Matrox Triple Head 2GO
By Robert Mariani (23 June 2006)
Along with my new 3D accelerated AGP card I also started gathering information about multiple monitors on a single computer. Eventually, I managed to install my old PCI card and added a second monitor. WOW! I could have instruments on one display and the outside 3D view on the other. How cool was that! That was in 1998.
A few years after my first venture into the multiple monitor setups I learned that Matrox was offering its Triple Head Parhelia, which allowed three monitors on one video card. Unlike the AGP and PCI combo, this one card was able to span the single view across three monitors. The name for this new experience was Surround Gaming. I thought that this was the most elegant and most immersive set-up for flight sims.
Around 2002 Parhelia was pricey, and considering that its main goal was the productivity for workstations, it didn't really focus on the gaming market. People who flew with it loved it, yet many wished it had a little more oomph for the demanding applications such as the Flight Simulator. ATI and nVidia never came up with a comparable product, and MATROX quietly exited the gaming market and focused its effort on the business applications.
I figured that's it for Surround Gaming, so I focused on perfecting my AGP and PCI setup. Over the years I bought some used PCI cards, some 17 inch monitors and 2005 saw me running a one computer - four monitor setup. The top two monitors were used for the spanned outside view (2048x768) courtesy of BFG GeForce 6800 (talk about pricey!), and the bottom two monitors were used for instruments. Life was good, but that vertical divide between the top two monitors always got in the way on final approach. If I was lined up perfectly, the runway was mostly obscured until I got really close. I was pretending that it was the center post on the Boeing or the Airbus, but for Cessnas and other GA planes that was a bit of a stretch, since their windshield is usually a one piece deal.
Fast forward to March of 2006. I looked up Matrox on the web to see what had been going on there. Let's see... Parhelia had come out in a PCI-E version (it's as pricey as ever) and no mention of anything gaming related...except...wait... Dual Head 2 GO.... hmm, interesting... but it's for laptops and yet another productivity tool - can't even use it with a desktop and an existing ATI or nVidia monster - YAWN. OK, so nothing new there.
Came back a few nights later and there was...WAIT...could this be right?
When I was checking their site they had this Dual Head 2 Go thingy, but now it said...TRIPLE HEAD 2GO...Triple as in three. What's this? Hmm, it is not a video card.
As you can tell I was quite excited. I also decided that this is something of a quantum leap in visual display possibilities, plus it is the answer many (myself included) were looking for. This new innovative product from MATROX allowed you to use the power of your nVidia or ATI graphics card with the technology that made Parhelia so interesting to gaming and Flight Simulation enthusiasts. I had to try it out.
A few e-mails later between a gracious representative from MATROX Jennie, and a call from Dan Wood who is the VP of MATROX Technical Marketing, I was cleared to do a review of this new product for FlightSim.Com. I promised I was going to be thorough, and knowing how important the visual display is for immersion in flight sims, I went on to try this thing out.
General:I received the Triple Head 2GO box (from now on I'll refer to it as TH2GO) at my doorstep the same day Jennie said they would ship it - great start!
First let me say that TH2GO is NOT a video card. It is a device that connects to the existing video card in your system and produces a picture that is stretched across three monitors. The software requirements are Windows 2000 or XP and the MATROX web site offers the list of supported video cards. From what I have seen most nVidia and many ATI cards are supported. For more information on compatibility with your system check out this site: www.matrox.com/graphics/triplehead2go/support
TH2GO is small enough to fit in the palm of your average sized hand. Inside the shipping box there is a lot of packing material to protect the TH2GO unit, a couple of cables (one DVI and one analog) and a power supply, as well as the CD with the manual and other software (we'll get to that software in a moment). According to MATROX the TH2GO will support the following resolutions and monitor frequencies spanned over your three monitors:
|Multi-display setup||Display resolution||Vertical refresh rate (Hz)*|
|* While using flat panel monitors, MATROX recommends using a refresh rate of 60 Hz.|
For the latest compatibility information, see the Matrox Web
Installation:In order to run this triple head wonder you'll need three monitors set up next to each other. The output from the TH2GO box to the monitors is analog. Once you have your furniture and the monitors lined up to your liking, you hook up your video card directly to one monitor and go through the initial setup of adjusting your display to 800x600 on that one single monitor. It is called the initialization step. Next you shut down your PC, hook up your TH2GO to the video card's output , then connect your three monitors to the clearly labeled connectors for center, left and right on the TH2GO box. Plug in the power supply and you are ready to go.
Following the hook up, you power up your trusty old Intel or AMD and at first you only have the center monitor active. Insert the CD and install the MATROX software which in turn enables the other two monitors. You are now done with the hardware part. Aside from physically rearranging the monitors and moving the furniture, the whole setup took less then 10 minutes from the moment I unpacked the well-protected TH2GO box. It only has to be done once. So far, so good...
One of the advantages of the TH2GO is that it will run with lots of games and Matrox is constantly adding more popular titles to its list of supported software. Currently, the list stands at about 120 and among the flight simulators are the FS2004, FS2002, X-Plane, CFS3, and IL-2. The list may have grown since I have typed this, so the best way to check if you favorite game is on the list is to check MATROX's support site.
Surround Gaming Utility is a piece of software that looks up the games that are installed on your computer and offers you to update the config file. Click on the game, select your preferred resolution, and software updates your game's configuration file and makes a backup of the existing one. It takes three clicks and you have a new icon on your desktop that looks exactly like the FS9 except that it adds the word Surround. Again, that part of the setup worked flawlessly and in less then two minutes I had everything configured and ready to go. In case you don't like the new cfg file and things don't go as well as you had hoped, your previous cfg file is only two clicks away (which is an excellent idea) since we all know that the pesky FS9.cfg occasionally gets corrupted. In addition, you don't need to use the Surround Gaming Utility in FS2004 if you are familiar with hardware setup in the Settings menu of the FS2004.
The BIG WIDE Picture:"Well ladies and gents, here's the moment you have all been waiting for!" (OK, I was more than a little bit excited at this point.) Now was supposed to come the moment that would make or break this TH2GO device in my book. How would the Flight Simulator react to it?
I double clicked on the newly created FS9 Surround icon and the FS2004 splash screen showed up on the middle monitor followed shortly by the main menu. Since I didn't want to shock my FS too much, I decided to create a new flight in a default Cessna 172. I selected SEA as the airport and fired off the command: "FLY NOW!". There were some anxious moments while the sim was loading.
The question that loomed in my mind was how would this affect the FPS that we all love, cherish and obsess about. This after all, is the key why some of us tinker more than fly, right? The FPS is the key to a more enjoyable and immersive experience in the sim. So let's hit Shift-Z and find out...
Frame RatesPressing Shift-Z I was looking for a drop that would halt this big wide picture to a slide show. There was so much more to see. There must be a drop...
Guess what? The little red display on my system stayed in the 25 plus average range as it did before with my two monitors span! Another WOW! I guess it was time to do some serious testing. I was impressed so far, but I wasn't going to leave it at the first impression. I needed to put this TH2GO through some "serious" benchmarking. I have created one benchmark test over the last two years to keep track of my sim's performance. Only this time, I wasn't going to play with sliders.
Test Setup:I set up the test in order to compare how my computer would fare under the two different resolutions, while the FS2004 options remained unchanged. In other words, I compared what effect this add-on hardware (TH2GO on three monitors) has on my FPS when compared to the same system running the same program, with the exact same software setup, on one monitor.
In my previous testing the next step would have been to change one of the parameters in the sim (e.g. move the slider for Autogen, AI level or clouds) and observe the FPS again.
For this test however, I didn't change anything and my average FPS for the first 10 flights was 28.95 with the following settings:
- AI 100% (Project AI no additional AFCADs)
- autogen and scenery set to very dense
- resolution at 1024 x 768, single monitor, in virtual cockpit with 1.23% zoom (more on the zoom later)
One thing you'll need to keep in mind. I wasn't comparing two different systems, so the results will vary according to what software you have installed and which hardware you are running. Also, I opted for 3072x768 resolution but there are others available. The resolution will have an impact on performance (positive or negative-depending which way you go) but than, so will your hardware, GPU, memory, etc.
Next, I did the same flight but with that beautiful, scenic, extra wide 3072 x 768 resolution spanning the three monitors with the zoom level of 0.40, which gave me about the same size instruments in VC view. The field of view was amazing, and I could see through the side windows without distortion of any kind. The avg. FPS rate for those ten flights was 27.83!
Conclusion On The Frame Rates:My system - which is about mid-range these days - has a BFG GF6800OC, P4 2.8 800 MHz FSB (older model non dual core, but with HT) and 1 meg Corsair 400 MHz memory running in dual channel mode. All of that is planted on top of an ASUS P4P800 motherboard.
The frame rate drop of 1.12 FPS is negligible and unnoticeable. With three monitor display and the resolution of 3072x768 in the VC mode, I detected no stutters or unusual behavior. It must be noted that when switching to the outside 3D view the loading of textures might have taken a fraction of a second longer to sharpen due to the huge amount of pixels that had to be drawn, but that is expected any time you increase your resolution, even on one monitor. The more pixels that have to be drawn on the same screen, the more load is placed on the computer and its components to deliver the goods. However, with a decent video card my conclusion is that there are no adverse effects on the fluidity of your on-screen presentation, as long as you keep your zoom level in the same perspective as you do when running a single monitor.
Furthermore, if you find yourself with a different video card or want to experiment with higher or lower settings, all you need are a few clicks with the SGU utility and your screen will change to a new setting, optimized for your virtual flying experience. Simply great!
Note On The Zoom Factor:While in the 3-monitor mode, I set up the view to encompass the first two rows of instruments viewed vertically in the VC and plenty of outside view with no distortion. To accomplish that I settled on the zoom factor of 0.40 with three screens. When I went back to 1 monitor resolution my zoom factor had to be increased to 1.23 in order to see the same instruments at the same size. Pretty nifty!
Continuing The Test:After the initial WOW factor had subsided, and my heart rate was close to normal, I continued exploring the newly-found Nirvana of my greatly expanded field of view. The first question that came to mind was, "What if I had two of those puppies? Could I really surround myself with the monitors?" Well, a quick glance at the PDF manual resolved that query and I quote:
Only one (1) Matrox TripleHead2Go product at a time can be connected to your computer.
OK, no biggie. This was already quite wide. If I can only get my hands on some of those 21 inch monitors... and that TrackIR... that would seem like a perfect match. (Note to self - if I do another review my wife and kids will call the mental health hotline as this has totally consumed my family time - I wonder if they would allow me to take three monitors to the mental ward?)
I flew on several short flights using the three monitors in various weather conditions, and with variety of airplanes, switching and comparing between 1024 and 3072 resolution. The new extra wide edition of my FS2004 proved to be superior to any visual setup I had ever tried so far. (I once played with the LCD projector and while the picture was big, the flying experience wasn't nearly as immersive as this is. Now, three LCD projectors and...well that's another story all together.)
One of biggest and greatest features of the TH2GO setup is the fact that you can see the runway from the base leg without having to "pan" your view. As you get closer to 45 degrees to the runway you can pan a little and you can still see in front as well as to the side. In my real life flying experiences with a Cessna 152 and 172, I always had to crane my neck before starting a turn to final as the high wing would obscure a part of your view. This three monitor deal, thanks to the TH2GO, seems closer to the "real" visual experience then any, and at a reasonable cost. (I am sure that true level-d full motion simulators provide much more, but I can't seem to win those several million bucks needed to get one.)
Fluidity of the simulation is paramount to many of us, and even though there is always a debate between the eye-candy camp vs. the fluidity side, everyone realizes that visuals in the FS are what make the sim tick. Granted yokes, throttles and good flight models are also imperative, but what good is that if you can't see outside? We all look through the windshield (err.. monitor) for most phases of the flight, and the feeling of being there is many times better with a wider, more natural field of view.
What Else Could Be Done?Remember how I said that with FS98 undocking of windows was the feature I didn't pay much attention to? Well, undocking has become probably one of the coolest and useful features in the sim for me over the years. I also mentioned I have talked on the phone with Dan Wood, Matrox's VP of Technical Marketing, and during this most informative conversation he encouraged me to try the second video output on my BFG 6800 in order to hook up the fourth monitor for an additional display. Since I already had six monitors stored in and around the house (some were of 1990's vintage, but in good working condition) I figured, "Why not?"
Throwing caution to the wind - and sending my wife screaming
bloody murder - I hooked up monitors four and five to my secondary
FX 5200 PCI card, and the sixth and final monitor was attached to
the secondary output of my primary BFG 6800 AGP card. Those three
additional monitors were arranged under the primary monitors and
now I had a desktop the size of a small country.
The setup went without a glitch and all six monitors were happily humming while I was arranging the 2D panels and outside view in my Flight Simulator. The lower three monitors are used for the instrument panels and the GPS, while the top three are used for the outside view or the VC view. The frame rate tests were repeated and the FPS stayed the same with no hitches, other then the previously mentioned slower loading of textures in the full out of the window view, probably due to a lack of memory capacity on my system or on my 128 MB limited video card. I also must mention there was a frame rate drop when I made my GPS display full screen on one of my monitors, but it eventually stabilized and I was able to proceed with that silly grin on my face. In addition to general FS users who would like to experience Surround Gaming, the TH2GO will certainly be very interesting to those planning and building their home cockpits, as well as to those who prefer the VC over the standard 2D panel layout.
I also must point out that if you enjoy the spot view in FS, the TH2GO setup and three monitors allow you to see so much more, again to the point that I was experimenting with successfully flying patterns (circuits for our across the "pond" friends) with everything from a Decathlon to a 747, all from the spot view!
Closing Thoughts:While keeping in mind that TH2GO is not a video card, I congratulate MATROX for the innovation and the out-of-the-box type of thinking that allows the use of the modern competitor's powerful video cards while using one of the MATROX's signature technologies. While MATROX quietly exited the gaming market, the TH2GO is the BIG WIDE bang that announces they are back in the game - pun intended.
MATROX Triple Head 2 GO comes with a 2-year warranty. More info and technical specs as well as the expected MSRP can be found at the Pilot Shop