Nvidia reinvents switchable notebook graphics

Christens it Optimus

IT’S NOT EVERY day we’re impressed by some newfangled technology, but this time we have to give it to Nvidia, it’s come up with a really good idea, with some caution. Although we’re not sure where Optimus comes into play. But hey, it’s as good a name as any, right?

So what’s it all about? Well, remember having seen or owned notebooks that allowed you to turn on and off the discrete graphics card? It was a pretty good idea, although in the early days it required a system reboot to work and later it got to the stage where it took a few seconds and the screen flickered a bit. Now Nvidia has come up with a better solution, in that it’s all done on the fly without any user intervention or need to wait.

What’s more, it’s all done in software which means it’s easier for the notebook manufacturers to implement, since they don’t need to make changes to their notebook designs. Well, almost nothing. There still needs to be space for an Nvidia GPU in there somewhere, plus the extra cooling bits. This should reduce the R&D cost and time for notebook manufacturers, something they’ll most likely be very happy with.

There don’t appear to be any limitations as to what IGP Optimus will work with as Nvidia has shown demos to “selected media” running both Core i5’s and previous generation G4x chipsets. One potential issue is that Nvidia is relying on profiles to detect the application running, just like SLI. However, Nvidia claims that the profiles have been separated from the drivers and will be updated much more frequently than its notebook graphics drivers which are only updated once a quarter, generally.

What is confusing in this case is that we can’t seem to find any details as to which graphics cards are supported, although from what we can tell, at least the Geforce G210M, G310M – these are virtually the same GPU – GT325M and the GT335M are implicated. These are already available in selling products from Asus that Nvidia lists on its website. Even more confusing is the fact that Nvidia claims to have an “Optimus Copy Engine” inside these GPUs that works with Optimus, but considering that the G210M works with it, we’re not so sure we believe this.

We’re not sure how Nvidia can claim that the “Optimus Copy Engine” is a new hardware features when older GPUs obviously work. The copy engine is said to copy the frame buffer between the IGP and the GPU via the PCI Express bus and this is what prevents any visible stuttering on the screen when the GPU takes over from the IGP or vice versa. According to Anandtech, this could all be done by the 3D engine, but it would cause a slight glitch during the copy cycle. Nvidia is being very tight-lipped at the moment as to how this all actually works, as it’s still waiting for its patent on all this hocus-pocus to be filed, we suspect.

However, this is possibly the best thing to come out of Nvidia in a long time for notebooks, as having an on-demand GPU really does make a lot of sense. Intel’s IGPs are improving, but they still leave a lot to be desired in certain scenarios. Although we’re not sure why you’d need the Nvidia GPU to kick in during HD video playback, as Intel does this more than adequately well, especially on its latest Core i3/5/7 range of processors. For GPGPU stuff though it is a different matter, although again we are not sure that we’d want the GPU to come alive just because we’re visiting a website with some Flash animations on it, as that would be a definite battery life killer.

We’re also a little perplexed about the fact that Nvidia has handed out Asus notebooks to the “select media” and is listing no less than five brand new Asus models on its website, of which only one is available for purchase, yet none of the models are listed on Asus’ website. The mix of notebooks includes Intel CULV models as well as at least one model with a Core i5 processor. Hopefully Asus will clarify this shortly and supply us with some more details on the various models.

It’s hard to deny that if all this proves to be true, then Nvidia likely has a winner on its hands when it comes to stealing potential customers away from AMD. Most people we know that own previous generations of notebooks with switchable graphics had nothing but problems with getting that working properly and this will hopefully remedy all those problems. However, we’ll hang on a little bit longer until thinking of parting with our cash, as there are way too many question marks surrounding this, and Nvidia doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.S|A

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