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February 10, 2010

NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology Brings New Level of Switchable Graphics

Laptops with high-end graphics capabilities offer good performance in areas like playing HD video or games and can consume a lot of energy and battery life while in use. Laptops with lower-end graphics capabilities get good battery life but tend to sacrifice in the performance area. You could either get a laptop that rocked in performance, or a laptop with awesome battery life – but not both. NVIDIA went out to solve this issue: give PC manufacturers the technology to provide the best of both worlds to their consumers. Today NVIDIA has announced their new Optimus technology. With Optimus, NVIDIA is solving the common problem of having a balance between performance and battery life (as it relates to graphics) in laptops.

Many laptops come with either integrated graphics or discrete graphics. Integrated graphics, or what is also sometimes called “shared graphics”, usually utilizes a portion of a laptop’s main system memory and consumes less power. Discrete (or dedicated) graphics provide high levels of graphics performance and have a dedicated amount of memory apart from the laptop’s main system memory though they generally consume more power (bye-bye battery life). People looking for good performance in areas like gaming or HD video likely choose laptops with dedicated graphics. More and more higher-end laptops however now include both integrated graphics and discrete graphics – with the ability to switch between the two for specific needs. This is called “switchable graphics”.

For example, if you’re simply doing some web browsing or editing Word documents, a user would likely be using (and only need) the capabilities of their integrated graphics. But when the user’s needs change and shift to something requiring a little more performance like playing a HD video, they would likely switch to their discrete graphics. In the past, this experience has been a bit, well, wonky. A few years ago, some laptops with both integrated and discrete graphics came with a physical button that allowed the user to switch. But this experience forced the user to have to reboot their PC. Then eventually a software solution was created for switching between integrated and discrete graphics in laptops but that often required the user to log out and log back in or made the user’s screen flicker.

The idea behind switchable graphics in laptops is that it can provide both low-end and high-end experiences and preserve both performance and battery life. But the experience of switching between the two hasn’t been very good.

That is – until now.


With Optimus, NVIDIA is providing an absolutely seamless experience between switching from integrated graphics to discrete graphics in laptop PCs. The user literally has to do nothing. There is no physical button, there is no weird software solution that forces you to log out and log back in or the screen to flicker. It just, well, switches. I went to NVIDIA’s office here in Bellevue to get a demo of Optimus in action earlier today. I came with my HD camcorder ready to film the demo for this very blog post. But, the experience with Optimus was so seamless; there was no point in filming the demo because there was nothing to see! NVIDIA did have a small little custom app that would tell you when the integrated graphics would switch to the discrete graphics – but when people use this technology in the real world there is no app to tell them when things switch. It just happens.

The magic of Optimus lies in a combination of software and hardware. Optimus only works today on Windows 7. NVIDIA’s software and Windows 7’s driver model (Windows Driver Model – or WDM) and APIs (like DirectX and DirectCompute) allow for the kind of experience Optimus provides. NVIDIA GPUs that support Optimus Technology provide the hardware component of the equation.

On Optimus-powered Windows 7 PCs – when the user launches an app that requires a little more power for graphics, it will automatically and seamless switch from integrated graphics to discrete graphics. I asked NVIDIA how Optimus knows when to switch from integrated graphics to discrete graphics. NVIDIA tells me that through regular online updates via the NVIDIA Verde Driver Program , NVIDIA will update the application-specific Optimus profiles with the suggested settings that will tell Optimus to use either integrated or discrete graphics.


No action is required by the user however if you’re a geek and want to tell Optimus to switch or not to switch for a specific app or game, you can via the NVIDIA Control Panel as well.

So to re-cap: with NVIDIA’s Optimus technology, laptop PCs can now provide an absolutely seamless switchable graphics experience to the consumer while preserving battery life and performance.

At NVIDIA’s office, I was given the demo of Optimus on ASUS’s new UL50Vf Optimus-powered laptop. While playing some HD video content and a few games, battery life went to a little over 3 hours. After we stopped playing video and games, sat a bit and chatted, we checked the battery life and it went up to 8 hours. We checked the battery life using Windows 7 Power icon in the Notification Area.

For more on NVIDIA’s Optimus technology, see their product page and this blog post for more details.