nVidia Optimus – Not Ready for (Gaming) Prime Time

nVidia Optimus - Not Ready for (Gaming) Prime Time

It was supposed to be a great day … I had written first impressions about the original Alienware m11x and about how I was ordering the new one as soon as it became available. And while I was away on vacation my order shipped and arrived, so it was waiting for me upon my return. I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to get busy with it.

After all, I loved so much about the original Alienware m11x (now called R1), including:
– Near-netbook portability.
– Better than netbook battery life (on integrated graphics)
– True gaming laptop performance.
– Better than gaming laptop battery life (on discrete graphics)

My issues were few:
– Core2Duo processor was the clear ‘weakest link’
– Some apps and utilities needed to be shut down to switch from discrete to integrated and back, and in general it made no sense (GameSpy Comrade, PDANet, etc)

The initial out of box experience with the ‘R2’ was great:
– The new matte black cover was less of a fingerprint magnet and gripped much better.
– The build felt even tighter than the original – and I loved the build quality of the original!
– The new power brick is sleeker and lighter.
– The new Core i7 was greatly appreciated – as I installed things I could immediately notice the snappiness of the updated system. Very quickly I had all of my work apps ready to go – very handy so I don’t have to lug around a second laptop.

As is the usual course of action with a new system I checked Alienware’s site for any driver updates – particularly for video and found nothing, so I proceeded.

The system comes with Steam pre-installed, so all I had to do was log in and start downloading from my massive collection of games. I loaded up a few to start – recent stuff like Dragon Age: Origins, Alpha Protocol, Risen, Metro 2033; and from GoodOldGames I downloaded Postal 2 and Two Worlds.

However, my first day quickly took a turn for the worse when I actually decided to … y’know, RUN some games.

First my expectations:
– I had gotten a similar system – 4GB RAM, 500GB disk, Windows 7, etc.
– The major change was from Core2Duo to Core i7.
– Since I could already run every game I had attempted at maximum graphic details, I anticipated that I would have no issues.

Of the 11 games I installed, only 3 ran at all, and of those only 1 worked correctly. That was 2007’s Two Worlds. Even Postal 2 – a 2003 game – performed very slowly in terms of loading but worked great once in-game, something I attribute to compatibility issues with the quad-core i7 processor.

For me the biggest disappointments were games like Metro 2033, Alpha Protocol, Risen and Mass Effect 2. Here are some of the things I saw:
– Alpha Protocol warned me but proceeded to start. However saying it ‘ran’ is overstating things – the graphics oozed onto the screen, and the mouse lagged terribly. I barely touched it at all before giving up in frustration.
– Risen tried to start then crashed badly with an odd error indicating a PhysX issue – I knew that PhysX was installed and fully up to date, so I had no clue.
– Metro 2033 was quite interesting. It tossed a PhysX error, and some forums recommended reinstalling the package directly from the Metro 2033 directory and then restarting Steam. That took care of that error, but the game wouldn’t start due to a Direct3D ‘unsupported card’ error that was fatal. Checking around I discovered that error was an issue with everyone using an m11x.
– Mass Effect 2 – pretended to start, dropped an icon in the taskbar, then just went away – no error, no message … nothing.

I checked out other forums and found a general feeling of frustration and angst over the performance, and was wondering what some of the folks reviewing the system were smoking – all I could imagine was they got specific release builds fully optimized with preloaded apps all set up to run properly. There were folks on forums already returning their ‘R2’ and pining for the R1 again.

I went to the Dell support site (apparently there is still enough separation that the Alienware site isn’t quite the same), and found a beta driver from the end of June. I installed that, and it did quite a bit towards dealing with my issues. Metro 2033, Risen and Mass Effect 2 all launched and ran, and Alpha Protocol worked at least as well as on my R1.

A few days later, and I have a gaming laptop that is truly the one I was hoping for. It runs Crysis (the typical PC system-tester) full-bore, and I’ve installed loads of other high performance games without a single issue. Metro 2033 looks extra-awesome, which I have heard is due to the way the PhysX engine offloads to the idle cores. Great stuff.

What did it cost me:
– Relentless tweaking – I never worried about the R1, my biggest hassle was manual graphics toggling.
– Update vigilance – there is a new Intel Graphics HD driver available – grab it now! Everything impacts the performance and is changing rapidly.

Those are actually the small things – there are two more serious issues that get to my core argument that Optimus isn’t ready for gaming as of yet.
– Flexibility – as part of doing the Netbook Gamer series I became good at knowing what would run well on integrated graphics and what wouldn’t. So with the R1 I could run a game like Divine Divinity or Jedi Knight II using the graphics toggled to integrated, and get seemingly endless batter life with great performance in-game. Which beings me to …
– Battery Life – with the R1 I could easily get 10 hours of ‘netbook use’ and ~3 hours of ‘gaming time’. With the R2 I am running around 5 hours of general use. Sure, on average that works out pretty well, and I’m sure with extensive manipulation of the power settings I could do even better, but … wait a second!

Here is the issue:

A core reason for the existence of Optimus is that users find it to be too much of a hassle to switch between discrete and integrated graphics and were therefore not doing it. Optimus allows users to experience the best of both worlds by handling the switch automatically. Anyone with any amount of control system background will be familiar with the following graph:

nVidia Optimus - Not Ready for (Gaming) Prime Time

It shows how a control system has to monitor and update control voltages and settings based on feedback from a response. In a system like Optimus there are extensive monitoring and control systems at work, as well as stored profiles that enable predictive switching. In theory this should all work great, but it means that gaming compatibility is a huge issue, and also allows for the possibility of over-control – using some Optimus monitoring tools I was able to see a great deal of ‘flutter’ in the GPU control in borderline GPU usage cases. These are the sort of things that are very likely to cause crashes and instability as a game finds itself fighting a control system – and the one to lose will be the gamer!

The other issue is that I can no longer set the graphics to low-power mode for the older games I mentioned. Once Optimus sees the load it zooms into max-GPU mode (aka minimum battery mode) and I get the same battery life playing 1998’s Half Life as I would playing 2010’s Alpha Protocol!

There are ‘profiles’ that allow you to set the ‘preferred graphics mode’. That is great – except that it is merely a suggestion, and I couldn’t force the system to run Jedi Knight II with integrated graphics, as it REALLY wanted to use the full GPU.

What would I like to see:
– The core Optimus system continue development as it is. It really *is* promising, and should work well for most folks.
– A manual switch for high/low graphics – this should be simple enough since the system already does it.

Optimus is a great bit of technology, but as it stands it takes control of things in a way that actually hampers the user from getting the best overall experience. Someone just grabbing a new Alienware (and also I assume any other Optimus system) will have loads of headaches and only those able and willing to dive into the system will manage to get the best performance. And even then, with some evidence that the Optimus driver doesn’t shut down the discrete GPU fully when idle, it means that the battery life is suffering due to Optimus drivers rather than a fundamental system flaw. Either way, I have a great system now, but one that took too much work and time to get into this state – all because Optimus is convinced it knows better how to manage the computer state than I do.

A final thought: what good is having auto-switch graphics when I have to tweak my power settings for battery life or performance anyway to maximize either choice?

About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!
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  • mcsouth

    Well, that sure is disappointing. The Alienware 11x has been on my short list for a new laptop ever since it came out, and more so since the Core i5/7 processor options arrived. While I am leaning towards the new Asus U33JC (just release it, already!), it uses the same Optimus technology to control its (admittedly lesser) NVidia 310 graphics – hearing these early stories about Optimus performance makes me concerned about the ability of these new laptops to really fulfil my needs.

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