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Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review

Microsoft Flight Simulator puts the world at your fingertips

Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Microsoft)

Our Verdict

Microsoft Flight Simulator is the best way to see the world from your couch.

For

  • Incredible realism
  • Supports various experience levels
  • Lovely graphics

Against

  • Takes up a huge amount of space
  • Some details could be better
Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020): Specs

Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox Series X/S
Price: $60
Release Date: August 18, 2020 (PC) / July 27, 2021 (Xbox)
Genre: Simulation

If any one video game can chart the progress of PC development, it’s Microsoft Flight Simulator. First released in 1982, the title has been through 12 iterations, each one taking advantage of the latest technology and gaming trends. The newest version, simply called Microsoft Flight Simulator, not only looks fantastic, but also leverages Microsoft’s satellite imagery and live weather data to provide the most realistic experience yet. In addition, the game is also compatible with VR headsets and, in a first, with the Xbox Series X, opening it up to an even wider audience. 

As I was writing this Microsoft Flight Simulator review, I would get lost for hours simply admiring everything outside the cockpit. It’s one of the reasons we gave it a Tom’s Guide Award as the best PC game of the year. 

Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: Price and availability

Microsoft Flight Simulator was released in the summer of 2020 for PCs, and in July 2021 for the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S

The game is available in three versions. The Standard Edition costs $59.99, and will let you fly 20 different planes. The Deluxe Edition ($89.99) includes 25 aircraft, and the Premium Deluxe Edition ($119.99) includes 35 aircraft. 

(Image credit: Microsoft)

While all versions let you land and take off from 37,000 airports around the world, each edition has "handcrafted" airports with additional details. The Standard Edition has 30 such airports, the Deluxe, 35, and the Premium Deluxe, 40 airports.

The Standard Edition is also available as part of Xbox Game Pass for PC and the Xbox.

In the game itself, you can download additional updates, some of which are free, and others of which cost money. For example, you can install more detailed airports or more aircraft, from a WWI-era Bleriot XI to an F-15 Eagle. Most of these à la carte offerings range in price from a few bucks to as much as $50. 

Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: System requirements and updates

Microsoft Flight Simulator requires, at minimum, a Windows 10 PC with either an Intel i5-4460 or AMD Ryzen 3 1200 processor, an Nvidia GTX 770 or AMD Radeon RX 570 GPU, 8 GB RAM, 2 GB VRAM, 150GB of hard drive space, and support for DirectX 11. Here is a link to the minimum, recommended, and ideal specs, according to Asobo

Minimum specs
AMDNvidia
CPURyzen 3 1200Intel i5-4460
GPURadeon RX 570Nvidia GTX 770
VRAM2GB2GB
RAM8GB8GB
Storage150GB150GB
Bandwidth5 Mbps5 Mbps

Recommended Specs
AMDNvidia
CPURyzen 5 1500XIntel i5-8400
GPURadeon RX 590Nvidia GTX 970
VRAM4GB4GB
RAM16GB16GB
Storage150GB150GB
Bandwidth20 Mbps20 Mbps

Ideal Specs
AMDNvidia
CPURyzen 7 Pro 2700XIntel i7-9800X
GPURadeon VIINvidia RTX 2080
VRAM8GB8GB
RAM32GB32GB
Storage150GB SSD150GB SSD
Bandwidth50 Mbps50 Mbps

(Image credit: Microsoft)

To test the game, I used an Alienware Area m51 with an Nvidia GeForce 2080 GPU, a 3.6 GHz Intel Core i9-9900K CPU, with 64GB of RAM. However, a large update in late July 2021 has made the game less of a drag on system resources, enabling better performance from lower-specced systems. After this update, with the graphics at Ultra settings, I was able to average between 50-60 fps on my flights, with the GPU output at around 80 percent and the CPU around 20 percent. 

It’s also a large game. The initial download was 90.99GB, and a subsequent update was another 40GB. Waiting for these to install was like sitting in an overcrowded airport terminal. It added yet another aspect of reality to flight, albeit one that Microsoft probably didn’t intend.

Since its release, there have been numerous updates to Microsoft Flight Simulator, which have either added better detail in certain regions — such as better-rendered landmarks— or refinements to aircraft and various bug fixes. 

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 VR headset compatibility

Microsoft Flight Simulator supports OpenXR-compatible headsets, such as  Valve Index, Oculus Rift S, the HP Reverb G2, and Oculus Quest with Link.

Previously, you could sign up for a closed VR beta program—in which it looks like you can use any VR headset—but you'll need at least an Intel Core i5-8400 or AMD Ryzen 5 1500X processor, an Nvidia GTX 1080 or equivalent GPU, and at least 16GB of RAM. 

However, this latest update opens the flight simulator to a number of other VR headsets.

Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: Visuals and sound

Microsoft Flight Simulator: Latest upates

June 17: Release 1.17.3.0 (World Update V): The Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are getting their due, and five airport landing challenges have been added.

To put it simply, the graphics are stunning. If anything, the best reason to play Microsoft Flight Simulator is simply to gaze in wonder at all the Earth has to offer, both natural and artificial. Passing over highways, you can see cars and trucks driving, with an astounding lack of gridlock — perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of the game. 

Because everything is generated from Microsoft’s extensive world-mapping database, it’s as close to looking out the window of a real plane as you’re going to get. Outside of Google or Apple, it’s hard to imagine any other company being able to pull this off.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

There are a few instances where the graphics could use some work, though. In the New York City area, the graphics under more than a few bridges were distorted, making it look like there was a curtain hanging from their lower decks. 

Suffice it to say, invest in a good monitor to really bask in all that the game has to offer. It’s also helpful because many important popup screens — such as Air Traffic Control, your flight map, and navigation log — can quickly take up a lot of real estate. 

(Image credit: Microsoft)

You can set the Simulator to any time of the day or night, and you can also incorporate real-time weather information, which adds in even more realism and challenge. 

Audio-wise, there’s not much to speak of, as the main sound you’ll hear is the thrum of your airplane’s engine. This too, is modeled well, as each aircraft has its own unique sound. The only other sounds are those of alarms and air-traffic control. 

Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: Gameplay

While I’m not exactly a novice with flight simulators or flying games, it’s been a number of years since I sat behind the yoke. As such, I was pretty rusty coming into Flight Simulator 2020. No problem, I thought. I’ll just take the training courses — there are a handful, and they cover both propeller aircraft and jets — and I’ll be off flying the friendly skies.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Then I tried landing. It took several tries before I could safely land a Cessna 152 — your garden-variety single-propeller aircraft. Fortunately, the simulator can be very forgiving, and lets you adjust how “real” you want your flight experience to be. 

Even so, there’s a real learning curve. After about a dozen flights in various propeller aircraft, I felt bold enough to fly a Boeing 747 out of San Francisco International Airport. I figured I’d swoop down low over the Golden Gate Bridge and snap a few picturesque photos for this review. Before you could say Coit Tower, I had all sorts of alarms and warnings going off in the cockpit.

You can take off and land from virtually anywhere on the Earth. A World Map lets you select where you’d like to go, the aircraft, and the time of day. 

(Image credit: Microsoft)

On the other hand, if you just want to sit back and enjoy the view, there are a handful of discovery flights where the simulator does all the flying.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 aircraft

The following aircraft are available in Microsoft Flight Simulator:

Aircraft available in Microsoft Flight Simulator
Standard EditionDeluxe EditionPremium Deluxe Edition
Airbus A320neoXXX
Aviat Pitts Special S2SXXX
Boeing 747-8 IntercontinentalXXX
CubCrafters XCubXXX
Daher TBM 930XXX
Diamond DA62XXX
Diamond DA40 NGXXX
EXTRA 330LTXXX
Flight Design CTLSXXX
ICON A5XXX
JMB VL-3XXX
Robin CAP 10XXX
Robin DR400-100 CadetXXX
Beechcraft Bonanza G36XXX
Beechcraft King Air 350iXXX
Cessna 152XXX
Cessna 172 Skyhawk (G1000)XXX
Cessna 208 B Grand Caravan EXXXX
Cessna Citation CJ4XXX
Zlin Savage CubXXX
Diamond DA40-TDIXX
Diamond DV20XX
Beechcraft Baron G58XX
Cessna 152 AerobatXX
Cessna 172 SkyhawkXX
Boeing 787-10 DreamlinerX
Cirrus SR22X
Pipistrel Virus SW 121X
Cessna Citation LongitudeX
Zlin Shock UltraX

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 airports

According to Microsoft, players can land and take off from around 37,000 airports around the world. However, 40 of these airports have "hand-crafted" elements, offering more detail and other features. So, for instance, all players will be able to fly into San Francisco's airport, but only those who have the Premium Deluxe version will be able to see these hand-crafted items. Microsoft has not specified what the exact differences are between hand-crafted and non-handcrafted versions.  

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

(Image credit: Xbox)

Standard EditionDeluxe EditionPremium Deluxe Edition
Aspen/Pikin County (USA)XXX
Bugalaga Airstrip (Indonesia)XXX
Chagual Airport (Peru)XXX
Courchevel Altiport (France)XXX
Donegal Airport (Ireland)XXX
Entebbe Int'l Airport (Uganda)XXX
Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira Int'l Airport (Portugal)XXX
Gibraltar Int'l Airport (UK)XXX
Innsbruck Airport (Austria)XXX
Los Angeles Int'l Airport (USA)XXX
Tenzing-Hillary Airport (Nepal)XXX
Nanwalek Airport (USA)XXX
John F. Kennedy Int'l Airport (USA)XXX
Orlando Int'l Airport (USA)XXX
Paris Charles de Gaulle Int'l Airport (France)XXX
Paro Int'l Airport (Bhutan)XXX
Queenstown Airport (New Zealand)XXX
Mariscal Sucre Int'l Airport (Ecuador)XXX
Rio de Janeiro-Antonio Carlos Jobim Int'l Airport (Brazil)XXX
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (Dutch Saba)XXX
Gustaf III Airport (France)XXX
Seattle-Tacoma Int'l Airport (USA)XXX
Sedona Airport (USA)XXX
Sirena Aerodrome (Costa Rica)XXX
Stewart Airport (Canada)XXX
Sydney Airport (Australia)XXX
Telluride Regional Airport (USA)XXX
Haneda Airport (Japan)XXX
Toncontin Int'l Airport (Honduras)XXX
Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (Canada)XXX
Schiphol Airport (Netherlands)XX
Cairo Int'l Airport (Egypt)XX
Cape Town Int'l Airport (South Africa)XX
O'Hare Int'l Airport (USA)XX
Adolfo Suarez Madrid Barajas (Spain)XX
Denver Int'l Airport (USA)X
Frankfurt Airport (Germany)X
Heathrow Airport (UK)X
San Francisco Int'l Airport (USA)X

For those who plan to purchase Microsoft Flight Simulator, the company recommends the following peripherals, which include a variety of flight controls:

LogitechThrustmasterHoneycomb
Extreme 3D ProF/A-18 GripHoneycomb Aeronautical
Flight Rudder PedalsWarthog HOTAS (stick + throttle)Virtual Fly
Flight Throttle QuadrantMFD CougarRuddo+
Flight Yoke SystemPendular RudderTQ3+
X52T.Flight Stick XTQ6+
X52 ProT.16000M (stick only)V3rnio TPM
X56T.16000M FCS (stick + throttle + rudder)Yoko+
T.Flight HOTAS 4Microsoft
T.Flight HOTAS OneXbox Controller
T.Flight HOTAS XXbox Adaptive Controller
T-Flight Rudder Pedals
TWCS Throttle

Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: Verdict

In some ways, calling Microsoft Flight Simulator a "game" is doing it a disservice. There are no bosses to defeat, no coins to collect and nothing to “win.” It’s more like an experience. The attention to detail is truly impressive, especially if you have a system that can take advantage of it all. If you’ve been cooped up in your apartment, it’s the perfect pandemic game to get out and see the world without ever leaving your home.

Mike Prospero

Michael A. Prospero is the deputy editor at Tom’s Guide overseeing the home, smart home, drones, and fitness/wearables categories, as well as all buying guides and other evergreen content. When he’s not testing out the latest running watch, skiing or training for a marathon, he’s probably using the latest sous vide machine or some other cooking gadget.