For the general public even the best home flight simulator is just a geeky game flying enthusiast play, but for pilots it can be an incredible tool.
Home flight simulators can cut huge amounts of cost in training for the student pilot.For the IFR pilot it can keep those skills sharp and even prepare you for an interview by familiarizing yourself with an unknown aircraft in your check flight.
Obviously they cannot replace synthetic flight trainers but depending on your budget you can make them as close to real life as you want. With additional add-ons like VATSIM you can have real life ATC to increase your real life experience.
The best flight sims today are X plane 10 and Microsoft Flight Simulator X. The jury is still out on which one is the best and both camps make some strong points.
X Plane 10 and Microsoft Flight Simulator X
Popularity of x plane has grown rapidly in recent times and with the recent release of x plane 10 the growth will be even more. X plane is considered the most realistic flight sim due to its wind tunnel like software that predicts flight characteristics. It is a massive program and if you install the entire DVD set you look at around 60GB! However you only have to install the areas which you want which will you get by with around 4GB.
With functions like weather modeling (even real-time weather downloads) and simulating system failures this is a great training aid for real pilots.
You can fly any of the aircraft that comes with the set or download free or pay for extras. The user base is not as big as MFS so it can be a bit harder to find specific aircraft.
Flight Sims are power-hungry and can be quit taxing on your computer and X Plane is no exception. If you want all the rendering option on high you need a powerful computer otherwise it will struggle and it will be frustrating to fly.
Have a look at these graphics:
Microsoft Flight Simulator is the oldest of all the flight simulators and thus has the largest following. With a huge selection of aircraft and scenarios there is nothing in aviation that you won’t be able to fly.
I personally find that Microsoft Flight Sim X have more of a game like experience then X Plane and I would dare say it is aimed more at the flight sim enthusiast then the real pilot. However you will be more likely to find user-generated airports with fine detail then you will in X Plane.
In short I would say if you are after a more real life experience and training aid go for X Plane 10 and if you like a huge database and bigger selection of aircraft and scenarios go for Microsoft Flight Sim X.