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Matrox TripleHead2Go Digital Edition

Date: March 18, 2008
Author(s): Greg King

With the digital edition of the TripleHead2Go, hooking up three LCD’s via DVI and VGA is possible. This allows you to drastically increase your desktop space and/or improve your gaming. Best of all, you don’t need to add a second GPU, and not even an additional power outlet is required!



Introduction

To date, there have only been a handful of products that have crossed this test bench that I have wanted for my own when the review was posted. When I think of such products, Logitech’s Squeezebox comes to mind, as well as the Hiper Anubis. While completely different pieces of hardware serving completely different purposes, both impressed me to the point of getting my own for everyday use. I am happy to this day with my Squeezebox hooked up to my home speakers and my personal PC resides in an Anubis chassis as I type this.

Another little gem of hardware that I have been lucky enough to use was Matrox TripleHead2Go. Using more than one monitor has been a long time practice for me at both work and at home and when we first saw the original, all analog TH2Go at the GDC in San Jose back in March of 2006 showing off Half Life 2: Lost Coast, I knew that it was a product that we needed to tell you more about.

With Matrox more than happy to cater to our evaluation request, we were left impressed with the original variant of the TH2Go. As much as we liked the original, we were not without a few hopes and wishes for future models. The most glaring issue we saw with the original TH2Go was that it was analog only. For those with DVI capable LCD monitors, you either had to hope that your screen also had VGA outputs or that Matrox would eventually get around to releasing an all digital version of the popular video adapter.

It would appear that Matrox was listening and late last summer, they released the digital edition of the product. Capable of accepting signal from both digital and analog LCD screens, the TH2Go digital edition has broadened the capabilities of the TH2Go family with deeper monitor support and far more supported resolutions.

Long being known as an alternative graphics solution provider, Matrox has been making ripples in the enthusiast sector with their multiple monitor “Graphics Expansion Modules”, known as GXMs by Matrox themselves. With the flight and racing simulator guys singing the praises of these GXM products, the TripleHead2Go digital edition is a product worth getting excited over.

Closer Look

Differing little from the analog version, the digital TH2Go ships in a clean and simple package that provides plenty of information about the TH2Go and what it can do.

Once opened, we can see that the TH2Go comes bundled with a set of cables consisting of VGA, DVI and USB cables. With the latest edition being digital, it might seem odd that Matrox would bundle a VGA cable with the device but showing a great deal of foresight on the companies’ part, Matrox allows the TH2Go to hook up to notebooks and desktops that might lack a digital out connection. We will get more into this later.

Getting to the device itself, we can see that it resembles the analog version quite a bit. One unique feature is that instead of needing a DC power adapter, the unit is powered via the host PC’s USB bus. It’s a welcome addition to the TH2Go and one that we wish we would have seen on the original. While we do not know exactly why the analog version needed a power adapter, the B-type USB connector adds to the value of the TH2Go immediately.

Rotating the TH2Go 180 degrees we can see the three DVI ports clearly labeled on the top of the adapter telling the user which monitors to connect to each port be it right, middle or left.

As similar as the analog and digital versions look, when placed side by side, the difference is night and day. One feature of the digital TH2Go that we love already is that all three video out DVI ports are on one side whereas on the analog version, two were on one side and the third was on the same side as the video input port. This makes the TH2Go, when connected, a lot easier to position either on a desk or behind it. Just for comparison’s sake, let’s take one more look at how the TH2Go Digital compares to not only the analog TripleHead2Go but also the dual head to go analog as well.

With that out of the way, let’s get right into the installation.


Installation & Software

Installation of the TripleHead2Go, on a physical level, is as straightforward as it comes. Thanks to the slightly larger design of the digital version, all three DVI out ports are the back side of the device and are numbered, eliminating almost any chance of messing up the connections. On the front of the TH2Go there is a pair of video inputs, one digital and one analog, as well as a single USB port providing 5v of power over the USB cable.

In order to power the maximum resolution of 3840×1024, a dual-link DVI connection is needed. While many PCs today have dual-link either through their motherboard’s video out (notebooks) or their graphics card (desktops), there are many that don’t and it’s because of this that Matrox included the analog VGA connector on this product. This allows Matrox to market the TH2Go Digital to many more people than they would be able to without the VGA out port.

With the digital edition, there are a handful of resolutions now supported by the TH2Go: 3840×800 and 3840×960. If you choose to use the TH2Go for a pair of monitors, you can now use an additional 5 supported resolutions, up from the original 2.

In our testing, we will be connecting the TH2Go to three Dell 1907FP LCD monitors. In the first TripleHead2Go review, we used a single 1907FP and had a pair of 198FP monitors on the sides but with the 198FPs lacking DVI, an extra set of 1907s were employed for the duration of this review.

With our monitors hooked up, and the TH2Go connected to our PC via the USB cable, it’s time to install the Matrox PowerDesk SE software included with the device. While the needed software is included with each TH2Go, the program can be downloaded from Matrox’s website by following a few quick links through the support section of the site.

Once installed, the first screen that shows up gives us basic information about the graphics system of our PC. In our case we can see the three 1907FP monitors and that they are being powered by a single 8800 GT. There are a few additional options from in this window with the most unique being the bezel management. What this does is give the user a more realistic gaming experience by bringing in the side screens by a user defined amount of pixels. While the video card is still painting the full resolution, the picture as a whole looks as if it’s once seamless view with two vertical parts of the image simply hiding behind the bezels. While you lose a small amount of end area, the overall picture benefits from this as the image looks far better than if your PC was not running this bezel management software. For example, the bezels on the Dell monitors we are using aren’t too terribly thin so we only needed to move the sides in 82 pixels each.

On the desktop management screen we find most of the settings that will help make our time with the TH2Go more productive. By default, Windows will try to maximize a window over all three monitors, because instead of seeing each monitor as an individual screen, the TH2Go tricks Windows into thinking that there is one single, ultra-wide, monitor connected to the graphics card in the PC.

Instead of having to resize each window that you have open, you can allow the Matrox software to control how each window opens and behaves. By default, when PowerDesk is running, each window that you open will stay on the display that the window is opened in. This is nice when you have to have three different windows open as it allows you to open them up and maximize them in whatever display you would like them in.

The third screen simply shows you current settings and allows you to change the orientation of the display. It’s interesting to see that it states that the maximum number of displays that can be attached is 64. That would be quite the display!

Outside of the bezel management, the PowerDesk SE software really doesn’t address the gaming benefits of using three screens with the TH2Go. For this, Matrox also gives us the Surround Gaming Utility or SGU for short. The SGU is essentially a program that will create a new display .ini for, telling the computer how to operate at such a wide resolution.

Half-Life 2 already supports such a wide resolution but there are games that do not and for those, the SGU has you covered. With a large list of games, you simply select which game you would like to configure and the SGU software will do the rest. Allowing four different resolutions, the SGU takes a lot of the guess work out of gaming on three monitors.

When you select to optimize a certain game, the software will prompt you with on last warning, stating that it will be changing the configuration files of the selected game. If you would like to view the details of the changes to be made, you can view them by clicking on the details button.

If by some chance you don’t see a game in the menu, or the SGU software does not see a game that is listed, you can manually set the software to search your PC for the .exe file and once found will allow you to let the SGU “optimize” the games config file, thus allowing it to operate correctly across the three screens.

With our installation out of the way, the only thing that’s left is to put it to the test!


Testing, Final Thoughts

Taking a quick screen grab of an instance with the TH2Go, on one display I had Techgage’s home page loaded and beside it sits our forums. If I wanted to start writing a document, I could do that on the third display. During the process of working on my content, I will usually load up the manufacturer’s web page, the folder containing the pictures for the review and in between both windows; I will have my word document. This lets me reference details about the review unit from the manufacturer’s site as well as keep track of what picture is next in the review.

I can’t stress enough how much more productive one can be with three monitor’s worth of space at your disposal. It allows quick and easy window partitioning thanks to the PowerDesk SE software. It was with that in mind that I am sure Matrox first started designing the Dual and Triple Head2Go product lines.

Gaming – FPS & RTS

Like in the first review of the analog TH2Go, we took a few popular genres of gaming goodness and testing them out with the multiple monitors setup. For both the first person shooter and the real time strategy games, we used the same games from the previous review. Representing the shooter genre is the tried and true Counter Strike: Source as well as the fan favorite Half Life 2 and our RTS of choice for this review was Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends.

In Counter-Strike: Source, we loaded my personally favorite map, Office, for a few rounds of shoot ’em up action. While the wider screen offers a distinct advantage over the standard 4:3 or standard wide resolutions, there is a bit of fish eyed distortion on the sides of the screen that can be seen in the couches on either side. While not a deal breaker by any means, it is noticeable and should be pointed out. First off is the standard view of the screen and below it is the wide version. Notice how much more viewing area is available giving the user an advantage of more peripheral vision.

Moving onto Half-Life 2, we can see more of the same with fish eyed distortion on either side of the displays. There is something to be said for playing this masterpiece across three screens and this is coming from an owner of a Dell 24″ 2407WFP. While I enjoy the native resolution of the 24″, I prefer the three-screens-gaming that the TripleHead2Go provides in both Counter-Strike: Source and HL2. Three monitors for gaming is perfect as you have a center screen with a pair of peripheries on the side whereas when using a pair of screen, the center of the action is right in the middle of the bezels. The TH2Go addresses multiple screens gaming well.

Moving our attention to the RTS genre, it’s easy for me to say that this is by far the best way to enjoy these games. Three screens expands the viewable area by a factor of three (wide that is), making the overall enjoyment that much better. While I would rather have a single 30″, for ultra resolution gaming, the TH2Go is where it’s at. Rise of Legends looks spectacular and does so without any distortion on the sides at all.

Final Thoughts

Taking a step back, our experience with the digital version of the TripleHead2Go was almost identical to that of its analog brother. Spanning a Windows environment or a game across three screens is certainly something to behold. While the $330 that it will take to get your own Digital TripleHead2Go seems steep, the experience it provides more than justifies the price.

That’s only the beginning. You will need to have three monitors to enjoy the TH2Go to its fullest and while you can use only two, three is truly a great experience. The last time I checked, monitors, regardless of manufacturer, are not cheap. I priced out the Dell 19″ 1907FP monitor from Dell for over $200. That’s a lot of money when only one gets you a third of the way there. Getting three will set you back almost $700. That’s a lot of scratch. While you are still nowhere near the cost of a 30″ monitor, you can get a nice 24″ model for significantly cheaper and for all intents and purposes, will do just as good a job of offering a solid gaming experience as the TH2Go will.

All that in mind though, it doesn’t take anything away from the greatness of this product. It’s built well and offers a unique experience you’re not likely to find anywhere else. While I am not a fan of flight sims, this product has been completely embraced by the sim community and it’s understandable why.

At the end of the day, the Matrox TripleHead2Go Digital Edition earns a 9 out of 10. That’s the same score the analog version scored and this performs virtually identical once set up. The major difference, besides being digital, is the USB powered nature of the device. This eliminates one more cable that needs to be avoided behind the desk and frees up an outlet too. While I think I will stick to my 24″ monitor for gaming, the TripleHead2Go deserves to be in any office with multiple monitors and because of that, I will continue to use it when productivity is of the utmost importance.

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