When I first saw the initial Parhelia reviews, Surround Gaming seemed to be presented as a gimmick-like feature. Quite honestly, I thought the same. First of all, what kind of support would this feature have? We've seen many promising 3D technologies come to pass over the last several years, and many of them have yet to materialized or are just now being adopted.
The appeal that Surround Gaming had going for it was the simplicity of enabling the feature. There are actually two requirements.
Adjustable screen resolution higher than 1600x1200
Adjustable field of view (FOV)
Most 3D game engines support these two requirements in some form, but the question comes down to how easy or difficult it is to change. In the case where the engine supports the requirement, but doesn't expose it, a patch will be required. The one limitation that exists with Surround Gaming are games based on DirectX 7. Unfortunately, DirectX 7 had a screen resolution limitation of 1920x480. It's actually slightly higher, but this is the highest attainable resolution. Keep this in mind when dealing with older titles. This was addressed with DirectX 8 so at least you'll be covered with newer titles that support these features.
The nice thing about Surround Gaming is that many popular 3D engines already natively support it, which include Quake, Unreal, and Lithtech engines. Right off the bat, you've got a decent number of titles from which to choose.
In terms of answering how long it would take to implement this feature, let me to give you an example. I enjoy playing Quake 2 deathmatch and thought it would be really cool to enable Surround Gaming. The Quake 2 engine supported adjustable FOV, but had hard-coded screen resolutions. I downloaded the Quake 2 source code from id Software's server, changed the source, made a build, and began testing in about 10 minutes.
Now that I've gotten all of that out of the way, what about Surround Gaming? In short, it's the best 3D feature I've used since I went from a Virge3D to a Voodoo. It's that compelling. This feature literally transforms the gaming experience unlike any other feature I've experienced to date. I would probably say that this will remain true until Doom III debuts.
One of the things you'll see in some of the interface screenshots below relates to the "HUD." This was one of the issues that plagued the early Parhelia reviews. As an example, consider Quake 3. When you enable Surround Gaming, the net effect is that the HUD would end up being stretched to the point where it becomes difficult to use.
Under OpenGL, Matrox has provided a way to preserve the HUD to the center display. In doing so, it looks no different than playing the game on a single display. Despite the fact that Matrox provided this workaround, the user had to go into the registry and flip a DWORD variable. Clearly, there needed to be a better way. More on this in a second.
Matrox's PowerDesk interface performs a variety of functions. In addition to those items mentioned previously, it's also used to manage game-specific settings. All you do is let the program search your drive for games and the rest is up to you. Other graphics cards have 3rd party utilities that perform a similar functionality, but Matrox provides it in one convenient support application.
Powerdesk Game and 3D Settings
Here, you can see a list of detected games on the left and a summary of settings on the right. If I want to make a change to a specific title, I would click on the "Modify" button, and make the necessary change.
Powerdesk Game and 3D Settings
In this interface, I would make specific setting changes. Remember my earlier reference to the HUD? As you can see from the above screenshot, Matrox has provided a checkbox in order to resolve the aforementioned issue.
One thing that Matrox was "dinged" on during the initial reviews was the difficulty in enabling this feature. In some games, you had to edit configuration files, while in others, registry edits had to be performed. As a result, Matrox designed the Apptimizer. Let's take a quick look at the interface.
Matrox has done all the dirty work for you in making all of these things happen. All you have to do is select the Surround Gaming title, provide a path, and then push the "Optimize" button. A shortcut is then added to the desktop.
This simple piece of software has an .ini file that can be continually updated with newer games. Since owning the Parhelia, I believe Matrox has updated this three of four times. Software, such as the Apptimizer, becomes useless without keeping it up to date and Matrox should be given a pat on the back for doing just that.
There is one thing that I would express to the folks at Matrox. As of now, the PowerDesk utility already has provisions for making game specific tweaks, and I'd like to see this feature added to the driver. As an example, I've done a little photoshop magic to demonstrate this concept.
As you can see, I've added an "Enable Surround-Gaming" option to the user interface, along with a selectable resolution combo box. Since the driver has the ability to tweak individual games (to include the path, which is also necessary in the Apptimizer), it seems logical to place everything in one convenient application.
Note: I inadvertently used 2400x800 when it should have read 2400x600.
During the time that I've owned the Parhelia, I used several different display configurations. Initially, I used two 20" Dell FP2000's and one 19" CRT. Eventually, I settled on one FP2000 and two FP1900's. The point I would like to make is that Surround Gaming doesn't require you to have top-of-the-line left/right displays. When I used the CRT, the fact that it was a different size didn't seem to make much of a difference. The fact that it was simply there did the trick.
It's my opinion that you could get away with using any rag-tag combination of displays and the experience will still be intact. In my case, I opted for better left/right displays for my actual "work" rather than for the gaming side of things.
Finally, I want to also briefly touch on the issue of perception. What I mean by this is that I've read comments that the spacing between displays would interrupt and/or distort the overall perception of the game itself. This is really not the case at all, as far as I'm concerned. When you're playing the game, you just don't notice it. Furthermore, the size of the bezels doesn't hamper the experience either. Again, this is something you have to experience first-hand to get a feel for what I'm saying, so I'm just relaying my own experience.
I'd like to go through a number of titles that expose this feature and try to convey my experience for each title. But before doing so, let me preface it by stating something that I feel must be said right off the bat: The Parhelia does, in fact, have enough "juice" to allow you to play these games in Surround mode. I can't tell you how many times I've seen something like, "the unfortunate thing is that the Parhelia is too slow to make Surround Gaming a usable feature."
In fact, a common theme has been in comparing it to FSAA on the Voodoo5 5500. Great feature, but not fast enough. Speed is always subjective, so let me put it in these terms - I've yet to find a s single title that is, on the whole, too demanding for this feature. The one asterisk I would add is that some titles will require you to dial down the image quality features such as antialiasing and anisotropic filtering. When you're using a standard resolution like 1024x768, you can pretty much stack all features.
With that said, let's take a look at Surround Gaming and try to make heads or tails out of it. I'll be focusing on the following titles:
Jedi Knight 2
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002
Aliens vs. Predator 2
Unreal Tournament 2003
Nascar Racing 2002
Return To Castle Wolfenstein
Serious Sam 2
In analyzing performance, I didn't run through all the possible driver tweaks (FAA, anisotropic filtering, etc.) due to time constraints. In general, FAA has a fairly minimal performance impact and anisotropic filtering seems to deliver similar performance results as a GeForce-class accelerator.
My system consists of the following:
Windows XP Professional w/Service Pack 1
Intel Pentium 4 @ 2.7GHz
Epox 4G4A+ Motherboard
512MB PC2700 DDR Memory
Matrox Parhelia 128MB - Driver Version 184.108.40.206
1 Dell FP2000 20.1" LCD (primary)
2 Dell FP1900 19.0" LCD (left/right)
2x Western Digital Special Edition 120GB IDE (Raid)
Creative Labs Audigy
Note that with the exception of Unreal Tournament 2003, sound was enabled during testing. Let's check out some Surround Gaming action.