Best Freeware Add Ons for X-Plane
I get asked the question, "What X-Plane freeware should I get?" all the time from new users to X-Plane. For every freeware product out there, there is a unique answer to that question. One of the strengths of X-Plane is the strength of the community especially with developers. Laminar Research has done a great job empowering individuals to create great content for the platform with their delivery of applications like Plane Maker and WED (World Editor). Most of the freeware projects can be found at www.x-plane.org, aka The Org but several are found at individual developers websites. Therefore I am compiling "The Best Freeware Add Ons According to X-Plane Junkies" list so you do not have to guess and check too much. Keep in mind, these add ons listed here are ones that I personally like and think are great for the price you pay, NOTHING! Of course there are a lot more out there so I encourage you to check out various websites like The Org regularly.
Best Free Aircraft - EADT x737
This is a category I struggle with a lot because once you experience a good payware aircraft, freeware just seems to not be worth it. With that said, there is one real promising freeware aircraft out there. The EADT x737 Project is by far the most mature freeware aircraft for X-Plane. I remember getting an early version of it right when X-Plane v8 was out and loving it. They have done a great job with their model of the 737-800. Before I go any further discussing this plane I will point out the most obvious pink elephant in the room... It only has a 2D cockpit. The good news is they have been working on the 3D cockpit for some time now and it looks as we may actually see it this year. Over the years, the EADT team has truly made an incredible external model of the aircraft and tweaked the plug-in driven systems to a high level of simulation. At the EADT website (www.eat.eu) you can find over 130 liveries spanning real and fictional airlines around the world. You also get a BBJ2 model with the additional fuel tanks. As far as navigation, it uses the default X-Plane FMS which we all know leaves plenty to be desired but once again this is a freeware aircraft. If you find yourself really liking this aircraft and would like a more advanced FMS simulation, Javier Cortes has created an inexpensive add on for the EADT x737 called the x737FMC which runs about $23.50 USD. This FMC add on gives you SID/STAR support as well as vertical navigation among other features, but this post is about the free stuff...
Best Free Scenery - HD Mesh Scenery v3
Now that Laminar Research has put the Global Scenery Gateway into action you will notice more and more airports getting buildings and jetways instead of being big parking lots with runways. All you have to do is keep current with the X-Plane updates. That is the reason why I am not picking an airport for best freeware scenery. On a fundamental level, X-Plane draws all of its scenery on top of what is known as a mesh. Without being a total nerd about it, the mesh scenery is elevation detail of the world as well as what type of land belongs to it. Overall, X-Plane does a decent job at drawing the flat lands and mountains but if you head over to www.alpilotx.net you can upgrade the mesh scenery to a whole new level of detail. Not only are the mountains made of a lot more polygons giving them a far more realistic appearance but the textures (forrest, desert, grass) that are overlaid on them is far nicer. It is pretty incredible the level of detail you get with this freeware scenery add on. Now we get to the downside. The files are huge and there are a lot of them. X-Plane breaks down the mesh areas into what are known as "tiles". Some of these tiles are in excess of 4GB. The download process has a few download servers to choose from but be patient and prepare for hours of downloading. The installation is also not that straight forward but thankfully they have documented it very well. It is extremely important to follow the directions exactly. Lastly, because of the higher resolution of the mesh, users on lower end machines may see a solid dip in performance. The good news is if you are unsure of what category your computer falls, just download a tile or two and try it out first. If it all goes well, you can download the HD Mesh Scenery v3 for North America, Europe and Japan. It also covers the northern pacific islands and some of north Africa. If your computer handles this add on well, then I highly recommend this add on.
Best Utility - XSquawkBox/VATSIM
X-Plane is fun and all, but why fly offline... You only get a small experience of what it is like to fly when you are dealing with the so called built in ATC and AI aircraft that comes with X-Plane. Once you can take off and land, get yourself a free account on VATSIM, read their getting started guide and then install XSquawkBox (aka XSB). XSquawkBox is a simple plugin that connects you to the VATSIM network so you can fly along with other pilots with real humans acting as ATC. Once you have a VATSIM account and XSquawkBox installed, just put your plane in a ramp area and log in. I promise it is far more fun and exciting to fly online. You will also learn a lot more about being a pilot when flying online. To get the most out of VATSIM, look for published events on their website as well as join a Virtual Airline (VA) that uses VATSIM. I fly for a really fun and easy going VA called Catfish Air (www.catfishair.com) which has a lot of VATSIM ATC members. The drawback for XSquawkBox is it has a hard time drawing its onscreen graphics when you have the HDR rendering turned on. Plane lights show up as large blocks of light and aircraft tags also show up as big yellow blocks. There is a free add on patch to fix the light issues in The Org but the aircraft tag fix will need developer work to correct. Also, the aircraft it draws on the screen of other users can be pretty ugly. The landing gear will always be down, even at FL350 and the resolution is pretty weak as well. But all things considered it is the only VATSIM client so there isn't much of a choice and it works well from a foundational level. There is an alternative VATSIM client plugin in development now that looks really good, but it does not appear to be releasing any time soon as of this writing (Jan. 2015). Look for me on VATSIM as a pilot or ATC if you fly in the Houston Airspace.
Best X-Plane Community - X-PlanePilots.org
This was a tough choice honestly. In full disclosure my products can be purchased in the X-Plane Pilots Store. I chose X-Plane Pilots not because their store sells my products but they going in a direction that will make the best community of virtual pilots. They are a young community and suffered some growing pains for sure but as they continue to grow they will certainly start to rival the oldest communities out there because of their forward thinking. They have a top notch designer managing the website so you can expect a nice visual and navigational experience. They have also been generating great content on X-Plane news and reviews as well. The best part is their growing forums area which is the secret to a great community so I recommend going over there and start participating in the forums and help them grow. Go register for a free account and see you there!
Best Payware Add Ons for X-Plane - ???
That will be for another post. Until then, fly a lot and don't stop learning.