This short review is for the NAV 1/2 Radio modules and M-COMM communication module produced by Flight Deck Solutions.
As both modules are similar in construction, I will discuss them together.
The NAV module is a stand-alone USB driven Radio Management Panel. This single channel radio unit is designed to handle NAV frequency selection and management.
The M-COMM, a Multi-Channel Communications Radio is a highly detailed replica of the late model communications radio that incorporates COM 1 and COM 2 within the same module, thereby giving greater application to the crew. For simulation purposes the M-COM is an advantage for those who only wish to purchase one module rather two seperate COM1 and COM 2 modules.
Construction and Appearance
The modules are constructed using the same technique that FDS construct their Main Instrument Panel. Each upper panel is made from CNC machined acrylic which produces a very crisp finish and allows any lettering cut-outs to be very well defined. The modules incorporate dual concentric rotary encoders with stainless stems.
The knobs and switches, which are custom machine injected, are true to life and are tactile in feel. As you click through the frequencies the movement is stable and well defined. There is no catching as the knobs are turned. The push keys on the units are plastic molded, back-lit and work flawlessly; they do not stick in the down position when depressed, and click back into position when pressure is released. The frequency displays are 7 segment digits and are very easy to read. Digit colours are in amber yellow for the NAV units and warm white for the M-COMM unit.
The upper panel of the module is attached to the electronic circuitry within the lower section by a metal backing plate; this increases the strength of the unit and assists in the dissipation of heat. An electronics friend had a look at the modules are seemed impressed with quality of the electronics board. What this amounts to is a well presented piece of avionics that accurately replicates a real B737 module 1:1 in size.
No Interface Card Needed
The modules do not require control boards or interface cards - they are stand-alone USB devices. The decision to incorporate all functionality within the modules minimizes the wiring required and the problem in finding space to attach a system board. This is a very important point that needs to be reemphasized, as finding places for various system and I/O cards can be very challenging within the confines of a flight deck. FDS’s decision to incorporate most of the electronic components into the actual module, by layering boards within and under the module, is to be commended and seen as a positive step forward in flight deck building.
ABOVE: You can observe the very cleanly constructed dual layer (triple?) electronics board and push clip which connects 5 Volt power for IBL. Note that the electronics board is not flush to the edge of the module; thereby, allowing the module to drop easily onto DZUS rails (drop & fly). Also note the inclusion of genuine DZUS fasteners.
All FDS B737 series modules and panels are professionally painted in Boeing grey. Rather than one coat of paint which can easily be chipped, FDS utilises several thin coats to increase the durability of the unit’s finish. Although this last comment may appear token, the quality of paint is important. The modules will be used for many years and during the course of operation, you will be placing pens, clipboards, charts, coffee cups, etc on the center pedestal and the modules. Further, as the units are flat, dust will accumulate requiring dusting and cleaning. Low quality paint will scratch, fade and wear thin with time.
If you are utilising real aircraft parts in your simulator, in particular a center pedestal, then any module that is DZUS compliant is advantageous as it allows for the module to be dropped directly onto the DZUS rails and secured by the DZUS fasteners. All modules produced by Flight Deck Solutions can be secured using DZUS fasteners.
Integrated Back-Lighting (IBL)
IBL (proprietary design) is supplied with all FDS modules. Real aircraft bulbs are used to illuminate the panels and modules. One of the main advantages of IBL is the “throw of light” produced from a bulb in contrast to that of a LED. The area of coverage from bulbs is relatively even; where as the light spread from an LED is minimal– almost pinpoint. This is because LEDS are a very precise light source. The only way to achieve a similar light coverage to bulbs is to use several LEDS mounted in close proximity to each other. One area where the use of bulbs verses LEDS is obvious is the back-lit lettering; bulbs allow all the lettering to be evenly lit.
Other manufacturers of avionics modules use LED lights which do not replicate the same colour temperature or appearance of real aircraft lighting.
The IBL is superb. The only downside of IBL (if there is one), and this really doesn’t deserve mention, is that the bulbs generate quite a bit of heat. The life of a bulb is also less than a LED. FDS claim their bulbs have a life span identical to that of real aircraft bulbs which is ~40,000 hours.
To view a good video of how FDS install IBL into the modules, check out the FDS IBL video here.
Set-up of Modules & Software
The modules require software which can be downloaded from the FDS website.
The software is very easy to use and installation self explanatory. Configuration of the modules is done via the software and involves indicating which NAV module is operated by which pilot (Captain or first Officer). The M-COMM module uses the same software and you check the option for this module during set-up.
LEFT: FDS IBL Panel Power Distribution Unit - the size of a credit card. red wire connects to 12 Volts and coloured wires connect to 5 volts for IBL.
Once installed, a sub menu will be created in the FSX menu visible on the main screen. This sub menu identifies the FDS modules you are using, facilitates module set-up (which radio handles what frequency) and allows a method to restart the module should a failure occur with the Tekworx software during flight.
Connection to the computer is via USB. Back-lighting requires a 5 Volt power source and installation of a FDS IBL Panel Power Distribution Unit (FDS IBL DIST). This small card is needed to share the power between the various modules. It’s all pretty straightforward and involves connecting some prefabricated wires with clips to the rear of each module and to the card. The card is then connected directly to the 5 Volt power supply. I secured the card I have within the innards of the center pedestal.
Reliability and Performance – Software and Modules
Software - Instability Causing Module Disconnection (Drop-Outs)
The software that FDS uses (Tekworx) to operate the modules, for the most part, operates well.
However, I do have issues with the software maintaining contact with the modules via USB. For some reason, the software will drop out and the modules require re-starting. I worked with Steve Cos in an attempt to solve this issue, and despite not discovering the reason for the drop outs, a new release of the software (V 1.9.9) appears to have partially rectified the issue. The issue still does occur, but not as frequently.
If the radios do drop out, it’s easy (but annoying) to re-open them by "mousing" over the FSX menu and selecting the FDS radio and multi-radio sub menus. This will re-start the radio software.
Steve Cos has worked tirelessly with me over a period of 12 months to solve this issue, however, a solution to the drop outs and disconnection of the software has not yet been found. I doubt that the problem is being caused my particular computer set-up and specifications, as I've installed the modules on another computer running different specifications and the same issue occurs. It maybe a Sim Connect issue or a an issue with Tekworx software (?)
If the problem is not rectified by the time the simulator is completed, I will replace the FDS modules and move to another vendor to supply the various radios for the center pedestal. Instability (no matter what the cause) is an annoyance and becomes intolerable after a considerable period. It's a pity that the software that FDS uses to control the modules "appears" to be unstable (at least with my system) as their product range is beyond reproach when it comes to quality.
I've used modules in the past that when altering the frequency there is a very slight time lag for the frequency digits to catch up with the turning rotary. This time lag may well be system dependent and/or a response to the limitations of USB. This delay is not evident with the FDS modules.
As mentioned earlier, the frequency digits are super sharp, well lit, and the knobs and switches very well made and tactile.
Comparing the modules I've used over several years (open cockpits, CP Flight, SISMO Solicones and Go Flight), those produced by FDS are probably the best on the market - second to the real thing.
Support from FDS is either directly via e-mail or by a dedicated forum. The support provided by FDS is outstanding and all e-mails are answered in a timely manner.
Quick List – Pros & Cons
- Well designed & constructed
- Excellent workmanship
- Superior product in many ways
- Realistic Integrated Back-Lighting (IBL)
- Realistic quality machine-injected switches & rotaries
- 1:1 to the real B737 series aircraft
- Very high attention to detail
- DZUS compliant (drop & fly)
- Easy to use and set-up software
- M-COMM radio ideal if space is limited in pedestal
- Expensive price (subjective)
- Tekworx software (V 1.8.8. & V 1.9.9) causing module disconnection (drop-outs)
I am very impressed with these modules. They are solid, well constructed and the attention to detail is as you would expect from Flight Deck Solutions. The quality of the modules is very high and suits the high end enthusiast to professional market. I's a pity that the software FDS use lowers their reliability (at least on my system)
My rating for the software is 5/10 (V1.8.8. & V 1.9.9)
My rating for the modules is 10/10
Please note that this review is my opinion only and is not endorsed.
Post Script (4 APRIL 2013) - IMPORTANT
Despite a new release of the Tekworx software, the issue I have been having with the FDS modules dropping out continues, although less frequently. Steve Cos over the last 12 months has worked with me to try and solve this issue without success. According to Flight Deck Solutions, they have not observed this issue on any of their set-ups. Although I cannot comment to validity of this statement, the modules I am using continue to disconnect and drop out. This has occurred on three separate computer systems with FSX installed.
The back-up service from Steve Cos of FDS has been outstanding during this time.
Updates will be published in due course.
ProSim737 recently announced that their avionics suite would provide native support for the radios produced by Flight Deck Solutions. Native support means that the Texworx software is no longer required to operate the radios. Since Version 1:45, the three radios have been operating flawlessly with no dropouts whatsoever.
In my opinion, other than OEM radios, the radios offered by FDS are the best in the market place.