Hands-On With Nvidia Optimus: Switchable Graphics Done Right

Let’s be frank: the idea of switchable graphics has always been appealing, but the implementation thus far has been a huge downer. If you wanted to switch your notebook’s active GPU from integrated to discrete, you had to either to log out or reboot the computer.  The process was typically accompanied by a not-too-comforting flickering black screen, which would probably lead the laymen into thinking that a problem had occurred.

But not anymore. With the arrival of Nvidia’s Optimus technology, the switchable graphics experience has become what users (and reviewers) always thought it should be: seamless and simple.

The first notebook with the Nvidia Optimus technology is the ASUS UL50VF-A1, which automatically switches between integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD and discrete Nvidia GeForce G210M graphics when needed. Previously, when graphics were rendered by either the integrated or discrete GPU, they had to pass through a multiplexer on the way to the display; switching between the two GPUs would cause the aforementioned issues. Optimus works by having intensive video information (such as games or Flash videos) rendered by the discrete GPU, which then swiftly copies the data to the system memory, where the Intel GPU directly drives the display. No multiplexers needed.

As a result, the switch between the two GPUs is is practically instantaneous and invisible. When we installed and fired up Dungeon Fighter Online or watched 30 Rock on Hulu, there was nary a flicker of the screen as the UL50VF-A1 activated the Nvidia GPU. Closing out those applications automatically switched back to Intel’s offering. It’s remarkably effective in its simplicity; users will no longer accidentally leave their notebooks in discrete graphics mode, sapping precious battery life.

To see the full results of our Nvidia Optimus testing, check out our review of the ASUS UL50VF-A1 and this video of the seamless transitions below:

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For a more in-depth explanation of the benefits Optimus provides, click over to Nvidia’s blog.


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