New Mobile GPU Drivers from NVIDIAby Jarred Walton on February 12, 2009 12:00 AM EST
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We're in the midst of testing quite a few laptops, but one of the more interesting developments of late that you may have missed is that NVIDIA has finally delivered on a mobile graphics driver that can be used with the vast majority of recent notebooks. While that may not matter a whole lot for the business user, anyone that does any gaming on a notebook knows what a pain it can be trying to find new drivers. In the past we have seen issues with some "gaming notebooks" utterly failing to run recent games because of the lack of updated drivers. Such problems will now hopefully be a thing of the past, although the first "mobile reference driver" did have one pretty noteworthy limitation: it was only for the GeForce 8M and 9M products. With their second mobile driver, NVIDIA addresses the large number of GeForce 7 users that may not have seen an "official" driver update in a long time. Here's the text of the press release:
Today NVIDIA made it possible for notebook owners with GeForce 7 Series graphics processing units (GPUs) to upgrade their systems with the click of a button. When NVIDIA changed the way notebook GPU customers received driver upgrades by putting a driver on NVIDIA.com, we promised quarterly driver updates for GeForce owners. As promised, NVIDIA delivered the second notebook driver release on February 11, 2009.
The first NVIDIA.com notebook driver was wildly popular, with over 1 Million downloads to date. The biggest complaint about that driver was the lack of support for the GeForce 7 Series. Today we are happy to deliver a driver to these customers. This driver also adds support for Hybrid SLI notebooks.
By providing notebook drivers to our customers, NVIDIA has extended NVIDIA CUDA™ technology to notebook GPUs for GeForce equipped notebooks. CUDA technology also moves physics processing to the GPU for new levels of realism in games and virtual worlds based on the market leading PhysX API.
With this second quarterly driver update, the NVIDIA.com notebook driver now supports GeForce 7, 8, GeForce 9, and DirectX 10-class Quadro NVS branded notebooks. Starting today, customers can download a BETA version of the drivers from NVIDIA
Besides bringing the mobile drivers up to current desktop standards, it's worth noting some of the extra features that are now available. Some of the big ones are CUDA and PhysX support; we may not have any killer apps for PhysX yet, but there are a growing number of CUDA applications and utilities so it's nice to see an official driver release. Many people are now ditching desktop computers completely, preferring the portability of laptops if nothing else, so while performance compromises still need to be made, laptops can be great developer platforms.
Our testing to date has shown improvements in many games, ranging from a few percent in many instances up to substantial boosts on higher-end (especially SLI) systems. It's also important to note that while hacked drivers have been available for NVIDIA laptops for a long time, performance has often been lower than even outdated official drivers – and the hacked drivers rarely worked properly with SLI configs without further hacking, and sometimes not even then. In fact, drivers can be so critical that with NVIDIA now providing quarterly notebook driver releases, it's pretty much impossible for us to even consider recommending anything else for a gaming notebook until the other GPU vendors follow suit.
With all the talk of quarterly mobile drivers, there are a few things we're still left wanting. In an ideal situation, we'd like to see NVIDIA just skip the separate mobile driver idea completely and provide one unified driver that will work with both desktop and laptop parts. As far as we can determine, there's a large amount of overlap between the desktop and mobile drivers already, and all that needs to happen is to modify the driver build/release process so that every driver will work with laptops. It might increase the final download size another 10-20MB, but bandwidth is cheap these days. Now that quarterly driver releases on the mobile side are happening, this really seems like a very small step to take, and we'll be surprised if it doesn't occur at some point in the next year or two. (Note: that's our opinion and not anything NVIDIA has specifically committed to providing.)
The other mobile topic to discuss is the fact that the top-end mobile GPUs are now rather outdated relative to desktops. The fastest current GPU is the 9800M GTX, which has 112 SPs and clock speeds of 500MHz core, 1250MHz shader, and 1600MHz (800MHz GDDR3) memory. What that means is that your fastest mobile GPU is currently at the level of the 8800 GT 512MB desktop parts. In fact, it's actually slower, since the 8800 GT 512 has clocks of 600/1500/1800, plus there's the wide availability of overclocked parts. What does all this mean? It doesn't take much effort to put things together and conclude that NVIDIA will be launching some new mobile GPU parts sooner rather than later. We don't have any specifics, but for anyone serious about mobile gaming it's high time that we see something more recent than a mobile version of a desktop card that launched in October 2007 - which was itself a cost reduced version of the 8800 GTX that came out all the way back in the fall of 2006. Couple an updated high-end GPU with something like the upcoming Clarksfield/Arrandale CPUs, toss in Windows 7 with its revamped power management features, and you have one seriously potent laptop that might even offer improved battery life over current options (in about a year, give or take).
Before you totally discount the idea of "gaming" laptops, we also need to consider the potential that GPGPU computing has to revolutionize the way we use computers. For example, Adobe Photoshop CS4 already has some OpenGL support to dramatically accelerate certain tasks, and we've seen what GPUs can do for video decoding and - albeit to a lesser extent - encoding. Throw in the ability to switch between low power integrated graphics and high performance discreet graphics via Hybrid Power and we may soon be faced with the prospect of buying a laptop with a moderate CPU and a faster GPU as a viable way to improve performance in a variety of applications. Regardless of whether or you're interested in gaming laptops, though, the ready availability of regular driver updates for laptops is long past due, and it's great to see NVIDIA taking care of customers with older laptops.
One fly in the ointment, as some have already noted, is that not all laptops are supported. What's the point of a "generic" mobile driver that doesn't actually work with all laptops, and who is to blame? While we are disappointed by some of the missing SKUs - some of which are very popular brands - the main culprit appears to be the laptop OEMS. NVIDIA is only supporting laptops where the manufacturer has agreed to participate in this program, and it's on a product by product basis. As an example, Dell XPS and Precision notebooks are supported; Latitude and Vostro are not. The reason is that for certain lines, OEMs don't want the risk of non-qualified drivers - business laptops being a prime example. If you happen to own a laptop that is not on the supported list, you might want to contact your laptop support people and suggest that they rethink their decision, giving them some specific examples on when you have been affected by the lack of driver updates. Outside of gaming, we find it's difficult to come up with any situations where regular driver updates are critical, and most business and entry level consumer laptops can't handle many modern titles anyway. In that light, the "omissions" do make sense, even if it will still be a sore point for some users.