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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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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    I have a P170EM with the beta drivers, and AMD says they're basically undergoing final QA before release this month or next. I brought up this issue over a year ago, so obviously AMD is moving slowly, but it looks like they're about ready to address things. Finally. I wouldn't go out and buy a 7970M solution today with the intention to wait for the public driver updates to start coming, but rest assured we will be testing with the public drivers when they launch, and when they update again we'll test again.

    I should also note again (as I did in the article) that the GCN architecture cards have not had the best performance consistency since launch until the latest drivers -- and that's on the desktop. Everyone running GCN on laptops is basically looking at drivers that are 3+ months old (unless they have a laptop that doesn't use Enduro, in which case they ought to have been able to update to the 12.7 Catalyst release).
    Reply
  • arcticjoe - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    Jarred download MSI Kombustor (its a very small download and has a GPU utilization graph so you can see the Enduro issue very quickly) and run it with default settings (DX10 and DX11 modes work ok and give you 99% utilization and good fps). If your utilization is bellow 99% then these new drivers fixed nothing. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    Note that there are no "DX10 or DX11" modes -- everything is OpenGL as far as I can see. So even though the EXE name is msikombustordx11.exe, the rendering is done via OpenGL. That could be a problem, as up until Enduro OpenGL wasn't even supported by AMD's dynamic switchable graphics, but it appears to be working (mostly?) now.

    Utilization for the Furry and Stessy Test (GL4) starts low for the first ~10 seconds (and there were a couple rendering glitches) and then jumps to 98% with no more flashes or rendering errors. FPS at 1080p 2xAA is 13. Other tests show a similar low GPU utilization for the first few seconds and then jump to 90% or higher. I'm not sure what's going on, but I don't think the GPU utilization is accurate right at the start.

    Anyway, saying "anything below 99% in Kombustor isn't right" seems rather extreme, particularly since Kombustor is based off of Furmark. What about GPU utilization in games? Let me run a few tests, but if you know of any specific games where there are problems, I can try to test those.
    Reply
  • arcticjoe - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    Thanks for testing Jarred. I think (i'm at work at the moment, cant check) there is a tab for a "burn in test" which allows your to switch rendering between openGL and DX9/10/11. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    Okay, that helps -- I wasn't sure exactly which test you wanted. Here are the full results at 1080p:

    OGL2: 92% utilization
    OGL3: 91% utilization
    DX9: 90% utilization
    DX10: 99% utilization
    DX11: 99% utilization

    There's still a ~5 second gap between starting and full load showing up, but that appears to be a "works as intended" sort of thing. Batman: Arkham City incidentally is showing 99.7% GPU load at 1080p Extreme settings.

    If you have specific games you'd like me to check, let me know. I'm going to see about digging into this a bit more today.
    Reply
  • Seanzky - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    Thank you! Reply
  • arcticjoe - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    Batman is one of the games I get unstable utilization (60-90%), so 99% sounds very promising. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    So just a quick update:

    At extreme settings, GPU utilization is 99.7%. At Medium settings, however, GPU utilization is much lower: around 47%.

    I ran a similar test with DiRT 3. At Ultra High, I got GPU use of around 90% on average. Drop that to Medium and utilization drops to more like 50%.

    I guess the question is whether the GPU utilization is low because AMD is specifically trying not to use more GPU than needed (e.g. once you break 60 FPS, there's no much point in rendering faster on a 60Hz LCD panel), or if there's some other reason for the low GPU use. I'd also guess that it can be fixed with drivers; how high a priority that is remains to be seen.
    Reply
  • arcticjoe - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    I wouldnt mind if utilization dropped when 60fps limit is reached, the problem at the moment is that I get the same 20-40 fps (just lower utilization %) whether I am in Ultra or Low settings. So in BF3 MP on High settings I could get higher fps with 6970m than with my 7970m, when on paper 7970m should be nearly twice as fast. Reply
  • gamoniac - Thursday, September 06, 2012 - link

    Thanks for the info about 20-40fps. I was thinking it would be desirable for the GPU to run optimally (not 99% all the time) once 60fps is hit, but if in fact the games are rendered at such low frame rate, it is a problem. Perhaps Jarred can post the FPS info as well. Reply

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