Investigating Dual/Triple Monitor Gaming and Desktop

So I’ve been looking for new parts for a Windows 7 PC – basically since I want a nice CPU and RAM speed boost to use with Windows 7 64bit, and am looking at a i5 processor. This means I’m looking at Graphics setups too – and the possibility of getting a nicer widescreen monitor, possibly making me have 3 (hey, it’s all dreams at the moment in any case 🙂 ).

I currently have 2 22″ monitors (1680×1050), setup in dual view off a relatively budget 9600GS nVidia card. I wanted to check out what options there were for 1 monitor, 2 monitors, 3 monitors. I’ve not bothered looking at 4 monitors – both because I won’t be using that kind of setup (desk space!), and because my personal view is you need a centre monitor to use since I play games, and so having a monitor a full 2 away from the primary one won’t help much. On the games front, I’ll also be seeing what you can get to have peripheral-vision-adding multiple-monitor-widescreen – called Surround Gaming usually. 🙂

I’ll link to all my random finding, and man, let’s just say that some technology companies don’t like to actually provide easily accessible FAQ’s!

Desktop Multiple Monitors

It is pretty easy to investigate how to have 3 or 4 monitors attached at any random desktop resolutions, just get 2 cards in a suitable motherboard usually gives 4 DVI outputs to use! Do I even need to link to articles on this?

Note if a game is played this way, it’ll use only the primary card (the secondary monitors will stay on, but not cut performance, since they’re not actually rendering much of anything). I have this already (2 monitors on 1 card).

SLI and Crossfire

nVidia has SLI, AMD/ATI has Crossfire. nVidia describe it a lot more in-depth (thankfully, since Wikipedia, about the only other place for info, is pretty poor at some details). SLI and Crossfire both take 2 graphic cards and force the second one to be a slave to the primary. The primary then outputs to one or two monitors it is attached to. So, both only support 2 monitors when a game is running (and even then, might turn off the second one). Generally nVidia’s one appears, from Tom’s Hardware, to produce better results when the second card is used compared to ATI.

nVidia has a great diagram explaining multiple monitors worth reproducing here:

nVidia SLI setups
nVidia's SLI plus extra monitors diagram

It appears to some accounts that SLI and Crossfire can be turned off and on in the graphics settings. However, I don’t know yet (from lack of reliable information) if they require restarts – if they don’t, then it’d be suitable enough to just have the 3 monitors attached anywhichway and have SLI enabled when playing games, and off when you want to do desktop work.

Neither SLI or Crossfire supports spanning monitors with a single game, unless the game intentionally supports it (all of 3, none of which I play). It sticks to outputting high quality visuals to one display. If I had £1,000 for a 30″ monitor at 2560×1600, you’d not need to have secondary monitors working on it I think 🙂

ATI’s Eyefinity

This news (via. Slashdot for me, more thoughts, and decent picturesm here too) came out relatively recently, Eyefinity has a big card doing powerhouse work for multiple monitors. It cheats a bit – Windows and the game sees it as one “huge” monitor, like TripleHead I’ll go into below.

ATI Eyefinity 3x1landscape 242w
3 Monitor setup on Eyefinity looks to be all the same resolution.

The technology isn’t even out yet for this, and nVidia hasn’t got anything similar announced. Might be worth keeping an eye on if you’re totally hardcore (it won’t be cheap). The main issue for me (and probably many others) is I probably want to get a larger screen as my primary monitor, so having 1980×1200 or similar, while my side monitors are still 1680×1050 – it doesn’t say if this would work with this system, but all the pictures point to “no”, at least for the gaming aspect (cropping on secondary, smaller monitors I’d not mind, if they had that option).

Matrox TripleHead2Go

The Matrox TripleHead2Go is an independent bit of hardware kit – it basically is only there to have 3 widescreen monitors, at a maximum of 3 x 1680 x 1050, due to the limits of basically having the GPU put everything through one DVI-D cable. There is driver support so that maximising windows doesn’t just make it cover 3 screens, so on that side it works fine. It can have a 4th monitor attached to the second output of the graphics card too, but that wouldn’t be included for games. Their reasonable FAQ covers a lot of questions – one thing that I’ve read is the maximum resolutions need compatible monitors that can do 57Hz refresh rates, mind you.

Of course, again, this wouldn’t work too well with monitors being different resolutions – or, in fact for me, I couldn’t get a bigger monitor – there’d be no point. 🙂

Additionally, there appears to be a new MView item, similar to this (with similar resolutions).

SoftTH – Software Triplehead

Fascinating how SoftTH works. I wish nVidia or ATI did this properly.

I found out about SoftTH today – a beta software solution to multiple-monitor-spanning-games for DirectX 8 and 9. I’ve obviously not got 3 monitors to test this with, but by all accounts it works for some games and, since it is software, doesn’t need any hardware changes. The interesting part for me is the full support of differently sized secondary monitors (simply cutting off anything outside the required resolution it appears), and even bezel-removal – so that, as with all monitors, the bezel gap around the edge can be warded off a bit. No SLI or Crossfire support however, as far as I can tell.

I’ve got to try this out if I ever get 3 monitors 🙂

Additional Information

The Widescreen Gaming Forum wiki has a great amount of information on supported games, setups and hardware. Wikipedia links for SLI, Crossfire (both not too useful except explaining the requirements to use such things). 2008 article on SLI vs. Crossfire.


Widescreen gaming isn’t too well supported – on the hardware side that is, nevermind the problems with the software side. It’s a tight, tight niche, especially since the benefits are not exactly competitive so even the hardcore players don’t need it – peripheral vision, or for some games, simply more screen realestate is great, but not necessary.

What will I choose? I’ve not decided. The high end cards are really expensive, but they do provide a lot of power. This would work with 3 monitors too since I do have my older graphics card I use to support a 3rd desktop monitor. For Software Triplehead, the author himself says the primary card is the main one that matters – that renders the full screen, then splits it over to the second card to render whatever monitors are attached to that. SLI or Crossfire wouldn’t work here, a high end card is the main option that would be suitable, and it is highly tempting.

However, since single cards are so expensive, Crossfire or SLI might be a good choice just to get a massive boost in speed I want with two lower priced cards instead of one more expensive one. In addition this would be suitable for either just a bigger primary monitor (with no widescreen spanning). I’m still not sure the swapping between SLI/Crossfire and 2 discrete cards works though…if they don’t, it’d be a maximum of 2 monitors anyway.

In both of these cases if I chose a monitor which matched my current resolutions to make up 3x 1680×1050, I’d also have the option of the Matrox TripleHead2Go, which could be nice, especially with their support for configs and so forth.

Finally, there is the newer tech – Eyefinity sounds cool, but will cost a massive amount and, likely as the previews have said, won’t support different monitors with different resolutions. My budget won’t ever stretch that far for now I think.

So, I’m undecided so far, mainly between 1 big graphics card and 2 in SLI or Crossfire. I’ve got another month until Windows 7 even arrives, so I’ll be investigating this. One thing that makes it easier is there are 2 graphics ports in all the i5 motherboards, which means I can always get 2 cards in there.

2 thoughts on “Investigating Dual/Triple Monitor Gaming and Desktop”

  1. in my experience, I get a lot more done using one big monitor than multiple small ones. If you really must have 3, I think you’d be better off with a single powerful card like a 280gtx, simply because multi-monitor with SLI is annoying at the best of times. They only added dual monitor support to the w7 beta driver a month or so ago, I doubt they’ll support triple for a while yet.

  2. Yeah, it seems that is the best option for multi-monitors. The reason I have 2 right now is because I generally use the second one for big dual-monitor tasks (rare video editing, some GIMP work, Visual Studio), or for putting on a second relevant program – FTP, text editor for doing web stuff for instance.

    Or there is always some movie to put on there 🙂

    Generally I do want a bigger monitor (I’m tempted by a 26″) and since there is little reason to get rid of my old ones, that’d make 3, but I still might just stick with 2 for now, money and that!

    The 280GTX looks okay, a bit expensive, I’ll have to look into what nVidia are releasing soon, and what different places have available. Thanks for the advice, especially on the dodgy SLI support in drivers.

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