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NVIDIA Surround and 3D Vision Surround Revealed

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Manufacturer: NVIDIA
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NVIDIA Surround is finally here

UPDATE: If you are interested in seeing the final results with the GTX 470 graphics cards rather than the GTX 480s, and the better price/performance balance they provide, check out my updated article after reading this more detailed review of the technology.

Overview

Chances are good you have heard about NVIDIA Surround and even 3D Vision Surround by now.  It is without a doubt a direct response to AMD's own Eyefinity technology that was launched with their Evergreen-series of GPUs in September of 2009 and you have to agree that NVIDIA would likely have NOT implement this feature without the prodding of ATI's engineers.  In that way, even if you are an NVIDIA fanboy, you should be thankful to those guys up in the great white north for the technology we are about to demonstrate and review.

Immediately below is the video version of our review on NVIDIA's Surround and 3D Vision Surround technologies.  I highly recommend you give it a look though it is a bit long as it encompasses nearly everything we touch on in our written review as well.  Both have unique information in them however so I would encourage you to watch the video version before continuing on to the rest of the article!



Thanks!!

But being NVIDIA, they didn't want to just replicate what AMD had done (and in reality, they couldn't for several reasons) and call it a day.  So in addition to getting triple monitor gaming support NVIDIA is throwing the 3D Vision card out on the field for three-monitor gaming with active shutter 3D glasses and effects.  If you have seen a single display 3D Vision configuration then imagine three of them lined up in landscape mode for a really impressive experience and you will start to understand. 

The good news is that now we have BOTH players firmly entrenched in the multiple-monitor gaming world and this should push software developers to implement the changes necessary to make the experience perfect rather than just a hack. 

There are some advantages, and disadvantages, that NVIDIA's new Surround technology introduces starting with the hardware requirements, which we will dive into below.

Hardware Requirements and Configurations

At its most basic level the promise of NVIDIA Surround is identical to the promise of AMD Eyefinity: support for three monitors in either landscape or portrait mode sitting bezel-to-bezel to enlarge the field of view and the resolution of PC games.  NVIDIA's Surround will support monitors up to 30-in and resolutions as high as 2560x1600 per display for a total of 7680x1600 when tripled up even though we all know the focus is going to be on 1080p panels of 24-in size for budget issues. 

Yes, AMD does have a 6-monitor solution with their Eyefinity 6 Edition HD 5870 that we have previously reviewed but in my mind that is even more of a niche market than the three-display crowd we are addressing today. 

There are some important differences to note though between the NVIDIA and AMD implementations of multi-monitor gaming. 

First, you are required to have an SLI configuration in order to run NVIDIA Surround or 3D Vision Surround since each GPU only has the ability to output to two displays.  You know that a single of AMD's cards can output to three displays though that does require at least one DisplayPort monitor or a $100 active DisplayPort to DVI adapter to really work.  So while AMD can support three displays on card, the solution is far from perfect in my mind.

NVIDIA is of course supporting Surround on the latest GF100-based graphics cards like the GeForce GTX 480, GTX 470 and GTX 465 but is also enabling the feature for older cards like the GT200-based GeForce GTX 285/280/270/265 and even the dual-GPU GTX 295 in a limited fashion (see below).  That means consumers that happen to be sitting on a pair of GTX 285s in their PC will be able to upgrade to three displays and have the option to game in Surround mode - this truly is a cool feature to have added in after the fact and is something NVIDIA should be commended for.  I don't think anyone would have bitched or questioned had they limited it to GTX 400-series cards.

The GTX 295 is a bit of an issue since it exists in two versions: one with two DVI outputs and an HDMI and one with only two DVI outputs.  The latter version obviously needs another GPU to support three displays and the former can run NVIDIA Surround but not 3D Vision Surround since the HDMI port can't support 120 Hz signals. 

NVIDIA is also going to support a fourth display on their Surround configurations (when 3D Vision isn't in the equation) that they are referring to as an "auxiliary display".  These displays aren't considered part of the gaming surface and you can really only use them when you running games in a windowed mode.  That can be quite useful for MMORPGs so you can run email, chat, etc while being bored to death (I kid!). 

There are other hardware requirements for 3D Vision of course - higher priced monitors and a $199 3D Vision kit are going to add some cost as well as complication to anyone's gaming rig.

You can see that when you are going to run the Surround configurations in a 3D Vision setup you can't run an auxiliary display - the reason is that the 3D effects are only capable of running when the game is in a full-screen mode which means the fourth display would be inaccessible anyway.  You can still choose to NOT game in 3D and use a fourth monitor if you decide to of course.

Also, keep in mind that only in the standard gaming 2D mode can you support portrait configurations of multi-monitor gaming (rotated 90 degrees from standard) since part of specifications for 3D Vision displays rely on polarization filters and those are directional.  NVIDIA says they are working on a technology change that will allow these monitors to work in either landscape or portrait mode but that won't be backwards compatible with current panels anyway.

I know NVIDIA will be getting a lot of negative comments about the requirement of SLI configurations for multi-monitor game and there is no denying the fact that AMD seems to have planned far better for this technological shift by support three displays on a single card.  Even with the cumbersome adapters required TODAY for most users, the future of displays is DisplayPort it seems so those issues will likely be non-existent next-generation but NVIDIA may have integrated the same design by that point.  Also, from a cost perspective, the ability to run a single card, even lower end options like the HD 5770, with three displays easily makes ATI's offering the most economical. 

And don't forget not all users' motherboards support SLI as it stands today so there are some people that NVIDIA will simply not be able to address thanks to its archaic licensing methods.

But by forcing SLI upon users NVIDIA does guarantee a certain level of performance and in the case where we are running at 5760x1080 resolution, the more performance available to the GPUs, the better.  Most multi-monitor gamers are going to be better off with multiple GPUs regardless of their platform choice but NVIDIA users have to start at that point so their initial user experience could turn out to better, even if it is at a higher cost.  (Lots of cost analysis later.)

Add to that the push NVIDIA is hoping to make with 3D Vision Surround as a differentiating feature and the power of SLI configurations is even more necessary for a quality experience.  But make no mistake - if NVIDIA could offer three monitor support on a single card they surely would have done so. 

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