How Realistic Is Multi-Monitor Gaming On A Budget?

Is a triple-monitor Eyefinity or Surround gaming rig just a toy for the rich, or can it be achieved using parts purchased on a shoestring budget? We test one affordable Radeon and one efficient GeForce to better answer that question.

If you're not familiar with multi-monitor gaming, the concept is simple: three displays connected side-by-side are used as one large screen by the graphics subsystem, giving you a wide view of the environment and pulling you deeper into the game.

Let's consider the advantages of three 1080p monitors over a single 4K panel. A triple-screen setup offers greatly improved peripheral perspective, which aligns with the way that human beings process visual information. Second, three 1920x1080 monitors cumulatively have one-quarter fewer pixels than an Ultra HD monitor at 3840x2160, translating to a lighter graphics load and, ultimately, higher frame rates. Finally, and this is where budget is affected, you can pick up three new 20-23” LCDs for less than $400. Meanwhile, a 4K display starts in the $500 range. And that's for a 30Hz screen. You want 60Hz, nudging the price tag up even higher. A multi-monitor setup also shines when it comes to productivity.

What about the negatives? There is more equipment involved in a triple-monitor setup, obviously. The panels not only take up more space, but are more difficult to arrange than one screen on your desk. Not all games are designed with multi-monitor compatibility in mind. There are also some detractors who think gamers can become less effective because the extra screen real estate is distracting, though I don't agree. In my opinion, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives. More screens equal more fun!

Since we know that three 1080p displays are usually cheaper than a 4K monitor, we're pursuing the budget-oriented approach to multi-monitor gaming. Today, we benchmark two sub-$150 graphics cards to see if they can suitably drive a trio of monitors. 

Budget Multi-Monitor Graphics Cards

Gigabyte supplied both of the budget graphics cards for this story, one Radeon R7 260X and one GeForce GTX 750 Ti. Physically, they appear remarkably similar. The best way to tell them apart is that the Radeon has a CrossFire connector on top of the card, while the GeForce has no SLI bridge. They are roughly the same size, built on blue PCBs and topped with related cooling solutions. The rear I/O brackets even come close to matching. One difference that surprised me was the GeForce card's two HDMI connectors compared to the Radeon's HDMI and DisplayPort outputs.

The GeForce GTX 750 Ti sports 640 CUDA cores and 2GB of GDDR5 on a 128-bit bus. Expect to find the card selling for just under $150, though you can find rebates to bring the price down. An efficient architecture is perhaps the GPU's most storied advantage. In fact, Nvidia's reference card doesn't even need an auxiliary power input. Gigabyte's version does have a six-pin input though, which could benefit overclocking headroom.

In the other corner, we have AMD's Radeon R7 260X with 896 Stream processors and 2GB of GDDR5 also on a 128-bit bus. You'll find it around $130, and can get a better deal by searching out rebates and bundled games. Whereas Nvidia's multi-monitor support is branded as Surround, AMD's is called Eyefinity. Both work well after years of improvements, though Eyefinity is perhaps not as easy to configure (though it does facilitate more flexibility when it comes to monitors with different resolutions).

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  • AndrewJacksonZA
    Thank you very, very much for this article Jason. I also thought that Eyefinity/Surround was only for the rich. This might be affecting my upgrade decision. :-)
  • leeb2013
    Great article. Triple monitor gaming was one of the best things I did, nicely fills your horizontal fov. Shame some recent aaa games still don't support it! 3 2nd hand Samsung monitors, 70 bucks each, R9 290 which is even cheaper now. Get a fairly solid 60fps with low aa and occasionally have to drop the quality settings for these recent poor console ports we're getting.
  • CaedenV
    Its neat to see this working so well on a more budget conscious system. I remember back when this tech was first getting started and even on the high-end of the market it seemed much more work than it was worth.

    For my work computer I will never again go back to having less than 2 displays (though the 3rd tends to get significantly less use, it is handy to have at times). When working with lots of office apps and web browsers it is extremely nice to have everything up at once where you can see it. Even at home when doing work at home I tend to use my desktop display as a 2nd for my gutless laptop rather than using the workhorse gaming/editing rig (plus, the laptop can't game... so less distracting).
    But for gaming, I absolutely prefer a single large high-quality monitor to having 3 'normal' sized ones. I mean, if I could afford 3 high-end displays (and the GPU horsepower to drive them) then I would absolutely go for that. But as a general rule of thumb, at a given budget I find that having a single display that is as large and as nice as possible is much more enjoyable than having 3 mediocre displays.
  • Grognak
    Nearly $900 before buying the screens and GPU. I guess we have different definitions of "budget". Don't know why you would bother getting multi-monitor with a cheap GPU, too; as your benchmarks show, most games get barely playable FPS, and that's with low settings. It was interesting but it really doesn't convince me that this kind of rig is affordable.
  • simon4ok
    I am really interested in knowing how did you manage to connect the monitors to the graphics card? Given that you only had 2 DVIs, HDMI and DisplayPort, which ports did you use for the 3 monitors? And did you convert DVI to HDMI or the other way around? And does that make any difference on these resolutions (1920x1080 per monitor)?
  • eldragon0
    wh3resmycar, I'm assuming you mean for a budget system,

    http://i.imgur.com/eAz4LMp.jpg is my build, and I'd never drop below 4 monitors again. Ultra wide is ok for gaming, but productivity, multiple screens are needed.
  • damianrobertjones
    @wh3resmycar: Why do you feel the need to insult people? I have an ultrawide Dell U2913wm and, in all honesty, I'd gladly move back to a 3xscreen setup. Work can be done, left alone on its own screen and then... gaming.

    Just because YOU do not see the need for something doesn't make the people that do idiots.
  • marciocattini
    Man I'm left wondering whether this article should have included a dual and triple sli/crossfire with the same cards to see if you could achieve a high level of detail...
    I mean 3 radeon 260's and nvidia 750's TI is still pretty cheap compared to a high end card!!
  • Sakkura
    You might want to explain why there's no FCAT data, only the highly unreliable benchmark data from Fraps.
  • Evolution2001
    I'm not entirely sure why you even need to bother with the AMD's and nVidia's config software. Both Win7 and 8 natively support three monitor setups, and with monitors of different resolution/size.
    I'm at work in my cubicle and I'm currently writing this on a basic HP Probook 6575b which uses the AMD A6-4400M APU (Radeon HD7520G video chipset) connected to HP's docking station. I have (2) Samsung B2230's side by side and an HP P221 hanging on the wall in a portrait orientation.
    Using basic Windows configuration, I have the P221 monitor offset so bottom portion is about 2" above the bottom of the Samsungs, and extends about 10" above. Even though the physical screen of the P221 does not align with the Samsungs, when I drag windows across the monitors, they stay exactly lined up; they don't get that disconnected offset. (I realize it may be hard to visualize).

    The point being is that Windows' native monitor resolution settings will allow you do the basics needed to configure your three monitor setup as well as set things like offset and orientation. I think what throws off most people is that they don't realize that in the screen resolution settings, you can drag your monitors around and reorder and align them as needed.

    One other tip... rather than have your monitors bezels next to each other, find your normal seating position. Now take your outer monitor and move the bezel so it's directly behind the middle monitor's bezel. Effectively you should be able to achieve the visual perception of only a single bezel divide instead of a double-wide.
  • dovah-chan
    Still going to buy a PB278Q and save my desk space and get rid of my other monitors.
  • bwcbwc
    Interesting results for that config. With the GTX 760's and R9 280's going under $200 now, I'd be interested to see the results for the midrange/upper mid-range cards. Maybe get consistent Medium detail without overclock?
  • Xyos
    4k came before technology was ready. There are windows/text scaling issues outside of gaming, and it takes a monster rig to run any game in 4k (2x 980's struggle to max out BF4/Crysis 3 and maintain 60 fps).
  • TechyInAZ
    I think you guys should have also used the GTX 760 and the R9 270. They are around $170 which i call very cheap for that kind of horsepower. would love to see these in here as well.
  • I've been gaming for a while with 3 monitors, using an obsolete radeon hd 6850. It works pretty well.

    The biggest advantage is the immersion. Like if it's raining. On one screen I can't really tell. On 3, you can't really see things peripheral sharply, except movements. When it rains you really feel like it's raining around you.

    I don't like Eyefinity. It sometimes makes games look stretched, or too narrow. And it really sucks when you aren't gaming, it messed up maximize and general multi-monitor workflow.
  • maestro0428
    @simon4ok, as for hooking up the monitors, I used 2x DVI and the HDMI on both cards which was then connected to my monitors DVI ports (as the monitors don't have HDMI, I used an HMDI>DVI cable for one of them).
  • maestro0428
    @TechyInAZ, we chose the cards we used as the were such a good value. I wondered just how low we could go and still be successful. We could certainly do another article in the future using more powerful cards. I use an Nvidia Surround set up on a daily basis, so you can expect more articles on both teams solutions in the future.
  • maestro0428
    @Evolution2001. Interesting tip on hiding the bezels. I will try it out and see how it works. Yes, you can certainly configure your LCDs in windows, but to get bezel correction and to have the screens act as one large monitor, you need to use AMD/Nvidias software. That is necessary for gaming.
  • jjb8675309
    The GPUs used are too "budget" imo I think a gtx 760 or better should have been used. Personally I cannot stand the inconsistencies of low end TN panels and trying to line them up right is a nightmare. I tried 3 x 1080p with a single gtx 680 and it ran most games very nicely on medium/high settings and reasonable or low AA. In the end I think it is better to go with a nice single 27" monitor.
  • maestro0428
    As far as the system goes, it was what I had available during the time the article was written. I realize it was not not "budget" per se, but I wanted to give the cards all the room they needed to perform. Could this be done again using a lower performing CPU? Sure, I am also interested in what the results would be from something like a Intel i3.
  • ArrMatey
    @Evolution2001 This article is primarly about gaming, and windows multi-monitor management does not work for games. Games need to be presented the displays as if there was only one monitor. Eyefinity pretends you have a single 5760x1080 display, rather than three seperate 1920x1080 displays. If you use your standard 3 display setup in windows, your game is only going to be displayed on whatever you have defined as the main display.
  • synge
    This was an interesting experiment I suppose, to show that budget cards can handle triple-monitor gaming to some degree. I wouldn't do it. I consider the R9 270X (which currently retails for about $170) at the absolute minimum for a realistic triple-monitor setup. You would get so much more oomph for a few more bucks! Though personally, I really like my eye candy, so I wouldn't go triple-monitor with anything less than a 290X or GTX970.
  • larkspur
    One thing I wanted to point out (I didn't see it mentioned in the article) is that a triple-monitor setup is very flexible. Just because you have triple monitors doesn't lock you into using them for every game. Let's say you get a game that is very demanding and doesn't get the eye candy/fps that you really want when its running on all three monitors - Just set the game's resolution to a single monitor, shut off the two side monitors and you can play on one monitor with great settings just like everyone else who only has a single monitor.

    The trouble is - once you go triple monitor, you are going to be spoiled and will feel 'confined' by a single monitor. I still use a single 6970 2gb to game on three 1600x1200 monitors and have been loving it for years. I use flawless widescreen when necessary. Now that AMD eyefinity supports different resolution monitors in the same display group, I am looking at putting a 1920x1200 monitor in the middle. Thanks for the article!
  • qlum
    I tried eyefinity a few times but I found that on games that run well on my 7950 (with a big oc) in eyefinity generally don't support it well. But really 3 monitors has plenty of uses besides running the game on all 3 so I am fine with not using it.