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Triple-screen gaming on today's graphics cards

Are three displays the gamer's best upgrade?

Nearly three years have passed since AMD made multi-screen gaming a reality with Eyefinity-equipped Radeons. Matrox technically got there first with its ill-fated Parhelia graphics card—and a decade ago, in fact—but its TripleHead scheme never caught on with gamers. The Parhelia's underlying GPU wasn't really fast enough to produce smooth frame rates across multiple displays, and that didn't encourage developers to take advantage of the capability.

Eyefinity has been much more successful. It appeared first in the Radeon HD 5870, which had ample horsepower to deliver a smooth gaming experience across multi-display setups. More than a year later, Nvidia followed up with its own implementation, dubbed Surround. By then, the ball was already rolling with developers. Most of today's new blockbusters support the obscenely high resolutions multi-screen setups can display.

Over the last couple of years, other factors have conspired to make Eyefinity and Surround configs more attractive. While the pixel-pushing power of PC graphics cards continues to grow at a rapid pace, games still tend to be designed with anemic console hardware in mind. Forget about having enough graphics grunt to deliver a smooth gaming experience. High-end GPUs can easily run some of the latest titles at six-megapixel resolutions with the eye candy turned all the way up.

Six megapixels is the approximate total resolution of three 1080p monitors. LCDs with 1080p resolution have gotten a lot more affordable; even those featuring IPS panels have migrated south of $300. Three-screen setups often cost less than a single 30" monitor, and their additional screen real estate has productivity perks that extend beyond wrap-around gaming. You don't need to wear dorky 3D glasses, either.

The stars would seem to be aligned for triple-head gaming to really take off. To handicap its chances, we rigged up a three-screen array and played a stack of the latest games on a couple of high-end graphics cards: Asus' Radeon HD 7970 DirectCU TOP and Gigabyte's GeForce GTX 680 OC. Both cards have juiced-up clock speeds, beefy custom coolers, and display outputs galore. Keep reading to see how they fared in our look at the state of surround gaming on the PC.

The allure of multiple displays
The case for triple-display setups comes down to money, pixels, and the allocation of screen real-estate. When we said 1080p IPS displays could be purchased for under $300, we were being conservative. Newegg has Dell's DisplayPort-equipped UltraSharp U2312HM for only $250. The screen's 23" panel has 1920x1080 pixels, and it's not even the least expensive option with a 1080p resolution. Asus' VS229H-P costs a scant $164 and spreads the same number of pixels over a 21.5" panel. Budget IPS monitors typically feature an e-IPS variant of the technology that offers six rather than eight bits of color per channel. e-IPS displays still tend to look better than budget LCDs based on TN panel tech, though. Those TN displays cost even less than low-end IPS models.

Do the math, and it's clear: a triple-wide monitor setup costs a lot less than a king-sized single display like Dell's 30" UltraSharp U3011. The U3011's 8-bit panel and 2560x1600 resolution are impressive, but the $1200 price tag is daunting, to say the least. The 27" UltraSharp U2711 is only $750, though its 2560x1440 resolution is a little lower. Massive IPS monitors don't get much cheaper unless you hit eBay and buy bare-bones displays direct from Korea.

Granted, there's definitely some appeal to having one's desktop consolidated on a single, large surface. Monster monitors are particularly well-suited to photo editing, and it's hard to argue with 30 inches of uninterrupted goodness. Still, the 30" UltraSharp offers 50% fewer pixels than a triple-wide 1080p config. The total screen area is much smaller, too, and it lacks the wrap-around feel that makes surround gaming unique.

Some folks have taken advantage of the fact that flat-panel TVs offer PC-compatible inputs and even larger dimensions. TVs are relatively inexpensive, too, but their resolutions generally top out at 1080p. To avoid seeing individual pixels, one has to sit farther back, making the screen appear smaller. Playing games from a distance also takes away some of the intimacy.

When I last upgraded the displays in my own home office, I settled on a trio of Asus 24" ProArt PA246Q monitors. These sub-$500 screens have 8-bit panels, loads of input ports, plenty of adjustment options, and a resolution of  1920x1200. I bought these displays primarily for productivity purposes. I've had multiple monitors connected to my desktop PC for years, and the extra screen real estate is extremely helpful when juggling the various computer-driven tasks that make up a typical work day in the Benchmarking Sweatshop. There's more to it than just having more pixels. Being able to group applications on separate displays is the first thing I miss when switching to a single-screen desktop or notebook.

In addition to providing a large digital workspace, the three matched displays are perfect for gaming. Having three of the same screen is essential. Subtle variations in brightness, contrast, and color temperature become readily apparent when you're staring at an image spanning multiple monitors. Even with three identical models, I had to break out our colorimeter to match the calibration of each screen exactly.

To further ensure a consistent picture, the side screens should be angled inward to provide a dead-on view when you swivel your head. TN panels don't look very good from off-center angles, and even IPS displays can suffer from subtle color shift due to anti-glare screen coatings. The ideal angle will depend on how close you sit to the center display.

When we first looked at Eyefinity, Scott concluded that a triple-wide landscape configuration was the best option for games. I concur. Running three screens in portrait mode produces an image that's much less stretched—3240x1920 versus 5760x1200 for my monitors—but the bezels are closer to the middle of the display area and are therefore much more annoying. Regardless of whether you're running a portrait or landscape config, you'll want to seek out displays with the narrowest bezels possible.

Obviously, tripling the number of displays results in a much heavier rendering load. To keep the pixels flowing smoothly, a fast graphics card is required. Let's look at two candidates.