NVIDIA Optimus: Having Your Cake and Eating it Too!

Posted by Rob Enderle

For any of us who have had high performance notebook computers there has been a dirty little secret. 

Despite often having batteries big enough to start your car battery life is generally measured in minutes.  In effect we’ve had marginally portable desktops with little more than good UPS systems built in and no real ability to use them without power and only fooled ourselves into thinking they were really notebooks.   Hybrid graphics were supposed to fix this but fell painfully short in use but with the announcement of NVIDIA’s Optimus  that may have finally changed. 

Why Hybrid Failed
Hybrid had so much potential, it too promised to switch from graphics modes from discrete graphics to integrated graphics to conserve power and allow you to have battery life that rivaled real notebooks.   However the problem with the hybrid technology is that you typically had to reboot the computer to make the switch meaning if you just grabbed the laptop off your desk in high power mode and then tried to use it on a plane your battery life plummeted like a rock until you frantically switched modes and rebooted. 

While it was probably better than nothing it was kind of like a transmission that required you shut the car off and stop it to switch gears.   As a result few found the technology useful and when vendors went back and asked their buyers what they thought of hybrid graphics these vendors tended to get the blank stares of people that had no idea what the hell the vendor was talking about.   They simply didn’t use the technology. 

Much like in a car when you may have moments on a drive when you need a lower gear users often switch from a low graphics requirement application to a high graphics requirement application and back again and don’t always live in one mode especially when on battery.     If they were going to leave their laptop stuck in one gear they were likely to leave it stuck in the discrete graphics high performance gear because what was the point of paying for a high performance laptop if you are going to leave the high performance part turned off.  That’s like buying a Ferrari and never driving over 25 MPH. 

Optimus:  The New Hope
Optimus effetely takes this idea of a PC transmission from the pre 1900s to present day by making the switch automatic and no longer requiring a reboot.    This means the laptop OEM can default the technology on, much like you’d typically leave an automatic transmission in “drive”, and you’ll get the performance when you need it and the battery life you want the rest of the time.  

You’ll still never have the battery life you might have if you’d gone with integrated graphics but you’ll also get the benefit of both integrated and discrete graphics parts you paid for in one of these blended solutions.   You may have to watch background applications however because should you minimize something that needs high performance graphics there is a chance that application could keep the system from switching to it high efficiency mode.  

I think this will really lend itself to some kind of obvious hardware based visual cue much like you sometimes have a designator in a high performance car with an automatic transmission and paddles that tells you which gear you are actually in just in case you want to shift manually.

Wrapping Up:  The Super iPad/Tablet Future?
As we move from 2D to real 3D graphics in games, entertainment, and the web graphics performance is already becoming increasingly important.   However with products like the iPad and Notion Ink Adam coming to market the need for mobile devices that can have 10 or more hours of battery life is just as important.   This initial implementation of Optimus is targeted at laptops but you could imagine a future where advancements took this technology and applied it to Smartphones and Tablets to substantially enhance this new class of device and make it vastly more capable much more quickly.   While Optimus may not seem like much, we certainly talk more about engines then transmissions in cars for instance; it could be a sleeper technology allowing us to get to the perfect world of having both great graphics and fantastic battery life much more quickly.