GF-ATC Module Review
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GF-ATC Module
Developed by Go-Flight
Reviewed by Jack Whaley-Baldwin
October 2011

Introduction
Although the FS market has seen developers of both software and hardware come-andgo, Go-Flight have remained intact since 2002 and have been developing high-quality hardware products ever since.

Go-Flight can only be described as an one-of-a-kind company. They are not only one of the oldest flight simulation establishments still around, but also one of the only companies that produces “non-specific”, affordable hardware modules.

For example; Saitek have, over the past few years, expanded their “pro-flight” range. Whilst this range is certainly “non-specific” (it is not designed to be used with one aircraft and one aircraft only), and is certainly affordable, it should be noted that Saitek have only recently branched into the FS world. Their main business focus has always been, and probably will remain to be, producing gaming joysticks, keyboards and other
peripherals for generic game use.

Another example is Simkits. Simkits have been established for a rather long time; however 90% of their product range is designed to be used with Cessna aircraft only; and nothing else. Furthermore, their prices are far, far beyond Go-Flight's affordable range.

As explained above; Go-Flight are probably the only company that has almost a decade of experience; a generic, non-specific hardware range; and (possibly most importantly) an affordable pricing list.

Much like Go-Flight themselves, the product featured in this review is affordable, reliable and suitable for many, many (if not all) different types of aircraft.

The GF-ATC panel is a truly unique product. There is simply nothing else like it; anywhere only the market.

The GF-ATC panel can be described as a “headset/ATC hybrid”. It combines the ability to plug any headset (with both microphone and headphone support) into it, and the ability to completely control Microsoft Flight Simulator's ATC window through a professional looking and stylish interface.

The panel also comes complete with full “volume” and “squelch” controls; just like you'd see in a multitude of real-world aircraft headset panels. This further enhances the realism of the product, and is a never before seen feature within FS hardware products.

Go-Flight have provided compatibility for both FS9 and FSX in this product; this dualcompatibility feature starting to become somewhat neglected by other developers.

Although it sounds fantastic; there is still plenty of room for disaster. How well does the panel actually perform in flight simulator? Is the GF-ATC panel the FS equivalent of sliced bread, or is it fit only to be thrown in the trash? Please, read on...

Ordering and Obtaining the GF-ATC Panel
The Go-Flight GF-ATC panel can be ordered from one of two retailers. The first, and often most preferred option, is to order directly from Go-Flight's own shop.

Unfortunately however, this option is often difficult for customers who reside far away from the USA; as shipping and import tax prices often make it uneconomical to even consider purchasing the product; regardless of its relatively low “base price”.

As such, there is a European option for customers within the EU. UK-based RCSimulations (in addition to many other Go-Flight products). This is probably a better option for customers who live within Europe (especially the UK), as shipping prices will be much lower, and tax is already included in the price.

The GF-ATC panel can be purchased from RC-Simulations for £149.99 + shipping, or $170 (£105) from Go-Flight direct (although this will be subject to shipping + tax additions).

This price is quite reasonable when compared to hardware manufacturers such as Simkits or Elite, and is even more so considering that the Unit is not only “Plug'n'Play”, but also features a metal construction; not plastic.

As my personal GF-ATC module was supplied as a review unit, it was sent from Go-Flight directly. Shipping took just over a week; not bad considering its postal journey consisted of several thousand miles.

After taking hold of a signed delivery from Parcel-Force, I immediately (but carefully) opened the package. Inside, I found my treasured GF-ATC panel, along with the relevant audio and USB cables, kindly supplied as standard by Go-Flight.

Although I cannot vouch for RC-Simulations, it must be said that Go-Flight's packaging was of excellent quality. As the GF-ATC is a rather delicate device, and has an exposed circuit board to its rear, it is very important that it be properly protected during the shipping process. Thankfully, Go-Flight secured my unit with a generous amount of bubble-wrap. Furthermore, all included cables and screws each had their own individual package back. It's these small details from which one can tell if a company cares or not.

Setup and Installation
Although the GF-ATC unit is indeed a “Plug'n'Play” device, there are still a few important procedures that must be followed when setting the unit up.

Luckily, Go-Flight have simplified the process by providing some documentation. This documentation explains how to set the GF-ATC module up properly, and also how to get it working with the rather excellent “GF-Config” software, which is the software heart for all of Go-Flight's products.

The first step, to be followed prior to actually even touching the unit, is to go to Go-Flight's website and download the “Module Support Software”, which is a software package containing various programs, such as the much-needed GF-Config utility.

This package can be downloaded by clicking a link on the “Current Software” web-page; navigated to from the home-page under the “Software/Downloads” tab.

After the software has been downloaded (which shouldn't take too long; it's just a few MB), the executable file included in the download should be run. This will install the GFConfig software, and will also update it should you already have it installed (which is unlikely unless you own another Go-Flight product).

The next step in the instructions is simply a point of advice. The manual writes that should you wish “to mount the GF-ATC unit into a Go-Flight rack”, then you should use the “provided thumbscrews” to do so. The “Go-Flight rack” refers to a number of “rack” products designed and retailed by Go-Flight themselves. These “racks” are simply frames which will hold any Go-Flight module (of course, the number of modules one can hold depends on the rack model purchased) in a neat and tidy panel. The “thumbscrews” pertain to the previously mentioned individually-wrapped screws, which don't really need to be used unless you are installing the GF-ATC panel into a Go-Flight rack. What a mouthful!

Once the software has been installed, and you have considered yourself “fully briefed” on Go-Flight's rack selection, it is time to actually start plugging in and playing with the GF-ATC unit.

With your trusty GF-ATC unit in hand, you should turn your attention to the three female audio ports located at the back; labelled on the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) as “Sound Card”, “Mic” and “Speakers”. It is these three plugs which provide the audio interaction between your headset, the GF-ATC unit and your PC's sound card.

Using one of the provided dual-male audio cables, connect the “Mic” input of your computer to the “Mic” output of the GF-ATC unit. Although the Go-Flight guide states that this is a blue socket, on many PCs, including my own, the Mic input slot is a pink coloured socket.

After this, one should connect the “Sound Card” input of the GF-ATC unit to the “Headset” output of your PC, using the second dual-male audio cable (which is visually identical to the first). This “Headset” input on a PC is usually coloured green.

Interestingly, the “Sound Card” output on the GF-ATC unit can also be substituted for two other audio ports. There are two more female sockets on the unit, both named “Speakers”. Any of either the Sound Card or Speaker sockets can be used.

Personally, I have my GF-ATC unit configured exactly as per the manual. In other words, my PC's headset output routes directly to the GF-ATC's “Sound Card” input slot, and not to one of the Speaker sockets (which, as explained above, could be used as an alternative).

Once the GF-ATC's audio sockets have been correctly configured, one can connect the unit via USB to a PC. This USB connection provides the communication between the unit and the PC for the “ATC select controls (and display)”, which are explained later.

Once again, Go-Flight have provided the required cable. Using the supplied “A to B” (square to rectangular) USB cable, connect the female port of the GF-ATC module to the female port of any free female USB port on your PC.

After connection, Windows will play its trademark “ding-dong” sound; letting you know that a USB device has been connected and its drivers installed.

Installation-wise, that's everything done. All that's left to do now is configure the ATC module to your liking using the GF-Config software, and you're “good to go” with either FS9 or FSX.

To configure the ATC module, click start programs Go-Flight, → → and then finally clickon the “GF-Config” executable icon. This will immediately fire up the configuration software.

Provided that the GF-ATC module is connected, the GF-Config software window will show that the module is connected, along with any other Go-Flight modules. Clicking on the GF-ATC's on-screen icon (visible in the GF-Config window) will present a small number of options to the user.

Using the GF-Config software, users can change the brightness of the 7-segment orange display (a numerical value between 1 and 15, whereby 15 is the brightest), and can also adjust the function of the display itself and its adjacent “SEL” knob. Please note, however, that the display and the “SEL” knob can ONLY be assigned to the “ATC window select function” (explained later), and nothing else (the alternative is to not have the ATC knob/display assigned to anything). These options may seem quite restrictive, but on a panel with few switches and only one display, one can hardly complain.

The two switch-able tabs labelled “FS2004” and “FSX” allow the user to switch between which simulator they are configuring the GF-ATC unit for.
After the GF-ATC module has been fully configured, one should click file → “save as”, and then save the configuration file as either “defaultfs9” or “defaultfsx” depending on the simulator they will be using.

Once the configuration file has been saved, there is nothing else left to do aside from starting MSFS itself.

It's time to delve into the world of Air Traffic Control...

Working the GF-ATC Module
The GF-ATC module has two primary functions. Firstly, it operates as a headset interface; mimicking the microphone and headphone outputs of a standard PC, whilstadding professional and fully functional squelch and volume controls.

The unit's secondary purpose is to provide a much more sensible and realistic approach to selecting options within FS9's/FSX's ATC system. Normally, one would have to mess around with fiddly keyboard commands to talk to ATC. However, the GF-ATC module has introduced a very clever and innovative approach to talking to MSFS ATC. Instead of having to press a specific keyboard button to select an option on the ATC window, users can now “tune” their ATC option with a rotary switch, and then simply push the switch it to select it.

This new system to ATC “selecting” is much, much more realistic than simply pressing a numerical sequence of keys; it's much more likely you'd have a rotary tuning switch in an aircraft for radio control than a keyboard, isn't it?

I shall break this part of the review into sections so that each portion of the GF-ATC module can be analysed in more detail.

Headset, Mic and Speaker Input/Output Ports – The Headset Interface
<NOTE: The “Speakers” port mentioned in the following paragraphs are yet another port labelled “Speakers” on the FRONT of the GF-ATC panel. The “Speakers” port that was previously mentioned above was a port labelled “Speakers” on the BACK of the GF-ATC unit>

I am very impressed with the three available headset ports (Headset, Mic and Speakers), which allow the user to plug almost any type of compatible headset into them.

Although the microphone cable from a user's headset obviously goes to the “Mic” port, the headphone (earpiece) cable provides a choice of two possible ports to be plugged in to.

If you simply wish to have a normal audio output (in other words; exactly what you'd normally hear from the speakers), then you should connect your earpiece cable to the “speakers” audio socket. This will ensure that the audio heard through the headset is exactly what it would normally be; essentially, you would be using your headset just as if you didn't own the GF-ATC product.

However, for users demanding the most realistic experience, the earpiece cable should be connected to the “Headset” socket.

I'm not entirely sure how Go-Flight have achieved this, but the difference between the “Headset” and “Speakers” ports is just incredible (with the former having an incredible impact on how one uses Flight Simulator). It's almost as if Go-Flight included both ports as a product comparison teaser, or a “with-or-without” this product demonstrator; the use of the “Headset” port compared to the “Speakers” port really shows the user what they've been missing.

How? Read on...
If you have ever tried on a real-world aviation headset and listened to the audio played through it, you will notice that you ONLY hear the sound of your co-pilot and ATC through it (interference can be heard, but this can be removed using the “squelch” and “volume” controls; read below). Go-Flight have not only managed to engineer the GFATC module so that it only picks up ATC audio, but they have also managed to achieve that characteristic “radio crackle” (a small “fuzziness” often heard when a transmission is made on a radio).

When using the “Headset” port, it really feels like you are using a real aviation headset.

This feeling, however, does come at a small price. Since the “Headset” port blocks out all audio aside from ATC transmissions, you will not be able to HEAR any other sounds from FS9/FSX; be it an engine sound, warning chime or similar. It is possible to hear these sounds by purposefully “de-squelching” the panel (purposely allowing interference to come through the headset), however this procedure is rather unrealistic and somewhat defeats the purpose of this fantastic product.

One possible solution to this would be to have the FSX sound playing through two separate outputs on your PC. One of these outputs would go to the GF-ATC panel, whereby it would be squelched and have everything but the ATC transmissions removed, whilst the other would be sent to the PC's main speakers; providing the sounds for “everything else” not played by the GF-ATC panel. Of course, this would present an issue, as the ATC sounds would “double-up” over the two outputs.

As a point of interest, the manual states that the PC's green headset output can be directly connected to the front “Speakers” port, and sound be listened to through the “Headset” port. As long as you're happy with your configuration, it really doesn't matter where you plug your PC's green socket into.

The “Mic” function does exactly what it says on the panel. It simply allows you to speak through your microphone and have its respective audio signal transferred to your computer, just as if you had plugged the microphone straight into the front of your PC.

Squelch and Volume Controls
The squelch and volume controls engineered by Go-Flight are equally, if not more impressive than the headset interface mentioned above.

Squelch controls are essential for any pilot flying an aircraft with a radio. Often, a pilot will experience unwanted interference in their headset, and so they will need a way to remove this interference as it can often reduce the clarity of spoken ATC transmissions.

To reduce or remove this interference, a pilot should turn the “squelch” knob (often located on the radio itself) until the radio interference disappears or reduces to an acceptable level.

Go-Flight have implemented a fully functional squelch control system on their GF-ATC panel – and it works brilliantly.

When one uses the “Headset” port, they can usually hear a fair bit of interference if their squelch settings are turned down low. However, should they slowly turn the squelch knob until the interference just about disappears, they will be rewarded with peaceful silence; only broken when someone makes a transmission on ATC.

This excellent squelch control is perfect for VatSim or IVAO pilots, where poor quality microphones and slow connections often play a major role in causing headset interference. In fact, these microphone/connection issues can occasionally be so severe that it causes discomfort for the user; so, in theory, one could view the GF-ATC panel as a comfort commodity rather than just a realistic radio expansion.

The volume control knob could not have a simpler function. It simply controls the volume of the audio played through the headset. Even with headsets with volume controls already installed in them, this is still quite a useful function, as it allows the user to adjust the “overall” volume signal sent to the headset, rather than just the very end “headset signal”. Phrased differently, the GF-ATC module will control the volume of the headset, whilst the headset's own volume control will be used to “fine-tune” the final volume.

The most impressive aspect of the squelch and volume controls is the knobs themselves.

Go-Flight have used proper Potentiometers (variable resistors) for both the squelch and volume control knobs, which have a great feel and frictional strength to them. More impressive is the fact that both knobs actually control an electrical circuit to control squelch and volume, rather than just sending a signal to FSX and dictating squelch/volume through software. This means that the GF-ATC's squelch and volume controls are REAL, and actually electronically reduce interference and amplify volume; exactly like in real-world aviation.

It should also be noted that the squelch and volume knobs, being potentiometers, have “stops”, and thus can only rotate approximately 250 degrees before reaching their end turn limit.

Air Traffic Control Selector Function
Although the squelch and volume controls provide the most satisfying and realistic experience when using the GF-ATC module, the ATC selector function really shows up the “intelligence” in the unit.

For years, FS users have had to succumb to the unrealistic “ATC window”, of which constant key-mashing experience is a prerequisite. Go-Flight have designed a nifty solution to combat this problem through the GF-ATC module.

To select something in the FS9/FSX ATC window, users can use the realistic “SEL” function on the ATC panel. To select a number, simply rotate the “SEL” knob until your desired number appears (1-9) in the GF-ATC's selector digit window. Once the required number is in the digit window, “press” the “SEL” knob (the knob can both rotate and be pressed), and the desired ATC option will be selected in FSX.

This excellent new way to use the ATC window is much more realistic than having to use a keyboard or mouse to select an ATC option in MSFS.
If, however, you do not wish to use this superb function (although I highly recommend that you do!), you can disable this option using the GF-Config software, as noted in the “setup and installation” section above.

Even though I like to tune my frequencies manually using my Saitek panels, I still enjoy using the ATC selector function. Furthermore, I am sure it will be invaluable to users looking for a low-priced alternative to a radio panel, or for users wishing to transition from the default ATC window up to a more complex tuning system.

Construction
I don't think I have ever included a “construction” section in a hardware review before, but I deem it necessary for this product due to its unique build.

The first thing that struck me, quality wise, was the actual frame of the product itself.

The GF-ATC module's frame is made entirely from metal; not the cheap looking plastic some manufacturers use (I won't name anyone, but I'm sure you can guess who...). The metal panel is painted in “Go-Flight grey” (as I like to call it), which is almost, if not exactly identical to Boeing's RAL 7011 colour.

For some strange reason, a small 1cm by 4 cm patch on each side of the panel (at the rear) has not been painted. Although this isn't an immediate concern, my GF-ATC panel is starting to show very small signs of rust on these areas; so it might be worth investing in some extra paint or similar to protect your panel against the iron oxide menace.

Delving further than most flight simmer's would ever need to, I checked out the GF-ATC module's circuit board (PCB). Although a minor detail, it's good to see that Go-Flight make proper solder connections, and use well labelled, well laid-out PCBs in their products.

WARNING: The GF-ATC panel, similar to a few other Go-Flight products, has an exposed PCB. This means that the circuit board is not directly protected from spillages and other foreign particles that may interfere with use of the panel. Be careful!

The exposed PCB, although not much of an issue for myself, could potentially cause problems for some customers who are not so “gentle” with their hardware. I think the reason for the exposed PCB is that Go-Flight expect customers to mount their panels immediately into a custom “rack” where it would be safe.

Support
“A good product needs good support” - this is a quote I heard once and often think about when reviewing products.

Support for the GF-ATC module, and, in fact, for all of Go-Flight's products, is done through their technical support email (customerservice @goflightinc.com). Although I did not have any issues when setting up my GF-ATC panel, and therefore did not need to contact technical support, I found Mitch Bouton (Go-Flight employee) to be exceptionally responsive and informative when answering pre-arrival sales questions.

Go-Flight also has a forum in which questions can be asked, where help is provided by fellow Go-Flight users and employees that roam the forums.

Earlier this year, it was interesting to see that when Go-Flight staff took their holiday break, an announcement was made on the homepage rewarding people (with hardware) that would be able to assist fellow customers with support questions on the Go-Flight forums during their staff's period of absence. To me, this seems like Go-Flight cares about their customers, even when they are “away from keyboard”.

Conclusion
The GF-ATC panel combines excellent constructional quality, great design, and flawless innovation to deliver a top-notch flight simulator experience.

The incredible squelch control further proves how unique a product the GF-ATC panel really is. Personally, I think this uniqueness has been heavily underestimated by the FS community, and perhaps slightly by Go-Flight themselves, as it is not frequently seen on the front page of either Go-Flight's or a third party's website.

If you're looking for something to really bump-up your FS ATC realism; this IS the product for you.

http://www.goflightinc.com

Verdict

    Pros:
        – Very unique product
        – Excellent design
        – Full of innovative ideas, such as the brilliant “ATC channel selector”
        – Proper, rigid metal construction
        – Works brilliantly with FS9/FSX
        – Very user friendly
Cons:
        – Not really a con; but the exposed circuit board may cause some users trouble
        – Metal construction (at rear) is prone to rust over time

My Score: I am pleased to be able to award this a Mutley's Hangar score of 9.5/10


Jack Whaley-Baldwin
Review machine Spec:
Core i7 920 OC @ 3.8 Ghz | 6Gb Tri-Channel DDR3 Ram |GTX285 Graphics |Windows 7 64bit Home Premium