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HTG Explains: What You Need to Know About NVIDIA Optimus

nvidia-optimus[3]

Laptop manufacturers have a choice – they can include onboard graphics for better battery life or discrete graphics hardware for better gaming performance. But wouldn’t it be great if a laptop could have both and intelligently switch between them?

That’s what NVIDIA’s Optimus does. New laptops that come with NVIDIA graphics hardware generally include Intel’s onboard graphics solution, too. The laptop switches between each on-the-fly.

Image Credit: Masaru Kamikura on Flickr

How Optimus Works

For most PC use, the onboard Intel graphics hardware is just fine. You will not notice a difference between onboard and discrete graphics when using desktop applications. There is a difference, however – integrated Intel graphics use much less power than NVIDIA graphics. By using the low-power onboard graphics when a high-power dedicated graphics card isn’t necessary, laptops can save power and increase battery life.

When you launch an application that needs high-powered 3D graphics, such as a PC game, the laptop powers on the NVIDIA graphics hardware and uses it to run the application. This increases 3D performance dramatically, but takes more power – which is fine if your laptop is plugged into an outlet.

device-manager-display-adapters

Most of the time, the switching should happen without you noticing or needing to tweak anything. NVIDIA’s Optimus technology has come a long way in the last few years and is very polished. (Updating your graphics drivers may solve problems with Optimus.)

Some laptops may have an LED that lights up when the NVIDIA graphics is in use, so you can see whether the battery-draining NVIDIA graphics is running.

Bear in mind that you won’t see any benefits from Optimus if you leave applications that require the NVIDIA graphics running constantly. For example, Steam wants to remain running in the background, but, by default, the NVIDIA graphics stay powered on when it’s running. If you left Steam open all the time, your battery life would be reduced because the NVIDIA graphics would remain powered on constantly.

Controlling NVIDIA Optimus

Some laptops may have a BIOS option to disable the integrated graphics and use the NVIDIA graphics exclusively. However, this isn’t very common.

While the NVIDIA graphics driver does a pretty good job of auto-detecting when the NVIDIA graphics are necessary, it isn’t perfect. You may find yourself loading up a demanding game (or other 3D-graphics-using application) and noticing poor performance – a sign that the game is using your integrated Intel graphics hardware.

To force an application to use your NVIDIA graphics, right-click its shortcut (or .exe file), point to Run with graphics processor, and select the High-performance NVIDIA processor. You can also select the Integrated graphics option to force an application to use your integrated graphics hardware.

run-with-graphics-processor-optimus

To force an application to always use a specific graphics process, click the Change default graphics processor option. This will open up the NVIDIA Control Panel and allow you to select the default graphics processor for the application.

select-default-graphics-processor


NVIDIA’s Optimus isn’t yet properly supported in Linux. The Bumblebee project is making progress and you can now get Optimus working on Linux, although it isn’t perfect.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 02/4/13

Comments (9)

  1. dreed

    And you have nothing to say about Chrome, Firefox new technologies like WebGL that would work better with Optimus, but problem is that you can’t make it work. It works only on Intel HD. You will get there :)

  2. Jim

    Great article. learning something new every day. Btw, how did John Locke get into the top photograph??

  3. vineed

    i have an ati 3000 series onboard gpu while a 5400 series gpu discrete,,,is there any way i can have the above method running on my system….

  4. WhytteDragun

    @vineed: if your system supports optinus, having the latest nvidia driver installed should automatically enable it. If your nvidia chip is older (or you don’t have nvidia) I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

  5. Nathan

    @vineed Do you really have an ATI 3000? How many years has it been since ATI cards have been released? That must be some old machine. Couple the old video card with a technology that only works with nVidia cards and you are plum out of luck.

  6. Yu

    Regarding Steam, for me it never ran on dedicated Graphics by default. The games do (mostly), but not the client.

  7. M Vander

    Is that John Locke in the laptop reflection? Or The Man in Black has escaped the island and attending trade shows?! Oh…the evil….

  8. Michel

    Optimus is the worst option to buy a laptop with it. I have a Dell Lx502 and I regret too much when I bought it. Do not buy these stuff.

  9. Jim

    @M Vander: I found more pics from this presentation and sadly, it is neither John Locke or the man in Black. Check it out here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kamikura/4342894321/in/set-72157623388455598

    The guy COULD be a dead ringer for John, imo.

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