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Nvidia Primes Optimus Mobile Graphics Tech

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 37 comments

An alternative to the switchable graphics technology found on some Intel-based notebooks, Nvidia's Optimus technology promises smoother switching for trouble-free operation.

Last week, Nvidia briefed Tom's Hardware on its newest mobile technology, dubbed Optimus. While we previously posted rumors concerning the Optimus announcement, we can now reveal that Nvidia hopes to optimize battery life and performance on mobile computers simultaneously through this feature using a form of automatic switchable graphics.

Optimus is a hardware- and software-based technology that determines when applications require discrete graphics via software, supplying power to the GPU in response. This is done automatically (more detail on the automatic functionality below), without the need to manually switch between integrated and discrete graphics, which we agree is a cumbersome process for notebook users and is a characteristic of the switchable graphics technology supported through the latest Intel Calpella platform.

The benefits of Optimus, Nvidia claims, are potentially welcome changes. Supported on all Arrandale (Core i3, i5, and i7), Penryn (mobile Core 2 Duo) and Pine Trail (Atom N4xx) processors, Optimus attempts to balance performance and battery life. The technology is built to take advantage of the discrete graphics processor only when it’s required, so you only sacrifice runtime for performance when a demanding workload is applied.

Unlike some of Nvidia’s other projects, Optimus will require significant development and cooperation from its OEM partners before it can be implemented. Asus, the first vendor to employ Optimus, will launch its UL50Vf notebook this week. The company has  also announced four other models. According to Nvidia, competing vendors are expected to make similar announcements in the coming months. Unfortunately, it'll likely be difficult to gauge the benefits of Optimus on the UL50Vf, as the system includes a 1.3 GHz Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor and GeForce G210M GPU--not quite what we'd consider a platform in need of much more 3D muscle than integrated graphics would otherwise deliver.

Nevertheless, it's important to note that current notebook designs and GPUs will not work with Nvidia’s Optimus technology. Only newer models featuring Optimus-enabled GPUs with a built-in Copy Engine (explained below) will work, including the following: the GeForce 200M-series, 300M-series, upcoming GeForce M and ION GPUs.

Optimus’ function can be boiled down as such: minimize the hassle of switching from integrated to discrete graphics and vice versa. You’ll still give up performance in integrated mode and battery life when the system is utilizing the discrete GPU. But by making this switch demand-based, the transition should be less jarring.

How It Works

Switchable graphics requires multiplexing and extra routing, discouraging its implementation.Switchable graphics requires multiplexing and extra routing, discouraging its implementation.

Today’s Intel-based switchable graphics deployments include an actual switch, which changes the display from the IGP to the GPU. This process requires powering on the GPU, switching between the driver interposer and multiplexers, and can take between 5-10 seconds. Once the GPU is active, (provided the implementation is correct; each OEM has different methods to switch between integrated and discrete graphics), the laptop is able to serve up additional performance. Of course, this is also contingent on the user remembering to manually switch, deal with screen flickering, and closing what are called “blocking apps,” which do not allow the switch. Should the user be unwilling to compromise here and not switch back and forth, there go the benefits of switchable graphics. Thus, Nvidia says Optimus will benefit those who were previously not using Switchable Graphics as intended.

Optimus purportedly simplifies the hardware implementation by attaching to the IGP via PCIe.Optimus purportedly simplifies the hardware implementation by attaching to the IGP via PCIe.

Optimus employs several notable changes to both the hardware and software designs currently in use. The Routing Layer powers the GPU based on DirectX , DXVA calls (DirectX Video Acceleration), CUDA calls, and a predetermined list of profiles. The Optimus profiles are comprised of a list of applications that Nvidia validates and automatically updates on all machines with the technology enabled. These small text files specify whether or not the application in question should employ the discrete GPU or leave integrated graphics enabled.

If the GPU is needed, the routing layer spins up the discrete GPU via fast initialization. This means that, when the GPU isn’t being utilized, it isn’t powered on, as with switchable graphics. Applications can also be manually set to use discrete or integrated graphics, among other customizable features. Nvidia’s control panel will include independent discrete and integrated settings for laptops with Optimus. Optimus only works on Windows 7, because it requires multiple display drivers to operate.

Left: GPU without the Copy Engine stalls out when copying data; Right: Independant, asynchronous copyLeft: GPU without the Copy Engine stalls out when copying data; Right: Independant, asynchronous copy

Once the GPU is utilized, the IGP automatically serves as a display output for the GPU over PCIe. This is possible because the GPU is now directly connected to the IGP, requires no multiplexing, and includes the requisite Copy Engine built into compatible GPUs.

All in all, Optimus facilitates simpler hardware designs, since it's connected to the IGP via PCI Express. It's primarily software-driven, making it easy to optimize, too. What remains to be seen is how many vendors actually adopt the technology.

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  • 18 Hide
    back_by_demand , February 9, 2010 1:32 PM
    Is it just me or did you think "Transformers" when you read the title?!?
  • 10 Hide
    tapnick , February 9, 2010 1:41 PM
    If they do this right it will be a big help with laptops and portables
Other Comments
  • -4 Hide
    r3t4rd , February 9, 2010 1:22 PM
    Just another way for Nvidia to keep people buy only Nvidia.
  • 18 Hide
    back_by_demand , February 9, 2010 1:32 PM
    Is it just me or did you think "Transformers" when you read the title?!?
  • 10 Hide
    tapnick , February 9, 2010 1:41 PM
    If they do this right it will be a big help with laptops and portables
  • 1 Hide
    r3t4rd , February 9, 2010 1:46 PM
    back_by_demandIs it just me or did you think "Transformers" when you read the title?!?

    LOL...yes I did. Funny the Article's Headline uses "Prime" and "Optimus".

    And thinking about Transformers....I remember, to this day, watching Transformers: The Movie back in the 80's at the theatre, and when Prime died...*sniff sniff*...I cried - really. Almost brings that nostalgic surreal feeling backing thinking of it.
  • -6 Hide
    Anonymous , February 9, 2010 1:48 PM
    this gonna be suck!
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , February 9, 2010 2:04 PM
    @r3t4rd

    I think the title was intended to make a play on the name of the product ("Optimus") in order to make a Transformers reference...
  • 3 Hide
    back_by_demand , February 9, 2010 2:12 PM
    pickleme@r3t4rdI think the title was intended to make a play on the name of the product ("Optimus") in order to make a Transformers reference...

    Really? You think?
  • 7 Hide
    brett1042002 , February 9, 2010 2:25 PM
    Where is fermi...
  • -5 Hide
    r3t4rd , February 9, 2010 2:26 PM
    pickleme@r3t4rdI think the title was intended to make a play on the name of the product ("Optimus") in order to make a Transformers reference...

    I couldn't have figured that out...thanks for the help.
  • 8 Hide
    Honis , February 9, 2010 2:29 PM
    Is James Pikover a new Toms writer? This article was clear, informative and not slathered with opinion.

    If this really will increase my battery life and provide me a gaming notebook and a normal notebook in one I'm all for it.
  • 3 Hide
    jamezrp , February 9, 2010 2:34 PM
    I'm glad you guys liked the title. It would have been more transformer-ish, but there's only so far you can swing without hitting yourself in the face.
  • 4 Hide
    jamezrp , February 9, 2010 2:35 PM
    And Honis, I'm generally a Tom's Guide writer, but we worked together on this one. Glad you liked it!
  • -2 Hide
    Humans think , February 9, 2010 2:51 PM
    Hocus Bogus....
    Just make discrete GPUs more energy efficient by shutting down processing units?
  • 9 Hide
    Raishi , February 9, 2010 2:56 PM
    r3t4rdJust another way for Nvidia to keep people buy only Nvidia.


    You have got to be kidding me. The fanboy-ism gets more and more ridiculous. You're really going to trash talk Nvidia for coming up with a useful new feature?

    This is what tech companies -should- be doing, convincing consumers to buy their product over the competitors by offering new and better features. They aren't doing anything shady, there's nothing you can complain about; no fake cards, no re branding issues, no delays. Just a new feature that a lot of people will be able to make good use of.

    I swear, Nvidia could invent tech that cures cancer, AIDS, and the common cold, and people here would insist it was just a cheap marketing scheme and they should be boycotted for it.
  • 0 Hide
    doomtomb , February 9, 2010 3:41 PM
    So can they apply this to existing laptops with Nvidia compatible graphics and the Intel compatible processors or do they have to be Optimus certified? My question simplified is: Do I have to wait for the new laptops or will this work with existing laptops?
  • -1 Hide
    thejerk , February 9, 2010 3:46 PM
    1.) Develop dual-mode highly efficient 2D, truly reasonably-powerful 3d mobile graphics.
    2.) Integrate into chipset.
    3.) Sell millions and millions to the now huge mobile PC audience, and spread the development costs across the board, barely increasing retail pricing.
    4.) Profit.
  • 1 Hide
    Raishi , February 9, 2010 4:08 PM
    doomtombSo can they apply this to existing laptops with Nvidia compatible graphics and the Intel compatible processors or do they have to be Optimus certified? My question simplified is: Do I have to wait for the new laptops or will this work with existing laptops?


    "Nevertheless, it's important to note that current notebook designs and GPUs will not work with Nvidia’s Optimus technology. Only newer models featuring Optimus-enabled GPUs with a built-in Copy Engine (explained below) will work, including the following: the GeForce 200M-series, 300M-series, upcoming GeForce M and ION GPUs."
  • -5 Hide
    r3t4rd , February 9, 2010 4:23 PM
    RaishiYou have got to be kidding me. The fanboy-ism gets more and more ridiculous. You're really going to trash talk Nvidia for coming up with a useful new feature?This is what tech companies -should- be doing, convincing consumers to buy their product over the competitors by offering new and better features. They aren't doing anything shady, there's nothing you can complain about; no fake cards, no re branding issues, no delays. Just a new feature that a lot of people will be able to make good use of.I swear, Nvidia could invent tech that cures cancer, AIDS, and the common cold, and people here would insist it was just a cheap marketing scheme and they should be boycotted for it.

    I never stated that I was an ATI Fanboy...did I?

    RaishiOnly newer models featuring Optimus-enabled GPUs with a built-in Copy Engine (explained below) will work, including the following: the GeForce 200M-series, 300M-series, upcoming GeForce M and ION GPUs."

    Precisely my point.

    Why not enable this for all GPU's? Regardless of ATI or Nvidia....but in this case...its Nvidia making another ploy to keep you buying Nvidia. It is just like PhysiX.
  • -5 Hide
    r3t4rd , February 9, 2010 4:30 PM
    And just for you nut job people who scream fanboy-ism...I own all Nvidia Video cards. Perhaps it would be wise to not jump to conclusions before you open ur mouths and bite off more than you can chew. And perhaps try a civil conversation and then determine if the person is what you perceive them to be. Raising ur fists and shaking it at someone is what Liberals do.

    LOL..had to add that in there. Flame on....!!!!
  • 1 Hide
    necronic , February 9, 2010 4:44 PM
    This is pretty darned complicated stuff, so it's not surprising that it is hardware dependent. The whole concept of hybrid GPUs have been around for a couple years already, but this is a massive refinement on that concept.

    "Optimus employs several notable changes to both the hardware and software designs currently in use"

    Anywho, its just dumb to think you can slap any software/firmware on any hardware. For some reason people who think they know tech make this mistake all the time.
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