Nvidia Optimus on Ubuntu 12.04

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Nvidia Optimus is a neat solution to the problem of power consumption vs. 3D performance in notebook computers – the computer comes with two graphics chips, an “integrated graphics package” – the Intel GMA embedded graphics and a “discrete graphics package” – the Nvidia chip. The setup works by running your normal windowing UI on the integrated graphics, only powering on the discrete graphics when you want to play a 3D game or something like that.

Recently I had the fortune to work on a Lenovo T420 laptop(1) that has this setup, and it works very well on MS-Windows with the Nvidia Optimus driver – you get battry life around 10 hours with the 9 cell battery.

Unfortunately I spend most of my day in Linux and because Nvidia does not support Optimus on Linux, you have the poor choice of either running everything on the Nvidia chip – decreasing battery life to around 4 hours if you’re careful, or disabling the Nvidia chip completely.

The solution comes from the Bumblebee project – a software suite to handle the switching between the Nvidia discrete graphics and the embedded Intel chip.

The setup is pretty simple to understand (though I suspect under the hood there are many problems to be solved): A service runs and waits for users to ask for 3D accelerated graphics. When a user starts a program using the special command optirun, the service loads the Nvidia driver, starts an X server using the discrete graphics (with the display disconnected from the actual screen) and runs the specified program on that “background” X server. Then it copies the visuals from the program that is rendered using the discrete graphics to a window on the main X server. When the program terminates, the service closes the secondary X server, removes the driver and powers down the graphics card – putting us back into the ~10 hours battery life.

The Bumblebee software had some problems in the past, but the current version – 3.0 – looks very good. There are a few seconds of delay when you launch the application (setting up the driver and X takes some time), but performance is about what you’d expect when running directly on the hardware. All this without any configuration – that is if you are running on the stable Ubuntu version.

As I can’t leave well enough alone, and whenever someone says “alpha”, I say – “I wants”, I’m running the current Ubuntu 12.04 alpha (which is not so bad – due to be released in a couple of months, it works very well). And of course Bumblebee doesn’t work properly here.

So this is what I had to do to get it running:

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  1. with an amazing 1600×900 screen, what they call “HD+”. Truly a work of art []

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