra quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Low quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Medium quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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High quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Ultra quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Low quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Medium quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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High quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Ultra quality 1080p (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Visually, there's a clear difference between the low and medium presets, but comparing the medium, high and ultra images, the changes are far more subtle.  The clouds, shadows, and quantity and distance of trees and other foliage are the key items. Not surprisingly, those are the advanced settings that also end up having the biggest effect on performance. While we've done plenty of testing at ultra quality, most people should be just fine with medium to high settings, with a few tweaks to improve the end result without tanking performance.

Below you can see image quality comparisons between the advanced settings that we'll discuss shortly, at least for the nine settings that matter most (those that make at least a 5% difference). We've also included a 'tuned' result where we've set terrain LOD to 125, building to medium, trees to high, objects LOD to 50, volumetric clouds to medium, anisotropic filtering to x2, texture supersampling to 2x2, water waves to medium, shadow maps to 1024, terrain shadows to 256, ambient occlusion to medium, reflections at medium, and light shafts to medium. This represents our 'tuned' settings in the above charts, giving performance that nearly matches the medium preset but with visuals closer to the high preset.

Terrain Level of Detail (LOD) is one of the more demanding options, and while you probably don't want to set it to minimum quality (10), you get diminishing returns beyond about 100 (200 is the max). This doesn't just alter the "terrain," however, as buildings and other objects become far less detailed. Lowering this setting can improve performance by up to 15% (but we recommend using 50-100, which yields a 5-10% improvement).

Despite the name, the Buildings setting really doesn't seem to change the way the game looks. Even hovering over Manhattan island in 'active pause' mode to snap screenshots, there's almost no visible difference between the low and ultra setting, but using the low setting improved performance by 7% in our test sequence.

Objects LOD doesn't matter as much as the Terrain setting, in image quality or performance, but dropping it to the minimum setting (10) improved performance by up to 5%. You can aim for a middle ground of 50-100 with virtually no difference in the way things look in my experience.  

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Terrain LOD 200 (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Terrain LOD 100 (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Terrain LOD 10 (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Buildings Ultra (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Buildings Low (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
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Objects LOD 200 (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)