As flight simulation enthusiasts, we are always in search of the latest and greatest in computer hardware. After all- a smooth, realistic simulation is the key ingredient to truly immersive virtual flight- and a powerful PC is perhaps the most vital tool to achieving this.
However, there are certain advancements in technology that work against us as flight simmers- one of the most prevalent being USB 3.0.
What is USB 3.0?
USB 3.0 is an incremental upgrade to the speed and capability of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port found on almost every modern computer (we’re looking at you, Apple). On the surface, it’s virtually identical in appearance to a USB 2.0 port, however, the capabilities are far greater. USB 3.0 can handle speeds of up to 5 Gigabits per second, compared to just 480 Megabits for 2.0 (Source). This is more than just a slight boost- it’s an upgrade by a factor of more than ten.
The best part of all of this is that the port’s identical physical form allows for cross-compatibility with USB 2.0 devices and ports. This means that a USB 2.0 device will be recognized and usable in a 3.0 port (albeit at 2.0 speeds) and a USB 3.0 device will be recognized and usable in a 2.0 port (again, at reduced speeds).
In theory, this sounds like a tech dream come true- an upgrade in speed and capability that doesn’t require us to go out and buy new devices and cables (we’re looking at you again, Apple). However, the reality is much less dreamy.
By design, USB ports can supply a connected device with data and a limited amount of power. In some cases, a device may use only one of these (for example, your phone connected to a wall charger or the data cable running to your printer), but in many cases, devices take advantage of both.
For the most part, the peripherals we use in flight simulation are drawing both data and power from USB. The greater amount of data being transferred to a 3.0 causes the port to use more power- meaning a reduced number of total USB devices that can be plugged into the system, and a reduced power supply to the device.
For the average user, this is a non-issue. Most of the computing public doesn’t operate their system with 10+ USB devices plugged in at any given time, thus manufacturers have chosen to switch almost entirely to USB 3.0 on new systems. This means if you are upgrading your computer you’re likely going to be stuck with primarily 3.0 ports. You can potentially get around this by building your own PC, however, even then it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a quality motherboard with native 2.0 ports.
Another problem that arises is certain versions of Windows and certain hardware do not have drivers that have been updated to recognize the hardware differences between the ports. This can cause a myriad of issues, from intermittent disconnects to a device not being recognized at all.
The following screenshots show this being done in the BIOS of a Dell computer (images courtesyPhilip Yip), however, these settings should be similar in most BIOS. Consult the user manual of your computer or motherboard for further guidance.
The good news is there is a relatively simple solution to most of these issues.
USB 3.0 takes backward compatibility a step further by allowing you to switch your ports to a USB 2.0 controller. This will rid the ports of the benefits of 3.0 but creates the next best thing to native 2.0 support. Once this is done, Windows will treat your ports as 2.0, eliminating many of the issues 3.0 brings.
To do this, we must access the BIOS of the motherboard. This can be done using the F keys on the keyboard (commonly F12 or F8) on the initial startup prior to the windows boot screen.
Once in the BIOS, look for an “Advanced Settings” tab or similar and navigate to it.
Look for a setting titled “USB Debug” or similar and enable it. This will convert the onboard USB ports from 3.0 to 2.0.
Once this is done, save and exit and restart into Windows. That’s all there is to it!
We at GoFlight are actively working on bringing native 3.0 support to our product line, as well as exploring other, more efficient methods of connectivity. In the meantime, however, the tried-and-true USB port remains our gateway to realistic virtual cockpits, and these types of workarounds are part of the sim-building experience!