Summary: Gaming across three monitors? We tested out four different games using the Matrox Parhelia's Surround Gaming functionality. You've seen the feature glossed over briefly in everyone's review. How well does it really work, in several different genres? Get the scoop in our article.
By now, everyone’s read all the reviews of the Parhelia, seen all the benchmarks, and digested the feature set of the card. Since Matrox is always on the cutting edge of feature sets, we decided to get into more depth, writing a follow up article to examine the Parhelia in further detail just as we did with the G400 and its Dual Head functionality. We believe that features like these deserve more than a tick off on a feature set list or a passing mention in a review. They require a good deal of extra testing to give them a thorough evaluation, so today we check out Surround Gaming – playing games across three monitors. Many cards on the market can support two displays off one card, but the Matrox Parhelia can do one better than that and support up to three. After trying out Dual Head on the G400, and being a big proponent of two monitor use, picking me to do the Surround Gaming article was a no brainer. The fact that I have the best monitor tan on the FS staff actually did not factor in the decision.
The Parhelia does not have three video outputs on the card. It actually has two digital video outputs. The card comes with a pair of dongles, one of which simply converts a DV-out into a standard HD-15 connector for an analog display, and the other which splits one of the DV-outs into two HD-15s. This means you can connect one digital display and a pair of analog ones, or three analog displays. One interesting note is that if you choose to go the triple display route, each monitor must display the same resolution, color depth, and refresh rate as all the others. The upper limit on each display for resolution is 1280x1024, giving you a maximum desktop of 3840x1024. If you use only two monitors/LCDs on the Parhelia, the card WILL allow you to set resolutions, color depths, and refresh rates on each monitor independently and allow each of the two monitors to go up to much higher resolutions than 1280x1024.
A familiar face
Anyone who’s tweaked a config file in Quake will find that setting up Surround Gaming in Quake 3 is not difficult. Detailed instructions on how to get Q3 running at 2400x600 are posted on Matrox’s site, along with instructions for all the other games. You’ll also need to do a little bit of tweaking in the registry, but Matrox’s instructions are quite clear on exactly what you need to do – a simple insertion of a binary value. Using the settings Matrox suggested, I was able to achieve exactly 100 frames per second running high quality, 2400x600. Cranking the resolution up to 3072x768 (1024 x 768 x 3), we still achieve well over 70 frames per second.
Not all peaches and cream
There is a problem with running Quake 3 across three monitors and it stems from having to do that one registry tweak. If you do the registry tweak they describe, your HUD in the game (displaying your health/armor/ammo) will display normally on your center monitor. However, the menus, console, and other text in the game look squished and unreadable. This makes it difficult to connect to online servers using the in-game server browser (which admittedly, no one really uses anyway).
Actually playing the game
Interface issues aside, playing Quake 3 CTF and instagib is quite a different and exhilarating experience when the game is on three monitors. People with decent peripheral vision (I knew playing all that basketball would come in handy) can use the flanking monitors to their advantage, spotting opponents out of the corner of their eye. I feel like I can definitely see more of the playing field, and not have to swing my mouse around as much to evaluate threats while entering a new room or area. Having a wider field of view is akin to watching a football game unfold from the press box as opposed to the tunnel vision you can sometimes feel from watching a game from “quarterback cam.” You get more of the big picture perspective, while not losing too much of the in-your-face adrenaline rush.
It’s about real estate
Role playing games are an ideal platform to take advantage of extra screen real estate. No matter what RPG you play, there are always inventory screens, map overlays, spell books, journals, and dialog screens that cover up the action and force you to stop and do character maintenance while your screen is covered. Then you have your character status indicators, like health, magic, etc covering part of the screen as well. What if you could literally shove all this stuff off to the side and keep your main screen cleared at all times? Surround Gaming capability allows you to do just that.
Neverwinter Nights requires none of the config or registry tweaking that many of the current shooters require. Once the game detects the Parhelia installed, it simply gives you additional options for setting game resolution, including 2400x600, 3072x768, and even 3840x1024. On my test system, the game ran with very playable speed at both 2400 and 3072 resolutions. Things started getting a bit chuggy if more than four or five enemies popped on screen, and as spells started flying back and forth, but turning on fast grass and simple shadows kept things a lot more manageable. Otherwise, we had graphic options maxed out, including 64MB textures, and things still ran quite smoothly for the most part.
Without mincing words, Neverwinter Nights is a joy to play across three screens under surround gaming. I can leave the mini map screen up all the time, even at max size a side monitor, and the inventory screen open on the other, and still see more of the game than I could playing on one monitor. My primary screen is wide open, while most of the other two monitors show game real estate, even with a character maintenance window open in each one of them. I walk into new areas and see monsters way off to the side that I’d never have seen without the game stretched across three monitors. They’re so far away at times that I can’t cast spells on them b/c I’m not in range yet, but yet I can see them. I briefly tried switching back to the other computer to play NWN on one monitor and quickly became disgruntled at the lack of screen space.
Unfortunately, in Neverwinter Nights you can’t grab the little map and inventory windows and drag them around. With three monitors, they kind of pop up randomly wherever they want to as you turn things on. The game however, always knows to load the left and the right monitors with sub windows like your map/spellbook/inventory BEFORE putting something in the center screen. So as long as you only have two things open at once, your center game screen around your party remains free and clear.
Another ideal genre
Like RPGs, strategy games present another ideal platform on which three monitors can be very helpful. One of the key issues with strategy game interfaces is how to present as much information to the player as possible without obscuring too much of the game screen. You’ve got a mini map in one corner, your resource bar across the top, other random bits cluttering the main screen. Again, what if you could shove all that information and more off to the side, freeing up your main screen? Or what if you could simply see more of the map, which would allow you to direct your troops more effectively?
The strategy game we looked at was the Imperium Galactica 3 demo from the Parhelia disc, an as of yet unreleased space strategy game from Philos Labs and CDV. IG3 is a game in the vein of Star Trek: Starfleet Command where you control a small number of ships in tactical combat in 3D space. You’ve got large ships that carry fighters and small bombers to harass enemy capital ships, smaller frigates that carry laser turrets, plasma torpedoes, and such, and artillery platforms that can bombard enemy ships from a distance.
The demo came with one level, and two different modes of using the three monitors. You can simply stretch the game across three screens, which looks incredible as you can get the feeling of the vastness of space. Or you can use a different mode which has the standard game screen in the center, a pulled back view of the battle over in the left monitor, and a zoomed in view of the targeted ship you’re attacking over in the right monitor. This allows you to monitor a battle on three different levels – a standard view of your own ship, a meta view, and an in-your-face action view. The game can even follow bombers in on their attack runs on capital ships. The well designed Imperium Galactica 3 demo gives a taste of what is possible in the strategy genre using three monitors.
Let’s play make-believe
While daydreaming about using Surround Gaming in a more high profile strategy game like, say, WarCraft III, I thought up some other features that developers could use with three monitors. A number of races in WarCraft III feature static scouts that allow you to keep vision over an area for a certain amount of time. Imagine you’re the Night Elves and being able to use one of your monitors to constantly keep vision over an Owl Sentinel that you’ve placed on the map. Imagine being able to tap a key and being able to cycle through all the Sentinels you’ve placed on the map on one of your extra monitors. You’d recon all those areas without taking focus off your own town or units. You’d be like a rent-a-cop flipping through security cameras at a casino. Orcs could do the same if their Troll Witch Doctors dropped Sentry Wards all over the place.
Making a believer
I need to preface this section by pointing out that I’m not a fan of the racing genre. Not that I have anything against it, but I just find that for the most part I’m not that interested in it. So when Sebastian over at Matrox urged me to try out Surround Gaming on NASCAR 2002 I was a little bit skeptical. I felt that perhaps I wasn’t the best person to evaluate it considering how little experience I have with the genre. I didn’t even spend too much time playing the Gran Turismos on Playstation, so how could I evaluate a hardcore NASCAR simulation?
Sebastian sent me the widescreen gaming patch anyway, assuring me that it would be awesome. He wasn’t kidding. After setting up the Parhelia for 3072x768 in NASCAR 2002 it was like love at first sight. The ability to see out the side windows and not just feel, but actually SEE cars as you zip past them made for an incredibly immersive experience. You also get more of a feel of speed as you see the wall zipping past you on the right. The difference between playing on one monitor versus three and the peripheral vision it gives you is simply incredible. Like racing games in the arcade with multiple displays, playing NASCAR 2002 with Surround Gaming felt like actually jumping in a car and driving it.
I think that’s the thing that bugged me the most about racing games in general, be it on PC or console – the fact that you’re limited to a tunnel view of what’s in front of you kept it from feeling like actual driving. With the wider view that Surround Gaming affords you, that feeling of tunnel vision is no longer an issue at all.
Again, I’m not a racing fan, so perhaps I may not be the best one to judge what is good performance and what is not, but I had absolutely no complaints about the framerate while playing 3072x768 with everything on, high world detail, medium car detail, and draw distance set at 75%. Assuming Matrox can get support for Surround Gaming into all the racing titles, I can see no reason why a hardcore racing fan wouldn’t want to get a three monitor setup on his rig with the Parhelia.
All those nifty features I thought of for strategy games would require a good deal of forethought and work on the part of game developers. I can’t honestly say at this point that a whole lot of them will go above and beyond to implement complicated multiview features (like the ones I described on the strategy section) for such a small portion of the audience who runs three displays. A lot of developers will take a small amount of time to put in some functionality though, even if it just means a stretched display, as we saw in NWN. The list of surround gaming enabled titles is already impressively large, and keeps growing. But Matrox needs a killer app where the use of multiple monitors is viewed as essential to be competitive in a high profile title. We see Unreal Tournament 2003 and Star Wars Galaxies on the list of future titles – might these vault Surround Gaming into the radar screens of more gamers? The next big RTS title is C&C Generals from Westwood. Might they be cooking up something special to really set it apart from WarCraft III?
I think using multiple monitors in Windows is fantastic too, and something that every hardcore PC gamer or fanatic should try. I’ve already expounded on the productivity benefits you gain from using two monitors while working in Windows. We’ve seen some of you in our comments section wondering what the point of multiple monitors is, and that one suits you just fine. Well, the truth is that using multiple monitors is one of those things in life that you don’t understand until you try. You don’t realize you need it until you have it, but once you’ve tried it, you won’t go back. Using three displays now on the Parhelia, I’ve fallen in love again.
The fact that I can use a card that makes me more productive in Windows, and affords me unique features in some of my favorite games (Neverwinter Nights, Quake 3, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Jedi Knight 2, etc.) makes the Parhelia a very attractive card for me to use. I will leave it in my personal machine for now, because for now, the performance of the card is acceptable for today’s games. But hopefully Matrox’s driver team is working out ways to squeeze more performance out, which will ultimately determine if I leave the Parhelia in my machine tomorrow.
For those of you concerned about the cost of going with three displays – there are a number of retailers out there who sell refurbished monitors at incredibly low cost. One of these is Second Wind PCs which sells branded, refurbished 17” monitors for as low as $50 or $60, Sony 19” monitors for around $100, and even 21” monitors for $150-$180. There are many other retailers like Second Wind out there, so you can see that adding a couple of partners to your trusty single monitor doesn’t cost that much at all.
(note: FS is not endorsing SecondWind as a trusted retailer – only providing them as evidence that quality, inexpensive monitors are out there to be had. Anecdotal evidence from one person suggests they are trustworthy. As with any online retailer, please do your own research)
SIDEBAR: What do you think of the possibilities of Surround Gaming? Do you enjoy reading articles like this one? Snide comments about my hair in the morning? Sound off in our comments section
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