Three Monitors: A Nightmare Worth Its Pixels In Platinum Trillion-Dollar Coins

by Jordan Spencer Cunningham on

Three Monitors-- 18104400 pixels

(Click the image to see it full-sized. Yes, you will be required to scroll to do this unless you also happen to have three or more monitors with similar resolutions.)

Mister Powell from West Jordan High School had it right when he said that Gus Gus and I began to trust more in technology than in human beings when we were exiled from our social and technical status in our film class. It’s a dangerous thing, but sometimes when I feel lonely or sad I will make technological purchases that I’ve been planning for some time but had not as yet completed due to the money problem. About a month ago I found a couple of good 23″ LED monitors on eBay for a pretty good deal and snatched them up, not to mention a new (but used) graphics card capable of sporting three monitors. Long story short, I now am able to multitask on three displays with a total of 18,104,400 pixels. That’s about 18.1 megapixels. Yes. All running on my Sapphire Radeon HD 5750 with 1 GB video RAM. It would be somewhat more supposing my third (and oldest, and original) monitor had HDMI input and was capable of 1920×1080 resolution. But I’m happy as it is. It wasn’t a walk in the park to get this up and running, though. Using three monitors is not for the faint of heart; two is a cinch, but three, at least on cards of this caliber, is another story. Let me share with you my story; I hope that I might be able to help some poor, unfortunate non-A+ certified nerds to forego the issues I did (I’m not A+ certified either… yet. And I don’t think that this is a part of A+ certification, quite honestly).

There was one thing about having three monitors on a single graphics card that I did not know. To quote RagnarKon on it (taken from a conversation I had on Eggxpert):

The reasons why it doesn’t work is rather complicated discussion involving TDMS’s and RAMDAC’s and interfaces in general…. but to keep it simple…

Both the DVI and HDMI are active interfaces, which require a clock to function. The 5750 only has two clocks. So were trying to run three active devices with only two clocks… which obviously will not work.

DisplayPort, on the other hand, is a passive interface, and therefore does not require a clock. Basically, the 5750 (actually the entire 5xxx line if I remember correctly) will only operate if you have two active devices–the rest have to be passive.

As for your converter, it will only work if your DisplayPort to HDMI converter is an active adapter. If it is not, then you’ll run into the same problem you have now.

In other words, I couldn’t just get a cheap Displayport to HDMI converter and plug it in and sing a song. That type of converter would merely convert the physical cable but not the signal, so the graphics card would still be trying to send out an HDMI signal despite the cable running out from the Displayport, and an HDMI signal requires its own clock to run and process, which said clock is already in use by the other HDMI signal! An active Displayport adapter will actively convert the signal using its own clock, and the graphics card can keep its two clocks for itself. This is why either one’s monitor has to be a Displayport or Mini-Displayport-capable monitor or one must have an active converter if one wants three monitors running simultaneously on cards of similar caliber. Yes, I realize that there is a lot more to it than that, but this is the simple version. There are consumer cards out there capable of six displays running at once, and there are other insane types of cards capable of quite a bit more, but most consumers won’t need more than three (want is another question completely).

So, with my credit card in hand, I purchased the cheapest active Displayport to HDMI converter I could find, which was on costcaptain.com, a site that seems reputable but that also seems to have trouble remembering to ship their items. I waited two weeks before I sent in my complaint, and then the converter arrived the following week. I’m considering asking for the price of shipping back, especially since they lowered the price of the converter from $18.99 to $16.99 right after I purchased the product. Mini-review: don’t purchase from Cost Captain. It seems they always do deliver from the reviews I found, just not as quickly as they claim they will.

The parts all arrived in the mail one by one, and I had a great time installing them (building computers is like a somewhat restricted grownup version of Legos). My three beautiful monitors were set up in a sort of 2.1 stereo surround vision mode. My cables were plugged in properly, and the active Displayport to HDMI converter was set up properly. But no image on the third monitor (the one connected via the Displayport to HDMI adapter). No problem, I thought. I just need to activate it. So I went into Windows’ display settings to do so, but it was still giving me the same problem previous to my purchasing the active Displayport to HDMI adapter– showing that all three monitors were connected properly but not allowing me to activate more than two monitors at a time. So I went into ATi’s Catalyst Control Center to make some adjustments. Still nothing– just the same old “you must disable one of the active displays in order to enable a display” voodoo. So after several hours of searching for a solution to the problem online and even going so far as to request support tickets from both AMD and Sapphire (the manufacturer of my particular card), which both support request systems were utterly broken so that I could type in my long rage of problems but could not submit them, I finally decided to just try restarting– so simple it just might work (and it usually does much to the outrage and humiliation of us nerds who are paid for resolving issues like this). Due to my impatience (I had been working on this for over five hours, and I wanted to play Zelda instead), when my computer was taking its time to shut down (only Windows Vista has to take longer shutting down than starting up), I pressed the “Reset” button (a really big, fancy blue button on my compy– it’s a little hard not to press it) in the middle of the shutdown process. Upon reboot, Windows was dead. Vista wouldn’t even boot into safe mode.

Meh, I thought. I’ve been meaning to get rid of Vista for a while now, anyway. And I downloaded and installed Ubuntu instead. Ubuntu booted fine, only started with two of the three monitors, but was able to sense that all three were connected. I commanded Ubuntu to stop mirroring my displays and to extend the desktop onto the third display, and it happened! I was surrounded in unique 18-megapixel glory! I was so happy I nearly cried (sort of). Still, with the rather resource-hungry Unity desktop environment running on all of that desktop real-estate, the going was somewhat slow, and the graphics card even malfunctioned once and threw up pretty colors all over the screen. So I figured it’d be better to download the tried-and-true less-hungry but still pretty desktop environment known as Gnome, which has been running quite smoothly the past couple of days on all three monitors. I also tried Xfce, but it felt too much like Windows 98, and I am very interested to see how Cinnamon does as soon as I have time to demo it. Also, I’d like to see how the latest version of Linux Mint runs.

My troubles now over, I decided to purchase a 115GB SSD to run my operating system and applications and frequently used files from, just for good measure, as well as four additional gigabytes of RAM (totaling six). I expect my computer to be rather zippy by next week.

Three Monitors, One Card, 18 Megapixels