Using more than two monitors used to be a luxury for those with the biggest PC-building budgets. These days, large, high-resolution displays are affordable, and graphics cards are more powerful than ever. If the thought of gaming (or working) on three displays at once entices you, here's how to make it happen.
Imagine it: firing up your favourite game and having it spread across three glorious displays, a full field-of-vision where you can see more bad guys coming, and a larger view of the game field, whether you're playing a FPS, racing game, top-down strategy or MMO. Even better, if you've purchased or built a computer at all in the past few years, odds are you have a video card that already supports it. Of course, gaming with three displays also requires significant graphics power, so even if your card supports three panels, gaming with it is another story.
Before you go plugging things in, you have some homework to do first. Making the most of multiple monitors isn't difficult, but a little planning goes a long way. Let's walk you through what you need to know and how to set everything up, step by step.
Make Sure The Games You Want to Play Support Three Panels
Before you do anything -- and especially before you start spending money, find out if your favourite games support three-panel gaming. Some games do right out of the box, while others will use your primary display and ignore the others. Titles like Battlefield 4, Borderlands 2, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, GRID Autosport and Elite: Dangerous all support three monitors with little additional configuration, you just have to group them first (more on how to do that later.) The Wide Screen Gaming Forum keeps a database of Eyefinity and Surround-capable games here you can search for your favourite titles before you go and buy a second or third display.
If your favourite game isn't in that list, it doesn't mean it won't work. The list only contains games verified to work with multiple panels, so newly released games may not be included yet, and games that require tweaks like third-party mods or FOV (field of view) hacks won't show up either. Do your homework -- odds are someone's managed to make your favourite game work. Even if they haven't, there are plenty of other games to choose from.
Make Sure Your Graphics Card Can Support Three Displays
Next, before you run out and buy another display, see if your current graphics card can support three displays. Part of this is simple -- just look at the back of your computer and see how many outputs your card has. If you've purchased a mid-to-upper tier card at all in the past four or five years, odds are you have at least one DVI output, DisplayPort output and HDMI output (possibly several of each). If you have at least three outputs (or one DisplayPort 1.2 port you can daisy-chain with compatible displays), you're in good shape.
If you only have two, all isn't lost. Many video cards still support multiple displays connected to the a single output using a video splitter. That will work for everyday use, but likely not for gaming. You'll need to consult the documentation for your card to be sure, or do a little research (like Googling your graphics card model and the terms "multiple monitors" and "splitter" at the same time) before you run out and buy a splitter.
Similarly, mixing outputs from your graphics card can be tricky. Some video cards will work with any combination of connections, but others demand you use specific ports. Some support "passive" adaptors, meaning you can connect a dongle to convert a DVI port to a DisplayPort, for example. Others require "active" adaptors -- meaning you'll need to provide an additional power source before you can connect your card's DVI port to a display's DisplayPort input. Your best bet is to look around the web (again, search your card's model number and "3 monitors" or "active" and "passive") to see if other people have been successful with your card in a triple monitor setup. If all of that sounds like a pain, it is. If you start to get into the weeds with a card you already have, or get conflicting information from your research, you may be better off just upgrading your graphics card.
Traditionally, AMD cards have been the go-to cards for triple (or more) monitor gaming, thanks to AMD's Eyefinity technology. When it works, it works really well, and it seamlessly spans your game across multiple displays, and even gives you options to compensate for your display's bezel width or use different resolutions. NVIDIA, not to be outdone, has NVIDIA Surround for multi-monitor gaming, which supports up to five displays and even 4K resolutions (on high end cards, of course). AMD has a history of making three-plus monitor gaming easy to set up, but if you're an NVIDIA die-hard, your favourite card should work too.
If you do upgrade, you'll be happy to learn that all of this generation's bang-for-your-buck cards can generally support three (or more) displays. AMD has a list of Eyefinity GPUs here, and NVIDIA has a list of Surround-supported GPUs here so you can make sure the card you want will work the way you want it to. Similarly, the folks at Tom's Hardware have a great guide to graphics cards at all price points so you have a couple of options to start your search with. Before you buy, however, make sure to do a little research to see how other people have connected the card you're interested in to three displays, and whether they made it work with the games you like to play. Some cards may require those splitters we mentioned, or share outputs on different connectors. (For example, the DVI port and the DisplayPort connectors are actually the same output.) A little homework in advance will make sure you get all of the components you need at once, and don't have to wait for an adaptor or dongle to ship before your dream setup is complete.
Make Sure All of Your Displays Can Connect to Your Graphics Card
Your next step is to make sure all of your displays can connect to the same graphics card. If you have displays with multiple inputs, such as DVI, DisplayPort, HDMI and other connection options, you can mix and match with whatever your graphics card supports best. For example, the the Dell Ultrasharp line is well known for cramming a ton of inputs on a thin (and relatively affordable) display. However, if you do your display shopping on a budget (and there are lots of cheap and awesome options out there), you'll need to make sure your monitors have the inputs you need before you buy. Some high-quality panels that come come cheap sacrifice input options in order to keep price down.
That means you may score a great 27-inch display, for example, that only has one DVI-D input and one VGA input. If you have a graphics card with a bunch of DisplayPort outputs, that could make things more difficult. You'd have to wind up spending money on adaptors and dongles to make everything work, and even then you could still run into problems. Seamless gaming on three displays doesn't require that all three displays be connected at the same resolution and with the same connectors, but it certainly helps if they are. If you wind up having to bump a DisplayPort output down to VGA, you can bet it won't work when you try to game with that display in the mix.
Of course, the whole thing is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If you already have a graphics card and you're shopping for displays, you can just see how other people have set up three displays with your card and make sure you get displays with the right combination of ports (preferably three of the same display.) If you have the displays already and you're shopping for cards, you can just buy according to the input options you have one those displays. If you already have both (like I did, unfortunately), you may be stuck buying dongles anyway and just hoping it works out. At the very least, you'll be able to work with three displays, but your gaming may be limited to one or two.
Enable All Three Monitors In Windows
Once you have the right card and the right displays, now you just have to the pieces together. If you have your displays connected and they're all supported on the ports you've plugged them into, Windows should automatically recognise them. With luck, they will all work automatically. If they don't, you may need to force your graphics card to detect or enable one of them. Right-click anywhere on your desktop, then select "Screen Resolution". You'll see all of the displays connected to your computer, along with their position relative to your primary display.
If one of them is missing, try clicking "Detect" to make sure Windows sees them all. If it's greyed out, there may be a problem with the connection, or the screen resolution you're trying to run the display at may be too high. Try lowering the resolution on that display to see if it starts working. Similarly, make sure that "Multiple Displays" in the Screen Resolution control panel is set to "Extend these displays". You may need to drag and drop their position around a bit in the control panel to make sure your desktop layout matches where the monitors are physically placed on your desk. Once you have everything set up and all three displays are running, click Apply and OK. At this stage, your displays are all set up for everyday work. You can use them productively for anything you want -- web browsing on one, email on another, and open documents on the third -- whatever you prefer.
Group Your Displays and Fire Up Your Games
Now that all three displays are connected to your PC and working, we have to get them all set up for three-panel gaming. Here's what you'll need to do:
- Before anything else, update your graphics card's drivers. Head over to AMD's driver download page or NVIDIA's driver download page and get the most recent drivers for your card.
- Install the drivers and restart your system. Once you've rebooted, launch your graphics card's driver software (NVIDIA Control Panel or AMD's Catalyst Control Center.)
- Next, we'll set up your displays for multi-panel gaming. AMD owners have to create an "Eyefinity Display Group", which tells your graphics card which display is the primary one (and should serve as the centre of your field of view in a game) and which ones are on either side. NVIDIA owners can click "Configure Surround, PhysX" to do the same thing. Both control panels will also let you correct for the thickness of your displays' bezels, move displays around, change display resolutions while you're gaming, and so on.
- After your display groups are configured, fire up one of your favourite titles. You'll need to head into the game's video settings and change the game's resolution to match the total resolution of your combined displays (for example, three displays running at 1920px x 1200px will be 5760px x 1200px).
- Next, if your game allows you to change field of view, you'll also want to expand it to get more of the game in your peripheral vision. Experiment with different values. Some games start you at about 45 degrees in front for a single display, and some let you go as high as 75 degrees or 90 degrees. You could go as high as possible, but you may wind up with distorted, fat-looking objects. Play around and see what works for you and the game you're playing.
Even if there's no setting for FOV in your game's video options, you may be able to manually edit the game's config files. Every game is different, so do a little digging (like Googling your game's name and "FOV" for example) to see what you can do. Either way, at this point, your favourite game should be up and spread across three displays, looking just the way you want it to.
Don't be disheartened if this all seems complicated -- it's actually fast and simple once you have all of the right parts, and once you know they all go together. Triple-display setups are easy to set up, but sometimes difficult to configure, mostly because there are plenty of points of failure. You may run into a graphics card that doesn't support different screen sizes or resolutions, or a game that won't span all three displays, or a broken driver that causes crazy artifacting in a specific game, and so on. The pieces fit together easily enough, but the devil is in the details.
Once you get the kinks ironed out though, the rest is cake. Gaming on three displays -- especially when the game you're playing supports it -- is a lot of fun. Once you get started, it's difficult to go back to not having the same peripheral awareness you get with it. If you have the budget, the desk space (and a great triple-monitor stand option or two), and the time to get everything set up, it's a great way to upgrade your PC gaming experience.