Laminar Research’s X-Plane, created by Austin Meyer, is a flight simulator in the strictest sense of the word and is the only software for which you can receive FAA certification for VFR and IFR (although I believe this is done in a simulator and not on a personal computer and involves several copies of the program networked together). For the more casual simulation fan, X-Plane offers you the chance to experience realistic flight in a variety of aircraft and customizable atmospheric conditions. A long time fan of flight simulators in general, I was excited to use the newest release in the X-Plane line. The retail version of X-Plane includes the X-Plane simulator, World-Maker, Plane-Maker, Airfoil-Maker, and Goodway, a flight-planning program. Although I played around with each of these, I spent the most time with the simulator itself and it is the focus of the review.X-Plane features an incredible flight model and deep level of customization. Although the menu driven interface is extensive, a short time experimenting with it will leave you feeling comfortable enough to get around. The planes included, 36 of which are flyable, are a good mix of familiar and extreme aircraft including fixed wing planes, military aircraft, VTOL aircraft, spaceships, helicopters, and even a few RC aircraft. A joystick or flight yoke is advisable as flying without one is very difficult.Considering all of the elements involved in simulating flight, the design of such a program must be an overwhelming task, and the result is never going to be perfect. Consider that changing any variable may ultimately affect a multitude of additional variables and you will begin to realize the magnitude and complexity of this undertaking. In my mind, several areas must be well pieced together to provide an accurate flight experience. The vehicle in which you are flying should react realistically, you should have a sense of speed, the graphics should provide a believable atmosphere and environments, and you should feel like you are in the cabin of a plane.The flight model in X-Plane is incredible. Flying a plane or helicopter with the realism settings at 100% is unlike any experience I have ever come across in a computer simulation. Even the slightest twitch of the stick results in immediate movement of the aircraft and if you have “rudder” capability (a 3-d or “twist” joystick works well) the experience is fantastic. Coming into a runway with a crosswind, for example, requires you to fly in using a realistic vector to compensate for this motion, in other words, you cannot merely fly straight in and down; you have to fly side-ways. Although this is not a unique element to flight simulators, it is beautifully modeled in this program. Another interesting challenge is following a tow-plane in a glider, especially if there is any air movement around you. My favorite flight challenge is the Space Shuttle landing in which you bring a shuttle from orbit down to earth; and it is not easy! The specifics of the flight model design are at sense of speed in X-plane is the best I have seen to date. Some other programs out there come close, but you can get off the ground so fast in this simulator that it really feels “right.” Each plane responds accurately, so a Cessna gets off the ground at a much lower speed than a 747.Read reviews of any simulator and you will realize that the “look” of a flight simulator is often the aspect that people care about most. This breaks down into several categories: ground scenery, air scenery and aircraft graphics. The ground scenery in X-Plane is not great but it is functional. Considering that most of your time should be spent in the air, this is not a big problem. One complaint I have, however, is that the scenery that comes with the retail version (you can also purchase this online from the developer with full scenery) is limited, meaning, only some geographic locations are ground textured; everything else appears as water. I was befuddled when I tried to fly out of Richmond International Airport and found the runways surrounded by water. I a*umed this was a “bug” so I went to several other east coast locations only to find the same situation. A message board informed me that you could download textures for any area for which you do not have scenery, so a visit to the “The X-Plane Global Scenery Project” solved my problem with a few quick free downloads.The “environmental” scenery is very good. Night flying is great in this game, as airport runways look fantastic from the air and the sky is full of stars. Flying into the sun results in visible scratches on the windshield and c**pit glare. The cloud graphics are exceptional and flying into a cloudbank at night produces a realistic glow from the plane’s external lights. Customizing the weather produces results that can have you flying on a sunny day with unlimited visibility or in a blinding rain or snowstorm with zero visibility.The aircraft panel graphics are as good as any other program around with fully interactive switches and buttons. I did find the text to be a bit tough to read on some graphics settings, but programming commands into a flight stick or gamepad is easy, so I rarely used this view for function. The plane models look good in external views, but I have seen better models in other programs. This is not a real concern because I rarely “watch” my plane fly as I am too busy flying it. In my mind, the author put the greatest effort into the thing that mattered most, the flight model.The audio in X-Plane is good and each plane sounds realistic. Flap motion results in a hum and gear extension and retraction is audible. The engine sounds are fine and as an aircraft approaches in an external view, the Doppler Effect is noticeable. ATC information and radio chatter add to the overall realism of the simulation.The most impressive aspect of X-Plane is the level of customization. I have a gamepad, which I have not used much until X-Plane, and a 3-axis joystick and throttle. I was able to program every necessary command into the two devices and therefore never needed to use the keyboard. Device programming and joystick calibration is easy, does not require leaving the program, and takes little time.Unlike many other programs I have purchased, X-Plane works fine on a system with minimum specs provided you do not expect sate-of-the-art performance. Although a better system is advisable for obvious reasons, you do not need to have a new computer to use this simulator. The load time at startup is quick. I launched the program with my word processor, firewall, antivirus and various other programs on in the background and it loaded in 30 seconds. It also ran fine with these other programs running in the background, although there was a noticeable improvement in performance when I closed all other programs.Purchasing X-Plane entitles your to play any version 7.## and the X-Plane website offers updates regularly as a free but large download. Each new release contains improvements over the previous and is usually well worth the download time. In addition to free official updates, there is a small but active X-Plane community offering downloads such as improved scenery, new aircraft, and various other enhancements.Although I do not have many negative things to say, I do not want you caught off guard by the following issues. Although the retail box has pictures of a Saturn V rocket and a Space Shuttle with boosters, these are not included with the game (the orbiter is present, but only as a “glider”). They are downloadable, but when I see a picture on a box, I a*ume that the item shown is in the box. Secondly, as I previously mentioned, there are ground textures missing depending from where you wish to fly. This is remedied with a few downloads and easy installs, but I was disappointed nonetheless. Lastly, there are times when the control in the game either does not respond or behaves erratically. As far as I can tell this is due to sensitivity settings, and occurs infrequently. Simply restarting the simulator after adjusting the settings will rectify the problem.The time I spent with X-Plane has been a worthwhile investment. I was treated to an excellent flight simulation, a deep level of customization, nice looking graphics and a sense of accomplishment when I was able to perform satisfactorily in some of the more challenging elements of the program (try formation flying). You will not feel cheated as the developer and X-Plane community continue to deliver updated materal for this title. Visit the X-Plane website and download the fully playable demo (the joystick stops working after a few minutes, so you have to restart often) and check it out for yourself, or better yet, purchase a copy today. As for me, I am heading back to the tarmac for a cross-country jaunt in my F-22 Raptor.