The laptops with built-in 3D-capable displays on the market are still not that many, and most of the systems that do have 3D displays are high-end and targeted at gamers and that actually makes sense considering the extra price you have to pay for the 3D display. Active 3D technology seems to be the most popular among these solutions, though there are a few solutions offering autostereoscopic 3D displays and in the lower end price segment there are multiple options with passive 3D displays. And while it definitely sounds nice to have a laptop with a 3D-capable display, most people actually get a normal laptop with a 2D screen and at some point of time decide that they want to connect it to a 3D monitor, 3D projector or a 3D HDTV that they already own. And usually this is where the problems start along with the questions why it does not work. That is why I’ll give you some useful advice on what to look for in a laptop if you plan to using it in stereoscopic 3D mode with an external 3D display of some kind at some point in time and you want to make sure that you are going to be able to.
I’ll be starting with active 3D displays that are capable of supporting 1080p resolution at 120Hz or 60Hz 3D mode at Full HD resolution as these are the most demanding ones. Usually for such a monitor you will need a Dual-Link DVI port and these are rarely seen available on laptops nowadays, you may be lucky to find such on a bigger and more powerful multimedia or gaming laptops only or on an external docking station for mobile workstations or business class laptops. Alternative solution would be to look for a DisplayPort connector that also has enough bandwidth to output 3D at high resolution and refresh rate (if you have a 3D-capable monitor with DP support) or if you add in an active DP to Dual-Link DVI adapter.
If you are going to be connecting a passive 3D monitor or 3D HDTV to your laptop things are much easier as these solutions can accept the stereo 3D image in a single 1080p frame at 60Hz, so the bandwidth requirements are no different than a standard 2D image. The drawback of using this technology and the Row Interleaved method is that you essentially loose half of the vertical resolution of the image when in 3D mode. But the good thing is that you can at least use pretty much any interface that can output 1080p 60Hz for sending the 3D image to the 3D display and since HDMI is nowadays so common that pretty much any laptop has it you’ll be covered for that.
Next up are 3D HDTVs and some Full HD 3D projectors using HDMI 1.4 interface for stereoscopic 3D support. This is a standard interface and you may be able to use a lot of laptops that have HDMI output to connect to such 3D HDTVs and feed them with 3D content, you just need to make sure that the laptop has a GPU capable of supporting HDMI 1.4 frame packaging 3D output as not all do. Due to the currently more limited bandwidth capabilities of the HDMI chips used in 3D HDTVs you are essentially limited to using 1080p 24Hz 3D mode for movies and 720p 50/60Hz 3D mode for gaming, and there is no support for 120Hz in 2D mode. The good news is that people with passive 3D HDTVs can skip the HDMI 1.4 frame packaging 3D support and the limitation for the lower refresh rate at 1080p and instead go for Row Interleaved output for 1080p 60Hz 3D mode, but with half vertical resolution, so there is still some trade off, but this is an extra option that owners of active 3D HDTVs to not have.
Moving on to 3D DLP projectors, most of these use frame sequential input, so they still need high refresh rates, however due to the fact that there aren’t that many Full HD models (these tend to use HDMI 1.4) and most consumer models are up to 720p resolution, so you should be fine connecting these to a laptop. The 3D DLP projectors either have a VGA or an HDMI connector, the two most commonly available interfaces on laptops at the moment, and for both the 120Hz refresh rate is not a problem at the lower resolution that the devices use.
Ok, so far I’ve talked about the interfaces and the requirements and limitations about connecting different 3D-capable displays to a laptop, but this is just the start of things as the next step is much more important in order to be able to actually output stereo 3D content to the display and not just be able to connect it. It is not only important what video outputs you have available on your laptop, but also what graphics processor they are connected to, because you’ll have to find a software that needs to be able to work with them properly for the stereoscopic 3D output. And since we have three major makers of GPUs (AMD, Intel and Nvidia) things can get a bit complicated here, especially depending on what kind of stereoscopic 3D use you need with your laptop.
Switching graphics is your enemy number one for stereo 3D use on a laptop, no matter what kind of manual or automatic switching between an integrated Intel and discrete AMD or Nvidia graphics you have this thing may prevent you from properly using the right software for outputting stereoscopic 3D content from your laptop. For example the Nvidia Optimus technology is a nice and useful feature that can extend your battery life when you don’t need to use the more powerful discrete graphics chip, but it also prevents you from using 3D vision, “Optimized for GeForce” or the 3DTV Play software solutions for outputting 3D content to a compatible 3D display. So try to stay away from such technologies if stereoscopic 3D support from your laptop is important for you, though if it is only for playing 3D movies on your 3D HDTV for example you may still have an option available.
Even if you have a laptop with integrated Intel GPU and a discrete graphics chip that uses some sort of switching between the two graphics processors, and thus you are unable to use the discrete chip for stereo 3D, you might still be able to get the integrated one to work. And while Intel’s GPUs integrated in their processors are not powerful enough for stereoscopic 3D gaming, they do support HDMI 1.4 and have enough performance for stereoscopic 3D photos and 3D movie playback, including Blu-ray 3D. That is if you happen to have a compatible chipset and processor that can support HDMI 1.4 and stereoscopic 3D output. What you’d need to have is at least a second generation Intel Core processor (Sandy Bridge or the newer Ivy Bridge platform) in order to have support for Intel’s InTRU 3D technology, and this means Intel Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 CPU, Pentium processors won’t do as they don’t feature InTRU 3D support. All of the major software Blu-ray 3D players do have support for Intel’s stereo 3D implementation, so the software side is well covered.
Ok, so we now know which Intel integrated GPUs do support stereo 3D, but what about the supported AMD and Nvidia graphics processors used in mobile computers. Both companies have stereo 3D support for a wide range of their more recent graphics processors, though Nvidia’s support covers way more older generations than AMD’s. Looking at the official list of compatible mobile Nvidia GPUs you can see that everything from the GeForce 200M series up until now with the 600M series is compatible with the company’s stereo 3D technologies, however even the older GeForce 8000M and 9000M mobile series should also work. But you should be careful with for the presence of a GPU switching technology as even though a GPU might be compatible with stereo 3D, that technology may be preventing it from properly providing 3D support. Currently AMD only lists their latest Radeon 6000M series of GPUs as compatible, but their previous 5000M series also supports AMD’s HD3D technology and you might be able to even get some stereo 3D support on older GPU generations even though they do not provide support the AMD HD3D technology.
I hope that this short guide can help you when choosing a new laptop for stereo 3D use or you want to see if your old one might be able to work in stereo 3D mode together with an external stereoscopic 3D-capable display. Feel fee to ask any other questions that you may have in the comments below…