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Nvidia's GeForce 3D Vision 2 — continued
So, how do you put together a 3D Vision 2-infused gaming PC? The first step is finding a good display, preferably with LightBoost. (Nvidia's 3D Vision system requirements page is a good place to start your search.) Check to see whether the display comes with the Nvidia glasses or not. If it doesn't, you'll need to buy a glasses-and-receiver kit separately. You'll also want a fast graphics card, because remember, you'll be asking it to render twice as many frames each second—one for each eye—when stereo 3D is enabled. I won't spoil our performance results early, but I'd advise against going with anything much slower than a GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448 or GeForce GTX 570 if you intend to crank up the eye candy at 1080p.

The hardest part, I suppose, is balancing all of those ingredients if you're on a budget. Right now, the only Nvidia-approved monitors available at Newegg are based on 1080p panels, making it difficult to cheap out on the GPU front without running games at lower than the display's native resolution. You could choose one of the more affordable 3D Vision panels, but be careful. At $330, Acer's GD235HZbid might seem like a better deal than Asus' VG236H, which has the same panel size and a $440 price tag. However, if you read the fine print, you'll see the Asus display comes with the Nvidia goggles and the Acer does not. Add the $150 3D Vision kit, and the Acer display's total cost goes up to $480.

Picking out your ideal 3D Vision setup is probably going to involve hours of careful research and price comparisons. You'll want to look at the pros and cons of each display and check out a few reviews. You'll also want to keep in mind that 3D Vision displays use TN panels, which might make them less suitable for tasks requiring high color accuracy. Perhaps you'll find yourself compelled to keep a high-fidelity display (likely based on an IPS panel) for, say, photo editing, and complement it with a 3D Vision panel for stereoscopic gaming.

Once you have all the components selected, configuring and using your 3D Vision setup for stereo 3D gaming should be fairly straightforward.

Nvidia has made 3D Vision a tightly integrated offering, while AMD's HD3D is a looser approach that encompasses a number of different solutions to the same problems. HD3D also hasn't been around as long. Initial driver support arrived in October 2010 for Radeon HD 5000-series and newer graphics cards.

AMD doesn't sell its own stereoscopic glasses, so makers of displays, TVs, and projectors must take over that responsibility. In practice, that means a gaggle of different glasses offerings, most compatible only with one display brand. Also, because AMD doesn't impose a certain panel-and-glasses technology on its partners, sequential-frame designs with active-shutter goggles (a la 3D Vision) aren't the only game in town. A small number of HD3D-compatible displays have line-interleave designs and passive, polarized 3D glasses. As I understand it, line-interleave displays work by applying different polarization to odd and even lines on the display, with each lens on the glasses filtering out one set of lines.

The presence of different stereo 3D implementations and incompatible glasses means there's a certain degree of inconsistency in the HD3D experience—more so than with 3D Vision. Last year, AMD took a step toward addressing the issue by rolling out an HD3D certification program. The program has two tiers: silver and gold. To receive HD3D gold certification, hardware makers must submit their products to AMD for testing. Silver certification can be obtained by doing testing in-house and submitting the results to AMD. In either case, certified displays must meet certain minimum requirements, support existing 3D middleware and Blu-ray 3D movies, and have printed documentation that is "clear and easy to follow." Just like Nvidia, AMD supports stereoscopic displays with dual-link DVI, DisplayPort, or HDMI 1.4 inputs.

Right now, AMD's list of recommended stereo 3D monitors is only seven entries long. All of the recommended displays are based on either 23" or 27" panels, and four of 'em are from Samsung. Prices start at a scant $269.99 for LG's 23" line-interleave monitor with bundled passive glasses, and they range up to $699.99 for Samsung's 27" S27A950D with active-shutter goggles. A PDF file on AMD's website lists three more HD3D-compatible displays from ViewSonic and Zalman, but those seem to be older and harder to find.

If HD3D isn't tied down to a particular kind of panel or glasses, some of you may be thinking about using 3D Vision hardware. Bzzt. Wrong. AMD tells us 3D Vision gear is "bound by license" to Nvidia graphics cards. Even if AMD wanted it to, 3D Vision hardware won't work with Radeons. Too bad.

Things are also fragmented on the software front, where two competing middleware vendors, DDD and iZ3D, provide the software glue that lets most compatible games run in stereo 3D mode on AMD hardware. DDD's TriDef seems to be the most popular, the most frequently updated, and the one with support for the most titles—468, by DDD's count, with user-submitted profiles for "over 40" additional games also available on the TriDef forums. TriDef costs $49.99 on its own, but some monitor vendors bundle it with their displays. iZ3D, meanwhile, sells for $39.99.

Unlike Nvidia's stereo implementation, TriDef requires users to start games through its launcher app. In-game operation is similar, though, with keyboard shortcuts bound to certain functions. On the numpad, hitting the asterisk key will enable or disable stereo 3D, pressing + or - will adjust the depth, and punching 0 will bring up an on-screen display with other settings. Users can also hit a hotkey to enable Virtual 3D, a "method of improving performance by using information from the Z-buffer in the DirectX graphics pipeline." Virtual 3D may work in games that lack a proper TriDef profile, but DDD cautions that it can cause visual distortion around object edges.

It's worth noting that both TriDef and iZ3D also support Nvidia hardware, and both existed long before 3D Vision or HD3D. The history page on DDD's website says that, way back in 2003, the firm "licensed its TriDef 3D suite of software to Sharp for deployment on its revolutionary 3D laptop PC – the Sharp Actius RD3D." Wikipedia tells us Neurok Optics, which became iZ3D through a joint venture with Chi Mei Optoelectronics in 2007, used to sell its own stereo 3D monitors as far back as 2006. The gist is that, unlike 3D Vision, AMD's initial HD3D push appears to have been more of a low-budget effort based on pre-existing products from third-party vendors.

AMD seems to be moving away from that approach, at least in part. It's now pushing its own quad-buffer software API, which allows game developers to implement native 3D support for AMD GPUs without the need for third-party middleware. Several blockbuster titles, including Battlefield 3, DiRT 3, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, already use this API. Because AMD's Catalyst Control Center lacks a 3D configuration pane, however, games that implement the quad-buffer API must expose stereo 3D settings (typically an on/off switch and depth sliders) through their own configuration menus.

Like 3D Vision 2, HD3D supports Blu-ray 3D playback and, since the release of the Catalyst 12.1 driver, 3D gaming across triple-monitor configs. Again, though, we'll be restricting our focus to single-monitor PC gaming for this article.

Picking out an HD3D setup involves the same balancing act as on the Nvidia side. The small selection of AMD-recommended panels does make things a tad more straightforward, as does the fact that all the solutions seem to come with glasses in the box. That said, you'll have to decide whether you favor line-interleave or active-shutter stereo implementations. We've only had a chance to test out active-shutter designs, so we unfortunately can't provide much assistance on that front. You may also want to check if your chosen monitor comes with TriDef or iZ3D software—that could save you the expense of having to purchase the software separately. The 23" Samsung monitor AMD sent us comes with TriDef.

On the GPU side of things, AMD's Radeon HD 6970 should be a good starting point if you want smooth, responsive gameplay at 1080p with the eye candy cranked up. AMD's new Radeon HD 7900-series cards are also worth a look if you can afford them, and they should offer substantially higher performance. See our review of the Radeon HD 7970 for more details.