Monday, May 9, 2011

NVIDIA Synergy to Bring Optimus to Desktops

We first encountered NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology in February of last year. It has done wonders for laptop battery life on midrange systems, where manufacturers no longer need to worry about killing mobility by including a discrete GPU.

Over the past fourteen months, we have seen the number of Optimus enabled laptops balloon from a few initial offerings to well over 50—and very likely more than 100. That sort of uptake is indicative of a successful technology and feature, and while we do encounter the occasional glitch it’s not much worse than the usual driver bugs we deal with.

If you were among those who thought, “This sounds like a great technology—when will they bring it to the desktop?” you’re not alone. So far it has only been available in laptops, and even then we haven’t seen any notebook vendors support the technology with anything faster than a GT 555M (i.e. there are so far no notebooks with GTX GPUs that support Optimus; the closest we get is Alienware’s M17x, which uses their own BinaryGFX switching technology).

Previously, the lack of switchable graphics on desktops—particularly something as elegant as NVIDIA’s Optimus—hasn’t been a big deal. That all changed when Intel released Sandy Bridge and introduced their Quick Sync technology. In our Sandy Bridge review we looked at Quick Sync and found it was the fastest way to transcode videos, providing up to double the performance of an i7-2600K CPU and potentially four times the performance of dual-core SNB processors. Unfortunately, there’s a catch: as we mentioned in our SNB review, Quick Sync works only if the IGP is enabled and has at least one display connected.

This limitation is particularly irksome as the only way you can get the IGP is if you use the H67 chipset (and give up the overclocking and enthusiast features offered by P67). The Z68 chipset should provide both overclocking and IGP support in the near future, but you’re still left with the IGP use requirement, making Quick Sync essentially unavailable to users with discrete GPUs—who are very possibly the most likely candidates for actually making use of the feature.

There appears to be some good news on the horizon. It’s hardly a surprise, as we’ve suspected as much since Optimus first reared its head, but VR-Zone reportsthat NVIDIA is finally bringing the technology to desktops. There’s a name change, as it will now go by the name Synergy (though you may also see it referred to as Desktop Optimus at times). Rumors are that Synergy will see the light of day late next month or in early June.

While it’s true that you can already get access to Quick Sync while using a discrete GPU using Lucid’s Virtu, there are a few differences worth noting. First and foremost, Synergy is software based, free, and requires no license agreement. Any recent NVIDIA GPU (400 or 500 series) should work on H67, H61 or Z68 chipset motherboards. (P67 does not support the SNB IGP and thus won’t work.) You’ll need the appropriate drivers and BIOS (and maybe VBIOS), but that should be it. No special hardware needs to be present on the GPU or motherboard and anyone with the appropriate GPU and motherboard chipset should have the option of using Synergy.

This is in contrast to Virtu, which only comes bundled with certain motherboards and incurs a price premium on those boards. However, Virtu still has the advantage of working with both AMD and NVIDIA GPUs. Owners of AMD GPUs will have to rely on Virtu or wait for AMD to come out with their own equivalent to Virtu and Synergy.

One final note is that both Virtu and Optimus/Synergy function in a similar fashion at a low level. There are profiles for supported games/applications, and when the driver detects a supported executable it will route the API calls to the discrete GPU. Here’s where NVIDIA has a big leg up on Lucid: they’ve been doing Optimus profiles for over a year, and while Lucid now lists support for 157 titles, NVIDIA has a lot more (and the ability to create custom profiles that generally work). You also don’t have to worry about new GPU drivers breaking support with Virtu, as NVIDIA handles all of that in their own drivers.

We’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for Synergy and will report our findings when it becomes available. In the meantime, gamers interested in Quick Sync as well as people looking to cut down on power use when they’re not using their GPU have something to look forward to. Now bring on the Z68 motherboards, Intel.

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