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King Fossil with a split personality
Segment 6: Working with Six CRT Monitors

Originally encoded on December 5th, 2018 and published on January 24th, 2019

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A Test of the Spine

Two steel racks full of CRT monitors

This segment was a fucking nightmare to produce. Seriously, it's probably the worst thing I've had to endure just to make a video, save for those times I was forced to keep the bedroom door shut due to external interference, and drown in the heat that would inevitably build up. Having to move so many things in and out of a room (and leave the basement a total mess for a good while) eventually left me fatigued after a few hours. Learning how to do pushups and make diet changes beforehand really came in handy, because I think it would've taken me a hell of a lot longer to pull this off had I still been eating pizza.

Of course, I did expect that it was gonna be nasty having to empty out a room so filled with light and heavy objects, so as soon as I got done with the first segment, I jumped onto this as soon as possible. Getting the worst stuff out of the way first gave me more room to enjoy the simpler things later on: doing a Doom deathmatch over infrared, running Windows for Workgroups 3.11 at 1600x1200, and watching six videos on six computers.

The whole thing ended up taking about five days to complete, starting on September 22nd when I began clearing out the computer room to get the 3x2 monitor setup running, and finally ending on the 27th when I had to put everything back where it all was. By the time I found myself dissatisfied with the speakers sounding too quiet for the camera, it was far too late; there was NO way I was going to ever try pulling a stunt like this again.

This Computer is Too Slow...

Asus P3B-F motherboard with three GeForce FX 5200 cards loaded

Really, almost NOTHING went according to plan when I was recording this series. I expected using six monitors all at once would be pretty slow on Windows 98, so my first thought was to go straight for a fast Pentium III-based computer. I did want to try to see if I could get an old platform pushed to its limits, of course, so my first attempt to get such a setup working involved an Asus P3B-F, one of the finest 440BX motherboards of its kind - almost guaranteed to support Coppermine, capable of adjusting CPU/FSB speeds in the BIOS setup utility, and having a bountiful of PCI slots for those all over a Voodoo2 SLI configuration. And for when you're feeling classy, it (usually) also has one ISA slot to plug in an old Sound Blaster card for your MS-DOS based programs!

Originally, I wanted to run Windows 98 with eight monitors, which, from what I heard, is the maximum that operating system can support - that is, eight monitors on two dual-head video cards. Perhaps it was for the better that I had to stick to just six, given what was about to ensure. I knew I would be able to do it somehow, thanks to those two GeForce FX 5200 PCI cards I got for $5 each as well as a very similar existing AGP-based one I kept around from years prior. The GeForce FX 5200 has always been a horrible video card for sure, but it's actually a great entry point for those wanting to get into old computers! It'll cut through most late 90's games like they're butter.

Many monitors connected to three graphics cards at the back of the case

This P3B-F would go straight in my beloved In Win A500 case, a compact and elegant chassis with a kick-ass removable motherboard tray that almost certainly made Rodney Reynolds happy back when it was new. The short height of the case made it fit neatly in one of the rack's shelves given how I set it up with large, heavy monitors in mind. In regards to these steel wire racks, you absolutely can set the height of each shelf to whatever you want; just clamp some plastic pieces at four corners of the desired height (is that reliable?!) and bring the shelf down to its level, then beat the corners down with a mallet to secure it in position.

Six monitors connected to a computer booting up Windows 98

I could proudly display this case right next to the monitors, and it was fairly easy to manage the connections at that height. I question if a case like this with not very good ventilation would be able to push out all the heat potentially generated by three video cards from 2003, but the important thing first of all was getting the setup working. I knew it wasn't going to last forever, so it wasn't such a huge deal.

Six monitors, one usable, one corrupted, four with no desktop loaded

But rooting everything in a 440BX chipset was bound to kill the setup prematurely. In practice, it seems it's only capable of using four master PCI devices at a time (or 1 AGP and 3 PCI cards, maybe). Should I have just removed the network card for the time being? It wasn't going to be needed since the tasks at hand were completely offline after all the software was loaded, anyway.

I was determined to try getting this to work some other way; I moved one of the video cards to another PCI slot, and even tried disabling IRQs for a couple of the PCI slots. Nothing worked... this was just too much for a desktop chipset coming from 1998, where ISA cards were still of significant importance.

Same AGP/PCI cards from before loaded in an Asus TUSL2-C motherboard

The next option I turned to was an Asus TUSL2-C motherboard, this time based on the newer Intel 815E chipset that's capable of handling more master PCI devices at once - about five, that is. On top of that, it can operate on a faster front side bus (133MHz for 815E as opposed to 100MHz for 440BX), which should just make everything much faster all around - device speed matters too, not just the CPU!

This time around, it actually worked... but the speed was far less than I hoped it to be. Of course, when you're wanting a setup as crazy as this, you definitely want to set every monitor to 640x480 to cut down on the load... but even that didn't seem to be enough for this little thing.

Watch video: 3D Maze on six monitors with a 1.33 GHz Tualatin (MP4)

Settling Thy Assbutt On Fire

I had to resort to the least desirable choice: some 2.6 GHz Pentium 4 computer that used to be in regular operation from 2005 to 2011. Yeah, haha, Pentium 4 pee pee house fire, but what really made it undesirable was the bulging capacitors. Amazingly, this board still held up after all this time, which was much needed given I still didn't have desirable soldering equipment at this point. I sure as hell wasn't going to go out of my way to get some more reliable late-era LGA 775 Pentium 4 motherboard with a hideous Prescott CPU...

Unlike the In Win case housing the previous two motherboards, I kept this one in the same mid tower chassis as it was left in bass lan party, so it couldn't fit in the shelves. I had to just keep it stashed away behind them, making it harder to work with the computer. At that point, I gave up on the idea of showing myself installing the video cards in the computer; I already had enough, and wanted this shit to be done and over with.

This time, the frame rates for various applications spanning six monitors was actually tolerable, but it was still painful to look at nonetheless. I could only move back a short distance, partly due to the length of most keyboard/mouse cords, and I'm pretty sure I had to look at the whole screen collective from an angle. CRTs are great, so they permit viewing angles as wide as a modern IPS display, but the gaps between every single monitor were HUGE!! Some display enthusiasts love to complain about large bezels, I'd guess, but you haven't suffered until you've been in my seat right that at that time.

I spent so much effort on getting this fucking setup to work that I didn't think as much as I could have about what I could show on it. Okay, let's throw some default screensavers in there, everyone loves those, and maybe a dumb movie can be made as well... Please Sit Down That's not nice.

Really, any six monitor setup can only be at its strongest when it's used purely for multitasking, storing many different windows across all of the monitors. If it's one continuous image you're looking for, that many monitors is too excessive. Sure, those Eyefinity demos from like a decade back were really sweet, but come on, they can only be useful in very niche applications. Two or three is enough depending on the kind of game you're wanting to play.

It just so happens that a number of arcade games have made use of multi-monitor configurations even as far back as the 80's. Darius II is one such game, as is its predecessor. This game could be played in either a dual monitor or triple monitor cabinet, but secondary monitors used projectors and mirrors that aligned with the primary monitor (a normal CRT of course) in order to create a seamless panoramic image. There's a really amazing dual monitor cabinet located at the Hirose Entertainment Yard in Akihabara that you oughta try out if you ever travel to Japan at some point.

Watch video: [JP] 20140920 1209 Akihabara HEY DARIUS2 in two 60' projection monitors (YouTube)

Darius II on six CRT monitors

This imitation of such a cabinet just isn't going to cut it... not only did I have to turn on aggressive frame skipping to speed up the game, I had such a hard time keep track of my ship and all the projectiles flying around... don't pester me about how overkill it is. I only do this so I can explicitly show how painful it is.

Unreal on six CRT monitors

Unreal fared considerably better in regards to tolerability. Being a first person shooter, it's a little bit easier to make sense of the surroundings, and much of the action takes place in the center, meaning I don't have to always roll my eyes all over the screens. Still, the low frame rate and highly noticable screen wiping that sometimes happens (as well as the GIANT FUCKING GAPS) get in the way of the experience. Confining Unreal to one monitor on a Pentium 4 system makes it run super fast as one would expect.

Someone's going to say a setup like this looks fun, but it's really not. All I can say after all of this is that I'm just glad I have such an example to share with the world now. No longer do I need to ask "hmm what if I connect a bunch of CRT monitors to one computer in a grid"...