-by Jane Garvey
The last time we looked at computer-based aviation training, interactive CD-ROM was the latest and DVD wasnt in widespread use. Barely three years later, some manufacturers are talking about discontinuing CD entirely. Its enough to give you a headache.
We checked out three products (via computer only) for this review. As it turns out, the kind of training you want and your available equipment will probably call the tune rather than one vendors content blowing the others away, as was true last time.
Sportys and ASAs products will run on PC or Macintosh. King Schools course is PC only. The Sportys and King programs both have the potential for different hardware or software issues. Each of the three targets a different level on the pilot training continuum.
The most recent combatant in the DVD pilot training wars comes from Aviation Supplies & Academics, Inc., which recently acquired the rights to market a revamp of the FlightPrep DVD materials. By far the least expensive at $99.95, ASAs Virtual Test Prep course (private or instrument) comes on five DVDs with roughly 10 hours of material. As the title indicates, the entire focus is test prep. Theres some good digital footage interspersed, but the quality of most video is rather poor, in our view, with fuzzy resolution and blurred motion, even on less than full screen display.
We actually found it a bit tiring to watch after a relatively short time. Most presentations are of the talking head variety backed up with adequate if unspectacular charts and graphs. There is some flight footage but much of the visual variety is staged static backdrops or generic exterior flight footage.
Representative test questions are covered within the chapters, but the voice-over reads the already displayed onscreen text to you and then tells and shows you which answer is correct, sometimes in excruciating detail, rather than making you pick the correct response and then providing guidance if you fluff it. You can take practice segments that the computer will score after completing a topic area. Set-up and use was easy but the program failed to take advantage of more than just DVD video capacity, omitting as it does the ability to navigate within test topic areas. Cant remember what they said about light gun signals? Tough. The 11 chapters are each one integrated file with no ability to select a discrete topic within same.
In essence, ASAs Virtual Test Prep appeared to us to be a collection of test-prep VCR tapes you can play on the computer and which will track your progress. On the other hand, there arent any special hardware requirements, which makes this a good choice for a low-end system.
Were sure theres an FAR somewhere that all pilots are required to have at least three issues of Sportys catalog in the magazine rack at any time. Thus its not surprising that Hal Shevers and crew have ventured into the latest pilot training format and the result is a remarkably good product.
This course is intended as a complete flight training ground school, not simple test prep. While sample questions are presented, theres no ability to track progress on questions or do a complete practice test, nor is the entire test book available for review. Note, however, that Sportys does offer free online dedicated FAA test study and practice at: www.sportys.com/faatest/, so that base can be covered, just not inside this program. Relying heavily on relevant inflight video, the focus is actual flight training, with a presentation thats organized, attractively presented and of appropriate simplicity. The latest iteration is now cross-referenced with the Part 141-approved pilot training syllabus and to the practical test standards.
In our view, students would benefit in particular from being able to watch at leisure and without distraction whatever maneuvers or principles are causing difficulty or anxiety in a cramped, noisy and intimidating cockpit. There are also various topics useful to actual flight training but irrelevant to the test, such as dealing with line crews (not to mention a two-minute commercial for AOPA).
At its worst, DVD can be nothing more than the ability to cram the same stuff onto fewer disks. Or, as with the Sportys product, the increased capacity can be utilized to make available what would otherwise be a prohibitively large quantity of high-resolution video. These seven disks contain around 13 hours of material, heavily weighted toward demonstrative inflight video.
We found this the most attractive aspect of the Sportys training product, particularly given the bias toward the pilots eye view. Even when the voice-over is explaining some less-than-riveting point, watching the airplane and pilot actually doing whatever is at issue keeps attention far better than static displays and talking heads.
Not all material is new, nor would we expect it to be given Sportys existing video library. Segments incorporated from prior videos arent as crisp as new digital footage, of course, and those portions look better run less than full screen, in our opinion.
If youve got the right equipment and drivers, Sportys pilot course is pure plug and play, with no loading or configuring of software required. We dont know whether its the dual layering technology or some other factor, but weve seen discussion on the newsgroups about older setups having problems and our own experience confirmed that.
A new laptop swallowed it happily while year-old DVD drivers on the desktop stuck their tongue out. Unless youve got a relatively recent DVD installation or upgrade, do yourself a favor and order the teaser first volume for the cost of shipping so youll know whether youre good to go out of the box.
Unlike King Schools, Sportys is a one-size-fits-all, which runs on either computer or DVD. Questions are answered on the TV using remote keys. At $169, Sportys DVD private pilot training program is in the middle on cost. The instrument rating course is $199. The recreational pilot training series is $99. The package includes the PTS, a logbook, disk wallet, exam sign-off form, airport markings guide and a Getting Started DVD. All prices are indicated as introductory, which may just be market-speak or may indicate theyre going to go up after the product establishes market share.
When we checked out comprehensive CD-ROM training in 1999, Cessna/King Schools Cleared for Takeoff was the hands-down winner. King advises that the new format is essentially the CD course with better video and interactivity. Obviously, resolution on the previous incorporated video is not quite as sharp as digital footage, but its still good and what was very good substantive test prep in 1999 remains so today.
The promotional materials categorize this course as exam prep but its centered around understanding the test material, not just learning the right answers. At the end of each segment, test questions display automatically. A correct answer is rewarded with a cute little bell sound and you move on. Get it wrong and you can simply read the explanation or carom back to that segment of the presentation.
The big media marketing shtick these days is interactive. Maybe someday the FTC or some other fed acronym will protect us from ourselves by standardizing the terminology in 50 pages of the Federal Register. Until then, every vendor doesnt necessarily mean the same thing by the same term, which leads to some facially strange language like Kings trademarked True Interactivity. Although vaguely reminiscent of New-and-Improved box labels, theyre trying to differentiate their courses ability-unique in this group-to track all progress, offer a variety of consumer-determined options for test practice, and the like.
That distinction results in two pricing tiers, depending on how youre going to view the materials. The TV-only DVD is $179, comparable to Sportys price. The computer version, which can track progress and offers use-defined capabilities, is $100 more. (The computer iteration will run on TV but doesnt offer the same interactivity.)
Both versions toss in the course and test books, a DVD FAR/AIM and a video of your choice. Unlike Sportys, the private and instrument courses are the same price.
The principle hardware requirement of note is that the video card must be DirectDraw and high color capable and they arent kidding. A laptop with off-the-shelf working rather than gaming configuration locked up tight. A desktop with a high-end video card for flight sims loaded fine but still had Runtime conflicts upon exiting.
We cant do an apples-to-apples comparison among these three training products since each performs a materially different function. Of course, this didnt keep Sportys from trying this on their Web site.
In their ours v. theirs comparison page, Sportys is almost contemptuous of the King product, which they call Brand X. In the side-by-side chart, Sportys says they have: Scored interactive tests on your TV while They [King] advertise that scoring is impossible on a TV. In the next line, Sportys says of its product: Everything works the same on a TV and of King: Nope. They also refer to Kings TV-only version as crippled.
We interpreted this to mean that Sportys says their TV-based product could do things Kings comparable version could have but didnt. Since we only used computer-connected DVDs for the review, we inquired as to how they managed that.
In reply, a Sportys representative advised that The result is not saved on a computer nor on a TV DVD player, but can give the student or instructor a good idea about their readiness to take the FAA knowledge test. Further, he said, Sportys short quizzes are not scored, which seems to us to contradict what the comparison chart says, both directly and by collective implication.
When we asked King about the same issue, they responded by pointing out -accurately -what their product does rather than making cracks about the competitor. All is fair in love, war and marketing, of course. But in our view, Sportys DVD training program is very good at its intended function, which is not identical to Kings focus. In our view, its both unfortunate and unnecessary to slam the other guy, particularly in ways which could mislead prospective customers.
So what to buy? The least expensive course is also the least elaborate, predictably enough, but its also the least twitchy about the equipment. If youd be content with plodding but adequate DVD-based video test prep or have an older computer setup that you dont want to upgrade, then ASAs $100 course may be right for you.
Sportys product is a coordinated soup-to-nuts training curriculum with only derivative interest in the actual test. Substantively, its an excellent product, particularly for the price. Just understand that youll have to go elsewhere for concentrated or comprehensive test practice.
Yeah, we know the theory is that if you understand the material, you dont need to review all the questions, but in the real world, a good test score for most people means grinding out direct familiarity with the particular way the questions are asked, having a point out to the official answers that are wrong and the FAA-approved results of the more complex computational examples.
Splitting the function difference is the King Schools product, which has very good substantive content and a strong emphasis on test prep but which would not be as good as Sportys as a complete ground school, nor is it marketed as that.
Both King and Sportys DVD products have the potential for hardware or software issues. On the other hand, both organizations post liberal (if time-limited) return policies, so you should be okay if the thing crumps right out of the box.
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Jane Garvey is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. She owns a North Carolina-based Cessna 182.