NVIDIA Optimus automates graphics switching, promises the best of both worlds

We've always thought switchable graphics made a lot of sense on laptops, and NVIDIA's new Optimus tech looks like it's going to bring it mainstream in a serious way -- there's no more manually toggling between the powerful discrete GPU and the power-saving integrated chip. More than just automatically switching off the discrete GPU when the laptop is unplugged, the idea is that you don't have to think about when you want to use the different graphics options: the software and hardware combo will take care of deciding which graphics processor is best for the application or content. For instance, launch Call of Duty 4 and the discrete GPU will power on, close out and start writing an e-mail and it will switch to the IGP. Sounds pretty simple, but under the hood its much more complicated as NVIDIA has moved to running the drivers for both graphics subsystems concurrently and removed the multiplexers under the hood. For more details on all the technical fixes hit the more coverage link.

Unsurprisingly, Intel hasn't been involved in these innovations, but NVIDIA says Optimus will work with Intel's new Core 2010 processors and the Pineview Atom platform, along with NVIDIA's GeForce 200M series, GeForce 300M series, next-gen GeForce M, and next-gen Ion GPUs. Speaking of Ion, NVIDIA wouldn't officially say what the next version will look like, but they confirmed it will be announced in March and use Optimus technology (we're pretty much assuming that it will combine the Pineview platform with a lower-end discrete GPU, like the previously hinted G310). The first Optimus-enabled laptops will hit at the end of this month courtesy of ASUS, and will include the UL50Vf, N61Jv, N71Jv, N82Jv, and U30Jc. We've been playing around with the $849 UL50Vf, so hit the break for some early impressions and video of the new graphics technology.

You may remember the 14-inch ASUS UL80Vt which was outfitted with a 1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor, GMA 4500MHD graphics and NVIDIA GeForce G210M -- the UL50Vf is a 15.6-inch version of the same laptop, but the handoff between the GeForce and the IGP is now handled through Optimus. After playing around with the technology for a few days, we're happy to report that it works pretty much as advertised, though there are a few caveats.

As you'd expect, the G210M GPU remained off when we wrote this post in Microsoft Word 2007 and updated our Twitter status in Firefox. (NVIDIA gave us a tool to see what GPU was active that you'll be able to download from their site.) However, when we opened a 1080p YouTube video, Flash 10.1 triggered the GPU for smooth playback. The same thing happened when we played a 1080p .mov of the Iron Man 2 trailer in Windows Media Player. However, the GPU didn't activate when we fired up the demo version of Batman: Arkham Asylum -- instead we got some choppy gameplay courtesy of the IGP. Turns out the Optimus system relies on software profiles to turn on the afterburners or rest on its IGP laurels, and the demo version of Batman wasn't yet added -- we're sure he's offended.

So, what happens in situations where the software doesn't recognize the game or application? You're pretty much back to switching things manually, although it's now a much simpler affair as you'll only need to right-click the application icon and tell it to run on either the IGP or discrete GPU. NVIDIA is cognizant of this drawback, though; its database of profiles will be subject to automatic and presumably regular updates, and you'll also be able to tweak things yourself in the NVIDIA control panel. So while it is automated, it just might need the occasional nudge in the right direction. A number of other games, including WoW and World in Conflict, and some CUDA -enabled applications, like Badaboom and vReveal, utilized the discrete graphics automatically.



Battery Life

ASUS UL50Vf with integrated graphics




ASUS UL50Vf with discrete graphics




Beyond just being more convenient, the other major benefit of Optimus is its battery life savings. Since the laptop can now automatically switch off the discrete GPU when it isn't being used, battery life should be, as the name suggests, optimized. The UL50Vf lasted for 6 hours and 10 minutes on our video rundown test using just integrated graphics, but only 3 and 57 minutes hours with discrete turned on. Battery life on the UL50Vf should end up somewhere in between the two extremes, depending on how hard you opt to tax the discrete GPU.

Finally, a note about operating systems. At present, Optimus is only stated to work with Windows 7, but one of the slides we were shown featured a certain snow-covered cat next to the Windows 7 logo. Considering the clunkiness of switching between the dual NVIDIA chips in the current MacBook Pros, and the strong hints we've gotten that new models with Core i5 and i7 processors are due sometime soon, there's a pretty easy conclusion to draw here. We honestly don't know either way -- with Apple hardware, nobody does -- but we're hoping we see a lot more of Optimus from every laptop vendor real soon.