You may have seen the news post when, one day several weeks ago, a couple of guys from AMD arrived in our offices to set up a six-display Eyefinity rig. In my years of writing about enthusiast-class PC hardware, I have seen and used some incredibly extreme stuff, but mounting six monitors on stands to create a virtual display wall with over 12 megapixels of resolution has got to take the cake. It's the zenith of extremeness, like a cocktail comprised of Red Bull, Mountain Dew, vodka, and habanero juice, blended with a lock from Shaun White's curly red mane.
Yeah, that's gross, but it's undeniably extreme.
Heck, this six-way Eyefinity rig makes that look like a lukewarm glass of skim milk. The extremeness vibes merely from sitting in front of it will bleach your clothes into neon hues and make you sweat drops of energy drink.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, the picture above should give you an inkling. That's Tom Clancy's HAWX running at a resolution of 5760x2160. All six monitors are connected to a single Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity6 edition graphics card. For a better sense of how full-motion 3D gaming looks across six displays, you may want to view this video we shot of DiRT 2 in action.
That captures it better than anything I could do by piling up adjectives and adverbs, I think.
Since AMD delivered this monstrosity into the heart of Damage Labs, I have been trying to get a handle on exactly what I think of it and how I can convey to you, dear reader, a sense of the experience. Of course, that mostly means I've spent the past little while playing lots and lots of video games, because that's what science demands. You can feel secure in the knowledge that I had your interests in mind as I played through Battlefield: Bad Company 2 to the very end, just as I did when I completed a good portion of the quests in Dragon Age: Origins. My only regret is that I didn't have more time to devote to the cause.
For the uninitiated, Eyefinity is the kinda-goofy name AMD has given to the multi-monitor gaming feature it built into the Radeon HD 5000 series of graphics cards. PC enthusiasts have been using multiple monitors with their systems for years, mainly for productivity. Various technical limitations have conspired to make gaming across multiple displays generally impractical. We've seen prior attempts at bringing multi-display gaming into the mainstream, including the TripleHead feature Matrox built into its ill-fated Parhelia graphics chip, but Eyefinity is the first such effort to get any real traction. No doubt it's been helped along tremendously by the backing of AMD, one of the two major players in the GPU business.
At heart, Eyefinity is fundamentally simple. Nearly all Radeon HD 5000-series graphics cards can connect to at least three monitors, and once they're connected, AMD's driver software can present multiple monitors to the operating system as one large, virtual displaya "single-large surface," in AMD's terminology. Programs, including games, see this virtual display as if it were just one big screen, and they treat it accordingly. Multi-monitor mayhem ensues.
Eyefinity is a fairly new feature, and it still has some limitations, many of which we'll discuss shortly. But even with some restrictions, the possibilities for various display configurations are legion. Eyefinity supports individual monitors up to four megapixels in resolution, and displays can be arranged in groups from two to six monitors, depending on the number of outputs on your video card. The majority of Radeon HD 5000-series cards will only drive three monitors simultaneously, yet one must choose between different types and sizes of monitorsand between portrait and landscape orientations for them. AMD emphasizes the great flexibility that an Eyefinity setup offers, and they're right. What they may not shout as loudly is another truth: that no single setup is optimal for use with every game or type of game.
In order to get a clear sense of what the various options have to offer, I decided to try several different display configurations. I started, as you might have guessed, with the flat wall of six monitors shown above. This was the standard-issue display configuration that the two gents from AMD came and installed in our office.
It didn't take me long, though, to mostly ruin their work.
You see, those are Dell P2210H monitors. They're 1920x1080 panels with 21.5" of viewable area and a snappy 5-ms average response time. They're economical, with prices ranging between about $210 and $230 at online stores; they have a range of inputs onboard including, importantly, DisplayPort; and they have a very tight pixel pitch that makes fine detail look very sharp indeed, a pleasing effect in many games. Trouble is, they use twisted nematic (TN) type LCD panels, and TN panels have one very obvious weakness: color contrast suffers greatly when the display isn't viewed at a pretty direct angle.
As a result, you've got to sit a good ways back from a wall of them in order to get a good angle on all six. If you're too close, as I often was, the top two screens on either side will be mostly washed out and thus useless. This would not do. My response was to climb up on the table top and begin wrestling feverishly with monitor stands for what must have been well over an hour, until my back was thoroughly strained and the following result was achieved:
With the two outer displays on each side turned slightly in toward the user and the whole setup lowered about six inches, I can get a decent angle on all six monitors, improving the perceived display quality enormously. Not all of the alignments are perfect in this config, and they probably won't ever be given the way the quad-monitor mounting stand works. There's a little bit of daylight between some of the bezels, too, which is less than ideal. I've found the trade-off to be worth it, though, without question.
After playing with this setup for a while and understanding its strengths and limitations, I became convinced that a different display configuration might just be ideal for me, with my preference for first-person shooters. I pulled the six-display setup off of my desk and replaced it with a trio of monitors that was, in many ways, just as glorious:
That massive wall o' glowing pixels is made up of three Dell U2410 displays rotated 90° into portrait mode and sidled up against one another. At prices between 530 and 600 bucks, the U2410 isn't nearly as affordable as the P2210H, but it is a much higher quality monitor with a 24" IPS-type panel that reproduces a fuller gamut of colors at a wider range of viewing angles than a TN panel. Like the P2210H, the U2410 has a DisplayPort input, but then it has a little of everything, including DVI-D, HDMI, VGA, component, and composite video inputs, as well. Unlike the P2210H, the U2410H adheres to the rapidly vanishing 16:10 aspect ratio by delivering 1920 pixels across and 1200 pixels vertically. For our purposes, that means an effective resolution of 3600x1920 across our three rotated monitors.
Once I'd gotten the flavor of the triple-portrait config, I tore it down and restored the six-display arrangement atop our test bench. My impressions of the triple-portrait config made me want to explore a three-way landscape offering, too, so I focused my attention on the three lower monitors in our display wall. Anyone extreme enough to buy a six-monitor setup will doubtless want to play some games across just the lower three displays, while more folks will probably just buy three monitors and call it good.