NVIDIA’s Optimus is the third generation of hybrid graphics and the first solution that’s ready for primetime. If all goes as planned NVIDIA’s Optimus should go unnoticed by users who have both integrated graphics and a GPU in their notebooks. The guys from NVIDIA showed me the first such system a couple of weeks ago and I really liked what I saw. You can expect to see notebooks with Optimus built in on store shelves within a couple of weeks.
Here’s a video chat between myself and Matt Wuebbling of NVIDIA on the subject.
Until a few years ago, mobile computer buyers had to choose between the power savings of integrated graphics and the performance offered by GPU’s. PC manufacturers introduced hybrid solutions in 2006 that came with both integrated graphics and dedicated graphics. I’ve owned several such systems of the past few years and have always been frustrated with how difficult it is to realize the graphics performance or power savings I expected because it’s just too hard to switch between the solutions.
The Sony VAIO SZ was the first ultraportable notebook to come with hybrid graphics. I bought one shortly after it was released in part because of the switchable graphics feature. To switch between the Intel graphics and NVIDIA GPU, I had to quit all my applications physically flip a switch (located just above the keyboard) and restart the machine. I often forgot to switch back to power saving mode until I saw a low battery indicator and I often forgot to switch to the GPU until I started seeing video stutter.
The second generation of switchable graphics is greatly improved, but these systems can still be a lot of trouble.
For example, my 15" MacBook Pro has both NVIDIA GEFORCE 9400M and 9600M GT graphics. But in order to switch between them I have to manually select between "better battery life" and "higher performance" from the energy saver panel in system preferences. I then have to close my applications, log out and then log back in for my changes to take effect. Needless to say, I still run into the problem of being through more battery than I meant to with the power-hungry GPU and running graphics intensive applications and games using the 9400M.
Another system that I have with switchable graphics is the HP Envy 13. The switchable graphics solution on this notebook is a lot better than what’s in the MacBook Pro. When I unplug it from the wall and automatically switches to the power-saving graphics solution. When I plug it back in its which is to the more powerful ATI Radeon GPU. But the system has problems too. When the PC automatically switches between graphics solutions the screen flickers and sometimes distorts. This causes a lot of users to think that the computer is malfunctioning. Manually switching between the graphic solutions is not intuitive for the average user. First you have to make sure that there’s no applications that are utilizing the GPU running, then you have to right-click on the desktop and select between Intel and ATI from pop-up window that’s not very user-friendly.
The ASUS UL50Vf is the first notebook to feature NVIDIA Optimus and I can marks a huge step forward for switchable graphics. It will make it much more practical for people to have a PC that has really long battery life and the ability to handle video and GPU accelerated applications on demand.
Rene Haas of NVIDIA’s published a guest article on Notebooks.com for more details about Optimus.