- Review Price: £298.92
Stereoscopic 3D gaming is nothing new. Those of us old enough to have played on Sega’s Master System might remember the woefully unsupported 3D glasses accessory produced for it, not to mention Nintendo’s disastrous Virtual Boy 3D goggles or the range of wretched shutter goggle systems that arrived with the early crop of 3D graphics cards. However, there’s a sense that it’s a technology that’s finally coming of age.
Maybe it’s the case that there’s now a hardcore games market that’s become about HD graphics and is looking for something new. Perhaps it’s the publicity 3D is getting with Hollywood’s renewed interest in stereoscopic film. Or it might just be that the technology is finally ready, or that it needed a player as big as nVidia to champion it. Whatever the reason, we saw the seeds of change with the Zalman Trimon 3D monitor last year, and those seeds have now taken root with nVidia’s 3D Vision gaming system.
It’s possible to buy the core system – a pair of glasses and an infrared transmitter – for a mere £129, but most of us will need a new monitor to support them, which is why we’re looking at the full system, which bundles in a 22in Samsung SM2233RZ display. The reason is simple, and all to do with the way that 3D Vision works. It’s a variant of the shutter glasses system which seems to be gaining traction with consumer electronics manufacturers at the moment.
Basically, the monitor interleaves two images, one for the left eye and one for the right, at 100 to 120 frames per second, so that each eye gets a smooth, moving image of 50 to 60 fps. The monitor is synced via an infrared transmitter to the glasses, which use LCD shutters in each lens to close off each eye when the other eye’s image is flicked on to the screen, again at 50 to 60 fps per eye. The result is that the left eye sees only the images designed for the left eye, while the right eye sees only the image designed for the right eye, and as the two images are subtly different, in much the same way that the real-life view perceived by each of our human eyes is different, we get an impression of stereoscopic 3D.
One limitation of this process is that you need a display capable of operating at a 120Hz refresh rate, and at the moment there is a grand total of two available in the UK; the Viewsonic VX2265wm and the Samsung SM2233RZ bundled here. Both are 22in panels with a 1,680 x 1,050 resolution, and both require a dual-link DVI cable (and a dual-link DVI output on your graphics card) in order for the 120Hz refresh rate to work. nVidia provides such a cable in the box, and any graphics card capable of driving 3D Vision at a decent frame rate should have the required connector. A 9600GT is your practical minimum, though you’ll need something with a little more beef to get good detail levels/frame rates at the monitor’s native resolution.
I won’t go too far into the qualities of the monitor here. It’s a decent 22in TN panel inside a well-built and attractive piano black casing, though, as with many budget 22in models, it’s not particularly adjustable. You get a limited amount of tilt, and that’s it. There are additional compromises which, were it not for being 3D ready, would knock it out of most keen gamers’ consideration. The resolution, for starters, isn’t ideal at a time when 1,920 x 1,080 is fast becoming the minimum standard for monitors aimed at this target market, while the lack of any additional inputs bar DVI means it’s not a great choice for those of us who like to share a display between our PC and our games consoles. Luminance and contrast levels – 300cd/m2 and 20,000:1 respectively – are competitive, and the image overall is solid, bright and clean and, thanks to the matt finish screen, mercifully reflection free. The 5ms response time is also very respectable, and I certainly never noticed any smudging or ghosting during many long hours of hard gaming.
As with most TN panels viewing angles could be better, but the drop off and inversion of colours isn’t any more sudden or drastic than you would expect. I doubt most of us will see much benefit of the 120Hz refresh rate in normal 2D desktop use, but if you’re ludicrously sensitive to the merest hint of flicker, this might be something to bear in mind.
Setting up the kit is relatively easy. It’s best to charge the glasses for a few hours before use (via the mini-USB cable provided) then let nVidia’s driver installation routine take you through the steps of hooking up the transmitter, adjusting for viewing distance and lighting conditions, then altering the depth of the 3D view for your own personal comfort. You’ll also find a new window within the standard nVidia control panel that allows you to tweak further options and test that the kit is working properly. Provided your eyes can resolve stereoscopic 3D properly, you shouldn’t have any problems. nVidia actually includes a test to check this, and should you fail it’s probably time to admit defeat and take the whole shebang back to where you bought it.
In my case I could only get 3D Vision working with the glasses shoved on top of my own specs (which, to be fair, I should really be using on a daily basis anyway). The good news is that this doesn’t have any serious negative effects on comfort, and a couple of extra bridge pieces are provided should you need to raise the 3D specs further off your schnozzle. The glasses feel like a lightweight pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer clones, and there’s surprisingly little about the frames or dark green lenses to cue you into the technology inside.
Even with 3D switched off the glasses have an impact on your view, mainly because the tint instantly cuts down on your monitor’s brightness, much as it would if were you to you sit there wearing normal sunglasses at your desk. Once the 3D effect kicks in, however, things grow darker still, and this is the closest 3D Vision comes to having a negative effect on your gaming experience. Prepare to switch brightness to maximum and fiddle with your in-game gamma settings, because with 3D Vision working, you will otherwise struggle to see what’s going on.
The good news is that this pay-off – and any reduction in resolution over other 22in/23in monitors – is worth it. It’s hard to describe the 3D Vision effect because it’s not really 3D as you might know it. It’s not about things coming out of the screen at you – though nVidia’s 3D test shows that such effects are possible.
Instead, it’s about looking into your monitor as if it were a window into another, fully 3D world. When it’s working well, figures in the foreground stand out in front of objects in the background, and not in some simple, planar manner, but in a way that seems perfectly natural. Play an FPS and you can see that your current weapon is clearly close to you, while targets and buildings in the mid and far distance are further away. And when you’re rushed by the zombie hordes in Left4Dead, there’s a real sense that those bloodthirsty varmints are headed right at you. We’re not quite talking virtual reality, but it certainly adds a new, even more immersive quality to your games.
As you might expect, the effect works best with first-person games and first-person viewpoints. Left4Dead is a definite highlight, as the staging in depth seems to work particularly well, but 3D Vision also delivered excellent results with Far Cry 2 and Mirror’s Edge. The latter was a visceral experience played in 2D on a console format, but on a PC with 3D support and the extra graphical bells and whistles of the PhysX version, it’s absolutely breathtaking. I can’t remember a game that’s had me moving back and forth in my chair so much with sheer involvement. When you throw yourself across a gap and grab hold of a ledge or pipe with Faith’s fingertips, there’s a palpable sense of relief.
Driving games played from a cockpit view also deliver good value. GRID through 3D Vision is an absolutely storming racer, particularly in some of the more manic, pile-up heavy events. And while nothing short of a miracle could make Need for Speed: Pro Street fantastic, 3D Vision comes frighteningly close to doing so, partly because the sensation of depth does something to make the action more convincing and believable. If only the same could be said for the handling and AI.
There are some downsides. Bits of interface and overlaid icons or labels tend to float weirdly over the whole image, and this can have the effect of pulling you out of the experience. It’s not a problem in games like FEAR 2 where a heads-up display is part of the fiction, but it can be in some other action titles. It’s more of an issue for RTS games and RPGs with an isometric perspective, though your mileage will vary with different titles. Dawn of War II was a bit of a non-starter, with the 3D effect adding little to the game’s characters or landscapes, and those floating icons and labels confusing the eyes.
Aging Diablo-clone, Titan Quest, however, was surprisingly good, with trees and towers pushing out into the skyline, and characters appearing to stand tall over the game’s Greek landscapes. Platform games can also be rewarding. Tomb Raider: Anniversary is the least advanced of the recent Tomb Raider titles, but the shift into 3D makes the game’s big locations look suitably imposing, and adds a new element of vertigo to the game’s more vertical sections.
There are areas where 3D Vision clashes with techniques employed by certain engines. The good news about 3D Vision is that it supports most games out of the box, and I’ve yet to find a 3D game or app where 3D Vision point-blank doesn’t work. That said, in some games it just doesn’t work that successfully. nVidia itself rates games as excellent, good, fair or poor (you can find the current list here) and when you start up a game a handy message will appear to inform you of any options or detail settings you should probably switch off. The biggest offender is probably Crysis, where you’ll have to switch down several detail settings and prepare for some weird anomalies during play that, effectively, make it not worth the bother.
I also saw some odd behaviour with the distant backgrounds in FEAR 2, while Sony’s new free MMO, Free Realms, was an almost total disaster, with ghosting all over the place. I’m sure that, should 3D Vision take off, developers will start looking at their games with reducing these anomalies in mind. In fact, some of the issues with on-screen furniture will disappear anyway, as developers further distance their games from such distractions (just as Bioshock, Mirror’s Edge, Killzone 2 and Prince of Persia have already done).
Let’s not be silly about this. Given that you’ll either need a new monitor and £129 or £400 to use it, 3D Vision is currently a luxury item for the high-end PC gamer; the equivalent of a new top-of-the-range graphics card or a brand new gaming console. Game support is good and getting better, and the glasses don’t have any major drawbacks in terms of comfort or battery life (estimated at 40 hours). All the same, the success of the effect varies from game to game, and not all users will get the most out of the system.
That’s all very sensible and perfectly true. All the same, when the effect does work it’s a knockout, and if I had to choose at the moment between spending £400 on a new graphics card for a few more FPS and a higher detail setting in Crysis or spending £400 on 3D Vision, I know which way I’d lean. This isn’t a perfect product yet, but it’s one that’s aiming straight in the right direction, and with cost reductions and increased availability of 120Hz capable monitors – preferably new ones with a 1080p or higher resolution – it might just get there. Right now I’d recommend you try it, because once you do you won’t look at 2D gaming in quite the same way ever again.
nVidia 3D vision is the best designed and most considered 3D gaming system yet, with decent out-of-the-box software support and an adjustable, comfortable setup. If you’re serious about PC games, you owe it to yourself to try it.
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