If you recall my review of NaturalPoint’s TrackIR4 Pro, I made mention that I wanted to research a triple wide monitor setup. I had seen photos of other people’s sims with three and even more monitors hooked up… some of them rather elaborate arrangements with full avionics panels and projection systems. (I know one guy with a real Cessna cockpit in his garage!)
Since I have enjoyed the TrackIR so much, I changed my mind from wanting a fixed instrument panel simulation with separate outside view projection to now flying mostly from the virtual cockpit. The one thing that hasn’t changed though, is the need for better peripheral vision. Whether flying from a 2D panel or VC that little monitor (my 21” is still little!) in front of you just doesn’t cut it for giving the proper visual cues that would be present were you flying in a real aircraft. Especially when landing the aircraft, those cues that come from what you see to the sides are very important. It is possible to zoom out and get such a wide angle view but the fish eye effect I find truly annoying and an even further departure from reality. I found that I preferred using no zoom factor for the best depiction of what you would see in real life… albeit with a cardboard box taped to your head and looking through the open square end!
I remember the article a couple of years ago about the Bugeye Three Window Display system that Chuck Boudreaux wrote. I thought that was a pretty neat idea but when you look at my computer desk you will notice that it wouldn’t fit. It is also quite expensive and I don’t know if the system of using fresnel lenses would work well with the TrackIR.
One of my other discoveries was that if you wanted to actually span the display across three monitors there was really only one manufacturer that made a card that could handle that… Matrox. While their Parhelia card would output to three monitors, it did not provide the leading edge graphics like you see coming out of ATI and nVidia. The newer motherboards will handle dual (and even some triple) graphics cards but there you run into another problem. The cards from nVidia will handle spanning the 3D display across two monitors but if you add more cards (and more monitors) they are handled separately, so you would have a bit of a headache getting your final view to look right. And when you did, what would happen when you hooked up the TrackIR unit? Would it only track with the main display or could you get it to work correctly with the multiple cards/monitors? My sources told me no.
Matrox had the bright idea of making a way in which you could split the display output to three monitors yet still use your present graphics card. Matrox has been at the forefront of making graphics cards capable of multiple view systems for hospitals, CAD/CAM systems and other industries but gaming has not been their forte. Rather than compete with the present leaders in high speed complicated graphics rendering, why not make a little box that will split that signal coming out of the other guy's card and display it on three spanned monitors… I’m sure someone out there is saying “why didn’t we think of that?”
I saw the announcement for this little black box a month and a half ago and had my editor, Robert Whitwell, contact Matrox about reviewing the product for use in flight simulation. About a week later I had the unit in my hands and I’m going to share with you the odyssey of getting it to work on my system, what I found to work well and what I found didn’t.
Installation and Setup
I received the box with the Triplehead2go and of course couldn’t wait to open it. Once open, the box is split into two sections. Inside one side, encased in protective foam and an anti-static bag was the little black box… and it really is little. The other side has a plastic bag with all the patch cords, power adaptor, instructions and installation CD. Hmmm… all you have to do is set your computer’s resolution to 1280x1024 or lower and shut it off. Then hook the cord from the monitor output of the computer to the “in” on the black box, then plug each of the three monitors in and they are labeled on the black box, left, center and right. Hook up power, turn the computer on and the center display goes live. Insert the CD and it autoruns the installation program, after which a screen will come up allowing you to select your new widescreen resolution and to direct the computer to open new windows on the center screen.
The installation CD also included the SGU (Surround Gaming Utility) that is pre-programmed with over a hundred game titles to modify the graphics settings in their configuration files for use with the Triplehead2go. The Matrox Surround Gaming site has updated versions of this software as new titles are being added all the time. What is especially nice about this SGU, is that you can modify a game for playing in “surround gaming” without having to mess with changing settings each time you open the game. You can even revert back to your pre-SGU settings with a push of a button, very handy if you are using the Triplehead2go on a laptop and don’t want to take all three monitors with you on a vacation or for a presentation.
My initial installation was on my laptop which uses an ATI Radeon xpress 200M 128 mb graphics adaptor. I was able to set this up to run all three monitors in their native 1280x1024 resolution settings in windowed mode. This was getting exciting and I couldn’t wait to see FS2004 spanned across all three monitors. One of the limitations I had already read about was involving the ATI cards and it was to affect my laptop as well as my fresh January-built home computer as well. While the ATI cards I was using could handle the 3840x1024 resolution settings in windowed mode, the present ATI drivers are capped in d3d to a max 2048x1536 setting for both my laptop and desktop computers. What this means when spanning across three monitors, is that the maximum resolution you will be able to use with 3D acceleration is 1920x480… that’s right 640x480 per screen. Remember FSFW95? That was the fullscreen resolution back then.
OK, I used the SGU to set FS2004 for 1920x480 resolution. I went to open FS2004 and got a window telling me it would open FS2004 in software rendered mode because my graphics card couldn’t handle the current settings, meaning that it wouldn’t even open correctly with my desktop settings. OK, set the desktop resolution setting to 1920x480 and now the icons were huge, but FS2004 would start in 3D accelerated mode. Now the real problem… the menus for FS2004 are designed for a minimum resolution of 800x600 and there is no way to scroll the menus, so what you are left with is FS2004 that can be opened in a non-standard resolution setting but is very limited as to what buttons you can push once inside. For instance, the “Fly Now” button is unavailable… man that’s disappointing! I was able to navigate to the saved flights menu and by double clicking on one of the saved flights was finally able to get a flight opened.
It was one of the Bear Gulch flights included with RealAir’s Citabria/Decathlon/Scout package. Perfect plane for VC work and one I frequently use on the laptop in its native 1280x800 resolution setting. The first thing I notice is everything is huge! With the zoom factor of 1.0 spanned across three monitors, things are way too large. I zoomed out to 0.50 and it started to look a lot more like sitting in the Scout… albeit a bit grainy, remember the 640x480 resolution setting! I proceeded to power up and fly and it was pretty much a slide show, frame rates just weren’t usable enough to enjoy. I tried to get into the display settings to make some modifications but alas, there’s that problem with getting to the full menu. So I basically found that this wonderful Triplehead2go was not going to be a winner with ATI cards given their present driver limitations.
Now I was really bummed. I just dropped a little over a grand in three matching Xerox 19” monitors (my wife wasn’t all too happy about that!) only to find that I’m going to have to buy another graphics card to make the whole thing work. Life is full of negotiations and the negotiations to build the latest computer just three months earlier left me with a spouse not at all happy with the prospect of buying a replacement video card. In this case, it’s not about being able to afford another $200 video card, it’s about flushing the $200 you just spent three months earlier. For a while I thought I was going to have to relinquish the little black box to another tester with adequate equipment, but a friend came to the rescue and let me use his XFX 7600 GT 256MB nVidia card for doing the review. I will await ATI to hopefully offer compatible drivers or if they decide not to offer compatibility, I will probably switch back to using a nVidia card. ATI did release version 6.4 shortly after the release date for the Triplehead2go but that update did not offer any further resolution compatibility.
With the nVidia card installed on my home computer and my desk re-arranged to allow for the triple monitors I was ready to give it a go a second time. I deleted the graphics settings from my FS9 configuration file and this time opened FS2004 directly without using the SGU to preset the resolution settings. I found this worked just fine and FS2004 initially opened just on the center screen, the side screens just showing black. The display options menu had all the wide resolution options from the Triplehead2go available for selection so I set it to 3840x1024x32. My latest computer is way beyond any of the capabilities computers or graphics cards had when FS2004 was initially released and with it I have been able to enjoy FS2004 with all my add-on programs and complex aircraft, with all the sliders basically maxed out and still returning very smooth frame rates. I personally don’t pay a lot of attention to the actual frame rate numbers although I do have the max set at 22 fps, if it runs smooth and no pauses, I am happy.
Knowing that 3840x1024 would probably be a considerably higher load on the CPU and graphics card than my previous 1600x1200 setting, I simply lowered my sliders for Scenery Complexity, Autogen Density and Dynamic Scenery from Extremely Dense to Very Dense and turned off the scenery shadows. I had also used my Flight Environment configuration utility to create DXT3 and lower resolution/higher speed clouds. I normally use the DXT3 cloud textures but knowing how much of an affect weather can have on FS2004, I knew the lower resolution clouds would probably make an even bigger difference with such a wideview display. I figured that would be a good place to start and could make further changes after I got in and started using the sim.
Remember, I also was switching from an ATI Radeon x800GTO to a XFX nVidia GeForce 7600GT, both with 256 megs, so I did expect the GeForce card to run a little faster than the ATI card.
The Technical Side of Things
Matrox accomplished this little wonder by making the computer/graphics card think that the little black box is itself a monitor with three available resolutions settings, 1920x480, 2400x600, 3072x1024 and 3840x1024. The 3072x1024 setting allows for a 75 Hz refresh rate, the others are at 60 Hz. The unit then splits that signal up and sends it to the appropriate monitor. The included software will also allow most programs to recognize the center monitor as the main one, opening up any new windows in that one rather than off to the side. Some programs will fill all three monitors when you go to full screen, but I also noticed that many would just fill the current monitor the window was in. You can always stretch a window out to fill all three screens but I didn’t find that many programs needed to be stretched out that much.
The Triplehead2go will work well with SLI systems so you can either run two 256 meg cards or two 512 meg cards output directly to the TH2Go unit for even faster and better graphics rendering. At present, ATI’s Cross Fire technology is not supported. The ATI x1k series cards will max out at a slightly higher 2400x600 which, while adequate to run FS2004 menus, is still inferior to nVidia’s resolution capability.
The unit is all analogue and there are two supplied cords, one for analogue video card output, the other for DVI output. If your monitor uses a DVI plug you can just use an adaptor which is what I used to hook up my three Xerox monitors. I have noticed requests on the SGU forum for a digital version but there probably won’t be one coming out in the very near future as there is still a limited market for a digital only Triplehead2go. The advantage would be to allow for even higher resolution settings but then you run into limitations with the current video cards that are available.
An additional limitation is the unit is only designed for using monitors with a 4:3 ratio, so all those widescreen monitors that have been hitting the market will display a distorted image if you try to use them with this neat little tool. Matrox support is looking into more resolution compatibility with the TH2Go but they didn’t have an answer yet as to whether this could be a simple software upgrade or if the hardware itself would have to be modified. Given the nature of the spanned image, you really need to use it with a monitor with as thin a bezel as possible, the less space between the visual images the more the impact of the surround experience.
I had originally considered placing two 20” LCD’s to each side of my 21” Dell Sony Trinitron but I ran into an engineering nightmare getting arms and supports to make that work on my desk, and then they’d be sticking out into the room. While it would be possible to mix and match monitors, it is always best to match all three monitors so the visual experience is uniform over all three views. I found the Xerox 19” LCD’s with their 800:1 contrast ratio and fast image fill to create a very nice visual effect, which is better than many of the earlier LCD monitors I have viewed.
What is it Like to Fly in Surround Gaming anyway?
Well by now you do know I was able to get it all to work and it really was pretty easy when I finally had the right equipment. I was quite delighted when I was able to set the graphics settings for a 3840x1024 setting and it worked. I had read that some games will really stretch their menus out when spreading them out over the three displays. FS2004 is not one of those games and the center display nicely shows what a regular menu would look like on a 1280x1024 display. I proceeded to load up a flight from the "create a flight" menu. I had already preloaded Active Sky v6 with real weather and started my TrackIR4 unit. The first thing I did notice was WOW… that 2D panel is rrrreeeeeaaaaalllllyyy stretched out over all three displays. While it is best to open FS2004 from the default flight situation and in 2D panel view, it should be more than obvious that this triple screen arrangement is not really suited to using 2D panels. Yes, someone could go to the trouble of designing widescreen panels to accommodate this resolution setting, but the fact is FS2004 already has the perfect solution built in… the Virtual Cockpit.
Switch over to VC and another WOW, just like with my laptop experience you are zoomed way too far in with a zoom factor of 1.00. The zoom factor was designed originally with a 4:3 display ratio in mind, at my resolution setting the ratio is 15:4 and displayed on a 45” diagonal display! I found in flying several aircraft that I liked the zoom factor set at 0.50 and on some aircraft, even 0.40 looked the best. You can zoom all the way out to a factor of 0.33 but I personally found that setting started to create that fisheye effect that I hate. Now, you will notice that several of the screenshots I included are taken at that 0.33 zoom factor, but it did give a better overall “feel” of what I was experiencing while watching the sim in motion.
Another discovery that I made was that I was really glad to already have a TrackIR unit. This is such a wide angle view that to really see the instrument panel you have to look down at it… and it really does pretty much fill up all the screens, and then look back up out the windows… and that pretty much fills up all the screens again! I wouldn’t want to be doing that with the POV hat switch even if you had set it to move faster, nor would I want to be moving the viewpoint about with the mouse. You might think, yeah… I’m just making another plug for an expensive product but face it, if you can afford a Triplehead2go, the monitors to properly use it, the computer and graphics card(s) to handle it, then the TrackIR is going to be a drop in the bucket. I do think this is the kind of product that is going to appeal more to the VC crowd because it allows you to really use it. These two products work hand in hand to provide a phenomenal flight simulation experience.
Does that mean a registered VC hater wouldn’t enjoy this unit? Of course not. I am sure there are users out there that already see this is the perfect solution for multiple display fixed systems. You could use this widescreen display without the VC, having just an outside view via monitors or retaining your instruments on a separate dedicated display. In that scenario, the TrackIR probably wouldn’t be needed. This would certainly relieve a lot of headaches that operating FS2004 from a multiple computer installation could create. I also realize there are those out there that have tried the TrackIR and just didn’t like it for whatever reason, you’re still gonna love having such a widescreen view, even if you do have to use your thumb to look around.
I also have CFSIII on my computer with the Firepower add-on. I really started liking CFSIII after adding Firepower and it came to life adding the TrackIR unit. I found it very easy to set it up for use with the Triplehead2go but for some reason I couldn’t get the TrackIR unit to work along with it. This was a rather odd discovery and I am sure that the issue will spring up on the forum with a solution in the future.
In my TrackIR review I also plugged the upcoming GT-Legends racing game. I had contacted the publisher asking for a pre-release copy for that review but never heard any word from them. I still have the GT-Legends demo on my computer and while the game is compatible with Triplehead2go, the demo doesn’t seem to be compatible, so I wasn’t able to test it.
I am a big fan of Grand Prix Legends and while the game hasn’t been marketed for years, it has such a following it has been updated and will stand up very well against most any other racing game out there. The SGU is not set up for modifying GPL for widescreen play but I did manage to download a program for modifying the display settings and tried setting it for any of the available Triplehead2go resolution settings. Problem was, it would only display on the center monitor. There is probably some additional startup commands that might allow the game to put the display onto all three monitors but I haven’t discovered it yet.
"Shootem up" games of course are popular sellers and the SGU has almost all the recent games available for quick modification to widescreen mode. I did boot up Doom, Quake4 and Half Life2 and found them all to work well… Quake4 is a little too wide angle for my tastes and Half Life2 loses the aiming reticle but Valve says they will patch that in the near future.
Back to flying with the TH2Go, as that is what this is really about. I have assembled some screenshots of aircraft I particularly enjoyed while testing this unit out… it is not a definitive list, just examples of some of the aircraft I found to work well and wouldn’t hesitate recommending. The blow ups of these are 1280 wide but on a single screen you still won’t get anywhere near the impression of them being stretched over a 45” diagonal screen area.
Aerosoft’s Diamond Katana
Carenado’s Cessna 206 Floatplane
Flight1’s Commander 112A
Carenado’s T-34 Mentor
David Copley’s P-38 Lightning with my favorite Yippee repaint
Neuroflight’s Riems/Cessna F406
Eaglesoft’s Liberty XL2
Flight1’s Coolsky MD-80
Hernan Orellana’s incredible T-37 Tweet PCATD
My own American Aircraft Falcon XP project in development
My favorite aircraft from Russia
The best things in life may be free… but computers don’t seem to fit into that ideal. As we continue to push the technology envelope, we keep discovering faster, more complex systems and better ways of doing old things.
At present, this appears to be the easiest and least expensive way of making a true three-monitor-wide view visual system for flight simulation. Best of all it is small enough that it could be considered portable (if you consider one laptop, one TH2Go and three LCD monitors portable!). This is not the only way to do this but to do it with one computer, and drive three displays that act as one truly wideview screen, it’s the best way I have found.
In fact, I can’t think of another multiple screen setup that would allow for panning around the VC or exterior views using all the displays or using together with the TrackIR unit. I consider this type of hardware to be top of the line and while it will appeal to many, only those that can afford it and the equipment to properly use it are going to be able to come to bat for it.
that someone already owning a state of the art simming computer will
have an additional monitor/video card investment of a little over
a grand, you are going
yourself with a simulator system most flight schools only could dream
about just a few years ago. The question has been asked on the Surround
forum about using two TH2Go units on each of the video outputs from
a top of the
line nVidia card and spanning that to make it a six display unit
either all side-by-side or stacked, but so far no-one has tried it. Therefore
it is not
known if it will work and even if it worked in windowed mode, would
the game allow such a display to be sent out in 3D mode… makes
you wonder though.
|What I Like About The Matrox Triplehead2go|
|What I Don't Like About The Matrox Triplehead2go|
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