I’ve always been a fan of multiple monitor display setups. Ever since five years ago when I picked up an NVIDIA GeForce 7800GT with twin DVI connectors, I’ve been enjoying “the good life” with a pair of monitors by my side. I’ve found the boost in my productivity to be incredible, and have been advocating it to my friends and colleagues. It’s come to the point where I almost feel claustrophobic and extremely confined when I work on an Adobe Flash project with only a single display. Indeed, assuming you have the desk space, multiple monitors is the way to go.
But why stop at just two monitors? Remember those sci-fi movies where they always have a bunch of monitors all over the place, or one really big display that wraps around them? That’s exactly what SAPPHIRE is promising with its Radeon HD 6870 FleX edition graphics card, complete with an easy and cost-effective setup. I was a little skeptical of how easy it could be, but the temptation of having a tri-monitor setup was too much to resist.
What comes in the box
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the HD 6870 card itself. After cracking open the case and bringing the card out of its thick padded sleeve, I was rather surprised by the detail that went into the cosmetic design of the plastic shroud under the card. Painted a dark gray with blue accent stripes, it’s rather attractive. It’s a shame that none of this is visible inside of the case, as it all faces down and only the circuit board is visible through my case window.
The next thing that instantly caught my eye was the cooling system of the card. With a massive fan, a large heat sink, and several copper heat pipes, it’s pretty evident that SAPPHIRE is taking cooling seriously. That’s a big plus in my book—the better the thermal design in a computer part, the safer I feel. It will help make sure you’ll get as much life out of a component as possible. Plus, the larger fan was rather quiet in my case, even under heavy gameplay loads.
Next up is the rear output plate. The HD 6870 is a two-slot card that offers a wide array of ports to use, including a single link DVI (top, dark grey), dual link DVI (bottom, white), HDMI, and two mini-DisplayPort connectors. Each one of these can fuel their own monitors, easily offering 5 monitors right out of the box. For those needing a VGA connection, you can easily use an adapter with the DVI ports (one is included).
As for the rest of the goodies, I will say that SAPPHIRE does not skimp on including a good assortment of cables and adapters to get you started. Starting from the top-left in the image above is the CrossFire bridge cable, which is used in an optional setup of installing a second card and running them together in CrossFire mode for improved performance and to power additional displays. Next are the video adapters, including DVI to VGA, HDMI to DVI, and Mini DisplayPort to a full-sized DisplayPort cable. SAPPHIRE has also included two four-pin Molex power connectors to 6-pin power connectors. Because the card requires more power than the PCIe slot can give, it requires these cables in case your power supply doesn’t already have dedicated 6-pin lines.
Finally, there is some light documentation and a driver disc. There is also a card inviting users to register the card and join the “SAPPHIRE Select Club”, which I view as optional. Regarding the driver disc, I instead opted to download the latest drivers from AMD’s website. It’s also worth mentioning that SAPPHIRE includes their case badge decal within the driver disc envelope (bottom-right in the photo above) for those that care about that sort of thing.
SAPPHIRE HD 6870 specifications and test rig
While not top-of-the-line, the SAPPHIRE HD 6870 is pretty damned beefy in its own right. Coupled with a very user-friendly way to work with three or more monitors, and you have a winner at a great price.
- PCI Express 2.0 x16 interface
- AMD Radeon HD 6870 GPU
- 40nm process node
- 900MHz core clock
- 1120 Stream Processors
- 1GB 1050MHz GDDR5
- 256-bit Memory Bus
- 4.2 GBps memory Bandwidth
- Power: 2×6-pin PCIe
- 1x Dual-Link DVI
- 1x Single-Link DVI
- 1x HDMI 1.4a
- 2x Mini-DisplayPort (DisplayPort 1.2)
- Stereoscopic (3D) Output
- Eyefinity support
- CrossFireX Support
- Supports DirectX 11 & OpenGL 3.2
Now, my own rig is a whole other story. The HD 6870 completely dwarfs everything else in my system by exactly five years. The reason for this is because my rig has been more geared for a general workstation. While it’s been a little short on RAM, for what I do it has gotten me by perfectly over the past half-decade. While it may seem like overkill to put such a modern card into an aging system, I will argue wholeheartedly that the ability to run 3+ monitors on this one card is fully worth the investment.
Installing the HD 6870
Installing a graphics card is a fairly easy, straight-forward process. After unscrewing my old NVIDIA GeForce 7800GT from its retention bracket and popping it out of the PCIe slot, everything is ready to slide the SAPPHIRE HD 6870 in. Once in, secure it to your cases’ retention bracket and hook up the two 6-pin power connectors to your power supply, using the included power adapter cables if necessary.
One thing to point out, though, is that the HD 6870 is a rather large card. At about 9.5″ long, it barely fit in my mid-sized ATX case with only a few millimeters to breathe between it and the hard disk chassis. It also blocked access to two of my SATA ports, so make sure to check your case and motherboard configuration to see if it will fit well.
SAPPHIRE FleX and its benefits
SAPPHIRE’s “secret sauce” in its HD 6870 is the “FleX” solution. Insinuating “flexibility”, this particular card allows three DVI monitors to be set up using AMD’s Eyefinity display setup. What makes this important is the fact that until now, to add a third monitor, Eyefinity required at least one of the monitors to use one of the DisplayPort outputs on an AMD card. Instead, with FleX, the HDMI port is used with an included HDMI to DVI adapter. While this may not seem like much, this is a nice convenience factor and can save a few bucks.
While it would be great to use three monitors that accept both DVI and DisplayPort, this may be a bit more expensive than just buying three DVI-only monitors. Also, if you are just wanting to add a third monitor to an existing dual-monitor setup, the FleX solution will also accept a third DVI monitor in this case. Either way, the SAPPHIRE FleX HD 6870 will handle all three right out of the box without requiring the purchase of a separate active DisplayPort adapter or dongle.
One thing I will point out however, is that as cool as FleX is, you could use a non-FleX card and just buy an active mini-DisplayPort to DVI adapter for the third display. Yes, it is nice to not have to worry about the extra part, but they are not terribly expensive at around $20. But then again, personally if I had a choice between a FleX card an a non-FleX card, I’d still go with FleX just so I could avoid needing the adapter — it’s just one less thing to worry about.
AMD Eyefinity and its benefits
This was my first time ever using AMD Eyefinity, and I had no idea it was as intuitive as it turned out to be. I was expecting to have to learn how to wrangle a new complex program, but thankfully this was far from the case. Not only did it live up to the hype AMD pumped out when I learned about it at SIGGRAPH 2010, but it completely blew away my expectations.
Simply put, Eyefinity is an amazing hardware and software solution by AMD that is responsible for setting up and driving its multi-display technology, and makes it an extremely easy ordeal. Eyefinity is built right into the hardware of supported AMD video cards, which comprises multiple display engines that enable the multi-output options (normal cards don’t have these copious amounts of display engines). AMD’s video driver and software suite Catalyst is the user-side of the equation, where the multi-display setups can be configured.
What is nice about Eyefinity is that it is not a separate program or application. It is fully included and integrated into Catalyst, the driver and software suite that has been running ATi (now AMD) cards for years. This is excellent, as it streamlines and simplifies the setup process. One thing to note, however, is that Eyefinity only currently runs on Windows Vista and Windows 7. While there are plans for Linux support, Windows XP will not be supported.
The amazing part of Eyefinity is just how flexible and adaptive it is. While I had only 4 monitors to test it with, I’m convinced you could throw any combination of monitor types, resolutions, and orientations at it, and it will help you set it up in the layout that fits your workplace. For example, I was able to easily set up a T-formation with three monitors in a row on my desk, and a forth smaller one above them. Eyefinity’s ability to conform to your workspace and speedy setup are nothing short of revolutionary.
Setting up a group of displays using AMD Eyefinity
I cannot stress enough how easy setting up a multi-display setup is with Windows 7 and AMD Eyefinity. Here’s what it took for me to get up and running. This example will assume that you have three duplicate monitors, all with the same resolution. While a variety of resolutions can be used, it is ideal to have identical displays for a uniform look.
After physically laying out my three 24″ Dell monitors (two 2407WFPs on the ends, with a 2408WFP in the middle), I started out by firing up my rig with just the left-most monitor connected to one of the DVI ports. Once Windows 7 was fully booted up, I connected the middle monitor to the second DVI port, and finally the third one using the HDMI to DVI adapter (included). As I did this, the monitors were automatically configured and added. Bam, that easy.
At this point, you need to decide how you want Windows to treat the displays. There are two main options: extended desktops, and a grouped SLS (Single Large Surface). An extended desktop is what Windows 7 automatically set up for you: an extended desktop space that treats each display as its own monitor and resolution, while allowing windows to be dragged between the displays. Windows, games, and movies will full-screen to whichever monitor they are currently floating in.
Conversely, a grouped SLS is created by using Eyefinity. Instead of seeing three separate windows, this allows Windows 7 to treat them as a single gigantic display. For example, my three 1920 x 1080 displays were considered to be 5760 x 1080. Now, when I maximize a window, it spans all three windows. This also allows games to be played across all three monitors, if they support it. AMD has a list of popular games and if they support Eyefinity resolutions or not—those that don’t typically just show the same cloned image on all three screens.
To get from the extended desktop to a SLS in Eyefinity is a pretty straightforward process. After entering the Catalyst Control Center, go to Desktop and Displays, Desktop Management, and finally Creating and Arranging Desktops. It will show a simplified diagram of the displays detected.
Click on one of the downward-facing black triangles in one of the displays, and choose “Create group”. It will then ask for what layout you wish to use, such as three monitors lined up horizontally along a desk, or stacked vertically. After picking one and clicking “accept”, it will fuse the display area together.
Next, Catalyst asks if the monitors are in the correct order. If they aren’t it will turn each monitor blue and ask you to click the correlating monitor on a miniature version of the layout.
At this point, Catalyst will ask if you would like to engage bezel compensation. Bezel compensation adjusts the resolution to compensate for the widths of the monitor’s bezels — the borders that go around the display. Without it, windows and objects in games will “jump” from frame to frame between adjacent monitors. But with bezel compensation, the displays become almost like floating windows into the computer world, where objects will go “behind” the monitor bezels as the computer will now be aware of the physical space between the edges of monitors. This is particularly important for gaming with Eyefinity setups.
As a final step, you can further tweak the location of the displays, such as the location of a forth monitor. In this case, I added a small older monitor using a DisplayPort adapter and dragged its position to be above the main three in an inverted “T” position. To coincide with this, Windows 7 also recognizes this layout when I go to Display Properties and see the Screen Resolution options.
How Eyefinity and multiple displays improves office workflow
Adding extra monitors undoubtedly increases productivity. By having more windows opened around you, you have access to more tools, more information, and more entertainment than ever possible with just a single screen. Instead of having to switch between windows using the taskbar or Alt-Tabbing, it’s all there whenever you need it. Let’s take a look at a few sample setups I had while testing out the HD 6870.
The first is a rather basic everyday task: surfing the internet. Personally, I’m a tab-aholic in Firefox, often having over 10 tabs. With just one display, I have to switch back and forth between the tabs, but with three monitors, I’m able to see multiple things all at once. In the above image, I have the displays rotated in portrait (vertical) orientation to be able to read long articles on all three, or optionally split them up into a grid of six smaller windows. Email, calendar, news feeds, investments, everything can be seen and done all at once.
Another very nifty use of three monitors is an extra-large viewing area for mapping software. For example, using Google Earth was a massive treat with such a large surface. Entire towns can sprawl out in front of me, with a large amount of detail. Looking through city highway routes with this level of clarity was also really impressive, not to mention useful.
Next is how a tri-monitor setup can help in a creative workflow. As a graphic design artist, I am constantly working in several content creation suites, such as Adobe Creative Suite 4 which includes Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash. Many of my more complex projects will have me going from one program to the other, and back. Instead of switching between them, I am able to see all the stages of my work at every moment along my personal production pipeline. And, because Adobe allows me to literally drag assets between the programs, transporting objects around is easier than ever before.
As an extremely specialized example of this, take a look at Adobe Flash Professional. There are a great deal of components that are involved in a Flash project. I’m so used to having to navigate different components in Flash by constantly opening and closing the individual panels. With three monitors, I can finally space everything out and be able to see everything together in harmony. My coding window, animation editor, artboard, timeline, library… it’s all here. This WILL boost my productivity immensely. My only regret is not having this technology at my side sooner.
What Eyefinity does to ratchet up your gaming experience
Now for the fun part: what a group of three monitors can do for gaming. Back in the day, you needed special setups in order to have a wrap-around view in racing games and flight simulators. Now all you need is this single HD 6870 card. I will say this right now: while having three monitors is far from necessary to fully enjoy a game, it sure is pretty frickin’ cool. Not every game can take advantage of the ridiculously high resolutions a grouped set of monitors get with Eyefinity, but most of the AAA and popular games work. AMD is tallying a list of Eyefinity-compatible games, for those that want to know ahead of time.
After trying a few different games that AMD listed as compatible with Eyefinity setups, I quickly found that these games fit into two categories: ones that have three monitor setups in mind and design for it, and those that just happen to be able to adapt to the wide resolution. In the former category, games such as Tom Clancy’s HAWX and Dirt 2 place the heads-up display elements front-and-center in the middle display, with the left and right monitors being used solely for peripheral vision. The latter games such as Portal and Team Fortress 2 also have a nice wide ultra-panoramic view, but the HUD elements remain in the far-left and far-right corners, making them rather difficult to keep track of when they are in such extreme locations — barring some interface tweaks or modifications.
Now how did my aging system fare at full 5760 x 1080? Surprisingly well, actually. While I certainly had to crank down the rest of the settings to get somewhat smooth framerates, the huge rendering window didn’t bog things down as bad as I had expected. From this, I estimate that if I had built a system designed for today’s gaming demands, going from a single display to three wouldn’t put a significant hamper on framerate—though of course, I have no way of testing this myself.
Of the games I tested out, by far the ones that were most enjoyable were games that were designed for a multi-monitor setup. Beyond that, games such as racing and flight simulator games were the most impressive. With added peripheral vision, the world really opens up around you, giving an even greater sense of depth and speed. Seeing the spectators blur bast in Dirt 2 was awesome, and flying between skyscrapers in HAWX is exhilarating. While I didn’t test them, I would imagine that MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft and the upcoming game RIFT would also take advantage of the improved screen real-estate, especially with all the information that is displayed in late-game raids.
In contrast, FPS games that I tried didn’t quite have the same impact as the ones above. While they are still quite fun to play with the added peripheral vision, it wasn’t as much of a game-changer as a flight-sim or racing game would get. This may change as more AAA titles are designed to adopt Eyefinity setups.
For anyone that is looking to upgrade their workstation desktop to have three or more monitors, the
SAPPHIRE FleX Radeon HD 6870 makes a superb choice. With the FleX solution SAPPHIRE has created, this has become a very affordable setup that can bring together three DVI displays rather than needing DisplayPort monitors or adapters that Eyefinity normally requires for three-display setups. The extreme boost to graphical real estate may seem like overkill, but when working on complex programs, the creative workflow has never been easier. AMD has blown me away by just how easy and flexible its Eyefinity solution is.
Normally I can come up with a hefty list of critiques for hardware, but I’m actually drawing a fairly short list here. As the card is a bit longer than reference Radeon HD 6870s from AMD, make sure to check your existing case to see if it will fit, and that it doesn’t block access to any important components on the motherboard. Also, it is worth pointing out that not everyone will find it practical to fit three or more monitors into their existing workspace, especially in the tight confines of a cubicle. Finally, to start from scratch and to buy three matching monitors can be a bit expensive.
So is having three monitors worth the expense? I cannot stress this enough: absolutely. Even for those that aren’t heavy content creators, having the extra space to stretch out and see more at once will really enrich the day-to-day computing experience. This card is also pretty damn impressive for those that plan on doing some serious multi-display gaming. However, for those that just want multiple displays, admittedly a more basic Eyefinity-enabled card may suffice, but I’d rather have some extra power under the hood.
In closing, the SAPPHIRE Radeon HD 6870 is a fantastic card for both professional and recreational use. With a competitive price point, FleX for easy use of tri-DVI setups, mini-DisplayPorts, and a good cooling system, we award this card the Icrontic Stamp of Approval. If anything, it sure looks cool to have that sci-fi inspired wall of monitors for your personal command station.
- Affordable way to set up a three or more display system
- Extremely fast and intuitive setup via AMD Catalyst and Eyefinity
- FleX solution allows for a triple DVI display setup right out of the box
- Games designed to work with Eyefinity setups were a blast to play
- Excellent and quiet cooling design
- Large card dimensions may block ports on motherboard, or not fit in smaller cases
- As cool as FleX is, active DisplayPort adapters are not terribly expensive
- Could be a bit overkill for some users; a cheaper Eyefinity-enabled card may suffice