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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Multiscreen Madness: We Test Four Incredible Display Setups

by: Amber Bouman, Katherine Stevenson and Loyd Case


Because one screen is never enough! We set our sights on finding the best multiscreen setup for gaming

Three of the more hardcore gamers on staff served as our intrepid testers.

Last month’s review of Samsung’s MD230X6 six-screen Eyefinity display got us thinking big. We were awestruck by the majesty of so much screen real estate—particularly in games, where a screen config of massive proportions provides a level of immersion that a single screen, or even two screens, can’t come close to matching. But the MD230X6 wasn’t perfect, as our review revealed. This got us wondering: Would just three of the 23-inch displays side-by-side make for a more satisfying all-around experience? Would it be as encompassing in games? What if we could take three large displays and turn them vertical? And hey, while we’re imagining the possibilities, what would gaming be like on three gigantic HDTVs? What, after all, could be more maximum than that?

We knew of no better way to answer these pressing questions than with a Maximum PC Challenge. We grabbed three of the more hardcore gamers on staff to serve as our intrepid testers: Online Associate Editor Alan Fackler, Senior Associate Editor Nathan Edwards, and Senior Editor Gordon Mah Ung. We had each editor play three distinctly different game types—Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and World of Warcraft—on our four test setups: Samsung’s MD230X6 with all six screens, the MD230X6 with just three screens, three of NEC’s new PA301W 30-inch screens vertically oriented, and three NEC E461 46-inch HDTVs.

We were looking for the perfect combination of screen real estate, game immersion, and functionality across multiple game types. Which config would prevail? We needed to find out—even if it took hours and hours of gameplay (oh, how we toil!).

While our primary objective in this challenge was to identify the most awesome screen setup for games, we also include a sidebar on which GPUs will produce the best frame rates and quality settings in each multiscreen scenario.

Now, with that out of the way… Game on!

Configuration 1: Six 23-inch Panels

Samsung’s MD230X6 is nicknamed "the Beast," but is it the Best?

Samsung’s MD230X6 is particularly suited to a six-screen setup, with super-slim bezels that minimize disruption between screens and a solid setup. While the Beast (our pet name for the monstrous display) isn’t hard to screw together, it’s a pain to keep track of all the wires coming out of the back. It also takes up significant desk space, and its weight makes it susceptible to some wobbling. Intended for the über-productive user or the intense gamer, the Beast earned a 7 verdict in last month’s review—in large part because of the horizontal bezel running through the middle of the display, which made aiming in first-person shooters (such as Call of Duty) frustrating and difficult. While bezel correction is an option in the Catalyst Control Panel, we were unable to enable it with this setup, since the monitors had varying display identification data. Unable to aim or see his team or user tags, Gordon declared first-person shooters on the MD230X6 a “waste of time.” And while Alan said he felt “enveloped” by the display, he also declared it nearly impossible to aim. Nathan said straight-out he’d prefer a smaller screen.

Samsung’s MD230X6 brings a whopping 5760x2160 resolution to the table.

The Beast fared much better in WoW, where the bezels didn’t interfere with gameplay but did cut our avatars oddly in half. Surprisingly there was almost too much screen real estate—both Alan and Gordon found it difficult to swing the mouse through six screens to get to the menu icons, and Nathan disliked having to turn his head to view the chat window and controls—although all agreed that the “panoramic view of the world was encompassing.”

All three editors found the MD230X6 most gratifying in a racing game. Nathan summed it up best during his Need for Speed test with the declaration, “This I can get behind!”

Configuration 2: Three 23-inch Panels

Is half a Beast twice as nice?

The obvious solution to the bezels running through the center of the MD230X6 was to remove the top three displays and rerun our gaming tests on just the bottom three displays—essentially making it an MD230X3. Scaling back to just the three displays—for a combined resolution of 5760x1080—provided a whole new set of challenges. Nathan thought they seemed too low and said the setup felt "squat,” and that there was still too much horizontal real estate. “I still have to look too far to the right or the left to see vital information.” While the aiming in the FPS was easier, as the bezel issue had been removed, the images being displayed were problematic. The settings in Call of Duty seemed off, as though the aspect ratio was incorrect, and the character models and weapons were oddly expanded across the screens. Gordon kept saying, “Something is not right here,” and despite lots of fiddling with the aspect ratio and field of view, never quite got it tuned to his liking.

By far the least outrageous configuration of our challenge, three 23-inch LCDs are hardly pedestrian.

These issues were characteristic of the first-person point of view and cropped up to a lesser extent in Need for Speed. World of Warcraft, on the other hand, elicited a positive response from all the editors. While Gordon lamented that the three panels weren’t as “in your face” as the six-display setup, he preferred the three screens to a single display and found WoW to be “totally playable” and “a better experience than racing or FPS," adding that a nice wide peripheral view of the world is much better suited to a third-person perspective.

Configuration 3: Three 30-inch Panels

Let’s try this one more time with feeling (and portrait mode)!

Despite the pitfalls of the MD230X3, we weren’t convinced that multiscreen bliss couldn’t be found with three monitors. Enter NEC’s spanking-new PA301Ws—professional-grade 30-inch screens with a price tag to match at $2,300 each. Besides each boasting a 2560x1600 native resolution, the PA301Ws offer the unique ability among 30-inch monitors to pivot into portrait mode. Set side-by-side in this fashion, you’re looking at a wall of 4800x2560 unabashedly color-accurate pixels. True, the PA301Ws lack the Samsung screens’ dainty bezels, but that didn’t prove to be a problem, as the bezels didn’t cross our primary focal point. As it happens, we were able to enable bezel correction with this setup, but we had mixed feelings about the results. Images appeared less “split” by the bezels, but a great deal of information was lost in the process.

NEC’s PA301Ws professional-grade 30-inch monitors overshadow a triad of 23-inch LCDs in resolution, image quality, and girth.

Either way, the editors unanimously found this setup to be unequivocally awesome. Gordon quickly declared it the “best of both worlds” between the previous six- and three-panel setups, and “a superior experience.” Alan called his Call of Duty testing “intense, crazy immersive,” and Need for Speed “freakin’ sick.” Nathan said of World of Warcraft, “Rad! It’s like I’m peering through a window to another world.”

All were in favor of the “vertical improvement” over the other three-panel config and the lack of a horizontal bezel. Gordon was impressed by the details during his Call of Duty run, and he called Need for Speed “ideal,” stating that the PA301Ws were “in all ways better than the six panels.”

Configuration 4: Three 46-inch TVs

Time to go big or go home!

So far, so good. So… what else? Three big HDTVs! The idea started as almost a joke by Gordon, but then germinated into a why-the-hell-not proposition. After all, if we want to be immersed in gameplay, what better way than by planting ourselves within a fortress of three giant 46-inch LCD screens. We turned to NEC’s E461s, and we got busy. After some (pretty extensive) troubleshooting, we were ready to press Play.

The E461's obviously eat up huge amounts of space, and while this was easily the most unrealistic of the configs we tested, we had to see how it would play out. Like the three 23-inch panels, the HDTVs, which are 1920x1080 each, had a combined resolution of 5760x1080. But unlike the 23-inch panels, no one was complaining that the display felt too squat. Unfortunately, the aspect ratio and field of view issues that arose in Call of Duty with the other 5760x1080 setup remained.

NECs E461s offer a standard 1920x1080 resolution with a 120Hz refresh rate.

Need for Speed was the biggest hit on this setup. Nathan’s initial impression in the game summed it up nicely: “This is madness.” Alan felt similarly, declaring that the peripheral view of the road rushing past made the game feel faster. Gordon, actually preferred Need for Speed on the TVs to the 30-inch screens, saying it felt like he was really driving and that the horizon appeared as large as in life.

World of Warcraft produced some complaints about the extensive screen real estate: “Turning my head to view data on the side screens destroyed the feeling of immersion and also took my eyes off my character,” said Nathan. Gordon wasn’t bothered by that so much, but did find WoW’s relatively low-res textures to be unusually noticeable on the all-encompassing displays. During Alan’s testing of World of Warcraft, Nathan declared it “more impressive looking” from further back. In fact, one of the drawbacks to using such large screens is that it’s difficult to find a position that’s close enough to feel immersed but not visually overwhelmed; Call of Duty caused dizziness during one portion of our testing.

Seeing Is Believing

Our pick for the best multiscreen setup for gaming

In the end, the PA301Ws won the votes of all three of our testers—the combination of pristine images spread across increased vertical landscape was just too good. Hey, anything that makes curmudgeonly Gordon utter “ideal” or “bingo” is definitely noteworthy. It’s also one of the more practical setups (while the models themselves might be prohibitively expensive, the configuration is what impressed us); the sheer space that six panels or three HDTVs take up already puts both into the realm of fantasy for most users.

With a combined resolution of 4800x2560, three 30-inch LCD monitors offer grandeur and detail without requiring an outrageous amount of desk space.

But this challenge wasn’t about being realistic; it was about putting our fantasy multiscreen configurations to the test in games—and in that respect, the PA301Ws were the overall winner. While the three E461s did well in World of Warcraft and excelled in Need for Speed, they left us cold during Call of Duty. The six-panel MD230X6 display tripped over its own toes with the bezel issue, and its three-panel sibling wasn’t grand enough to fulfill our desires and struggled with first-person point of view.

While all of the configurations required a considerable amount of setup and troubleshooting, the three vertical displays were ready to go with the fewest difficulties.

Additionally, the three vertical displays could easily be utilized for any other productivity task—from web design and photo and video editing to PowerPoint and Excel, it’s hard to imagine a task this setup couldn’t tackle with ease and aplomb.

What Video Card Do I Need?

A multiscreen setup calls for robust graphics. Here's a quick guide

Gaming on three or more monitors is no easy feat. Pushing that many pixels is hugely demanding on a GPU. So if you want to get the most from your multiscreen setup, you’ll need to pair it with adequate graphics power. Using our challenge scenarios as examples, we examine what kind of GPUs you will need to achieve adequate frame rates and quality settings.

To get the best gaming experience on a six-screen setup, you need two Radeon HD 6990 videocards—if you can find them.

The Wall of Six

AMD likes to tout the ability of its GPUs to handle up to six LCD panels simultaneously. You’ll need a special Eyefinity Edition card, complete with six Mini DisplayPort connectors, if you want to drive six panels with one card, based on the previous-generation Radeon HD 5870.

The problem is that the HD 5870 doesn’t really have enough gas to drive six 1080p panels with decent frame rates in many games. You’ll either have to significantly dial down the eye candy or reduce resolution—which defeats the purpose of having six panels. You’ll see better performance if you pair up two Radeon HD 6970s. Even then, you’ll need to sacrifice some high-end features.
If you want to go all out and drop in a pair of Radeon HD 6990 dual-GPU cards (assuming you can actually find them), then you can get pretty decent frame rates.

You can theoretically drive six panels with Nvidia-based cards, but you’d need either three cards in triple-SLI mode or two GTX 590 dual-GPU cards. It’s unclear, however, whether driver support is really there to deliver the same level of experience.

Triple HD Desktop Monitors

For more practical gaming, three 1080p LCD monitors is probably the sweet spot right now. You can drive three 1080p monitors with a single high-end, single-GPU card like the Radeon HD 6970 and get decent frame rates at the full 5760x1080 resolution. You will need to sacrifice some detail settings in some games. And there will be a few titles, like Metro 2033, that won’t be playable at these resolutions with a single card.

If you’re willing to go with two cards or a dual-GPU card, the field opens up. Either Nvidia or AMD can run a triple HD desktop display with either dual-GPU cards or two discrete cards. If you’re willing to go with the high midrange—Radeon HD 6950s for AMD or GeForce GTX 560 Tis for Nvidia—then you can probably get decent frame rates.

The 30-inch Solution

Assuming you have the monitors and the necessary stands, you can get an awesome experience from three 30-inch panels in portrait mode. That translates to 4800x2560 resolution, or 12.3 million pixels. You can go with a single AMD card, but don’t expect a good gaming experience. What you really want is a pair of high-end, dual-GPU cards. If you’ve got the cash, you might be able to hit good frame rates with two Radeon HD 6990s. That’s a lot of cash, but then you’re driving a lot of pixels. Remember, three of these 30-inch panels are really only about 150,000 pixels less than six 1080p panels. So in terms of GPU horsepower, you need about the same performance for a three-panel, 30-inch setup as you’d need for six 1080p panels—but it will probably look better.

Triple HDTVs

What if you want to hook up three HDTVs? That’s the same resolution as three 1080p desktop panels, and the performance requirements are the same. However, unique problems exist. For one thing, you’ll want three HDMI connections. That’s not as hard as it sounds, though. If you’re going with Nvidia, you’ll need two cards (or a single GTX 590) and three DVI-to-HDMI cables. With AMD cards, you’ll want DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapters. Both of these solutions exist, thankfully.

The other issue you’ll run into is overscan—where the signal extends beyond the visible boundary of the display—although this problem crops up less with the newer HDTVs. If you’re hooking up older TVs, however, overscan can be enough to make you tear out your hair. In that case, you’ll definitely want a third-party solution, like PowerStrip ($29.95 for a single license). But that’s not a solution for the faint of heart.

Lessons Learned

There’s more to using a multiscreen setup than just plugging in the displays

So you’ve cleared off a huge swath of desk space, and you have your multiple large screens arranged just so. Now what? If you’re using an AMD graphics card, you need to pay a visit to the Catalyst Control Center. Getting your displays to work in concert isn’t a totally obvious process. You’ll see all your monitors represented by icons, but no standard menu option for extending the desktop. Rather, you need to select one monitor, then use a drop-down arrow in the upper-right corner of the icon to span a group of your choosing.

In the Nvidia Control Panel, you might think you can take care of the job in the “Set up multiple displays” tab, like you would with two screens. But if you’re using more than one GPU—in either a single- or double-card config— you actually need to go into the “Manage 3D settings” tab to get three or more screens working together.

With Widescreen Fixer, you can adjust the aspect ratio of select games for improved playability across multiple screens.

While gaming can be glorious across three or more large screens, some games are more adaptable to that format than others. In our tests, for example, we found that Call of Duty: Black Ops assumed an unnatural aspect ratio and field of view when we ran it on three 1080p LCDs (with a combined resolution of 5760x1080). But there is a way to compensate for these issues. A free third-party app called Widescreen Fixer ( will adjust the aspect ratio to suit your screen setup. It requires that you install a separate plugin for each game you want to adjust—plugins are available for many popular FPS titles, including the Battlefield and Call of Duty franchises, BioShock, and Ghost Recon.

Another issue we encountered involved the placement of various maps, menus, toolbars, etc. in a massively multiplayer game, such as World of Warcraft. By default, this information occupies the far edges of your display, out of the way of the action. But when using an array of large screens, you find yourself having to crane your neck from side to side to access that information. Fortunately, there are a ton of custom interfaces that move those elements to alternate parts of the display. A multitude of custom UIs for WoW can be found at