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.

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.

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.

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.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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