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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  • fluxtatic - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    I've been waiting for this for years...although I will continue to wait, apparently, as I'm an AMD man, proc-wise, and will continue to be. Bring me Bulldozer with switchable graphics, and then kill me, as I'm unlikely to ever be that happy again.
  • Zendax - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    At first I was sad that this apparently won't work with GTX 200 series GPUs, but then I remembered my i7-860 doesn't come with integrated graphics anyway.

    This is a good change for those of us who like to have equally powerful and power hungry graphics card, but don't want them chewing away on power when they're not necessary. Especially with the powerful IGP on the high-end SNB processors, this makes a lot of sense.
  • slyck - Friday, April 29, 2011 - link

    Sandy's IGP powerful? Guess I wouldn't stretch it quite that far. If it's so "powerful", why have a dedicated card?
  • dananski - Saturday, April 30, 2011 - link

    Powerful enough for accelerating e.g. flash playback and other minor things you used to need dedicated cards for. You don't really want your gaming card with its high idle power on at those times if you can help it.
  • iGo - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    Back in 2009, when I met Anand sir I had discussed this him. At that time nVidia and ATi was working on not-too-similar but related tech called Hybrid SLi/Crossfire. That is using their own IGP with dGPUs in SLi or Crossfire mode. The query that I had asked was, instead of running them Crossfire or SLi why NV/ATI doesn't make switchable graphics. Running IGP on normal operation and switching to dGPU for demanding tasks like Gaming/HD Decoding etc. thus saving power in normal day-to-day operation. Anand sir did mention that it might come to that, but if GPU chips also started using power-gating like CPUs then idle power consumptions wouldn't be an issue.

    Thankfully, to QuickSync there is a very compelling reason for switchable graphic on desktop. Plus, current generation IGPs are powerful enough to handle HD decoding tasks negating the need for powerful dGPU to handle HD video. Hope ATi comes up with their solution also quickly. Too bad for Lucid/virtu, although inability to access dGPU native control panels was kind of a bummer for Virtu (when IGP was used in primary mode and dGPU was used in virtualized mode). The other way around enabled the panel access (NVC or CCC) but by keeping the dGPU always active and scrapping the power saving benefits.
  • Shadowmaster625 - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    The trouble with quicksync is that it will be useless when a new codec comes along that delivers twice the compression (along with 8 times the cpu usage, but with 8 cores who cares?). It has been a long time since we've had a major breakthrough in encoding technology but that could change in an instant.
  • shawngmc - Monday, May 2, 2011 - link

    Not necessarily... By then, firmware may have advanced to the point that quick sync might be usable with a discrete GPU. Then, you can have interesting solutions, such as HW-to-HW transcoding. For example, let's say you've downloaded or recorded video in a newer codec. The flexible GPU could decode and hand off to the CPU, which could reencode in H.264 for other devices that don't support the new format (like an iPod). Plus, even as better formats exist, not all video gets instantly converted to it.

    It's true that a new format likely won't work with QuickSync, but any new codec might also be optimized for more efficient computation. I'm not a compression software expert, but I am a software developer, and if I was going to make a compression format today, bandwidth would honestly be the smallest priority in my mind. I'd be focusing on processor usage (since we are moving towards mobile devices with ever-increasing bandwidth but few battery life gains) and better quality (artifact reduction and/or dealing with dropped keyframes better).

    I'm not saying your point is wrong, per se, just that it's not the be-all-end-all.
  • Hrel - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    "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." I think you meant with Synergy.

    As far as the article, at most I can say "eh". I'm still running LGA775 with GTX460. I have intention of changing that till USB 3.0 is natively supported as well as full 6MBPS SATA. I'm thinking/hoping summer/fall 2012.

    As far as Optimus goes I'm FAR FAR more interested in seeing it implemented on laptops with the GTX460 and up. Mostly just the GTX460 personally cause that's the GPU I want; but there's no reason it can't be on EVERY GPU.

    I see the advantage of switchable graphics on the desktop; especially as a casual video editor. But really, on my wish list that's pretty far down there. Nvidia GPU's do a pretty darn good job of speeding up rendering times all on their own. Intels way isn't much (if at all) better. And really with their motherboard failures and constant socket switching and apparent inability to use a technology that feels old at this point (USB 3.0, SATA 6MBPS) and price gauging of their customers I really am about to jump ship to becoming an AMD only guy. Intel is just pissing me off lately. My Penryn kicks butt; however if they don't stop being so greedy, and stupid with the sockets and SB USB support, I will buy AMD only out of spite.

    I do still prefer Nvidia GPU's though when I can get them at fair prices. For several reasons.
  • Hrel - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    I have no intention*
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    No, I meant GPU drivers breaking support with Virtu -- as in, the latest version of Virtu only lists support for the 260.89 and 260.99 drivers from NVIDIA, which are now about four months old. Maybe it still works -- I don't have hardware to test it on -- but the fact that their release notes explicitly state that they added support for the 260.99 drivers makes me nervous.

    PS -- Yes, I edited and wrote some of this article. :-)

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