Remember Hybrid SLI? For those you don't, it was Nvidia's solution for an ever-vexing problem for laptop makers: How can you deliver the power of a discrete graphics card without sacrificing battery life? The Hybrid SLI solution was to have an Nvidia video card work in tandem with an Nvidia motherboard (and its onboard graphics) to provide a performance boost for graphics-heavy tasks like gaming and switch to integrated graphics for other applications.
Now the graphics powerhouse hopes to do Hybrid SLI one better with its new Optimus technology. The approach is similar—combine a discrete card with integrated graphics—but with a few important tweaks. The most notable one is that unlike other similar solutions, the switching between the two modes (discrete versus integrated) is fully handled in the background by Optimus' software. There's no need for the user to have to switch the settings him or herself, which according to AnandTech's lengthy report on Optimus, only occurred about 1 percent of the time. Nvidia also claims that a notebook using the Optimus solution will deliver twice the battery life of a similar portable that has a discrete GPU without the Optimus optimization.
There's also no longer a need for a special Nvidia motherboard to make the switchable-graphics magic happen. However, that does not mean that any laptop with an Nvidia graphics card and a recent Intel CPU is Optimus-enabled. There is a great deal of software tweaking involved with Optimus, so notebook manufacturers will need to release systems that have the technology baked in. (Asus has already announced its first four Optimus laptops; see a later post with the details.) But the fact that Optimus can work with the latest Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 mobile processors, as well as many Core 2 Duo and even Atom CPUs means that many new Optimus-enabled portables should be hitting stores relatively soon.
It may be overkill for Atom-based netbooks, but for those who want to do some 3D gaming and/or video editing on their laptops, an Optimus-based solution should at least be considered if you're looking to buy a new system in the near future.