Category: News

X-Plane 11.50 Public Beta 1: Vulkan and Metal Are Here

Today is the day. X-Plane 11.50 public beta 1 is now available for download to everyone. (Steam users: the beta is staged on the servers, and we’ll let it loose this afternoon if it isn’t setting people’s machines on fire.)

I want to extend my appreciation to the 50+ third party developers who participated in the eleven (!) private developer previews. This is probably the most complex single patch we have developed with regards to third party add-ons; their help testing and trouble-shooting issues was invaluable.

Like all public betas with the number “one” in the title, this is a very new, very untested beta; if you wish to try it, maybe keep your regular X-Plane install around. If you post in the comments that you got the beta and now you can’t fly and you are sad, probably the other commenters are just going to say “I told you so” a few hundred times.

Getting The Beta

Non-Steam users can get the update by running the installer, checking the “get betas” box, and running; Steam users will be able to get beta soon by picking public betas in the application properties.

If you can run X-Plane 11, you should be able to run X-Plane 11.50; if you have an old operating system or hardware, you may be stuck running X-Plane 11.50 with only OpenGL as the driver. Here’s a break-down of what you need to run with the Vulkan or Metal drivers:

Operating System:

  • Mac users need 10.13 or newer.
  • Windows users need Windows 10—we do not support Vulkan on Windows 7.(1)
  • Linux users need a distro that can run reasonably recent proprietary NVidia or AMD drivers.

GPU Hardware (Windows and Linux):

  • NVidia: GeForce 600 seres or newer
  • Any GCN or newer AMD card (E.g. HD7000 series or newer)

GPU Hardware (Mac):

  • Any GPU that comes with a Mac that can run 10.13 or newer or
  • Any eGPU supported by Apple
  • Hackintoshes: we have heard anecdotally that GeForce 10 series on a Hackintosh does work, but we do not have this hardware in the company, so YMMV.

Drivers (Windows and Linux):

  • NVidia: 440.26 or newer
  • AMD: 19.12.3 or newer

To run with Vulkan or Metal, there is a new check-box in the rendering settings screen – just check the box and restart. If Vulkan or Metal crashes on startup, we will turn the check-box off automatically so you are not locked out of X-Plane.

(1) In theory Vulkan should run on Windows 8, but our devs are all running Windows 10. If you have Windows 7, please update your OS – Microsoft isn’t security patching Windows 7, so it’s more than time.

The First Run Will Take a While To Load

For some users, the first time you start the sim in Metal or Vulkan you may see several extra minutes of load time while X-Plane compiles shaders. This will not happen every time you start the sim, so my advice is: get a beverage appropriate to the time of day and let the sim load.

What you’re seeing is shaders compiling. X-Plane 11.40 compiled shaders while you flew, resulting in stutters. Try this in 11.40: start the sim cold and dark at night, and turn on the battery and landing light. Feel those stutters? That’s the sim going “oh noes, I need the terrain shader with the landing light now”.

X-Plane 11.50 loads every shader it could need up front during preload of scenery, but that’s a lot of combinations. On the first load, the compiled shaders are saved to a disk cache, so load times will be back to normal the next time around.

We are working to make the first load faster, but because it’s a one-time thing it didn’t seem like a good reason to keep everyone out of the beta.

Will My Add-Ons Work?

First, we expect every add-on that does not use undocumented hacking to “just work” in OpenGL – if you find this is not the case, please report a bug.

We expect most add-ons to just work in Vulkan and Metal; we are keeping a list in the release notes of add-ons that we know do not work and require an update from the developer.

Please go easy on your third party developers – in some cases they will need to update code that has “just worked” for over a decade, and the author of a popular add-on will probably hear from users about updating to Vulkan hundreds of times a day. Some add-on authors are part-time or have day jobs, so as a community we will need to be patient.

Third party developers: we should have public docs and an SDK update by the end of the week with complete info about 11.50, but if you were not in the developer preview program and want to dig in now, ping us.

I Found A Stutter!

While we have made tremendous progress with stutters compared to X-Plane 11.41, I can tell you that as of 11.50 beta 1, we are not done, because Sidney is working on fixes for stutters that did not make the first public beta.

The good news is, we’ve reached a point where we can identify and kill stutters in a straight-forward manner – it’s never just “dark matter in the OpenGL driver” anymore. We also have tools built into the sim to collect stutter reports from users – we’ll help you use that once we kill off the remaining known ones (which appear to be in Windows itself – that’s how far we’ve come).

I Found A Bug!

The release notes do list some known bugs, some of which we already have fixed for an upcoming beta 2. If you find something you think is a bug, please file it. Commenting about the bug here, emailing us, and discussing it on a forum do not count! If you file it, it goes into our tracking system so we don’t lose it.

Posted in Development, News by | 418 Comments

D9: You Sunk My Battleship

It has been almost a month since my last post on Vulkan and the state of development; a lot has happened since then, both for Laminar Research and the world.

COVID-19

First, at this point, no one working for Laminar Research has COVID-19. We have people working on X-Plane in at least six countries, including northern Italy. The team news on Slack as of Tuesday was that everyone is in some degree of lockdown and/or voluntary social distancing, varying by country. Schools in the US are temporarily closed, so both Chris and I have the kids at home.

Being sequestered at home has not affected our internal pace of development because our entire team is distributed and works at home; we have no office to close. This work-at-home pattern started almost twenty years ago when Austin had people like me working on part-time contracts to modify specific parts of the sim – it never made sense to relocate people to South Carolina and open up an office. Being remote also lets us hire people anywhere in the world who have the unique blend of skills we’re looking for.

At this point we haven’t seen any operational issues either; mostly running our business requires that our devs have internet and electricity and that the data centers we use for our cloud servers remain open and operational.

So in summary, we are very fortunate that the new coronavirus is not affecting our development and operations; other industries are paying a high price to stop the spread early. We have several things we are working on right now, and this spring is a critical time in our development schedule.

Vulkan and Metal

Update: I have gone in and changed Vulkan to Vulkan/Metal in a bunch of places – Mac users were confused as to whether we had silently dropped support for Metal at the last minute – we have not!

We are posting developer preview nine to our private testers today; hopefully this will be the last private build before a public beta candidate. We acknowledge we’re reaching public beta much later than we had hoped/wished/anticipated, but we are now aiming for a public Vulkan/Metal beta by the end of March. If you are already rolling your eyes at a public beta date that is less than two weeks away, I don’t blame you; having been this late, it’s on us to post the beta to show progress. With that in mind, I am going to describe what we’ve been doing for the last three months and why it has taken so long to get here.

The Vulkan/Metal public beta is several months later than we had anticipated because of “scope growth” – that’s manager nerd speak for “we added more stuff to it than we originally planned.” Scope growth (adding more features/code/tricks than you originally planned) is one of the big ways that projects miss original deadlines, so the big question is: what did you add and why did you add it?

The first thing we added was better handling of plugin drawing. The rewritten plugin compatibility layer provides better drawing compatibility for more plugins, including weather plugins on Windows. We went with the rewrite mostly because of the level of bugginess we saw with third party add-ons in the early developer previews.

Plugin drawing was definitely a case where we learned how to do a better job from the first version of the feature (plugin compatibility that went into the first private beta); if we had received that second-generation design via time machine we probably could have shipped faster. Adding weather support was pure feature creep–a new thing we didn’t plan on, but something that we thought was worth extra schedule time.

The second thing we added was better handling of texture paging. Once again, this was a feature where we had to rewrite the feature (multiple times in fact!) based on the feedback we got from our testers to really come up with something solid.

Our first generation texture paging around the first private developer preview was very simple: most stuff lived in VRAM, with a little bit of code to move unused stuff out of VRAM. It was a minimalist strategy that let us develop the rest of the sim and worked great on high-end cards. It was clear from day one that it wouldn’t be good enough for public beta.

Our second generation strategy added automatic movement of texture res up and down with VRAM pressure and code to page out textures that weren’t being used. This shipped about half way through the private beta, and was better, but suffered from one fatal flaw: as you turn your head, the stuff behind you isn’t being used. Under heavy memory pressure users would constantly turn their head and see blurry textures that would then “res up”. The results were distracting and unacceptable quality-wise.

We now have finished our third generation strategy: besides automatic texture res control based on VRAM pressure, we now set the relative resolution of non-orthophoto textures by distance to the aircraft. A background task on another core “crawls” the scenery near your aircraft and reevaluates the texture res of nearby scenery constantly, effectively transferring VRAM to where it is needed most. This process is completely transparent; authors do not need to modify scenery in any way for it to work, and since it runs on another core (as does the paging), it does not affect framerate.

In these pictures, you can see the new pager at work. I have parked my aircraft on the ramp at SeaTac and moved the camera across the city, so that the distant autogen (from the pilot’s perspective) is now close and the airport is in the background.

In this first picture, green represents full-res textures, with the next levels down being yellow, then magenta. You can see some nearby autogen down one level and far-off autogen down two levels; the loss of res is put far from the user.

Why is there so much green (full res) near the magenta autogen? Texture reuse. If a texture is used near the user and far from the user, it gets high res because it might be seen up-close.

In this next picture, I artifically lowered my machine from 4 to 1 GB of VRAM using a developer tool. Now you can see magneta autogen close to the airport, yellow even closer, and some really dark green (the next level down) where we had magenta. In other words, everything got a little bit lower res because we were tight on VRAM, but again nearby sceney is prioritized.

It looks like this third strategy is a keeper – it combines the careful management of VRAM to use it where it is most needed with a stable heuristic that isn’t constantly changing, which avoids chaos and unreliable behavior.

So at this point we are just fixing bugs. This is a big step forward for the private beta because past betas were dominated by coding new things, which in turn creates new bugs. At this point we just have to kill bugs off to the point where the build is high enough quality for a public beta.

I cannot promise a particular build number or date will be the public beta full stop, because I do not know yet what other bugs we may find. But I can say that we are in the part of bug fixing where things are getting locked down.

Vulkan is Not the Only Iron In the Fire

A flight simulator is more than its rendering engine (or at least, people tell me that). While we are pushing as hard as we can to get Vulkan and Metal to public beta, we also have several other irons in the fire. This includes new features for mobile, next-gen features for desktop in several feature areas, and even a few extra non-Vulkan/Metal features that have snuck into 11.50. We’ll post more about the mobile and 11.50 features as they become available; the rest is still in stealth mode. Often when the dev blog is quiet, it means we’re working on new things and putting features in the bank; this is the case right now.

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World Editor 2.2 is Final

The latest update for World Editor is out of beta testing and considered the official version. It can now be used to upload scenery to the Gateway, and is an incremental update that features the ability to preview facades in 3D, faster loading, and up to 100 “undo” operations.

See README.WorldEditor for the full list of changes, or Michael’s extended release notes here. Download this version for Linux, Mac, or Windows here.

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Cloud Add-Ons and Vulkan Episode IV: A New Hope

For the last few weeks we’ve had the Vulkan/Metal version of X-Plane in a private test program with third party developers, letting them kick the tires to discover the limits and bugs in our plugin compatibility code.

While the initial bridge to connect OpenGL-based plugins to X-Plane worked pretty well, compatibility wasn’t perfect and we had a few bugs. We also realized that we needed to change the design of that bridge to get much better compatibility. That rework of the bridge is now done and things are looking quite a bit better on all fronts.

We found one unexpected result from this redesign: when we finished rewriting the bridge, we ended up with code that could, in the case of Vulkan only, be used for 3-d drawing. This means we can now support OpenGL-based weather/cloud plugins from inside a Vulkan render, which we did not think was possible before.

The Skymaxx and xEnviro developers are in our private test program and have been great about jumping on new builds while remaining radio silent while we test this new tech. I am pleased to now be able to say: it works!

Those pics are a special build of SkyMaxx running in 11.50 in Vulkan mode. No more having to pick – you can have your third party clouds and Vulkan at the same time.

The Details: Vulkan, not Metal

3-d drawing compatibility will be available for Vulkan, but not Metal. The technique we are using is not available on OS X, so running a cloud plugin on Mac will require the OpenGL driver, not Metal. This isn’t something we can fix with some future bit of cleverness – it’s a limitation of OS X’s APIs. (We would revisit this if Apple introduced a new API but I do not expect this to happen.)

To be clear: on Windows what we are supporting is 3-d OpenGL drawing by plugins inside the Vulkan renderer, not native Vulkan rendering by plugins inside the Vulkan renderer. Native Vulkan rendering by plugins is an incredibly complex SDK problem, and not something we are looking at for 11.50.

2-d Drawing Just Works; 3-d Drawing Requires a New Plugin

For plugins that draw in 2-d we’ve gone for a “just works” level of compatibility; while we have seen some plugins that need to update due to illegal techniques and bugs, our goal is that a well-authored add-on just works even when Vulkan and Metal are in use.

By comparison, OpenGL drawing inside Vulkan is going to require plugin authors to sign up for a new 3-d drawing callback. We’re making this opt-in because, during the beta, we’ve found a lot of add-ons using 3-d drawing callbacks inappropriately, and 3-d drawing callbacks are no longer free. By requiring plugins to opt-in when they _really_ want 3-d drawing in Vulkan, we should get better performance.

The new 3-d drawing callbacks are really only meant for custom drawing like clouds. Other techniques like adding objects to the sim and drawing markings are better handled with other APIs. Our plan is to have detailed guidance on what technique is best for developers by the time we are ready for public beta.

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The Vulkan/Metal Public Beta Will Be in 2020

As I announced in my previous post, X-Plane 11.50, featuring native Vulkan and Metal driver support, is in a private beta made up of people in our dev-rel program (E.g. third party developers). We’ve gotten some really good bug reports from them – the reports are good, not the bugs – and based on that, it’s clear that 11.50 will not be ready to go public this year (meaning tomorrow).

This is disappointing to us – we burned candle at both ends to try to get all the way to public beta this year, but at this point the build just isn’t ready yet.

I’ll describe in detail below what the one bug is that is really holding back public beta, and I’ll try to do a general FAQ about Vulkan and Metal tomorrow; based on the 150+ comments from the last post, I think it’s clear that we have a lot of basic info to get out there, some of which has only been shared with third party developers until very recently.

Please don’t bombard me with “can I please be in the private beta” (or even “you’re a giant pile of moose poop for not letting me into the private beta”). Here’s the thing about the private beta: our goal is to kill off the bugs so everyone can use the beta, and to kill them off as rapidly as possible.

At this point the dozen or so third party developers who are banging on the beta are generating bug reports faster than Sidney and I can fix them – if we add more people to the beta, our bug fix rate will slow down as we have to spend more time triaging the reports coming in. So as long as we’re fixing the worst bugs productively, more people in the private beta means everyone waits longer to get to public beta. I think the best thing here is for Sidney and I to just try to fix things ASAP.

(I think there’s also a win to getting this into the hands of third party developers – in some cases we’ve seen add-ons that accidentally use the wrong APIs for processing and are thus incompatible with Vulkan when they don’t need to be – developers can get a head start on updating this code.) If you are a third party developer, we can get you into the beta program – I don’t want to favor some third party developers over others.

Blurry Textures

A short summary of performance feedback from our internal beta might go like this: smoothness and FPS are good, VRAM management is not.

Most of the crashes while flying we have seen look like the sim runs out of VRAM and isn’t able to recover, and for users with smaller GPUs (e.g. 4 GB of VRAM) X-Plane gets into a tight VRAM situation and solves it by making everything on screen low res and blurry.

The VRAM management path, which is entirely new code written for the Vulkan/Metal back-ends, is…well, it’s entirely new, and it’s going to need a bunch of testing, debugging and iteration to get solid. On an 8 GB card, VRAM is so plentiful that X-Plane’s somewhat naive VRAM allocation scheme works fine. On a 4 GB card, we’re just a tiny bit short (a few hundred MB) but the result is an alarming loss of texture resolution.

This is something we can make better! It is under our control and is thus being worked on now. (By Sidney that is – I’m writing this blog post while he gets the real work done here.) But until we have better VRAM management, it’s too soon to go public. If we did, we would just be inundated with hundreds of “my textures are blurry” reports. It’s a bug too noisy to ship with.

Why Wasn’t This a Problem on OpenGL?

One might ask: why don’t you just do whatever OpenGL did to manage VRAM? The problem is: OpenGL’s solution is to stutter.

The OpenGL driver swaps textures between VRAM and system memory based on what you really need to draw now. If you are looking away from Seattle, the space needle’s texture can live in system memory, but you might need mountain textures for Rainier.

We try to do that too – the big difference is: OpenGL will stop rendering while it moves the textures around, and we will not. The result is that OpenGL always shows you a perfect image at the texture resolution you picked – no blurred images. But you might have stutters! You can see this if you’re on the margins of VRAM by flying and then changing views or circling the camera – if your FPS go “chunk chunk chunk VROOOM” you’re eating some stutters while textures move around, then you go fast again.

The OpenGL way is a solution that we never thought was acceptable – our goal is the best image quality without sacrificing smoothness. It’s going to take a little more time to iron out low VRAM situations, but once we get there I think it will be worth it.

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XPlane2Blender v4.0.0-alpha.4

Download from GitHub here!

XPlane2Blender v4.0.0-alpha.4

As always, make backups!

Over the past month people have reported to me all sorts of weird things:

  • OBJ geometry moving with every export
  • Blender Objects moving after every export
  • Animations spiraling out of control
  • Even simple renaming Blender Objects and restructuring of the Blender hierarchy might trigger a bad export.

And the only cure was to apply all transformations or restart Blender!

Thanks to your bug reports and e-mails I was able to track down the source: all these problems were facets of the same bug!

To make a long story short: I have a fix for XPlane2Blender, but other Blender exporters and users may not be so lucky. I’ve filed a bug with Blender itself, but that is nothing to worry about for X-Plane artists.

Please continue to send me your bug reports! I do read every one of them, even if I don’t get back to you right away.

Posted in Aircraft & Modeling, News, Scenery, Tools by | Comments Off on XPlane2Blender v4.0.0-alpha.4

X-Plane 11.41r1

The initial beta for X-Plane 11.41 is now available for LR customers, and we expect Steam to be available within 24 hours or so.

This is a small patch that focuses on fixing a security vulnerability. Small bug fixes are also included, and you can see the full release notes here.

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X-Plane 11.40 is Final

X-Plane 11.40 is now final! You will be prompted to update to X-Plane 11.40 when you start X-Plane; Steam users will receive the update automatically via Steam. Here’s what’s next in the pipeline:

We are working on a bug-fix update (11.41) to catch one or two bugs that didn’t make the RC, as well as the inevitable bug that will be reported after go final. I expect to cut an 11.41 release candidate some time next week, and it should be a pretty quick release.

In the meantime, we are pushing hard to get Vulkan/Metal ready so that we can do an X-Plane 11.50 beta. We may start private testing of Vulkan and Metal before 11.41 is done, depending on what gets fixed first.

The limiting factor on getting to a public Vulkan/Metal beta will be bug fixing – it doesn’t make sense to go public beta with known bugs that will be reported over and over and make the beta unusable. There are also two remaining areas of development we need to close up:

Load Times

Vulkan and Metal fight stutters by pre-loading everything they need to render the frame – this means whatever we need to draw, it’s ready. But this also means X-Plane needs to prepare every shader it might need to render a given aircraft and scenery pack.

Because X-Plane’s shaders are so flexible, this can mean tens of thousands of shaders, and that hurts load time. We have new code that tries to analyze exactly what we’ll need for a given frame. For example, if an object comes from a DSF, we never need an “interior” shader for it because the scenery object can never be inside an aircraft. By carefully applying this kind of logic, we can cut down the number of preloaded shaders and speed up load times.

Sharing Memory

With Vulkan and Metal, X-Plane manages its own use of VRAM – this is a totally new capability that we have had to code from scratch for the Vulkan/Metal port. We watch our total memory usage and reduce texture resolution dynamically (hopefully on less important and less used textures) to stay within budget.

While this code is working, it hits a wrinkle on Windows:

  • Third party add-ons that chew up VRAM via their OpenGL VRAM usage can use up part of our budget. For example, if you change to an aircraft with a plugin that allocates its own textures to render to, we can’t use that VRAM anymore.
  • The Vulkan version of X-Plane allocates VRAM in big blocks for efficiency. If we reduce our texture res to make room for the plugin, we might end up with a bunch of big pre-allocated blocks (that are mostly unused) inside Vulkan – the memory still isn’t usable by the OpenGL plugin.

Sidney is working on compacting our textures so that some of the big blocks can be given back to OpenGL – yet more new memory management code for Vulkan.

There Be Dragons

Once we have the number of shaders cut down and memory compacting working, we’ll begin heavier testing of the Vulkan/Metal build – I can’t say how close to public beta we are because we haven’t gotten the initial wave of bugs from this testing.

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X-Plane 11.40r2

Release Candidate 2 is now available for LR customers, and we expect Steam to be available within 24 hours or so.

This is a very small patch with a few minor fixes. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: if you haven’t tried your add on aircraft in 11.40 yet…do it now! The reports have been pretty quiet the last couple weeks, and nobody enjoys a last minute surprise bug.

Release notes here.

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