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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  • chaoticlusts - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    I've been wanting this for ages..hell if this had of been announced before I bought my HD6950 it may well have been the tipping point to go Nvidia instead (as it was the tipping point was being able to unlock the 6950)

    Also as a random note the new name of Synergy is kinda hilarious for a power saving feature...the power company in my state (Western Australia) in named Synergy so if I get Synergy on my next GPU upgrade then Synergy will be making Synergy lose money :P
  • Neoarun - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    Well Optimus is really an awesome application till now i never found out when it switches graphics from IGP to dgpu and it would be better if synergy works the same. Nvidia as it logo, is going GREEN :) now a days providing room heaters with graphic card :)
  • pelov - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    yea, I hope they tackle the issue of massive power consumption by nvidia cards under full load as well. They just always seem to chew through more power than comparative AMD cards (whereas the idle power consumption is relatively the same).

    Using the IGP (and maybe even APU?) for non-graphic intensive tasks is fantastic and a great power saving measure, but currently the most available nvidia modern class of graphics cards on mobile devices like laptops are the 400 series, and those things are the pickup trucks of GPUs. The 500 series isn't much better off and still trails behind AMD in wattage, so i guess what I'm saying is: Great. but where's the rest?

    furthermore, llano is almost here and we're only going to see better and better graphics offerings in an APU by both AMD and Intel. this just seems like a way for nvidia to hang on for dear life in the laptop market without addressing the real issue. It's a great idea, but it's limited in its market and it only partially goes after the real problem.
  • Den - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    I'd been planning to replace my original C2D E6600 with SNB when x67 came out but I had not decided yet between AMD and Nvidia graphics. I'd really like to be able to do this though, so that means Nvidia for me.

    Now I wonder though, would it work with SLI?
  • Kristian Vättö - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    If you buy a mobo with Z68 chipset, then Synergy should work with SLI as well (at least according to VR-Zone's slide).
  • hechacker1 - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    Besides QuickSync (which is nice if you don't care about quality but speed), new GPUs idle at around 20-40W.

    I'm guessing activating and switching between integrated video and discrete isn't going to save that much for a desktop user with a modern GPU. Plus you have to deal with any driver issues that brings. And you have to connect your monitor to the integrated video output.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    NVIDIA has been doing this with Optimus for over a year, so they've gotten pretty good at it. Is it perfect? No. But 20 to 40W is pretty steep if you're only consuming 100W. My particular gaming system idles at around 185W, and a large chunk of that is the GPU (HD 5870, so this wouldn't help). I'd guess it's at least 60W at idle, considering when I had two 5850 cards I was sitting at 150W idle. (The second CF card can go into a very low power state, apparently.)
  • Shining Arcanine - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    When will this be available on Linux? Does Nvidia intend to cede the entire market to ATI and Intel?
  • Slaimus - Thursday, April 28, 2011 - link

    Why is video encoding even using the GPU like QuickSync? Why not run it through the much touted AVX units? Each core should have its own 256-bit AVX unit.
  • DesktopMan - Sunday, May 1, 2011 - link

    Sandy Bridge CPUs have dedicated hardware for video encoding/decoding. It's not strictly speaking "using the GPU" as nVidia and AMD does for encoding. Even if the functionality is made available through the GPU drivers.

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