HP's ENVY 17 3D - HD3D's Difficult Road to a Seamless 3D Experience
4/18/2011 by: Jon Peddie
The HP 17-inch ENVY laptop is delightful. It has one of the best 3D screens I have ever seen, and it comes with one set of 3D Liquid Crystal shutter glasses. It can show 3D movies and stereoscopic 3D games (S3D), as well as show 3D photos and Google Earth in 3D.
HP's Entrance into the world of 3D: a 17" notebook with XpanD 3D Glasses, 120Hz Full HD display and a sound system by Dr.Dre (Beats)
The system's screen resolution is 1920x1080 on a 17.3-inch panel with 120Hz refresh rate, TN LCD panel with sRGB+ gammut and 400 cd/m2 brightness. The display controller is an AMD Radeon HD 5850 with 1GB GDDR5 video memory. It has an Intel Core i7-740QM Processor running at 1.73GHz, with 4GB DDR3 RAM. And you get all that for just $1,550 (plus taxes).
The laptop is a sweet machine, with lots of power, lots of I/O, a dual hard drive up to 2TB (or optional Solid State Drive), HP ProtectSmart, which detects if your laptop is dropped and automatically locks the hard drive to prevent data loss, and an island-style backlit keyboard with numeric keypad and oversized clickpad. It comes with a 6-cell Lithium-Ion battery (up to 2.5 hours), or you can upgrade to a 9-cell (up to 3.75 hours).
It has two radios built in, an Intel Wireless-N Wi-Fi4 with Bluetooth. There's 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet LAN, active HDMI 1.3c port, a mini-Display port, three USB 2.0 ports (one is shared with the high-speed eSATA combo port), and a 5-in-1 digital media card reader - everything you could possibly want in a laptop.
AMD Mobile Eyefinity in Action: HP Envy 17 3D running in sync with two additional displays
What's more, with the HDMI, DP, and VGA outputs you can use AMD's Eyefinity and drive two screens in addition to the laptop's screen, or close the lid and drive three external screens - plus what you could drive with DisplayLink USB dongles. We set it up with two external screens using the DisplayPort and VGA. AMD's Mobile Radeon HD 5850 is based on 800-core Broadway-Pro core (desktop counterpart: Juniper Pro, i.e. Radeon HD 5700 Series).
AMD HD3D versus nVidia 3D Vision
On the left, 3D Vision by nVidia. On the right, XpanD active glasses for AMD HD3D
The HP shutter glasses (from XpanD) have a larger lens than the nVidia glasses. That's a good thing; it gives you more peripheral view and makes you (me) feel a little less claustrophobic. They also fit over corrective glasses better than nVidia's.
S3D is supported by DDD drivers working in conjunction with AMD drivers. With a setup like this, we ventured to discover just how seamless is AMD HD3D experience.
The 3D Experience
For 3D, HP installed software by DDD. The demos that came with the machine worked perfectly and are quite good looking as you'd expect given HP's reputation and expertise. However, when I first tried to load games I could not get them to display in S3D. The games are ones I have successfully played on nVidia S3D systems (of which we have several) - I also tried to run a Blu-ray movie, and that would not display 3D (although the bundled demo 3D movie, "Megamind," did.)
I visited the DDD web site and forum looking for a fix and found the latest driver (4.5) and installed it. It had the initial effect of successfully running a game ("Bioshock 2"). But when I tried it again later, it would no longer display S3D. I still couldn't get the 3D BRD movie (Despicable Me) to play 3D.
You can't watch Blu-ray 3D movies... or can you?
Communicating with DDD I learned that they do not support the playback of Blu-ray DVDs in 3D - that is the reason I couldn't view the 3D Blu Ray movie Despicable Me. But later I found I could. What? Then I learned that BRD 3D is supported by the HP MediaSmart media player which uses the CyberLink engine. Oy, this is so confusing.
You've got a HP laptop, with an AMD GPU, the AMD driver, using DirectX 11, and a DDD driver for S3D for some applications and a CyberLink driver for some others. Finally with the help of the DDD CTO I was able to map out the setup.
AMD HD3D: Reliance on 3rd party software can require a lot of user tweaking
The fundamental ability to drive a shutter glass displays and associated emitters is provided by AMD's HD3D driver. AMD's idea is to have an open architecture to democratize the supply of both eyewear and software to support 3D, as contrasted to Nvidia's approach which is a closed system (except for the monitor).
DDD's TriDef 3D Experience Software Launches in 3D Mode.
Playing a movie is simple enough, plug in the disk in the right-hand slide slot on the machine, put on the glasses, enjoy - courtesy of CyberLink software. You don't need to use any of the TriDef icons for movies or any of the TriDef UI for movies - the main purpose of TriDef on the HP is for games, 3D photos, and 3D Google Earth. To use those apps you start by clicking on a DDD icon, the TriDef Experience.
Clicking on the Experience icon brings us the TriDef menu UI. On the first generation of the HP ENVY 17 3D you can ignore the View movies bar for movies, but it can be used for photos.
The TriDef Experience menu comes up in 3D so better have those glasses ready. Clicking on the Play 3D games takes you to the TriDef Ignition window. You can also get there directly from the desktop icon, by simply double clicking on the green TriDef 3D Ignition.
This is a critical step, and it's not documented or explained. It is one of the weaknesses in the system and the one I suspect will cause the most service calls to HP. In the unit we got there was no visible documentation. A "getting started" card explaining how to use these icons and UIs would be helpful. It turns out that TriDef has many support documents integrated into its software, but the consumer has no way initially, to know how to access these documents.
I thought I'd try Google Earth 3D. I clicked on TriDef 3D Experience and got the 3D menu. Clicked on Google Earth in 3D and got... a web page telling me:
"Google Earth has not been detected on your system."
Hmm, OK, I'm a sophisticated user, I guess I have to download Google Earth, so I click on downloads, but there's nothing there about Google Earth. So I go back and one page and click on TriDef activation, and it asked me for an activation code, which of course I don't have. I started over, and this time when I got the web page (after
clicking on the Google Earth in 3D button) I noticed - just barely - a link to download Google Earth. Did that, installed it, and then I got a Google Earth icon on the desktop.
DDD's TriDef 3D Ignition
To get to Google Earth, or any other DDD supported application you have to go through the TriDef Ignition window. The TriDef Ignition is where all the real magic happens, and once again, if there had been some documentation about it, this whole review would have gone a lot smoother and faster.
DDD's TriDef 3D Ignition App window is used to scan and implement the 3D driver for applications detected.
When the Ignition window is opened it shows what games and applications have been found. If you've just installed a game, it may not have been discovered so you have to click on the scan button - note - things don't happen fast in this dialog box, wait for it.
You can add games to TriDef Ignition by simply clicking and dragging the game icon from the desktop into the TriDef Ignition window. Once the game is added, TriDef automatically searches for the right game profile for the game. With the latest software, TriDef has over 460 custom game profiles available (430 by DDD and 30 custom user-submitted profiles). If a game does not have a custom game profile created yet, TriDef assigns a generic game profile that allows most games to be played in S3D. The gamer then can improve his 3D playing experience by customizing and saving his own game profile.
Getting back to that Google Earth in 3D
We then tried to launch Google Earth in 3D by dragging the icon for Google Earth into the TriDef Ignition window. But when we launched Google Earth 3D it only showed up in 2D. It turns out that a Google Earth Plugin was missing. How do you find that?
It turns out that TriDef recommends that users click the 'Scan' button to find game apps. Click on the scan button and the TriDef software discovers supported apps. It found "BioShock 2," "Battelfield: Bad Company 2," and Google Earth, and the Google Earth Plugin this way. So I did that and got it running and once it was running it's amazing. HP should have pre-installed Google Earth and its plug-in. I later found out there are some tips and very cool recommendations for places of interest and pre-programmed ‘fly-throughs'. It is fun to sit, back and relax, while the system takes you automatically through a pre programmed fly through over some very interesting landmarks].
There's no Num Lock on the HP ENVY 17. So to engage the DDD control panel (which normally is done by pressing zero in the key pad) you have to press Alt-Shift-F1. Not a big deal, but if you didn't know, it could be a show stopper. And to adjust the depth you have to sue Alt-Shift ] or [ . Since the HP ENVY doesn't have a Num Lock key, and being an uber geek I went to CMOS set up to see if I could force it. Forgetabout it - no control there. So you have to rely on Alt-Shift-F1 key combination, which can produce interesting effects if you are in a game.
Be warned that when you're in the TriDef Ignition control panel and you double click on a game, nothing happens, naturally you double click a few more times, and in about 3 to 5 seconds the little spinning green wheel shows up, and then you have two or three copies of the program running. The trick is to click on the icon to highlight it, then click on the Launch button - once, and then be patient. Patient, not the behavior motif I'd used to describe a gamer, and certainly not me.
As mentioned, things in Stereovision are started by clicking on the TriDef 3D Experience icon. Click on games in the TriDef Main menu and it brings up the TriDef Ignition control box, or you can skip the menu and just click on the green TriDef Ignition icon.
You launch S3D games through the DDD TriDef Ignition icon, which brings up the TriDepth Ignition control box. If it's your first time, you tell it to scan and find all the games you have on your system. Then as it finds them it puts icons in the control panel.
Loading games is far from satisfying. Most of the time you get a message that says the game does not support DirectX 9, 10, or 11, which of course is absurd. And if you don't launch a game from the TriDef control panel then it won't come up in S3D and there is no other way to activate the S3D.
I was able to get "Bioshock 2" to run. To do such a thing you load all your games on the computer. Then in the TriDef control box you tell it to scan and it finds, and generates an icon, for all the games that are compatible with the DDD driver. It found "Battlefield Bad Company," and "Bioshock 2," but not "Stalker COP" - all games I have run in S3D with no issues on the nVidia 3D Vision system.
I tried "Battlefield: Bad Company 2". I launched it through TriDef 3D Ignition and got a message in the upper right corner: 3D is currently disabled please update your graphics card driver to the latest version. Well of course the latest version is there (8.77.5). You also get a message that the game doesn't support DirectX 9, 10, or 11. For those not paying attention, Battlefied: Bad Company 2 actually supports all three in native mode.
DDD says this particular error message is a known bug. The error message is misleading. It should state something similar to "Please set in game resolution to the display's native resolution". To fix this, simply set the in-game resolution to the notebook's native resolution, (1920x1080@120Hz, for example) in the game Options, and the message disappear. Even better, the game runs in S3D then, and it really is a great experience.
"Bioshock 2" came up in S3D by default.
For "S.T.A.L.K.E.R." games such as "Shadow of Chernobyl" and "Call of Prypat" you have to manually import a generic driver. To do that you right click on the icon and select Properties. Then click on Import and then the scroll the list till you find Generic.
TriDef Ignition diver installer dialog box
The Generic driver will work with just about any game, and once installed you then tweak the games setup options to optimize it for 3D. It's fairly straight forward once you know what to do. You can also click and drag the Stalker game icon into the TriDef Ignition window, and it assigns the generic game profile automatically. When you drag any game icon into the Window, it automatically looks for the correct game profile and if it doesn't find a customized game profile, it automatically assigns the generic game profile]
The system is great, but getting it set up is difficult. If I hadn't been referred by Neil Schneider of the S3D
Gaming Alliance to DDD's Perth, Australia office, and had several email exchanges, a phone call, and a visit from their local rep, I doubt I would have ever gotten it to work. I learned later that DDD is headquartered in Los Angeles, and they also have a rep in San Francisco.
Once a game is installed and running you can bring up the TriDef control menu and adjust depth, and focal plane. That's a terrific capability which allows you get the best effect and to compensate for your individual vision. There are several other controls like Focus Speed, Laser Sight for aiming and menu positioning. It turns out to be a really powerful and useable system once you get past the frustrating startup learning curve. We will be doing a more in-depth report on DDD's S3D capabilities.
Conclusion - What do we think?
HP introduced the ENVY 17 3D in October 2010, in time for the holidays. HP intended the ENVY 3D to be the first HD, 1080p 3D Blu-Ray movie media laptop that could play 3D movies. And they wanted the consumer to have a great out-of-the-box experience - plug in a BD DVD and see a 3D movie instantly, as easily as if the user had plugged in a standard def DVD. However, ENVY 17 came to the market after 3D Vision powered notebooks from Acer, Asus and Dell.
Because S3D games have become so popular HP also wanted to have that capability, although it was not the main point of the offering. So they worked with DDD, so that DDD's TriDef software could be downloaded for free from DDD's website, but left it to the consumer to get it working. A dedicated and sophisticated consumer probably could. In March this year HP introduced a new version of the ENVY 17 3D and in it S3D game support is provided through the pre-installed TriDef 3D Ignition game player. The other TriDef apps are not installed so there should be less confusion over who does what. We hope to be taking a look at that new machine soon.
nVidia's proprietary system is easier to use for games, and supports 3DTV – the HP/DDD/AMD solution doesn't support 3DTV.
HP will have to deal with service calls or direct the consumer to DDD's web site. DDD has a large following and many of its users have tweaked their systems to optimize the S3D performance. Then they publish that information on the DDD TriDef forum page. As noted above, the DDD system works, and works well, once you've figured out how it's organized. DDD is a small (26 people, half in Perth, Australia) company based in Los Angeles and can't offer the kind of support HP, AMD, or Nvidia can, so that will be the weak link in the equation. But HP and AMD are dedicated to an open system and so they will have to live with the side effects of frustrated consumers. Let's hope they all become advocates as most of the postings on DDD forum indicates those users are.
I criticized DDD's main menu to the folks at DDD. They said thanks for your feedback and comments, and told me they have already substantially re-designed the TriDef user interface to improve the general usability and address some of the issues I encountered. They said a new 3D user interface (TriDef 3D Portal) has already been deployed with most of their OEM customers. Due to timing issues HP decided to use the standard 2010 retail release for the first version of their HP ENVY notebooks, so DDD did not have an opportunity to include this new UI or customize it for HP. However, they are planning to roll out the new 3D UI for the standard retail release shortly. Hopefully it will lead to a better experience.
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