• Matrox TripleHead2Go Digital Edition

    Matrox TripleHead2Go Digital Edition

    By Nels Anderson (25 August 2007)

    Flightsimmers are on a never-ending quest to turn their computer into an ever more realistic simulation of an aircraft and the cockpit flight environment. Microsoft Flight Simulator claims to be "as real as it gets" but there's always more that can be done. Any flightsimmer needs the basics like a yoke and rudder pedals. Beyond that there are devices that will let you feel the sim in action as well as watch and hear it and even hardware that will let you simulate a realistic set of cockpit avionics and controls.

    All of these things make the sim more fun to use. But one of the greatest weaknesses of any sim is the limited visual aspect. Human vision has a field of view close to 180 degrees and even though we're only able to see sharply in a much smaller area directly ahead that wide field of vision does play an important part in any activity. Unfortunately, a standard computer setup limits our view to that displayed on a single video or LCD monitor so flightsimming that way is kind of like flying an airplane while looking down a tube. Though what appears on the screen is quite realistic, the overall view is not.

    Various means have been devised to deal with that, starting with the simple ability built right into the sim itself to zoom out and show a wider field on that single screen to virtual cockpits that allow you to look around in any direction; this can be done with top hat buttons on a yoke or joystick or much more realistically using some sort of head tracking device. The head trackers help quite a bit but still your actual field of view is limited to that one narrow screen.

    Which brings us to the subject of our review, the Matrox TripleHead2Go Digital Edition which is nothing more than a black box that lets your computer drive three monitors instead of just one, immediately tripling your visual field of view.

    Needed: One Fast PC

    Expanding your video display to three times greater than normal demands more of your computer, though fortunately less than you might guess at least while running Flight Simulator. I suspect, though, that anyone considering adding the Matrox TripleHead2Go to their flightsim setup is also going to be using other PC power taxing add-ons...

    What you need to handle all this is the latest PC technology, such as that found in the Jetline Systems Vertigo X10, the system that I used for this review. My test system included the 768 MB eVGA e-GeForce 8800 GTX Superclocked GDDR3 PCIe x16 video card which was easily able to handle the new higher resolution that the Matrox system was able to display.

    No computer currently available can run FSX maxed out, but the Jetline Systems computer allowed me to run FSX with reasonable frame rates while still taking advantage of what it had to offer while using the 3840 x 1024 display offered by the TripleHead2Go. Running FS2004, I was able to max out the sliders and still get frame rates that stayed above 20 most of the time, even while FS2004 was moving all those pixels to the three monitors.

    If you need a new computer to go with your Matrox setup, check out my full review of the Jetline Systems Vertigo X10 which you can read here.

    The Digital Edition is the latest member of the Matrox "GXM" (Graphics eXpansion Modules) family where earlier versions offered expansion from one to two monitors or operated with analog signals instead of digital. This latest version connects either a dual-link DVI or analog signal from you computer to three monitors. The monitors plug into the TripleHead2Go with a DVI connector (if your monitor has an older analog connector adapters are available). With this setup you can now have a display of up to 3840 x 1024 resolution using three monitors.

    Setup

    The hardware part of the setup is so easy the typical user should have no need for a manual. With your computer powered down you just run a cable from the computer's video out to the in port on the TripleHead2Go and then connect three monitors, one each to the supplied sockets on the "out" side. Other then connecting the monitors in the wrong order it's pretty hard to go wrong here. The only other connection is a single USB cable from the TripleHead2Go to any powered USB port; the only purpose this serves is to supply power.

    The TripleHead2Go comes with a CD-ROM with the necessary software, which includes the PowerDesk SE utility as well as the Surround Gaming Utility (SGU) which helps setup games to use the newly available video resolution.

    Once everything is plugged in all that's necessary to get started using the new wider resolution is to power up your computer and change the video settings. Once done, everything will be displayed across three screens. Note that this does mean everything, including your Windows desktop and all other software applications so the TripleHead2Go is useful for all your computer activities not just for flightsimming.

    Using The TripleHead2Go With FSX

    There's little trick to getting full benefit of the wide resolution with FSX. When initially started, the sim will likely come up in windowed mode, displaying on only one monitor. To use all three monitors it's simply a matter of either using the Surround Gaming Utility (SGU) or going into the sim's setup area and choosing 3840 x 1024 as your screen resolution and then switching to full screen mode.

    Once you do that...wow, what a difference! Instead of that "looking down a narrow tube" feeling you now have a wide field of view, much more in line with what your eyes are capable of. In virtual cockpit view you'll now be able to see across the entire panel instead of just a small portion in front of you--and also see quite a bit out the windows to the sides.

    I spent quite a bit of time flying different planes in different situations and found that the wider view really enhanced the realism. I had recently spent some time flying with a head tracker and while that device did make it easier to look around inside and outside the cockpit, this is better. What I found was that I could leave the view centered most of the time and actually look around moving my head and eyes to see whatever I wished to look at. This is much more like the real world than anything else I've experienced while using a sim.

    The only view change I found myself making very often was a slight shift up and down; down to look at the lower mounted instruments and up to look more out the window. This in a way demonstrates the value of the wider view, as now the main weakness is in the vertical resolution!

    Using the tower or spot plane view was much more fun, as now you could see your plane nice and large in the center while also seeing a much larger part of your surroundings. This was fun at busy airports as you could see AI traffic bustling around.

    But more than just fun, the wider view proved useful too. When flying my real plane things like taxiing, flying traffic patterns and other basic manuevers are simple, mostly because I can easily see the references I need to know when to turn. With flight simulator's "tunnel vision" I've always found these things much more difficult; I still have a hard time flying a good traffic pattern and consistantly lining up right on final as I'd like to. Yes, if you fly the same plane enough and practice enough you'll learn the visual cues you need to fly it in the sim accurately, but it's just not the same as the real world. Well, here I found the wider viewpoint a great help. Now I can see things off to the side that I never could before and having this view makes manuevering so much easier and more accurate. As when flying for real my eyes would move from side to side--from one monitor to another--to concentrate on what I wanted, rather than having to somehow change the view in that one narrow monitor straight ahead of me. This is just so much more realistic.

    Having this super wide display does result in some wierdness though. For example, the 2D panel comes up with the instruments stretched across the whole width of the three screens. You surely would not want to fly that way, but then I suspect if you're running a three monitor setup you're going to be flying from the virtual cockpit anyway. Some pop-up windows also come up wrong initially, but in most cases you can just resize them. So, like any good flightsimmer with a new toy, you'll certainly go through a period of tweaking to get everything just the way you want it. But ultimately all that extra video real estate is a great advantage, since now you can do things like leaving the GPS popped up all the time, and larger than you've ever had it before, while still leaving it in a corner with plenty of view around it.

    Before leaving the topic of flying with FSX I know there's still one important issue that everyone will want to know about--frame rates. As we all know, FSX demands a really fast computer. Even a current top of the line system like the Jetline Systems Vertigo X10 that I recently reviewed, and which I also used to test the TripleHead2Go, cannot run FSX with the control sliders maxed out. No matter how you look at it, FSX needs the fastest computer you can get. Running three monitors instead of one, FSX is now pushing out three times the number of pixels for every new frame. Fortunately, this does not cut the frame rate to 1/3 of previous performance, as that would pretty much make the TripleHead2Go unusable with FSX.

    As anyone who has observed has surely noticed, frame rates jump around quite a bit and simply turning your viewpoint from side to side can cause a major change. For comparison purposes, what I tried to do was test on a view that was fairly stable and switch back and forth between full screen view (3840 x 1024) and windowed view (1280 x 1024) and note the effect. In some instances, such as high altitudes with little to see but clouds and distant simple ground textures there was no observable change at all. More typically, the decrease was around 20% and sometimes as much as 40% but this is nothing near the 300% decrease you might expect simply by multiplying out the greater number of pixels. So really, this is good news as the loss in frames does not greatly effect the use of the sim.