Triple monitor shootout: Nvidia GTX Titan vs. GTX 680 vs. Radeon 7970 face off at 5760 x 1080

One of the major selling points for a top-end GPU like Nvidia’s new GTX Titan is the idea that it opens up new gaming experiences. We’ve taken Nvidia’s new GPU for a spin in multi-monitor gaming – along with the GTX 680 and Radeon 7970 for comparison.

When AMD launched the HD 5000 series, it made the decision to focus on multi-monitor gaming, while Nvidia opted to focus on 3D. Once it became clear that 3D gaming simply wasn’t going to be the “next big thing,” Nvidia decided to switch focus and develop its own multi-monitor solutions. AMD held an early lead as far as game compatibility and multi-monitor support from a single card went, but Nvidia has caught up on both fronts. New games that support Eyefinity support Nvidia 2D Surround as well.

There are some differences. Nvidia’s 2D Surround on the GTX 680 can support three displays from any combination of its 2x DVI, 1x HDMI, and 1x DisplayPort outputs. The Radeon 7970 requires that you use both DVI ports and a DisplayPort connection. If you use a DisplayPort to DVI converter, you’ll need an active converter rather than a passive one to do the trick.

AMD’s setup and configuration process for multi-monitor support is, in my opinion, a bit easier to use, but both of them get the job done.

I’ve been a gamer for 25 years, but this is the first time I’ve ever played with a multi-monitor configuration. My two word evaluation of the experience?

Holy crap.

Note: It’s hard to convey the triple-monitor experience on a single display. We recommend you examine the widescreen image in two ways. First, with the image zoomed out so that the entire horizontal fits on your monitor, and second, fully zoomed in. Be advised: You can click every game screenshot in this story for the full-size version – but they’re rather large!

The immersion argument

Proponents of multi-monitor gaming will tell you that the difference between three monitors and one is enormous. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to convey the experience on a single monitor. We’re going to start off with the practical side of multi-monitor gaming, using Batman: Arkham City as an example.

Here’s Robin, using what the game calls Corner Cover. Camera control in this mode is very limited; you can’t rotate your field of vision to see if someone is sneaking up from the other side of the wall, or if there are enemies past the divider on the right hand side. Now, the same screen shot – in 5760 x 1080.

Tripling the horizontal resolution changes the game experience. Now, you can see if enemies are approaching from the right. You can see if there’s an enemy walking on the upper level on the far right hand side. The triple-wide screen option comes in handy in other titles as well, particularly if there’s a lot of action coming in from multiple directions. Here’s Serious Sam: BFE, cropped to a 1920 x 1080 display size.

Here’s the exact same screenshot, with the left and right panels restored. I’ve inserted black lines to show where the bezels sit.

The Gnarr to the right was invisible on a standard widescreen monitor. With triple displays, you can see him coming easily.

The benefits extend to any game that supports the technology – and support has improved markedly over the past few years, thanks to greater attention from AMD and Nvidia, more developers incorporating the option, and a great deal of interest in “second screen” gaming technologies in general. The Wide Screen Gaming Forum (WSGF.org) is also recognised for a great deal of excellent work in developing software workarounds to get games working on widescreen/multi-monitor displays.

The best way to measure if the screen stretching would actually bother you is to focus on the centre of the image and let the left-and-right stay in the periphery. The stretching isn’t nearly as noticeable if your eyes are focused on the middle, where they’d actually be glued to if you were playing the game.

Costs and capabilities

Before we launch into benchmarks, let’s talk about the pros and cons of a multi-monitor rig. Buying three monitors obviously increases the total cost, and while you don’t have to use the exact same displays, it’s typically recommended. Colour calibration can be difficult to tune between two different monitors and the effect is jarring in real life.

The cost, however, is trending downwards, particularly if you’re willing to use a set of smaller displays such as 22in 1920 x 1080 monitors.

The productivity improvements from a dual-display are very real, and while triple monitors are only a boost if you work with multiple full-screen programs simultaneously, the additional cost is smaller if you’re looking to build a dual-monitor workstation to begin with. Websites like the aforementioned Wide Screen Gaming Forum have put together a huge list of supporting titles and written detailed guides to enabling multi-monitor/widescreen support on games. There are also third-party programs like Widescreen Fixer and Flawless Widescreen that fix support in a range of titles.

If you don’t like the distorted view that we’ll be discussing below, one option is to buy monitors that can be tilted into Portrait or Landscape mode. There’s no support for LPL (Landscape-Portrait-Landscape) in 2D Surround or Eyefinity, but three portrait displays gives you a 3240 x 1920 window.

Understanding FOV

The other topic we need to talk about is what three monitors actually shows you – and why it typically looks distorted. All games have a setting called field of view, or FOV. This controls the location of the game’s camera, and what you see by extension. The “best” FOV for a game depends on how close the player is sitting to the screen, the aspect ratio of the display the player is using, and the game engine’s capabilities. Console games often use low FOVs of 60-65 degrees, while PC gamers sitting much closer to their monitors typically prefer a FOV of 85-95.

Here’s a screenshot of Serious Sam: Before First Edition, in 5760 x 1080 mode, using the game’s default FOV of 75. (SS:BFE actually has an in-game FOV adjuster, but most games don’t). Look at the left and right hand sides of the image, and you’ll notice that the palm trees and building are stretched, while Sam and the area directly in front of him looks normal. I’ve added black lines to the image to simulate where monitor bezels would sit.

The next two images show the difference between a FOV of 60 and 120. These were taken from a spot slightly north of the first screenshot.

Here’s 60 FOV. Note that the area to the left and right is much less stretched.

This is 120 FOV. Everything to the left and right of Sam is comically stretched and the camera is far behind the main character.

Here are screenshots of Crysis 3, using the game’s default FOV (top) and under that a modified FOV of 25 (the lowest setting allowed). The ultra-low FOV lines up all three displays, while the default FOV displays more of the game – but stretches it out.

Performance benchmarks

Okay, so let’s look at performance. Our three video cards are an MSI GTX 680 (£370), a PowerColor Radeon 7970 clocked at 1100MHz/1475MHz memory (£330), and a GTX Titan (£830). The rest of the test platform consisted of an Intel Core i7-3770K CPU, 16GB of RAM, Windows 7 64-bit, and a 256GB Plextor SSD.

We expect the Titan to outperform the other cards in this comparison – the question is by how much, and whether or not the card makes sense if you plan to game on a triple monitor rig. We’d like to thank Maingear for helping us out with GTX 680 allocation – the MSI card they sent over helped make this article a reality.

We opted to stick with single-GPU configurations for this round of tests so as not to introduce additional frame latency issues to the subjective experience. Measuring frame latency requires an entirely different type of analysis. We’ll revisit this question in the future.

Batman: Arkham City

Arkham City is a gorgeous title to run at 5760 x 1080; the additional space is very handy for large mob battles when enemies attack from all sides. We tested the game’s built-in benchmark scene in DX11, with Tessellation turned up to High, Extreme detail levels, and with and without 8x MSAA. PhysX was disabled.

All the cards are playable at these frame rates, even with 8x AA enabled. In separate play testing, I ultimately decided to turn down to 4x AA with the Radeon 7970 and GTX 680 – large fights had a tendency to bog down at 8x AA.

Here’s the 8x AA numbers again, but with PhysX enabled. Interestingly enough, the GTX 680 is actually slower than the Radeon 7970 as far as FPS (frames per second) is concerned, though that doesn’t tell the whole story. The GTX 680 is also smoother at the lower framerate, which tends to make for a better experience. It’s here that the Titan really pulls away from the other cards; PhysX on the Titan (with 8x AA enabled) knocks 11 per cent off the GPU’s performance. The Radeon 7970 loses 12 per cent from running PhysX on the CPU, but becomes noticeably more jerky. The GTX 680 drops 30 per cent, but is still smoother than the 7970.

DiRT 3

DiRT 3 makes great use of the extended play space. There’s some degree of distortion, but you’ll scarcely notice it. We tested the game at Ultra detail, with and without 8x MSAA.

DiRT 3 has always favoured AMD, and these figures bear that out. The Radeon 7970 is significantly faster than GTX 680 in both modes, and not far behind the GTX Titan. All three cards turn in fully playable frame rates, however.

Total War: Shogun 2

Total War: Shogun 2’s stretch effect is quite noticeable without FOV tweaking, but multi-monitors still adds to the sense of immersion and seeing battles unfold in real time. It’s also extremely VRAM-intensive. The graph shows the game’s performance at 5760 x 1080 with all detail settings maxed, using no AA, 4x MSAA, and 8x MSAA. The GTX 680 was unable to run the in-game benchmark at 8x AA, the program threw an “Out of video RAM” error when we tried to do so.

The Titan struts its stuff in Shogun 2. Without AA enabled, it’s 20 per cent faster than the Radeon 7970. At 4x MSAA, the Radeon 7970 and GTX 680 are both tied at a jerky 21 FPS, while the Titan’s lead grows to 47 per cent. At 8x MSAA, the GTX 680 falls out altogether, the Radeon can barely manage a slideshow, and the Titan is nearly 70 per cent faster than AMD’s best single-GPU solution. Even so, 4x AA is clearly the sweet spot for Nvidia’s £800 GPU – 22 FPS is too low a frame rate to be much fun.

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is an absolute beast in 5760 x 1080, despite being three years old. The included Frontline benchmark is purposefully difficult to render, and the Titan’s super-charged hardware is beneficial at both Medium and High detail. The Radeon 7970 does extremely well, beating out the GTX 680, but at high detail, the Titan turns in a noticeably smoother experience.

Here’s the game at Very High Detail, with 4x MSAA rather than the AAA filter we used for the previous two tests.

None of the cards can maintain a very playable frame rate, but the Titan far outstrips the other two.

Serious Sam: Before First Edition

Serious Sam: Before First Edition is another game that’s perfectly playable on a single card, even at Ultra detail. We customised the “Ultra” level with the following changes: Parallax Mapping (nice), MSAA set to none, Super-Sample AA set to 4x, Ambient Occlusion to High, and Max Shadow Size and Density to Ultra.

Our test scene was the boss battle at the end of the “Under the Iron Cloud” level. Here, the Titan’s advantage is still significant, but not overwhelming.

Crysis 3

Crysis 3 was our last test. The game is incredibly gorgeous but driving it across three monitors required some significant fine-tuning from 1920 x 1080 resolutions. For reference, the game is playable at 30 FPS, but far smoother at 40 FPS and above. We benchmarked it using the first section of the Red Star Rising chapter.

The GTX 680 is faster than the Radeon 7970 at Medium detail and the two cards essentially tie at the High setting. The Titan wallops both of them, and the difference is noticeable at High Detail. Here’s what happens when we turn up to Very High Detail and enable 4x SMAA (Subpixel Morphological Anti-Aliasing).

The Titan is definitely better than the other cards, but just one Titan can’t handle Crysis 3 smoothly at these resolutions and detail levels.

Does the Titan make a difference?

The games we tested fall into two general camps. Arkham City, DiRT 3, and Serious Sam: BFE are all absolutely playable on the GTX 680 or 7970 in a single-card configuration, even with detail settings turned all the way up. Shogun 2, Metro 2033, and Crysis 3 aren’t. In Shogun 2 and Metro 2033, however, the Titan maintains a playable frame rate at High Detail when the other two cards are stumbling and stuttering. Crysis 3 was the one exception – in that game, all three cards remained playable at High Detail, and dropped below that mark once we increased to Very High Detail and added 4x SMAA.

Personally, I think multi-monitor gaming deserves a chance. Two additional displays drives up total costs, but if you plan to use two monitors for increased productivity, you’re only adding one display – not two. I didn’t just run benchmarks, I played every title that we tested here. In every game, the end result was better. Sight lines are far wider, the sense of immersion is more complete, and the display stretching – which can look pretty terrible in static screenshots – simply isn’t as noticeable when you’re actively in game.

The good news is that the Titan’s value proposition survives quite nicely. You don’t need one to enjoy multi-monitor goodness, but it still makes a difference.

While you’re here, you might also want to read our piece on Nvidia's GTX Titan: How it will affect the future of PC gaming. And there’s also our GTX Titan review, of course.