AMD Eyefinity and Nvidia Surround Technologies Reviewed

Connecting multiple displays to one computer is nothing groundbreaking or new. Military, medical as well as mining industries have long been using a cloud of monitors for their respected mission-crucial tasks. Today we have two approaches to setting up a triple-monitor gaming rig. Let’s learn more about the solutions offered by AMD and Nvidia for this matter.

by Yaroslav Lyssenko
08/29/2011 | 09:41 AM

Since there are only two major players on the high-performance discrete graphics cards market, we are going to take a look at two approaches to building a three-monitor configuration. They are the “AMD way” and the “Nvidia way”. Some might think that as long as the success if guaranteed, the differences between these two approaches are negligible. However, in fact they aren’t, but before we get to that, let’s discuss the overall advantages and drawbacks of a configuration like that.

 

The math is quite simple. A human body and its mind in particular have a very complicated sensory system. Take sound, for instance. An average person has no problem determining where exactly the sound is coming from and where the sound source is moving. To create an illusion of real-life sounds, we developed satellite speakers with stereo capabilities and when that wasn't enough, a system of four, five, six and even seven speakers found its way into our living rooms. If you, for some reason, never had the pleasure to experience a speaker system like that, do it and you will be amazed (especially if your favorite gaming title or movie natively supports it).

You are probably saying: “yeah, I get it with the speakers, but why should I care about three monitors?” Our eyes, just like ears, help our brain to interpret what the object looks like, what its properties are and, most importantly, what it is doing. As it turns out, our flat screen TV-sets and even high-end gaming displays distort reality quite significantly. In a way our dependence on technology makes us actually live in a 2D world or 2.5D at best, since we try to emulate 3D images in books, pictures, mobile phone screens and displays all the time. But it isn’t necessarily working as we don't perceive the real-life world around us as a mere flat image.

This is where triple-display configurations step in. Thanks to slight angle and setup positioning, satellite monitors in theory should provide gradual object and scenery change. So, first your peripheral vision is going to spot the changing conditions, and only after that you will focus on the details on your main screen. But I think you’ve had enough of speculations already, so let’s get down to much more exciting technical details behind this matter.

The Way They Do It

The AMD Way

We are going to start with AMD's approach to building multiple-display configurations (as they come first in alphabetic order). The marketing department at AMD has been working really hard for the last five years or so. ATI acquisition and brand merger that followed obviously required a lot of effort from the marketing department to convince the public that all changes are for the best not only for the company, but also for the end-users.

 

Taking into account the user feedback, growing demand and previous technological achievements AMD came up with AMD Eyefinity Technology. This technology allows putting together three, four, five or even six displays for a truly unique gaming experience. It was supposed to be a technological masterpiece and a dream setup for all major hardcore gamers out there.

But not everything is as rosy as it seems. There are a few problems to overcome on this way to perfection. First of all you need six displays, each of which is going to cost you at least $250. Secondly, you need enough space to build this permanent setup. Wall mounting is going to set you back another few hundred dollars. The power bills are the next big thing. Let’s assume you agree to all of the above mentioned expenses, but unfortunately, this is not all yet.

You see, natively AMD Radeon HD graphics cards support only two displays, no matter what connection protocol is used. But if you want to connect a third, fourth, fifth or sixth monitor you need an adapter supporting DisplayPort for each monitor after the first two. On the positive note I have to say that the whole system is quite user friendly and its broad compatibility allows you to tie together different display models.

AMD has recently updated its online setup guide so it became even easier go get your multi-display system started. As you can also see from the screenshots above, Catalyst Control Center offers very simple and intuitive setup options and you should hardly have any difficulty configuring your multi-monitor system with AMD Eyefinity.

The Nvidia Way

Unlike their competitors from AMD, the marketing department at Nvidia had plenty of time to practice. The management of this Santa Clara Company realized long time ago that emotions help the sales. This is exactly where products with Nvidia logo excel. Somehow they manage to give you an additional feeling of involvement and supremacy. 

The current Nvidia's Holy Grail of marketing and product placement opportunities are largely based on their three main technologies. PhysX provides an advanced physics model for game developers. SLI brings more performance for a single system thanks to dual-card support. And 3D Vision Surround Technology implemented via 3D stereoscopic glasses brings true 3D experience to the gaming community.

As part of the 3D Vision Surround Technology package, one may choose to install only the Surround Vision, without the additional expensive 3D. For the latter you need a slightly different breed of monitors with a different price tag and, in fact, this could be a topic for a separate review.

Just like AMD’s Eyefinity Technology, Nvidia allows tying together three monitors for a better gaming experience. Unlike their competitors, Nvidia offers a different approach. They do not expect the users to invest extra money in adapters with DisplayPort. On the other hand, Nvidia expects you to have three identical displays. This isn't necessarily a huge disadvantage for someone building a new gaming rig from the ground up. But if you happen to have a slightly outdated display you'll most likely have to get rid of it. Chances are that you won’t find the same exact model anymore.

Another little issue or what some may even consider a disadvantage of the Nvidia’s Surround gaming setup originates from the graphics chip architecture. If you are interested in building an Nvidia-powered gaming rig, there are only two options – expensive and very expensive. In order to create a three-display set-up ForceWare graphics driver needs to address two physical GPUs in a single system. Currently only GeForce GTX 590 is capable of enabling 3D Vision Surround Technology on a single graphics card. Alternately you may choose to run an SLI setup with two graphics cards, but this means investing in the second adapter as well as into an SLI-ready mainboard and possibly a more powerful PSU.

Configuring a monster system like that is no trickier than the AMD one, and just like its counterpart Nvidia posted an in-depth online guide describing every step in detail. No matter which approach you find more appealing, in the end the only thing that matters is performance and more realistic gaming experience. So, performance is going to be the next thing we will discuss.

Testbed and Methods

We are going to test the graphics performance using the following universal testbed:

As you can see there is a new component in our testing rig. We decided to use three Samsung BX2331 LED monitors for a number of reasons. In order to keep overall costs down we opted to use smaller caliber FullHD-enabled displays instead of a much pricier WQXGA 2560x1600 high-end model. Secondly, Samsung BX2331 uses LED backlighting and therefore boasts lower power consumption and offers slimmer-looking setup. This means that there will be more room on your desk after three monitors like that settle there for good. Please keep in-mind that this monitor cannot be rotated and has no wall mount in the back.

We used the following ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers:

The ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce graphics card drivers were configured in the following way:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

The image quality in the game was set to the maximum.

The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way, because the ordinary user doesn’t have to know how to do it. We ran our tests in the following premium resolutions: 1920x1080, 2560x1600 and 5760x1080.

Here are the cards that participated in our today’s test session.

We selected these cards for a number of reasons. Triple-monitor configurations will most likely be built by those enthusiasts who intend to invest a substantial amount of money into their gaming system. On top of that Nvidia’s approach requires two physical graphics chips, so in most cases an SLI configuration will be the only way to go.

We measured the average and minimum performance using Fraps utility version 3.4.6. Each test scenario was repeated three times and the average value of the three runs was taken for the analysis, as always. An extreme resolution like 5760x1080 requires a lot of horsepower and in a way it is an uncharted territory not only in terms of picture quality but performance as well. That is why we decided to run the tests in two modes: traditional high-quality with full-screen antialiasing and the less stressful mode with FSAA disabled.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Aliens vs. Predator

Aliens vs. Predator should have been an easier walk in the park right from the start, but nothing is as simple as it seems at first glance. Depending on your FSAA settings your overall performance is going to vary significantly in Aliens vs. Predator game. Our tests showed that the additional work required for the extra two monitors could make it difficult even for the most powerful graphics cards. For instance, AMD Radeon HD 6990 takes off with a significant advantage over its competitors, but this triumph is short lived and by the time we hit 5760x1080 there are three products running practically neck and neck. Besides the above mentioned graphics card, both - GeForce GTX 590 as well as SLI powered pair of GeForce GTX 560 Ti cards – are also viable candidates for your extreme gaming rig. Radeon HD 6970 can handle the extra load, too, but your overall fps is going to be a bit low for comfortable gameplay, so consider disabling FSAA in this case.

To our strictly subjective taste, Aliens vs. Predator does not necessary deliver mind-blowing experience, when running on a triple-display configuration. You might get a scare or two, but in general side monitors are displaying boring corridor walls, Besides, you really need to focus on the target in front of you, so for the most part your side vision is not working too well. Of course, we can’t call it a failure, but in this particular case Eyefinity and Surround technologies will only deliver 50% satisfaction.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam is not going to be on the front lines for long, as the next Battlefield series installation is right around the corner. Triple-display setup once again works well on almost all graphics configurations discussed today. Second time in a row Radeon HD 6990 wins, and Nvidia GeForce 590 and GeForce 560 Ti SLI follow closely behind. The latter slows down a lot because of enabled FSAA, so some driver optimizations could really make a difference here. Radeon HD 6970 performs pretty well, too, and tries to stay within the 30+ fps margin. 

Just as with AvP, the overall feel from the two additional displays in this game is not necessarily something exceptional. The jungle levels look quite nice and in a few situations the peripheral vision helps. However, these occasions are very few and therefore we can only consider this gaming title to be partially suitable for proper Eyefinity and Surround Vision experience.

Crysis 2

Crysis 2 video game does not allow disabling FSAA from its in-game menu, so we tested the game with the highest image quality settings with Crysis 2 Ultra Update installed. Heavy tessellation favors GeForce products, and there is no stopping GeForce GTX 590. It is the only graphics card that can manage to deliver over 30 fps in 5760x1080, which is still a rather low number anyway. Disabling a few extra features is the only way Radeon HD 6990 and GeForce GTX 560 Ti SLI can finish in the second place. The cost-effective Radeon HD 6970 needs to lose a few more features, as it can only hit 17 fps in this resolution.

You may have become somewhat concerned after checking out the results in Aliens vs. Predator and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam. But every rule has its exceptions. And it looks like Crysis 2 is one of them. The game is wonderfully balanced and filled with details that gradually appear on the side monitors and then move over to the main one.

Fighting in city streets as well as in underground tunnels has just become much more intense and fun at the same time. The peripheral view on the side monitors makes it possible to almost predict enemy movements and fire so that even Matrix or Equilibrium antagonists would be envious. This is definitely a must-have game for anyone with a triple-monitor setup regardless of the graphics card brand.

Duke Nukem Forever

In terms of performance Duke Nukem Forever is an easy one for contemporary graphics cards. Except Radeon HD 6970, every tested graphics setup runs at speeds beyond 60+ fps. Disabling or enabling FSAA does not make a big impact on overall performance, so you may also consider playing around with image quality settings to speed up even more.

This is a new game on an old engine. Yes, the textures are a bit old and overall gameplay is over a decade old, but who cares? This game is yet another wonderful example of how an extra pair of monitors can change the whole experience. The DNF world is filled with details and objects, at the same time there is no need to really aim (since you are Duke and even if you miss your target, you still kick ass).

The advantage of having additional monitors is especially obvious in big arena fights and boss encounters. Dodging bullets becomes piece of cake and it is virtually impossible for a monster to jump you from behind. Multiplayer fight also becomes quite different and it is probably fair to say that triple-monitor configurations are equivalent to cheating in DNF player vs. player fights. But hey, winning is winning, right? 

Metro 2033

Rusty post-nuclear tunnels of Moscow metro system are just as hard on the player as the game is hard on the hardware. Multiplying the rendered space only contributes to the whole GPU stress, so it is quite natural that none of the testing participants were powerful enough to ensure comfortable gaming experience. Dreadnoughts like Radeon HD 6990 and GeForce GTX 590 can only squeeze out around 30 fps in this first-person shooter. The situation with GeForce GTX 560 Ti SLI is pretty interesting, though. At first it starts strong and even manages to top the competition. However, later on this SLI configuration fails to digest the 5760x1080 resolution.

The overall feel from playing Metro 2033 game on a triple-display system is pretty much the same as from Aliens vs. Predator. The majority of levels are narrow and dark corridors, which do not leave many details for your peripheral vision. On top of that, you are constantly out of ammo, so you trying to aim for the head in order to save a bullet or two. Sniping requires blinders over widescreen display setups.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

The only thing you need to know about graphics configuring in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is that you have to disable FSAA, if you plan on playing this inspiring game in a 5760x1080 resolution. In terms of performance Nvidia-powered solutions would be a bit better pick here. Radeon HD 6970 with a single GPU is unable to deal with the workload, so be prepared to invest heavily in your Zone gaming station.

Even though this particular title is one of the best examples of just how important the atmosphere in the game is, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is not the best illustration of triple-monitor configuration advantages. For some reason, you really don't pay that much attention to your surroundings and aiming straight ahead is probably something you do most while exploring the Zone.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Just Cause 2

Third-person shooters in general have lower hardware requirements than the first-person shooter titles. This is a good thing if you decide to run Just Cause 2 video game on a three-monitor system. The 30 fps limit is easily reachable by all three of our dual-GPU graphics sub-systems. There is no point in disabling the FSAA and even Radeon HD 6970 is a good option since it manages to deliver 20+ frames per second. It is not a bad result for a single GPU in this particular case.

We expected a lot from Just Cause 2 in terms of surround feel and I have to admit that our expectations partially came true. If your character slides holding on to the hook, the feeling of speed is immense and there are moments when you feel like reaching for the brakes. But in any other scene, you really don't notice the benefits of having two satellite displays on both sides. 

Lost Planet 2

One of the true hardware bone-breakers has once again proven its reputation. All testing participants performed very slow in Lost Planet 2 except for the Radeon HD 6990. It is the only graphics card that is capable of reaching a 30+ fps speed. Also, the products on Fermi architecture behaved somewhat strangely, meaning that additional workload was way too high and it looked like the current ForceWare driver was not well-optimized for 5760x1080 resolution.

Surprisingly, additional monitors managed to change the gaming experience for the best dramatically. The previous boring gameplay is now more fun and entertaining than any other game you have ever played. The jungle scenes are especially good for showcasing surround benefits. If you have ever wondered what it is going to feel like to be on a jungle safari trip, now you can get a taste of it.

Lost Planet 2 fans won’t have any problem choosing between one bigger display and three smaller displays. The answer is obvious. The boss fights have also become state of the art. If only Shadow of Colossus could be run on a system supporting Eyefinity or Surround Vision.

Performance in RPG

Dragon Age II

Role-play games are getting more and more attention from developers all over the world and Dragon Age II is the first class representative of this trend. The game features one of the most contemporary graphics engines on the market and sets high graphics requirements. AMD Radeon HD 6990 graphics card is once again your best choice here. With the average performance of 30 fps it is by far the fastest graphics product, leaving GeForce GTX 590 and Radeon HD 6970 far behind. Keep in mind that GeForce GTX 560 Ti SLI is virtually unable to run with enabled FSAA, so you have to make sure it is disabled.

In a way the experience in Dragon Age II was the biggest disappointment in our today’s test session. The hype around Eyefinity and this particular game created by AMD was significant and we were expecting some sort of a small revolution. Instead we got practically blank screens, as there weren’t that many meaningful details on them at any time. The city locations do look awesome and some of your character’s skills look great on a triple-display setup, but it is still a bit weaker than we have expected.

Performance in Simulators

Dirt 3

Late Colin McRae would be proud as his legacy lives on in the latest Dirt 3 rally simulator. Recent advances in computer graphics rendering allowed the developers to make it even more realistic. Please, don't be alarmed if someone asks why you are watching a TV-coverage of WRC while you enjoying your favorite Monte Carlo track. All testing participants delivered playable fps rate. Even Radeon HD 6970 can run with the pack with disabled FSAA.

It may sometimes be difficult to describe the realism of certain moments in Dirt 3 running with Eyefinity or Surround Vision technologies enabled. Just try it and you will most definitely see what I mean.

Forget about a 30" display with 2560x1600 resolution. It will struggle to deliver even one third of what surround technologies are capable of in this game. Try drifting with three monitors connected together and you will never be able to play Dirt 3 on a one-display system again. AMD should have put a sticker on every single Dirt 3 coupon they sponsored saying "5760x1080 is a must for this game”. 

F1 2010

Just like Sebastian Vettel dominates this year's Formula 1 season, Radeon HD 6990 manages to be miles ahead of the competition. Nvidia's finest GeForce GTX 590 comes second and very respectable third place goes to Radeon HD 6970, which still manages to deliver payable fps rate. Please don't forget to disable FSAA, if you are using a pair of GeForce GTX 560 Titanium cards, as they clearly struggle with it in such high resolutions.

If there hadn’t been Dirt 3, the Grand Prix experience would have gotten an A+ from us. When you are on a rain-soaked track, sitting low in the cockpit, and you first hear and only then spot with your side vision how Jenson Button in a McLaren Formula 1 car is taking over the lead, it is an unforgettable experience. The only thing better would be the real race, which, however, is only available to the best 23 race-car drivers on the planet. Now thanks to Eyefinity and Surround Vision you can proudly join this elite club. Stay tuned for the F1 2011 game and it might be a good reason for an upgrade. 

Performance in Strategies

Total War: Shogun 2

Samurai Japan is no place to be weak and the same is true for graphics cards when running the latest Total War strategy game. Both, Radeon HD 6990 and GeForce GTX 590, go neck and neck in this competition and both manage to deliver 30 fps while running with disabled FSAA. The pair of GeForce GTX 560 Ti SLI lags behind while Radeon HD 6970 finds it really hard to process all of the 5760x1080 battlefield data at once.

This particular game is yet another AMD Eyefinity certified application and it works like a charm. The additional game details displayed on satellite monitors are really useful and create a nice feel of Japanese culture around you. The scenery displayed before Historic battles is the most attractive and once the armies start marching the level of excitement grows even bigger.

Surprisingly, but this strategy game really favors three smaller displays over a single larger one. It is easier to see approaching armies on the side monitors and your peripheral vision immediately detects enemy’s tactical maneuvers. This is borderline cheating for someone going into Battle mode. If there were any room for criticism here, I would point out that the Campaign map looks a bit artificial, but it is really hard to make a flat map look pretty in a curved space, so I guess it is not a big deal after all. 

Performance in Semi-Synthetic Benchmarks

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2 Preview Benchmark

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2 as always favors Nvidia based hardware. It does not matter, which configuration you choose, as both - GeForce GTX 590 and GeForce GTX 560 Ti SLI - easily defeat the competition. Weak tessellation unit does not allow Radeon HD 6990 to compete successfully against GeForce series solutions, although it still delivers sufficient speed for comfortable gaming, just like the single-GPU Radeon HD 6970. Here you won’t need to disable FSAA.

Again this game proved to be a bit of a disappointment in the visual surround aspect. We were expecting additional displays to add more realism to the gameplay, but somehow they didn't. Yes, Eyefinity and Surround Vision work wonderful here, but all of the objects are moving too fast during combat so you aren't necessarily benefitting from using additional monitors. Low altitude flyby is still a must for anyone interested. 

Unigine Heaven 2.5 Benchmark

This particular synthetic benchmark is going to be replaced as part of our testing suite very soon. An upcoming title called Oil Rush is build around this inspiring gaming engine. Both multi display setups performed brilliantly. Of course, additional monitors tripled the line of sight and the level of detail increased substantially.

For the sake of better performance you should disable FSAA, as even GeForce-based solutions, which natively perform better in tasks with tessellation algorithms, are unable to deliver acceptable performance.

Once again there is a huge difference in overall feel between 2560x1600and 5760x1080 resolutions. Only a few seconds into the demo you already get amazed with the new details emerging in your peripheral zones. This would be a definite “yes” for surround vision technologies.

Conclusion

I have to admit that I really enjoyed testing a triple-monitor gaming system like that. I have to be excused for naming this setup a mainstream solution, but in a way it is indeed so. An affordable system with three monitors, like the one we built, will require an additional investment of about $700. For your reference, top-of-the-line setup with triple 30" monitors is priced as high as $3,000.

We were quite pleased with the way both systems performed. It is very hard to make a definite distinction between AMD Eyefinity Technology and Nvidia Surround Vision. As with everything, there are both positive as well as negative sides to each of them.

The biggest advantage of AMD Eyefinity is that it can be activated on virtually any of the currently available graphics cards. However, you will need to purchase an additional active DisplayPort adapter, which are quite expensive.

The alternative approach is a bit more stable in terms of video driver performance and doesn’t require additional expensive connectors. However, Nvidia’s solution can support 2+ monitors only if the system features two GPUs inside. In this case your options are a very expensive GeForce GTX 590 or a massive SLI configuration, which requires an SLI-ready mainboard.

Whichever setup you are going to choose, be ready to spend a little on top anyway. In return, you will most definitely be blown away by the superb gaming experience. Unlike 3D installations, in this case you won’t suffer from tired eye muscles or migraines.

As for performance, you will have to go for the top-of-the-line offering in both cases. Running 5760x1080 resolution is an extreme task even for such powerful products as Radeon HD 6990 and GeForce GTX 590. Unfortunately, if you are using one of those affordable setups, such as Radeon HD 6970 or GeForce GTX 560 Ti SLI, you will have to disable some of the “eye candy” features right from the start. I have to say that nevertheless your overall gaming experiece is still going to be great.