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 5760×2160. 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 1920×1080 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 3600×1920 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.
Pricing out some possibilities
I’ve started my discussion of Eyefinity by talking about displays because that’s fundamentally what it’s about. The combination of displays you prefer, and can afford to purchase, will determine whether this technology has any use to you. A big part of AMD’s pitch for Eyefinity is about the underlying economics. The key observation here is that one can purchase three or more mid-sized monitors for the price of a single large one. So you may be able to say to mom and dad, the wife, or whoever else is going to object: “Hey, I’m only being sensible here by not buying one massive monitor. I’m actually saving money!”. Who among us can’t appreciate such a practical-sounding justification for blowing a big, fat wad of cash on computer stuff?
The question is: how much of that justification is hooey? To find out, I priced out some of the key options for multi-megapixel madness based on various Dell monitors, mainly because those are the ones we’re using here, along with the fact that Dell has been a bit ahead of the curve in incorporating DisplayPort inputs, which are vital for Eyefinity. Of course, I’m just scratching the surface, since a plethora of additional display choices are possible from a zillion different vendors. Have a look at our example options, along with some estimated prices, sans shipping costs.
The table above may contain a small amount of information, but I’ll betcha I can talk about it for a long, long time. (Regular TR readers will know not to doubt me here.)
Let’s start by talking about my favorite single display and the incumbent monitor for our GPU test rigs here in Damage Labs, the Dell 3007WFP. This is one of a handful of 30″ monitors on the market that I think simply cannot be ignored in the conversation about Eyefinity, and it is presumably one of the targets of the three-is-cheaper-than-one argument. With four uninterrupted megapixels on a 16:10 IPS panel, the 3007WFP is one heckuva sweet monitor for high-res gaming, and one of these presents none of the compatibility problems that Eyefinity does. I will admit that my initial impressions of Eyefinity were lukewarm at best, in part because I think monitors like this one are an obvious and wondrous step up for any power user.
I’ve priced the 3007WFP at roughly a grand, but prices seem to vary widely online. You may have to pay more, and you may also be able to get one for well under a thousand bucks if you can pick up a refurb deal from the Dell outlet or something along those lines. You can pay even more for a 30″ panel, if you like, by ordering up Dell’s 3008WFP, which purportedly has even better color reproduction, but it will set you back around $1600. Bracing.
I’m bracketing the 30″ display as one of our main choices, but I should note that the truly wealthy among us could opt to assemble an array of up to six 3008WFPs, amassing a credit card bill that’s like a kick to the solar plexus. The sight of a game running on several of these together would no doubt have a similarly percussive impact on the user.
Against our 30″ standard, three P2210Hs would indeed give you more pixels for less money, about 50% more for about two-thirds the price of a 3007WFP. We are talking about lower-quality pixels here, coming from a TN panel, but the math is unassailable. If you want higher-quality pixels, then a trio U2410s will set you back quite a bit more than a 3007WFP, but they cost almost exactly the same amount as the 3008WFPand either way, you’re looking at half again as many pixels as a 30″ panel. Eyefinity’s value justification looks pretty solid in that light.
The thing is, the contest between a single 30″ monitor and several smaller ones isn’t just about pixels; it’s also about undivided screen real estate. There’s a pretty straightforward trade-off you’re making when you go with the three smaller displays.
Some other exotic possibilites are precluded by the fact that a single Eyefinity surface must form a rectangle. If you were hoping to play Counter-Strike on a giant T-shape, you’re outta luck.
You will note that I’ve omitted some intriguing possibilities above, including a potential favorite of mine: a single 30″ display flanked by two 20″ 4:3 monitors in portrait mode. I have two-thirds of such a config sitting on my desktop right now, and it’s most excellent: both monitors, the 30″ and the 20″, are 1600 pixels high with essentially the same dot pitch. Adding another 20-incher to the other side would seem like a natural win.
Trouble is, Eyefinity setups cannot presently combine displays in portrait mode with others in landscape. Doh! When we asked about this issue, AMD’s Dave Baumann told us that mixing portrait and landscape displays might be possible with some driver development work, but he said it has fallen on AMD’s priority list since 4:3 displays are becoming increasingly uncommon.
Some other exotic possibilites are precluded by the fact that a single Eyefinity surface must form a rectangle. If you were hoping to play Counter-Strike on a giant T-shape, you’re outta luck. In some marginal cases, you can work around this one, for instance by mixing 1920×1080 monitors with 1920×1200 ones and just not using the additional vertical pixels on the 1920×1200 panel. Still, the configurations we have chosen represent safer, more conventional layouts.
I’ve included a couple of high-definition TVs in our list of choices because of another possible trade-off that one might wish to make. If you don’t care much about higher resolutions but want lots of contiguous display area, there’s always the option of slapping an HTDV down on your desktop. Some folks here at TR have been big proponents of this one. I have joked about it”That’s great if you want pixels the size of dinner plates”because I use my PC for both productivity and gaming, but it really is a nice possibility for a gaming rig.
In fact, I think the HDTV option is a direct rival to the six-display setup, since you’re not going to be able to sit close enough to see each one of the 12.4 megapixels across all six displays if you want to see the whole picture. The two megapixels on a 1080p display may be all you need if you’re back far enough to take in a broad vista. HDTV prices vary way too much for us to give anything other than approximate pricing, but our example of a 46″ HDTV at $650 demonstrates that one big display can be a pretty solid value from a certain perspective. That’s why, you know, millions of Xboxes and PlayStations are connected to HDTVs.
And finally we come to our rig with six monitors. The total price for this setup may be more than you’re expecting; that’s because I’ve included the cost of the stands used in our build. Both are from Visidec. The dual-display stand will set you back $156, while the quad goes for $275. Add them both to the price of the monitors, and you’re just shy of $1700 in all. That’s the most expensive option in our table, but it’s not much pricier than a single Dell 3008WFP, remarkably enough. Both for pixel count and for sheer size, this six-headed monster is unmatched by the other choices under consideration.
Then again, we’ve really only priced the screens. One effect of having lots of pixels is that you need lots of GPU power in order to process them. You can almost see the wheels turning in the heads of the marketing execs at AMD, can’t you? For most games, a two-megapixel display will be served well by a mid-range graphics card, like a Radeon HD 5770 for around $160. Bump up to four megapixels, and you’ll want to step up to the Radeon HD 5850, at the very least. At six or more megapixels, the Radeon HD 5870 is probably the wisest choice. In order to go beyond that, well, you’ll need something more extreme. Something like the Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity6 edition.
The Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity6 distinguishes itself from the vanilla Radeon HD 5870 by sporting 2GB of video memory, six Mini DisplayPort outputs, and the clever use of superscript. AMD cited a suggested e-tail price of $479 for this beast upon its introduction, but most current listings at Newegg are at $499.
The tentacles on our card, shown above, are Mini DisplayPort-to-DisplayPort adapters, which you’ll probably need, since Mini DisplayPort isn’t especially common. AMD says these cards ship with a total of five adapters to get you started, including two Mini DP-to-DP cables, two Mini DP-to-DVI, and one Mini DP-to-HDMI.
All of those adapters are of the passive variety, which means they’re simple plug converters. That’s fine for most uses, but the DVI and HDMI connectors are limited to a peak resolution of 1920×1200. If you want to drive a higher resolution display off this card via HDMI or dual-link DVI, you’ll need an active converter, which is a more expensive proposition. AMD keeps a list of Mini DisplayPort adapters it has validated for use with Eyefinity, and I can find only two active adapters on it at present, one HDMI and one DVI. Both are made by Accel, and either one will set you back about $110 at Amazon. Additional passive adapters are much less expensive, ranging from about 15 to 20 bucks.
Incidentally, that means you can tack another $60 on the total cost of a six-display setup, since you’ll need four additional Mini DP-to-DP converters to make it happen.
Another way the Eyefinity6 card differs from the plain 5870 is the conversion of one of its two six-pin aux power plugs into an eight-pin variety. AMD tells us the card draws more power when driving a full complement of monitors, necessitating the change. That little move is noteworthy, too, because you may have to buy a better class of PSU for a system hosting this video card.
Although the Eyefinity6 edition’s clock speeds aren’t any higher than stock, the addition of a second gig of memory ought to help performance in high-megapixel situations where 1GB just isn’t enough. We saw in our GeForce GTX 480 review that the step up to 2GB simply didn’t buy you much on a 30″ panel, but for six megapixels or better, it’s probably a requirement to ensure smooth gameplay. What’s shocking is how often a single Eyefinity6 card with 2GB of video memory delivers quite acceptable performance at six to 12 megapixels, without requiring major compromises on image quality. This age of Xbox 360 ports has led to an embarrassment of riches for PC graphics chips. (Again, you can see those wheels turning.)
In the event that you would like higher performance, there’s the option of going to a multi-GPU CrossFire configuration, although, like everything else in this realm, doing so requires navigating a minefield of limitations. For one thing, you’ll need a second Radeon HD 5870 card with 2GB of RAM. Add in a 1GB card, and the CrossFire pair’s effective memory size will be reduced to the lowest common denominator. We tried such a configuration briefly at one point, and CrossFire team was sometimes slower than a single GPU with 2GB of RAM. Not advised.
Happily, we had a solution on hand in the form of this Asus 5870 Matrix Platinum card, which has 2GB of GDDR5 memory onboardalong with a slightly juiced up core clock and hooks for overvolting and overclocking. Using this card alongside the Eyefinity6 edition produces a proper 2GB CrossFire pairing.
Don’t think the additional video outputs on that second video card will allow you to hook up more monitors, though. All of the displays must be connected to the primary card in a CrossFire team.
Also, don’t expect the same sort of performance scaling you might see from a CrossFire setup on a single monitor. The frames generated by the secondary GPU must be forwarded to the primary card for display. Normally, that data is transferred over the CrossFire link provided by the bridge connector between the cards. However, that link’s bandwidth is only sufficient for resolutions up to four megapixels. Go beyond that, as you would in nearly any conventional triple-display setup, and the frames must be passed from the secondary GPU to the primary via PCI Express. Two GPUs will still generally be faster than one via this arrangement, but performance won’t scale quite as nicely as it does in single-display setups.
Making the magic happen
Since Eyefinity depends on tricking the OS into treating multiple displays as one larger screen, the responsibility for managing the multi-monitor setup falls to AMD’s Catalyst Control Center. Fortunately, AMD has done a reasonably decent job of designing an interface for this purpose. Catalyst Control Center exposes plenty of control over each monitor individually, and it allows the user to define display groups, the fundamental unit of Eyefinity’s operation. A display group may consist of two or more displays, all of which will operate as a single large surface.
Defining display groups and helping the system understand the spatial relationships between the monitors is as simple as sliding around a series of blocks in a dialog box. Generally, this method works pretty well, but it still lacks polish. Monitor placements in this UI are incredibly fine-grained, down to a per-pixel placement on screen, but the control you have in reality is pretty coarse and inexact. The best choice in this situation would be to make the boxes the user is dragging around “snap” into place and perhaps be a little “sticky” once aligned vertically or horizontally with another display. Without such help, using this UI can be tedious in the extreme. In the example shot above, I’ve just dragged monitor 4 in line with 2 and 3, but because my placement somehow wasn’t exactly right, the GUI has moved monitor three upward, totally out of place. Man, I hate that, and it happens constantly.
Users may define multiple display groups in various combinations, as well as configuring some displays as standard Windows extended desktops or clones of the primary display. For instance, one useful config on our six-monitor rig is a unified display group across the bottom three monitors and extended desktop across the top three. That arrangement enables extra-wide-aspect gaming across the lower screens while the upper panels display whatever you want: e-mail clients, Twitter feeds, chat windows, or web pages.
Because some games and applications map more naturally to one layout than another, AMD’s control panel allows the user to save different profilesconsisting of a subset or the entirety of your current Catalyst Control Center settingsto disk. One may then switch between profiles manually, via the GUI or hotkeys, or configure the driver to activate a specific profile when a certain game or other executable is launched. This is not only an excellent idea for Eyefinity, but it also gives Radeon owners some of the same profile functionality Nvidia has offered in its ForceWare drivers for a while now.
My sense is that profiles work pretty well with a triple-display Eyefinity setup, but they’re a total basket case when you have six displays connected. I’ve tried countless times to save two simple profiles, a 3×2 group of all displays and a 3×1 group of just the bottom three, and switch between them at will. Even something that basic just doesn’t work yet. Whenever I try to switch to the 3×2 profile, the system puts all six displays into clone mode, so they all show a copy of the same 1920×1080 desktop. Ugh.
I’ve asked AMD about this issue, and they admit this feature doesn’t work like it should just yet. Since the Eyefinity6 has been shipping for a while now, that’s a real shame. Having to define a display group each time you want to run a game in a different mode is a pain. To AMD’s credit, they have made Yao Ming-sized strides since the first pre-release drivers for six-panel arrays, which were an agonizing bundle of DisplayPort sync failures. I fully expect them to get the profile problems sorted out eventually, but in my view, a fix can’t come soon enough.
Another feature you’ll want to use when setting up your displays is bezel compensation, which tells the video driver to take into account the area occupied by the bezels around the monitors. Without bezel compensation, the geometry of onscreen objects is disrupted by the gaps between the panels, like so:
Without bezel comp, geometry is interrupted
In both the big rock on the left and the gun on the right, the straight lines don’t flow through the bezels. This effect is annoying on three displays and downright awful on six. Bezel compensation fixes this problem by adding virtual pixels in the space occupied by the display frames. Bezels are then treated more or less like window frames: they obstruct part of what you can see, but the image “behind” them appears coherent.
Things just look right once bezel compensation is properly configured
AMD has concocted a pretty decent interface for setting up bezel compensation. The config tool shows a series of high-contrast triangles that span between displays.
The user can adjust the position of the triangles by hitting the arrow icons on the screen. Once you’ve lined up one or two trianglesdepending on the number and position of the monitorsthe tool then extrapolates and shows you a series of triangles across the whole display area to confirm that all is well.
From there, bezel compensation is active across the display group.
Adding bezel comp creates a new, custom resolution for the whole group that includes the virtual pixels “behind” the display frames. You may have to choose this resolution in a game’s setup menu in order to make use of bezel compensation. Generally, the non-compensated resolution also remains an option, so it’s possible to switch compensation on and off simply by choosing a different resolution via the in-game menu.
This is a relatively new feature in AMD’s drivers, and gaining it after going without for a while really reinforces its impact. An Eyefinity display surface feels much more unified, and the bezels’ presence less intrusive, with compensation. If you have an Eyefinity setup, especially one with six displays, then you want this feature.
There is one big, meaty caveat, though. You can’t see all of the information onscreen with bezel comp enabled, because some portions of the screen are virtually “blocked” by the bezels. Most of the time, that’s no big deal. When it matters, though, it can really throw a wrench into the works. For example, take the weapons menu from Borderlands.
In the lower right portion of the menu area, the weapon’s attributes are obscured. If you know anything about Borderlands, you’ll know that’s completely unworkable. Half the point of playing is to collect bitchin’ weapons of various typesand the other half is putting them to good use. You can’t really do either properly without knowing the weapon’s stats. In this case, you’re probably better off just going without bezel comp.
That’s just one example, but such problems crop up in different games and different display combinations, too. Bezel compensation is wonderful when it works well, but it doesn’t always work.
Rolling a six
There’s a reason AMD dispatched a team of two people to our offices to assemble the six-display Eyefinity rig, and it’s not because we’re inept. (That’s totally a separate issue.) As I’ve said before, putting together a wall of six displays is like a very geeky version of a barn raising. You’ll need lots of desktop space to house everythingour setup is about five feet wide. The monitor stands can be very finicky, and setting up the quad stands will require more than one pair of hands. Because each monitor requires a power cord and a DisplayPort connection, you’ll be routing large bundles of cables in various directions. And getting six monitors perfectly aligned with one another is practically impossible; you can tune and tweak for hours without getting it right. I do think the quad-plus-dual stand config AMD chose is the most sensible option, but the quad’s flexibility in positioning each display is matched only by its lack of precision. You’re going to want to set aside three or four hours for the construction of your display wall, at minimum.
The payoff once it’s working, though, is pretty darned sweet. Seeing six separate displays acting together as one will shatter the expectations many of us have collected over years of watching earlier GPUs struggle to fill a single screen with decent visuals at an acceptable frame rate. Thanks to LCDs, pixels are cheaper now, and thanks to Moore’s Law, so is painting them. In some ways, the very knowledge that 12 million pixels are flashing by in a perfect concert of 3D gaming action is even more awe-inspiring than the sight itself. But the sight itself is still something to behold.
Seeing six separate displays acting together as one will shatter the expectations many of us have collected over years of watching earlier GPUs struggle to fill a single display with decent visuals at an acceptable frame rate.
Not everything about being a PC enthusiast is easy to share with those around us. Most folks just don’t care that your new computer has triple channels of high-speed memory, and few will peer into a case window and be truly impressed by the beast that lurks within. A six-way display wall, though, will impress your friends and neighbors with very little additional explanation. The impression those people form may be, “Wow, that guy is a total geek.” But it will be a strong impression, nonetheless.
With that said, I’ve had some trouble learning to love the six-way Eyefinity rig. Part of the problem is fact of the bezel area in a config like this, which is considerable. Two rows of monitors means more area across the surface of your virtual display covered by dead, black plastic.
Having spent some time playing on this setup, I’ve decided that most games tend to fall into one of two categories: either they’re big-display games or more intimate ones. Big-display games don’t require lots of resolution, but they benefit nicely from a large display surface. Some examples are racers like DiRT 2, flying sims like HAWX, or fighting games like Street Fighter IV. You can sit five to ten feet back from the display wall to play one of those and really enjoy the experience. Lots of console titles are best on a large display.
Steet Fighter IV across six monitors
Intimate games, on the other hand, require higher resolutions or more intense focus. I’d put first-person shooters and RPGs into this category, along with real-time strategy games. That covers, well, the vast majority of top-flight PC titles over the past few years. You want to sit closer to the display to play a game of this type, so your eyes can soak up all of the resolution and read the indicators to see how you’re doing.
Here’s the dilemma: it’s easier to ignore the bezels and enjoy the Eyefinity6 experience if you’re sitting back a bit and playing a big-display game. But, inescapably, one could have an even better experience with this type of game simply by playing on a large TV. The extra resolution of the six-monitor wall won’t count for much from part-way across the room. Meanwhile, sitting close works better for more intimate games, but from that distance, the bezels are much harder to ignore. Losing track of the mouse pointer in the sea of pixels surrounding you is a too-common problem, as well. The six-way Eyefinity wall isn’t ideal for either type of game.
Perhaps with a deep enough desk or with another table placed in front of it, one could find a happy intermediate distance that exploits both the size and resolution of a display wall like this one. In my experience, though, that is an elusive goal.
Thus, the games that tend to work best on the six-display setup are of the big-display type I mentioned above. All of them handle nicely on it. My kids have enjoyed quite a few two-player Audiosurf sessions on it, as well. First-person shooters are pretty much a no-go, since the bezels bisect (or cover, with compensation) the center of the screen where the crosshair is on practically every game in the genre. A handful of third-person shooters might work better, but many of them have centered crosshairs, too. RPG and RTS games can be interesting on a setup like this one, though, so I tried several.
I should note that many games just don’t work well on any sort of Eyefinity setup. The weird aspect ratios and bafflingly high resolutions can send older game engines into a tizzy from which they’ll never recover. AMD has been working closely with developers to expand Eyefinity support, however, and a good proportion of the games we’ve installed on our test system, mostly major titles from the past six months or so, have some measure of compatibility with Eyefinity. In other cases, it may be possible to hack a config file and adjust a field-of-view setting or something in order to make a game work with Eyefinity. I’m lazy enough to find that kind of thing tedious, but there’s a community of folks who are pretty enthused about their Eyefinity setups and seem to relish such a challenge.
Sometimes, an older game will work with Eyefinity but still be unsatisfying. Sacred 2 is just such a case. S2 gets along well with extremely high resolutions, but it won’t allow you to zoom out enough to take advantage of the additional display real estate. You’re stuck just a few mouse wheel clicks from glory.
Some of the opening menus are blocked by bezels in Dawn of War II, but I was able to work around that. Once you’re playing, the expansive screen area lets you see lots of action all at once, without the incessant scrolling you’d have to do on a smaller display. Below is a video of my son playing Dawn of War II that I think captures the feel of it.
One drawback that might be evident from watching the video is the fact that the menus on the far right of the screen area can be a long way from the action. You’ll have to track the mouse pointer well and use a healthy dose of mouse acceleration in order to play as efficiently as you would on one monitor. Also, the bezels do block some of the action, and you may find yourself scrolling a little more in order to get a glimpse under them. Still, the combination of a broad field of view and lots of fine detail works pretty well for an RTS like this one.
Given that Supreme Commander 2 packs each map with zillions of tiny units and has a bundle of zoom levels, I figured it would really pop on the display wall. I started out playing a few of the intro levels and really digging the possibilities here. Once I got into a fairly involved game, however, things started coming apart. SupCom 2 requires you to keep track of lots of units spread across key areas of the map at a glance. For me, that translates into a need to sit fairly close to the screen. The closer you get, though, the more the dark gaps caused by bezels tend to feel like they’re in the wayand the harder it is to see the far edges of the display wall. As the action ramped up, I found myself struggling to keep pace, and the large, non-contiguous display surface felt more like a hindrance than a help. By the end of the level, I had prevailed over my A.I. opponent, but I’d also developed a slight headache and a vague feeling of distress and disorientation, as if the walls were closing in on me. I was longing to return to my 30″ Dell.
Again, it’s possible that with the right adjustments, some folks could learn to like playing SupCom 2 on a display setup like this one. Don’t expect it to come effortlessly or naturally, though.
Like SupCom 2, Dragon Age: Origins has been specially tweaked for compatibility with Eyefinity’s multitude of possible resolutions. I played through the opening hours of this game on the six-way setup. The over-the-shoulder, third-person perspective works reasonably well, but the character you’re controlling is partially obscured by the horizontal bezels. The main menu also shows up dead center in the screen, making bezel compensation nearly unworkable. I fought past those problems and was treated to the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure at 12 megapixels. Pressing 1, 2, 3, or 4 has never been so immersive.
My frustration with the break in the center of the display wall grew over time, though, until we got to the part of the story where your party meets the witch in the woods. To my great horror, Morrigan’s side boob was obstructed by the bezel throughout these scenes. I’ll take my share of abuse to accommodate a new technology, but you do not obstruct Morrigan side boob. That was the final straw, and I decided to play Dragon Age on a 3×1 config from that point forward.
I fought past those problems and was treated to the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure at 12 megapixels. Pressing 1, 2, 3, or 4 has never been so immersive.
The fact that a 3×2 display arrangement doesn’t play well with first-person shooters is a little bit fortuitous, because most other genres are less taxing on the GPU. As a result, nearly all of the games I’ve mentioned so far run pretty smoothly at 12 megapixels on a single Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity6 card. Street Fighter IV is cake, of course, and the RTS games aren’t too demanding. With all of image quality setting cranked and 4X antialiasing enabled, Dragon Age: Origins averages about 30 frames per second and feels fluid.
Some titles do require a few image quality compromises, though. HAWX is smooth and playable in DirectX 10.1 mode with nearly every setting on “high,” with frame rates in the mid 40s, but you’ll have to disable antialiasing. Even with 2X AA enabled and the frame rate counter reading over 40 FPS, HAWX has noticeable stuttering. Similarly, DiRT 2 runs well at its “high” presets in DX11, averaging 32 FPS with lows around 26 FPS, but you’ve got to disable antialiasing to get there.
If you prefer not to compromise on image quality, adding a second card will probably put you over the hump. With the help of CrossFire, DiRT 2 averages about 45 FPS with 4X AA enabled. The extra GPU doesn’t entirely eliminate the stuttering issues in HAWX, but it reduces them to the point where the game is playable enough.
So performance isn’t nearly as much of an issue as you might have expected. Perhaps you’re also wondering about the power consumption involved in lighting up six monitors in this fashion. To find out about that, I plugged the whole rigthe computer and six displaysinto our watt meter. With a single video card installed, the entire setup draws 300W when idling at the Win7 desktop. Fire up Dragon Age, and power draw climbs to 450W. With two cards, idle power consumption rises to 333W, but the big increase is under load, where peak draw hits 681W. Clearly, the second video card is a big contributor there. All in all, I have a hard time finding these numbers unreasonable, especially since we’ve measured a GeForce GTX 480 SLI rig at 698W under load without a monitor.
One thing you’ll want to watch: with the computer turned off and all six monitors in power-save mode, this setup pulls about 12W constantly.
Before we turn our attention away from the six-display setup, I have one more illustration to share with you, to communicate the sheer resolution this thing delivers. I’m a little hesitant to do this, because in reality, those ever-present bezels alter the picture quite a bit. But I’ve captured some screenshots from Battlefield: Bad Company 2 running at a over 12 megapixels. Clicking on the image will pop open a new tab or window with a full-sized version. You can scroll around to get a sense of the detail available in every frame.
Click to see the whole enchilada
If that doesn’t work for you, try this on for size. The image below is cropped from a small portion of the screenshot above. I’ve not resized it at all. This is the sort of detail you can expect in a fraction of the total display area.
Not every game has detailed enough art and surface materials for the visuals to scale up so well to this resolution, but newer ones like Bad Company 2 do.
The aspect ratio for this display setup is decent, toovery cinematic. Most games will to adapt to this aspect ratio, if they will tolerate the higher resolution.
Our three-way portrait display config offers considerable screen real estate, with a little more than half the pixels and display area of the six-monitor layout. Even though it’s smaller than the six-pack, this trio of screens still feels conspicuously spacious. Setup is much, much easier, too, since the U2410’s included stand just rotates into portrait mode. Aligning the three monitors is as easy as sliding them together on a flat desktop.
With lots of uninterrupted vertical space and excellent color reproduction, the three-way portrait setup serves well for productivity in addition to gaming. As you can see in the image above, the narrow-and-tall displays are outstanding for editing or viewing documents, including web pages. The 1200-pixel width of each display feels a bit confining, but it’s sufficient for displaying most web sites. I could live with this arrangement, although photo editing could be a bit tedious at times.
Click to enlarge and enlighten
Discounting bezels, the aspect ratio is narrower than the 3×2 group, but it’s a little wider than a standard 1080p monitor and feels plenty modern. Since it has fewer bezels, and none directly in the middle of the display area, the triple-portrait config is also much better suited for use with first-person shooters.
My response to these facts was to play through the entirety of Bad Company 2‘s single-player campaign immediately at a bezel-corrected resolution of 3884×1920. Click one of the screenshots above or below to get a closer look at the sort of visuals that involved.
Click for the ridiculously large original
These screenshots come from a single Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity6 edition. A single card pumped out frames quickly enough to keep the game playable, once I disabled ambient occlusion and backed down to 4X anisotropic filtering with 4X antialiasing. Those are some very minor concessions in visual quality, and this game looks amazing regardless.
I enjoyed playing BC2 on this display config immensely. That’s true mostly because it’s a wonderful game, but the giant wall o’ pixels in front of my face certainly didn’t hurt. As I played, my assessment of the display setup shifted between two different impressions. One, the triple-portrait setup is way better for “intimate” games than the six-way rig and in many ways rivals my cherished Dell 30″ monitor, while beating it for area and resolution. Two, those display bezels spanning relatively close to the middle of the screen don’t exactly melt away with time. If anything, they become more annoying the longer you live with them. At the end of it all, both of those impressions had deepened and solidified, leaving the contradiction unresolved. That is, I think, the nature of the Eyefinity beast at present.
I did try a few other games on this setup, of course. Although Unreal Engine games like Borderlands have trouble with some Eyefinity resolutions, the aspect ratio of the triple-portrait setup is close enough not to be a problem. Frame rates were iffy at 3600×1920, between about 20 and 30 FPS. Dropping down to 3150×1680 boosted frame rates into the 40s and made the game playable, surprisingly without the image scaling involved entirely ruining the look of the game. I could live with the resolution scaling, but as I noted earlier, the obstruction of the gun stats make bezel correction unusable, as well.
Happily, Sacred 2 gets along pretty well with this display layout, and the zoom levels in the game are a little more appropriate for this resolution. At around 44 FPS with the image quality settings maxed out, the game’s performance is acceptable on a single GPU. The one concession you’ll have to make, per AMD’s recommendations, is to drop down to 2X AA. However, 4X AA has always been a big performance drain with this game, and I don’t think the issue is unique to Eyefinity.
By coincidence, the core menu system in Sacred 2 fits nicely on a triple-portrait display. I wish I could say the same for the game’s logbook, which hides right behind the bezels.
Click for the ginormous version
Although I expect most racing enthusiasts would prefer a wider-aspect display arrangement, I happen to like how DiRT 2 looks on this layout. As you’d expect, performance isn’t a problem. The slight wrap-around effect of angling in the two edge displays contributes to the “cockpit feel” created by the bezels, and you end up getting lots and lots of high-quality pixels, all within your main visual field.
The lower three
My conflicted feelings about playing Bad Company 2 on the triple-portrait setupespecially my annoyance with bezels obscuring important parts of the actiondrove me back to the six-way config to try out something different: a 3×1 array of monitors in landscape orientation. Obviously, this is one possible config for a six-display setup, though not a terribly efficient one. For me, getting it going properly involved putting some cardboard under the front of the monitor stands to make sure I was seeing the three lower TN panels at the optimal viewing angle.
Click to see all the pixels
Once I’d done that, I dove right back into Bad Company 2 to see whether I liked this setup better for FPS games than the triple-portrait one.
Well, I tried to, at least, but the game’s menus were off at first, and the mouse cursor’s position didn’t track properly with what was being selected. Which is a ball of fun! I had to futz around with the menu for a while in order to set the proper resolution. Even games like this one that have been patched to support Eyefinity sometimes run into problems with very wide aspect ratios.
Make no mistake, this aspect ratio is wider than the gap between federal tax receipts and expendituresexactly three times the width-to-height ratio of a 1080p display, naturally. In this config, the main monitor gives you a pretty wide field of view all by itself, and the two monitors to the side act to fill your peripheral vision, more or less.
Click to expand your mind
Once I had it going and was making my way back into BC2, my notes about this setup turned toward the positive, with entries like, “Warming to this setup,” and “Almost no down-sides once it’s running right. Very immersive gameplay.” My cold heart even had warm words for the TN panels, believe it or not: “Liking the high density of pixels on these displays. Makes AA less necessary; everything is crisp.”
Soon, I had rendered a verdict: for FPS games, three-way landscape is the way to go. Making that center monitor in landscape mode your main focus solves a lot of the problems posed by the other configs, and although you may not spend a lot of time looking directly at the side screens, having them present does foster a sense of immersion.
The three-way landscape setup handles reasonably well in Dragon Age: Origins, tooanother title explicitly patched for Eyefinity compatibility. I’m pleased to report that Morrigan side boob is generally unobscured in this display layout. You may find yourself mousing a lot and craning your head to reach the menus and maps on the right left and right sides of the display area, though.
Another problem with this game and a number of others when you’re running such an ultra-wide aspect ratio is that the perspective used becomes pretty warped at the outer edges of the field of view. Take a look at the soldier on the far right in the screenshot above, or have a look at the cropped picture of him below.
They say the camera adds a few pounds
We need to get that dude on Jenny Craig, stat. That’s some pretty extreme distortion. Unfortunately, a lot of games feature this kind of perspective warping at the outer edges of a triple-landscape display array. Crysis Warhead is similar, though perhaps not quite as bad, and it also shows some incorrectly sorted objects at the edges of the displays.
Both the menu placement and the perspective problem are the sort of issues game developers will have to work out when supporting Eyefinity more fully. Doing so goes well beyond enabling the user to choose higher resolutions in a game menu. Overall, I think 3×1 landscape is my favorite Eyefinity mode so far, but using it at present is a very uneven experience; it varies greatly from game to game.
I’ve been using multiple monitors on my desktop PC for years and evangelizing the benefits of doing so to anyone who would listen, so I’m gratified to see AMD ramping up robust support for multiple monitors in its latest graphics hardware and drivers. The fact they’re enabling 3D gaming across multiple displays lets me cross out yet another item from my wish list. (Happily, the list of crossed-out items since the inception of GPUs is a pretty long one.)
AMD has accomplished an awful lot with Eyefinity in the relatively short period of time since the introduction of the first Radeon HD 5870 last fall. The list of achievements includes software support for large virtual displays in Windows, bezel compensation, a full family of Radeons capable of driving at least three monitors, and a fairly straightforward user interface for configuring it all. They’ve managed to persuade game developers to incorporate support for the new resolutions possible with Eyefinity into quite a few recent games, too. The Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity6 is the capstone of those achievements, and it puts quite the exclamation point on AMD’s assertion of leadership in the GPU market.
AMD is ahead of Nvidia on a lot of fronts right now, but multi-monitor gaming may be where AMD’s lead is the greatest. Nvidia’s GF100 hardware supports only two displays per GPU, requiring SLI for a three-display setup. Nvidia still intends to counter with its own version of Eyefinity, dubbed Surround Gaming, and a depth-enhanced variant that works with funny glasses called 3D Vision Surround. The green team’s original timeline for delivery of drivers with support for those features was mid-April, as the firm told us upon the introduction of its GeForce GTX 470 and 480 graphics cards. That deadline came and went, and we heard nothing but the sound of crickets chirping, so last week, I started agitating on Twitter about the driver release date. Shortly thereafter, we found out Nvidia’s Tom Petersen had posted a blog update with a new timeline: the end of June. That’s not too far off in the grand scheme of things, but I feel sorry for any die-hard Nvidia fans who bought dual GF100 cards expecting to be gaming across multiple displays in April. Nvidia may have a good thing with its 3D-enhanced version of multi-monitor gaming eventually, but one wonders how long it will take to reach the level of refinement Eyefinity haswhich isn’t really a final destination by any stretch.
I’ve tried to provide a real sense of the Eyefinity experience, both good and bad, without descending into too much tedium. But tedium is a big part of the deal right now, since a lot of things don’t “just work” as they should.
AMD still has a lot of work to do, in fact, starting with the ability to store and switch display configuration profiles. That feature simply doesn’t work properly with six monitors attached, and using a six-way display wall without it is cumbersome at best. I’d also like to see the DisplayPort sync speed improved. Watching all six monitors blink off and on asynchronously when a game first initializes the 3D graphics subsystem is a little irritating and just doesn’t inspire confidence. Furthermore, many games are essentially incompatible with Eyefinity, including classics that are unlikely to be patched by their developers. I suspect AMD could provide some tools to help users tweak those games for compatibility, but Catalyst drivers offer nothing of the sort at present.
If you’ve slogged through this whole article, you’re no doubt aware that those issues are only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve tried to provide a real sense of the Eyefinity experience, both good and bad, without descending into too much tedium. But tedium is a big part of the deal right now, since a lot of things don’t “just work” as they should.
The fact that AMD has touted its developer relations advancements in connection with Eyefinity is a little bit puzzling, in my view. All they’ve done is take the baby step of getting game developers to modify a menu for choosing the display resolution. If multi-monitor gaming is to become widely practiced, we’ll need much better support than that.
Fortunately, AMD has defined an Eyefinity API that gives developers access to information they need, like the display topology and the position of bezels, in order to place their menus and HUDs appropriately. With some attention to such details, many games could offer a much better experience, especially the RPG and RTS types. The challenge will be getting game development houses that seem to be increasingly focused on cross-development with consoles to create Eyefinity-aware menu systems for popular titles. Right now, many of those menu systems aren’t even mouse-aware, so I’m betting this won’t be an easy task.
I enjoy gaming across three displays when it works well, and I suspect a lot of PC gamers will find the economics of a triple-display Eyefinity setup appealing. I’m not prepared to give up my 30″ Dell yet, but I’d add two more in a heartbeat, if I could swing it. Given the state of things, thoughand by “things,” I mean mainly “wide-ass bezels”gaming across six displays feels like a bit of a gimmick. If you want to go big, pick up an HDTV or a projector. If you want lots of pixels in your face, go for three displays. If you want to go extreme, make those displays large IPS-type panels, like the trio of Dell U2410s we tested, either in landscape or portrait mode. Six-way Eyefinity rigs are unlikely to be adopted by consumers in sizeable numbers, but I expect we’ll see them at trade shows and in retail displays for years to come. The raw visual impact of the technology will assure thatand that’s not bad business for AMD to have.
What comes next is more interesting. We need some advancements in display technologies, such as narrower bezels, lighter panels, improved mounting, and better viewing angles and color reproduction on low-cost displays. Most of those things look to be quite possible in the next five years or less. AMD has already shown some incredibly impressive demos of high-end virtualization systems using multiple aligned projectors to great effect. Even something more modest, like a high-res display wall with little or no bezels, would be very sweet indeed. Those things aren’t here yet, but if and when they arrive, AMD will have established the technology to take advantage of themand that’s no gimmick.