Friday, February 11, 2011

Eyefinity, Is It worth it?

A friend of mine recently decided to take the plunge and try out an Eyefinity multiple monitor setup on his Intel Core I7 950 based gaming computer.  He has an ATI Radeon 6950 and switched from a DELL 24" LCD to 3 Dell 21" IPS LCD panels which is pretty much the minimum for Eyefinity's Eye Candy.

 My initial impression upon seeing the 3 displays on his desk was one of surprise.  I knew he was toying with the idea but I  wasn't sure if he was going to really take the plunge and do it.  A great deal on the displays was the primary catalyst for him to pull the trigger on this upgrade.

My surprise sprang from the fact that my friend never seemed that excited about multiple display setups.  I've been a multiple display aficionado for years and find it difficult to work without more than one monitor. He was always more interested in picture quality and found LCD panels to be deficient in performance.  In fact until recently he was running on a 21" CRT which he used for years because he just didn't feel a LCD could match its performance.  He's changed his opinion somewhat since LCD's have improved and he had a good experience with his 24" Dell.

The 3 displays my friend now own are organized on his desk in a semi-circular arrangement and they seem to just fit with a bit of the monitor stand on the end units hanging off the edges.  The aesthetics of the Eyefinity configuration reminded me of those video arcade racing games in the 80's  that you'd actually climb in to like the Atari TX1 or Sega's Outrun.

So what's the first game he shows me? Of course it had to be a racing game and the best choice in this case was EA's Need for Speed: Shift.  Probably one of the better racing games to test out an Eyefinity setup since it's new enough to be aware of the Eyefinity technology but old enough to not require an overly expensive gaming rig to use higher quality graphics settings in your game.

I have to say this,  As far as gaming goes Eyefinity is literally made for racing games.  My friend sat me down and let me run a few races in both Shift and Codemaster's Race Driver: Grid.  While my attention was still focused on the center monitor during gameplay the side monitors provided me a more immersive experience. 

Eyefinity appears to do more than just scale up the size of the viewable display area as would be the case with just using a larger monitor.  Instead it appears to take advantage of extra information already present in the video card's memory but normally not viewable with a single display.  For example while playing a driving game I had the sensation of not only seeing the racetrack directly in front of me but was aware of what was happening in the lanes next to me.  This can be a real advantage especially if you've ever been frustrated by being beaten by an opponent that seemed to have come out of nowhere.  For FPS games like Call of Duty this can be an advantage for those annoying online games where someone always sneaks up on you and ruins your day.

Come to think of it, with a USB steering wheel and pedals this kind of setup would probably make a great training simulator for new drivers.   I'd imagine the same would be true if you were using a flight simulator to help study for your pilot's license.

All was not perfect however.  My friend had tested a number of games and found issues with titles that weren't Eyefinity aware (as I like to call it).  One of the most glaring was Killing Floor which had no setting to allow for the larger display resolutions utilized by Eyefinity.  My friend found an article on the Internet that involved changing some configuration files to allow the higher resolutions but the result was less than satisfying.  The image was vertically compressed and the top and bottom of the image was cut off making gameplay unsatisfactory. 

Other games such as Company of Heroes, Dragon Age, and Modern Warfare 2 exhibited similar issues although not to the degree of Killing floor.  Unreal Tournament 3 also exhibited the same image compression issues as Killing Floor.  Killing Floor uses the same Unreal gaming engine as Unreal Tournament 3 which indicates that the game engine and thus anything that uses it will have similar problems with Eyefinity. 

I should mention that for all of this gameplay we had the monitors in a Landscape orientation which is the default for most monitor setups.  Eyefinity can be configured to use the monitors in a Portrait orientation as well which may help with the display issues we had with some of the games tested.  The stretched and cropped visuals described could be minimized or eliminated due to the less severe aspect ratio imposed on the image.  In Landscape mode, resolutions of 5760 wide by 1080 tall on a 22" LCD panel aren't uncommon.  Rotating the displays 90 degrees can change the resolution to 3240 wide by 1920 tall.  This is something my friend will be testing out.

Other issues that cropped up were hardware related.  My friend told me that on initial setup of his monitors he could not get all three monitors to show up in the windows display panel applet.  If all the monitors don't show up in the   Windows display applet it's not going to work with Eyefinity.  He found the fix was related to the monitor connections for the additional 2 monitors.  He wanted the center monitor to use the DVI connection with the flanking monitors connected via displayport but this configuration confused Windows.  Moving the center monitor to a displayport connection corrected the problem.  This may have something to do with the way Windows enumerates displays.  I've found that in my own multi-monitor setups the monitor with the Digital connection always defaults to the primary monitor position when an analog connection is used for the other monitor.  Perhaps the displayport connection takes preference over the DVI connection.

Another strange issue happened when he powered off his system.  My friend has LED power switches on his hard drives and instead of the LED's going out when he powers off the system, they stay on.  The motherboard has a status LED that also stays on with the power off.  The only way to get the lights to go out is to either unplug the PC from the wall or remove the displayport connectors from the video card.  Can't say if this is a problem with Eyefinity but the issue didn't show up with the old single monitor setup.
So, is it worth it?  With the prices of higher end ATI video cards and LCD panels at reasonable levels it's hard not to at least entertain the idea.  If you're an avid gamer that can take advantage of the benefits of Eyefinity then there's probably no question that Eyefinity is in your future.  Please take note of my use of the word "reasonable", however.  Reasonable means spending $600 on three displays and at least another $300 for an ATI card that can drive games at higher resolutions with better image quality. 

For the average user who just wants some extra screen real estate you can do just fine for 1/3 of that money.  As a gamer I'd definitely entertain the idea but it is a luxury and it's not without some minor issues.  There's nothing about it that makes it a necessity for the average pc user or even the average gamer.  Still, multiple monitors are more commonplace on desktops now than they used to be.  It's entirely possible that Eyefinity's extension of multiple monitor technology is simply the next step.
Even with technologies like Eyefinity and 3D Vision it's my view that display technology is starting to hit the wall.  You may have a larger or more displays but your eyes are still forced to stare at a screen of some type.  Display technologies will need to move past evolution and on to revolution to justify the  price premiums.   Let's get on to holographic  gaming and leave the monitors to the more mundane tasks.

My friend did some checking and found his power feedback issue may have been related to the displayport cables.  He switched them out and the problem disappeared.  Ultimately though, he decided to send his monitors back and instead ordered up a Dell 30" LCD.  It seems Eyefinity works out better on larger monitors and the costs involved outweigh the benefits.

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