Although this review is of an add-on technically for FS9 and/or X, it should really be listed for “Microsoft FS9 or X, plus iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch and a wireless network” – because that’s what you’ll actually need to run it.
TOT Games’ TabletFMC is a payware utility which allows pilots of many system-heavy add-ons to view and control the aircraft’s CDU/MCDU on their iDevice. It comprises, as is usual with interfaces between Apple and Windows devices, two elements – the client software on the iDevice and a small server package on the Windows PC running FS9 or X.
With a list of compatible add-ons that includes packages by PMDG, Level D Simulations and Flight 1, the package is not solely limited to the Smiths Industries unit installed to most Boeing aircraft, for reasons which will be discussed later in this review, but also supports Fokker, MDD, Airbus and ATR flight management systems as well. There’s no reason at all that it couldn’t support any system in the sim were they added to the list.
Although I have both an iPod Touch and an iPad available to test with (neither the most current generation), I chose to test with FSX and the iPad, due to the larger screen size. Also, I don’t have all of the packages with which the application is compatible, or at least not installed. Therefore testing was carried out using the PMDG B737NGX, Captain Sim B757-200 and Level D Simulations B767-300. As it happens, due to the way the package works, the exact choice of aircraft is not that important anyway.
Finally for the introduction, because I have nothing installed which is capable of easily transferring screenshots from the iPad to my PC, all of the images except the cockpit shot in this review are taken from the developers’ webpage. With one minor exception, they are exactly the same as I see when running the application. I do realise that in all probability ‘there’s an app for that!’, but I don’t have one right now. Sorry.
So. On with the review.
As mentioned in the opening part of this article, there’s a two-part installation process for this package, comprising a small server tool which can be obtained from the developers’ website and the client software on your iDevice through the iTunes Store.
The server requires no installation at all, because it is simply an executable file which is run on the FS PC. I didn’t realise this at first, as it started behind the Explorer window showing the folder I had downloaded it to. When I attempted to run it again, however, the toolbar icon flashed, drawing my attention and causing me to minimise the Explorer window and find it.
As expected, when first run, you have to authorise the software to be allowed through the Windows firewall. In my case, this was a ‘one-click and it’s done’ situation, with no problems at all.
Switching to the iPad, the installation from the iTunes store went exactly the same as ever. One thing no-one could ever accuse Apple of creating is complex installations, so after watching the blue bar advance to completion and then dragging and dropping the icon from my completely unused page 2 into my “FS Stuff” folder (on page 1… Why do Apple always install things to page 2 when there is loads of space on page 1?!) it was just a case of clicking it to run.
Clearly, uninstallation is equally straightforward. Delete the app from your iDevice, delete the server app and its associated self-generated config file from the PC. That’s it. The whole installation of this software and uninstallation if necessary is pretty straight forward and trouble free.
Because the package is so intuitive to use, apart from initially checking how to actually connect the two devices, I didn’t need to refer to the (online only) documentation at all except for the purposes of writing this review. Should you need to, however, the ‘info’ button on the TabletFMC client screen takes you to a single-sheet html page which gives you the install procedure and links to the developers’ website page for the product, the server download page and a “manual”.
The last of these options is possibly slightly misleading, as it is another 1-page html document, showing download links to the server, Microsoft’s Visual C++ runtime files (these are required, but most people will have them already) and a link to a Microsoft Support network troubleshooting page.
There really isn’t much more than this required though. It really is that simple and intuitive to use once you have done what it tells you to.
Setup and Connection
The first thing you need to do when activating TabletFMC is to run the server software. After the first slightly confusing moment as mentioned above, this is not a difficult task at all. There are three drop-down selection boxes to set – the first detailing the sim to be connected, the second an aircraft add-on developer and the third the exact package to be loaded. So, for instance, when running the PMDG B737NGX, you select Microsoft Flight Simulator X in the top box, Boeing – PMDG in the second and 737 (Left) or (Right) as you prefer, in the bottom box. That’s all you need to do with the server tool – after choosing your options simply start FSX, select the setup you want as usual and launch the flight.
What you must do, however, is to run FSX in windowed mode, not fullscreen, for reasons discussed shortly.
When the app is run, it displays a screen asking for the IP address or machine name of the client host. Deciding to push my luck, I entered the Windows networking name for my PC and, slightly to my surprise, the client picked it up first time. There is also a search button (“Refresh server list“), which I have used and which also detected my PC first time.
After selecting “Connect“, I was greeted by a black screen telling me to open the FMC window, which I did, to no effect, before remembering that not only does it have to be open for this application to work, it has to be “undocked”. Once this was done, by right clicking the window and selecting “undocked”, the CDU was displayed on the iPad – slightly distorted due to the screen size and slightly blurred due to resizing, but easy to see, read and large enough to operate.
For the uninitiated, undocking a 2d panel window allows it to be dragged and displayed outside the FSX window itself. Usually used on multi-screen systems to allow panels to be dragged onto a second monitor, this is the first point at which I found an issue with TabletFMC. I do not have a multi-screen system, just one 22″ widescreen TFT monitor, so the fact that the FMC/CDU window must be constantly open and constantly visible means that it has to sit atop the VC panel somewhere.
Once in operation, the application does pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Buttons are selected by touching them on the iDevice screen and, although there is a slight delay between the touch and FS being updated, this never caused me any problems during testing.
When touching a button on the screen, the command is transmitted by the mouse pointer very briefly flashing over to the FMC/CDU window and then back to wherever it was previously. Once the cursor has timed out and become hidden, you don’t see this, so it isn’t really at all noticable.
The display on the iPad is exactly what is visible on the FMC/CDU window in the sim, so if there’s a function available on the aircraft, it’s also available through TabletFMC, which is useful. For instance all the setup functions for doors and controls on the PMDG NGX were usable and, on the CS B757, the close button could be used to close the FMC window. Obviously, however, this was counterproductive…
“Open FMC window“.
Well. Yes. Okay, I’ll accept that minor telling off.
Because it basically displays exactly what the sim shows, for each partiular aircraft, it has the additonal advantage, as previously mentioned, of not being specific to any model of airliner or flight management system hardware. It can just as easily show Collins hardware, for example as the Smiths units that were all I tested for this review. This is actually quite a useful feature.
I did, however, have a problem with TabletFMC, which was particularly predominant on the PMDG 737, much less so on the CS B757 and it returned on the LDS. Although commands could still be sent to the sim by pressing appropriate buttons on the iPad screen, the display never updated so, although the sim was showing the ROUTE page, or the PERF INIT page, for example, TabletFMC was still showing the POS INIT page.
I tried numerous methods of resolving this and the only one which reliably worked was to put the iPad into standby, bring it back to life, then reconnect to the server. This was particularly irritating when it happened, whether it was during the setup for a flight, or in flight when I would look at the iPad, look at the sim and see different waypoints displayed as “next” and different times/fuel quantities on the PROGRESS page. It unfortunately happened fairly regularly and for no apparent reason.
The other issue I had, which I’ve already mentioned, is the fact that the undocked FMS/CDU window has to be constantly open. Once up and trying to actually operate this in a “live” environment, I found it even more limiting than I expected.
Trying to resize or move the window off the screen caused it to not be visible on the iPad, either, so it sat down there in the bottom right hand corner all flight, blocking visibility of the EFIS screens, meaning I constantly had to ‘look around’ it to see what was happening with the engines, flaps, etc. When I was mousing over other controls to set up the overhead, for example, when something needed doing on the FMS, I just clicked the on-screen window. It was easier than transferring my attention from the sim and mouse to the iPad, then back.
Although this application does exactly what it says it will, in a competent and usually effective manner, it won’t, unfortunately, be for everyone and certainly isn’t going to make any ‘essentials’ list.
The primary problem has to be the necessity of having the FMC/CDU window constantly open and undocked on your desktop. Where many FS pilots report a significant loss in frame rates when operating in windowed mode and with space on most pilots’ monitors at a premium, having that big box constantly open over the top actually makes a significant difference and, half the time, I found myself reaching for the mouse and just doing tasks on the open window itself, rather than using the iPad application.
The other problem I had, repeatedly, was the connection dropping out and the screen not updating, which could only be resolved by putting the iPad into standby and forcing a reconnection. This happened often enough to be really quite irritating.
Overall, I’d have to give this application 7/10. It’s a nice idea, well implemented, but with some offputting drawbacks. If using the mouse to control your FMS is something you really don’t want to do and already own an iDevice, then this may well be of use to you. I really wouldn’t go out and buy a device just to use this instead of some of the alternative options, though, unless I had other good uses for the iPad/Pod/Phone as well.