Graphics Cards for Flight Simulators

Last Updated: 29th November 2016

All Graphics cards are not the same. Apart from obvious differences in computing power being related to it’s price, there are 3 main types:

On-Board

Most low-end motherboards have graphics circuitry built in to a specialized chip on the motherboard. This is fine for general usage like internet/word processing/spreadsheets and general office-type applications. They are not suitable for Gaming, 3D CAD and video editing. The newest CPU’s often have the graphics circuitry built right into the CPU encapsulation. When a discreet graphics card is detected, then the “on-board” integrated graphics circuitry is usually automatically disabled.

Discrete Video and Gaming

For flight simulation, a discrete graphics card is a must. The main players are nVidia and AMD/ATI. There are many brands of graphics adapters available but they are all based on either nVidia and ATI chips.

pic of nVidia GTX 1080
nVidia GTX 1080 Graphics Adapter. The nVidia 1060/1070/1080 series is what you should be looking at for decent performance.
Pic of Radeon RX 480
AMD Radeon RX 480 High End Graphics adapter. Use either the RX470 or RX 480

Neither brand is significantly superior to the other provided you compare on price, although many flight sim gurus prefer nVidia-powered cards. It’s fairly simple – you pay for what you get in performance. For flight simulators the truth is unfortunately rather unpalatable – for decent performance you need the most powerful one you can afford. X-Plane in particular makes heavy use of graphics cards and their video memory.  For an X-Plane and P3D systems you want to look at least 4GB of VRAM  while FSX can get away with a bit less.

(X-Plane being a 64-bit application needs at least 16GB of system RAM as well, while P3D and FSX being 32-bit applications cannot use all that system RAM and 8GB will be quite sufficient in a Windows 64-bit system )

Graphics cards which are optimized for gaming, range from ZAR1400 (US$ 100) to ZAR10000 (US$ 700) or more. Anything cheaper than ZAR1000 (US$ 70) will be matched in performance by a modern integrated graphics solution built right into an Intel Skylake I7-6700K CPU.

The nVidia gaming graphics chips are branded under the name of GeForce while AMD’s gaming chips are branded as Radeon.

Discrete 3D Graphic visualization, modelling and rendering

With 3D stuff it gets a lot more complicated. Essentially professional workstation cards are not suitable for flight simulation. You can indeed use graphics cards which are designed for gaming, for 3D modelling, but they are far from optimal. The converse is also true. A workstation graphics card – i.e., an nVidia Quadro card or an AMD FirePro will not be a good choice for any of the three main flight simulator programs, despite their hefty price tags.

For AutoCAD, Solidworks or 3DS Max You need to use a professional workstation graphics card which is optimized for 3D visualization. To cut a long complicated story short, gaming rendering is not the same as 3D visualization rendering. For Flight Simulation, go with high-end GeForce or Radeon cards and avoid Quadros and FirePros and definitely avoid built in “on board” graphics options.