By Nels Anderson (16 December 2007)
auntless Software has been around for quite some time now, providing a variety of aviation related software. For flightsim use, their most popular product has been SimPlates. We actually first reviewed this product some seven years ago, as SimPlates 2000. The current version is SimPlates X and though the "X" might make you think this is an FSX product that's not really the case. SimPlates runs outside your flight simulator so it will work with any flightsim.
We reviewed SimPlates again in 2004 at which time it included some 18,000 charts. If that sounds impressive, the current SimPlates X is even more impressive as it includes over 30,000 including approach plates, SIDs/STARs, airport diagrams and more. Approach types include ILS, VOR, VOR/DME, NDB, LLZ, SDF, GPS, TACAN, helicopter, visual and more. Wow, that's a lot of charts!
I suspect you'll be hard pressed to find a significant airport for which SimPlates X does not provide a chart. USA coverage is virtually 100% complete and the rest of the world is well covered too.
There is more than just instrument charts included too. Airport diagrams, for example, are useful whether you are doing instrument flying or not. The worldwide airport/facilities directory provides detailed infomation on airports such as radio frequencies, runways, instrument approaches and much more. For the USA, there's a list of preferred IFR routes; these are the routes that the real world ATC is most likely to assign so using them really helps your realism.
One thing that must be emphasized is that these are real charts, the exact same ones being used by real pilots. We often talk about flightsimming being "as real as it gets", well this is one case where that phrase is literally true.
Before you can start using SimPlates X you of course have to install it. The package is available on DVD or by download, though given that there's 6 gigabytes of data involved, you need a good Internet connection and some patience to go the download route. My copy came on DVD.
Installation was mostly standard, though with a couple annoyances. To validate the software it was necessary to copy by hand a really long serial number from the box. Fortunately, I got it right the first time. Then, there's an online verification too. Odd system; it rejects first time registrants because their information is not found, but then tells you this is normal; you then have to submit again. Well, if you stick with it, it does work, it's just a bit of a nuisance.
USING SIMPLATES X
Once installed, it's easy to get up and running. This is a product that really requires no instructions, since if you have any clue what aviation charts are for (and you probably would not have bought this product if you didn't) the menus are fully sufficient to quickly find whatever you want.
By default, SimPlates X requires that you leave the DVD in the drive as the charts are not actually copied over during the install. Giving the large amount of data involved this may not be such a bad thing. If you go for the downloadable version it will be different of course since everything will go to your hard drive. It is possible to transfer the charts from the DVD to the hard drive as well, though I did not try it.
The charts are in Adobe Acrobat format. This is something most people are likely familiar with, but just in case you don't have it, the software won't work until you download the free Adobe Acrobat reader. As it happened, I was testing this on a new PC that didn't have Acrobat installed yet so I was delayed a bit getting that in place. If you've never done it, don't worry as it's a quick and easy download and installation.
As soon as I started I ran into an annoyance. For some reason, SimPlates X includes a collection of recorded ATC sounds that are constantly played whenever you do anything. Sounds like a cute idea? Well, not so much if you're also trying to run FSX and the recordings cover up all the FSX sounds. Usually fixing this kind of thing would be simple, since Windows programs always have a menu bar across the top of the window; just find the right menu, look for something like "Sound" and click it off. Oops, no menu bar...SimPlates X does not use this standard interface. I went all through the program trying to find how to turn the noise off and finally had to contact customer service. Fortunately they are very good and fast in replying. Turns out there is a picture of a speaker in the corner that you click on to turn the sound off. Whew, I was glad to find that.
The rest of using SimPlates X was obvious and quite easy. From the opening screen you have five choices: IFR Plates, Airport Info, NAVAID Info, Help/About and Exit. The meaning of each is certainly clear enough.
IFR Plates is the heart of the program. This selection gives you a screen that lets you find the exact plate you want, using a simple form. You start by choosing the location and you can limit the search to only certain types of charts if you wish. Quickly enough you'll have things narrowed down to just the airport you are interested in and from the list can pick the appropriate IFR chart for your needs. The chart pops up in a new window, using the Adobe reader and there you go! Like any Adobe Acrobat file the charts can be viewed on your screen or printed and can be resized, scrolled, etc.
Airport Info is text rather than charts, and it includes every little detail you could possibly imagine about an airport. There are the basics like where it's located (latitude, longitude, elevation), to a complete list of radio frequencies for both communications and local navaids, to things like FAA preferred IFR routes to and from the airport (for U.S. airports only). For a major airport the info just goes on and on, the level of detail is excellent.
NAVAID Info is similar to airport info. You can look up various navigational aids such as VORs, NDBs, etc and get detailed text information on their location, frequency, range, etc. There's lot more detail here than you are ever likely to need!
For some reason Dauntless Aviation is rather insistant that charts are best printed out rather than viewed on screen. As with any Acrobat file, the printed results are quite nice and clear. But while this does work well, it's kind of wasteful if you're only going to use a chart once or are going to use many of them. It's also kind of behind the times. Real pilots these days typically fly with a GPS or FMC that has instrument procedures built in and in addition this past year the FAA legalized the use of Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) and Electronic Chart Displays (ECD), for Part 91 operations at least, which means these pilots do not need to carry paper charts any more; digitized versions and a suitable display are now considered fully sufficient. What I ended up doing most of the time with SimPlates X was something similar; with two monitors connected to my system I ran FSX on one and displayed SimPlates on the other. At first, I thought I had found a reason why printing the charts was suggested: every time I switched to SimPlates FSX would pause. Hardly realistic, as in a real plane the plane keeps flying while you fumble around for charts. However, this turned out not to be a problem as simply changing a setting in the FSX menus fixed the problem and the plane continued to fly along while I searched for and viewed charts.
I really like SimPlates X. When I fly in the real world I am used to always having the proper charts and other information necessary to complete the flight; that is a legal requirement after all. Flight Simulator lets you go anywhere in the world, but without the proper charts it just does not feel right. Getting actual paper charts is a solution, but a limited one as I never have charts on hand for all the places I would like to sim fly to. With its huge collection of charts and data and world-wide coverage, SimPlates X truly is the solution and being so easy to use it's an ideal one. No matter what kind of sim flying you do, I'd certainly recommend adding SimPlates X to your add-on collection.