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Nvidia Optimus Gives Laptops a Graphical Gearshift

By Richard Adhikari
Feb 9, 2010 11:17 AM PT

Nvidia on Tuesday unveiled Optimus, a technology that automatically chooses the best graphics processor for running a given application, thus lengthening a laptop computer's battery life.

Nvidia Optimus Gives Laptops a Graphical Gearshift

Based on the application's needs, Optimus will route the workload to either an Nvidia discrete graphics processing unit (GPU) or graphics processors integrated into Intel chips.

Asus will release a netbook with Optimus technology later this week.

Optimus Prime

Optimus technology automatically detects most types of applications such as Cuda, Compute, and many video applications. That's because they make calls the GPU will recognize. DirectX apps and 3-D game engines will trigger DX calls; video playback triggers DXVA (DirectX Video Acceleration) calls, for example.

However, most games and certain multimedia apps need a special identifying profile so that Optimus can decide which graphics system it should use. "We introduced profiles with Nvidia SLI technology so the system would know how to handle the work associated with graphics," said Sasha Ostojic, one of Optimus' developers. Nvidia has profiled apps based on whether or not they work best on the GPU.

SLI, or Scalable Link Interface, is Nvidia's name for a multi-GPU solution it developed for linking two or more video cards together to produce a single output.

Nvidia pushes out application profiles automatically to users, just like antivirus vendors push out new virus definitions. "Updating a driver every time a new application comes out is not a great user experience," Ostojic said.

Optimus uses a new copy engine to move graphics data around the system. This replaces the traditional direct memory access (DMA) transfers between the GPU frame buffer memory and system memory used by the integrated graphics processor. "The discrete GPU can do the heavy lifting and pass through the results to the integrated graphics chip to be displayed," Ostojic said.

This copy engine is included in Nvidia's 200M series of processors, its GeForce 300M series, its next-generation GeForce M series; and its next-generation ION series.

Using the copy engine eliminates the need for hardware multiplexers, Ostojic said. It also removes glitches that occur when the display is switched from the integrated graphics processor (IGP) to the GPU.

Optimus transfers the display surface from the GPU frame buffer over the PCI Express bus to the system memory-based frame buffer used by the IGP. In other words, the integrated graphics processor is used as a display adapter or pass-through.

The discrete GPU automatically powers off when it is not in use and powers on again as soon as an application that requires it is launched. This further saves battery power.

Mac Happy?

Optimus technology is being introduced for Windows PCs, and it supports Windows 7, Nvidia spokesperson Brian Burke told TechNewsWorld. It could also support Macs.

"There is no technical reason Optimus technology could not be deployed on the Mac platform," Burke said. However, he would not comment on whether it is or will be supported by the Mac.

Optimus will only be available on new systems. "It's a combination of software and hardware and is not a field upgrade option," Burke said.

Nvidia expects there will be more than 50 products incorporating Optimus out by the summer. Asus has already announced that it will offer notebooks with Optimus technology.

Future notebook platforms will include those built around the Intel Montevina, Arrandale and Pine Trail platforms, Burke said. For netbooks, Nvidia will attach its next-generation ION graphics processing unit to Intel Pine Trail processors through the PCI Express bus, he disclosed.

What Optimus Means for Notebooks

Optimus could prove to be a game-changing technology, Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. "When Intel set Larrabee back, graphics went back to being a battle between Nvidia and ATI," he pointed out. "When Intel comes back at graphics in a couple of years, expect a technology like this to be baked into their solutions and into AMD's Fusion when that arrives as well."

Intel shelved plans to put out a new discrete graphics chip based on its Larrabee technology in December, after delaying its plans repeatedly. However, it will continue to leverage the technology. AMD's Fusion is a next-generation processor that will incorporate ATI's graphics processing technology.

Both gamers and business users will likely find the Optimus technology useful on mobile computers, Enderle said. "Gamers have been crippled by extremely poor battery life, and business has resisted graphics somewhat because it lowers the length of time a system can run on its battery," he explained. "This technology mitigates both problems nicely," he added.

"With Nvidia's Optimus technology, you get the best of both worlds, as general application and multimedia duties are handled by Intel's HD graphics for improved battery life, and demanding applications like gaming and video transcoding can be handled by Nvidia's GT2xxM and GT3xxM discrete graphics processors on the fly," Asus spokesperson Gary Key told TechNewsWorld.

"This provides the user with a seamless experience that delivers the best graphics performance and energy conservation at the same time."

Asus and Optimus

Asus' N61Jv-X2 notebook can be pre-ordered now on Amazon.com, Asus' Key said. It will be available on the site later this week. Price is US$899.

Around Feb. 19, the Asus N71Jv will be offered on NewEgg.com. That should retail at between $999 and $1,099. Around Feb. 24, the Asus U30Jc will be offered in select channels. Estimated MSRP: $899. In early March, the Asus UL50Vf will be offered in select channels at an MSRP of $849.

ASUS is also planning to introduce Optimus-enabled notebooks in its mainstream K series, based on the Arrandale platform. However, it has not yet set release details and pricing, Key said.


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