Introduction

A couple weeks back, I contacted AMD to let them know I was working on a notebook review—a Clevo P170EM from AVADirect with HD 7970M graphics. Much to my surprise, when I received the notebook I discovered it used AMD’s Dynamic Switchable Graphics, now rebranded as Enduro. It has been just over a year since my last look at the technology, where things were so bad that I felt most users would be better off if they had only discrete AMD GPUs and no switchable graphics—or they could simply buy NVIDIA Optimus enabled laptops. The short story is that my initial experience with the P170EM was largely the same, only the lack of driver updates was even more damning when looking at a notebook sporting such a high-end GPU. What could be done? AMD scheduled a meeting with me to go over the latest updates, and thankfully things aren’t quite so grim as I first thought.

First, let’s get everyone up to speed. Historically speaking, AMD/ATI has been on the forefront of switchable graphics technology. While the first laptop with switchable graphics tested at AnandTech used NVIDIA’s implementation (the ASUS UL80Vt), Radeon-based alternatives also existed in a similar time frame. The main problems with early switchable graphics solutions is that they required extra hardware on the manufacturer side (muxes), increasing cost, and more importantly you were generally locked in to getting graphics driver updates from the laptop OEM. NVIDIA addressed both problems when they launched Optimus in early 2010, and while there were certainly some teething pains the vast majority of users have been pleased with the result. Where did that leave AMD? Simply put: out of most laptops.

Was it because NVIDIA had superior technology, better drivers, or better marketing? I’d say yes to all three, and it has been painful to watch as the number of laptops with discrete GPUs (at least in the US) has largely shifted to being NVIDIA products. Up until now, if you wanted a laptop with a discrete GPU, the ability to switch off that GPU, and you wanted regular driver updates, your only viable option has been NVIDIA equipped laptops. Perhaps that’s why every major OEM (along with most smaller OEMs/ODMs) ships at least some of their laptops with NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology. With laptop sales now outpacing desktop sales, giving up so much ground to their competitor is a serious problem AMD needs to overcome.

I should note that AMD has other products that actually help get around our concerns with Enduro. The Llano and Trinity APUs for example offer integrated GPU that are as fast (faster in some cases) as discrete GPUs. If you’re looking for a good budget laptop that gets excellent battery life and you don’t want to deal with switchable graphics at all, Llano started the trend of providing a decent GPU with acceptable CPU performance and Trinity continues that trend. Even better: driver updates aren’t a problem as there’s only one AMD GPU to contend with. Trinity/Llano didn’t win any awards for pure performance, but in terms of bang for the buck and creating a well-rounded device, the APUs have proven successful. But we’re not going to worry about Trinity/Llano or other APUs; today’s focus is on discrete GPUs and switching between these high-power, high-performance GPUs and low-power, low-performance integrated graphics.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the history of AMD’s switchable graphics as well as where they intend to go in the near future.

Recap: AMD’s PowerXpress, aka Dynamic Switchable Graphics, aka Enduro
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  • arcticjoe - Friday, September 7, 2012 - link

    A lot of people, like myself, sold their previous gen laptops at discount prices so we could get the latest and greatest GPU. I sold mine for £800 (bought for nearly twice as much last year) and I've spent £1700 on this new 7970m based laptop, but sadly my old one outperforms it in several games. If I had known that there were these issues I would never had switched and if AMD were more honest about the nature of the issue I could had returned my card within the 30 day period.
    In my honest (and maybe somewhat biased now) opinion, i bought a faulty product because it does not perform as intended and definitely does not live up to AMDs marketing of being nearly twice as fast as 6970m.
    Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Thursday, September 6, 2012 - link

    Hey Jarred. Nice update on the article in the conclusion. I personally don't mind utilization say in ME3 is only 35% if I have 60 FPS locked VS, that is fine by me. But what is concerning when I see I'm getting 80 FPS in Max Payne 3 with 95% utilization, but 5 minutes in, it drops to 45% and now only have 30 FPS in MP3. That happens in a lot of my games, it's very annoying. Reply
  • iwod - Friday, September 7, 2012 - link

    I have always supported ATI and prefer their graphics. And it was the 6630M that finally drove me off.

    Would any of these improvement works on my 6630M? I think my Thinkpad E420 desperately need some drivers update.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 7, 2012 - link

    It looks like the ThinkPad E420 uses PowerXpress 4.0 (aka Dynamic Switchable Graphics), which means it should be supported with the driver release. I know I'll be trying the drivers on that old Sony VAIO C from last year as well. Reply
  • tobi1449 - Friday, September 7, 2012 - link

    Jarred do you know if this new driver is just for the lastest generation of AMD cards (and IB/SB graphics from intel)?
    Or can those who were unfortunate enough to buy a laptop with older AMD graphics (HD5850m) hope for a new driver (would be the first one since about 2 years -.-)?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 7, 2012 - link

    If you have a laptop with a 5850, you're probably not even running switchable graphics, right? Or if you are, it would have to be an Alienware solution I think. Anyway, for discrete-only GPUs, you should be able to download the Mobility Catalyst drivers already and update to 12.8 without issues. On the other hand, if there's some laptop I'm not aware of that had PowerXpress 3.0 and a 5850 GPU, you're probably out of luck outside of one launch driver update for Windows 8 (which would of course require you to upgrade to Windows 8...). Reply
  • Vozier - Friday, September 7, 2012 - link

    PEOPLE post your game findings and GPU utilization, all problems and issues must be adressed if we want a more complete solution with the new drivers.

    Nice to see your article update Jarred, we are happy to see our commented concerns are being heard at last. I am rallying people to post their underutilization issues here so you might test more games and contact AMD more directly to show them were the BIG FAIL is.
    GPU underutilization is the key issue, most gamers wouldnt mind losing battery life if AMD can give them the option to use their cards to the fullest.
    In your own table one can see that some games run on very low %s GPU usage even at ultra settings (skyrim), wich would mean the NEW drivers in enduro 5.5 still need a lot of work on that department. Is also concerning seeing low utilization when lowering the graphics details and quality.

    THANKS again for all your work JARRED.
    So far you are the only light in a very black sky many 7970M owners are drowning under for months.

    regards
    Voz

    Reply
  • Notmyusualid - Friday, September 7, 2012 - link

    Well, for the most part my CF 7970M setup works, but less than 10% of the time I see -some- issue, odd characters flying across the screen etc.

    And now I ran that Kombuster and saw that I was running on only 1 GPU. I don't recall ever having disabled CF, except for some testing a long time ago over at NBR.

    Catalyst control center doesn't even launch.

    Jarred, please pick this hot potato up, and bone AMD/ATI until we get resoultion with drivers. 13 pages of comments must show how upset people are...

    Thanks for a wonderful site.

    Over and out.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 7, 2012 - link

    Oh, man... don't even get me started on SLI and CrossFire notebooks. I would never actually recommend one of those -- the minor and major issues that crop up with compatibility and such are just not worth it. Thankfully, GPUs like the HD 7970M (assuming performance gets fixed) and the GTX 680M are now at the point where only seriously high-end gaming really needs more GPU muscle. If you want a 3D laptop, I suppose that's another use for dual GPUs, but I am not at all sold on 3D.

    Most likely, you'll have to go through Alienware to get new drivers, as they do some pretty custom stuff for switching graphics modes and what not -- but then I haven't played with that particular notebook so maybe not? First things first, though, you need to get drivers installed properly so that Catalyst Control Center will launch. Using hacked drivers probably isn't the way to go here; I'd grab the official Alienware drivers and see if you can bring up the control panel. If that works, then you can see about trying other unofficial drivers.
    Reply
  • Notmyusualid - Friday, September 7, 2012 - link

    Apologies, for not being clear; it was not my intention to imply that I wasn't using AMD/ATI drivers, or that I was using hacked drivers.

    I was trying to shed light on the fact that Dell (Alienware) had not provided drivers for me, that work to any acceptable level.

    If I use the drivers from the Dell website, I may as well throw my notebook (using the term notebook loosely when referring to an M18X) in the river.

    Have a nice day.
    Reply

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