Nvidia unveils Optimus laptop GPU tech

It’s been a while since Nvidia launched a brand that unlocked hidden memories of 80s kids TV. In fact, the last one was probably GeForce, echoing recollections of the Guardians of Space.

However, the Nvidia is now once again pulling the animated action nostalgia strings with its new Optimus technology, which looks like a prime piece of tech.

Sadly, Optimus has nothing to do with trucks that change into robots, but it could transform (see what we did there?) the way we use discrete graphics chips in laptops. The idea behind Optimus is that you can have a discrete graphics chip without sacrificing battery life. 'Hold on', you might be thinking, 'don’t we already have switchable graphics for exactly this?'.

We do indeed, but Nvidia’s research into the way people use switchable graphics revealed that only one per cent of users actually used the switch. Among the reasons was inconvenience. Early switchable laptops, such as 2008’s Sony VAIO SZ, required you to reboot the machine to switch graphics chips, and even later laptops such as the Dell Studio XPS 13 had their own usability issues too.

According to Nvidia, these included remembering to use the switch and having to close down your apps first. As well as this, you would have to wait a few seconds for the change to take place, and Nvidia says that the intermittent flickering display made the technology appear to be buggy as well.

The answer, according to Nvidia, is a new system that seamlessly enables the discrete graphics chip according to the work undertaken by the computer, which is where Optimus comes in. This isn’t just a dynamic GPU switching feature, though, as it also gets around the usability issues.

Instead of going through the convoluted process of disabling one chip and then enabling the display through another, Optimus instead takes advantage of the integrated graphics silicon by using it as a display controller for both the IGP and the discrete GPU. This means that there’s no waiting, flickering or rebooting required; the Nvidia graphics chip is just powered on when it’s needed, and its visual signal is handled by the integrated graphics processor.

When it’s not being used, perhaps when using basic office apps, the GeForce chip will be completely powered down, but it will then be powered on when an app can take advantage of it. Of course, this includes 3D games and GPGPU apps, but Nvidia says that the GPU will also come to life if you start viewing a Flash video in your web browser, for example.

The whole process is automatic, with Optimus determining whether an app should use either the discrete or integrated graphics chip. Some apps will also require an Optimus profile, which will work out if the app could benefit from the Nvidia silicon. However, if you like to have complete control over your chips, then Nvidia also says that you can still switch to manual control over the graphics chips if you prefer as well.

The idea is that laptop owners automatically get the best of both worlds without having to worry about fiddling around with switching graphics chips. You get plenty of battery life when you’re working on the move, without needing to remember to make the graphics switch, and you automatically get all the power you need when you’re gaming too.

Optimus requires Windows 7, and supports a wide range of Nvidia GPUs, including the GeForce M, 200M and 300M series. As well as this, Nvidia says it will also be supported by its forthcoming next-generation ION GPUs, which are scheduled to be released later on in the first quarter of 2010.

A variety of Intel platforms are supported by Optimus too, including those based on all of the Arrandale-based Core i-series chips, Core 2 Duo CPUs and Intel’s latest PineTrail-based Atom platforms. However, it looks as though Nvidia’s relationship with Intel is still rockier than a rock band in a rockery, as the company says that “Intel is not directly involved with the development of Optimus.”

The launch is kicking off with four new Asus laptops based on the technology, and Nvidia says that more will follow from other OEMs soon.