How it's possible to play high-end games on ultraportable laptops
16th Dec 2012 | 08:00
Dynamix makes the most from integrated graphics
Gaming on a laptop has traditionally meant using massive desktop-replacement beasts tied to the power socket, with no hope of fun on the road.
On the flip side, trying to play modern titles on a machine with integrated graphics has generally meant staccato frame rates in the single digits.
But what if we told you that it needn't be that way? What if we told you that on an Ultrabook with only HD 4000 graphics we could have Crysis 2 running smoothly, and without too much sacrifice either?
Lucid Logix is a name that will be familiar to most readers as the company that allowed folk with Z68 or Z77 motherboards to use discrete graphics cards and still have access to the funky Quick Sync bits of the Ivy Bridge and Sandy Bridge chips.
Functional, but not too sexy, right? Its new Dynamix software, though, can double gaming frame rates on integrated graphics, giving laptops without discrete GPUs serious gaming chops. Lucid Logix is a tiny company with big ambitions, and now it's got the software to match that ambition.
We went to see Lucid while we were over in San Francisco for IDF. Usually when we say that we mean we saw a representative, but not this time - we actually saw pretty much the entire company. A good chunk of its small team was in the room with us as Offir Remez, president and MD of Lucid, took us through the demos of the latest goodies.
We saw its Virtu MVP Mobile software running on a laptop and a concept external GPU set up via a hot-swappable Thunderbolt connection - but it was the new software running on an Ivy Bridge Ultrabook that really impressed.
The little laptop, with its relatively feeble HD 4000 graphics, had Crysis 2 sitting on it. While it's not quite the crazy-demanding game its predecessor was, it's still a graphics hog, so on the surface it might seem unfair to put the poor machine through the wringer with it.
And with the machine barely managing to hit 9fps it seemed like a pretty pointless exercise - nobody is going to play at those frame rates. That's where Lucid's Dynamix software comes into play, though.
A quick press of a pre-ordained key to enable it while still in the game, and suddenly the FRAPS frame rate counter jumped up to over 20. Suddenly it was playable and much, much smoother. A credible gaming experience on an Ultrabook - what voodoo is this?
It's a software-based solution, requiring no extra hardware and - in a first for Lucid - operating on a single graphics processor.
"We take everything we know how to do," says Offir. "We know every frame going into the pipeline. We capture it before, we analyse the tasks, we know what it's going to do. We sometimes distribute it between the CPU and GPU, and sometimes different GPUs.
"We said, 'Can we use that in a one GPU environment and walk the fine line between quality and performance?'" he continues. "Would you give up a small percentage of quality - we are playing with pixels here - to double performance? Let's say 2 per cent quality to double performance."
Dynamic Resolution Rendering
What Lucid is doing here is based on something Intel itself passed around at this year's Games Developer Conference (GDC) back in March - something called Dynamic Resolution Rendering. It was a concept which allowed better frame rates on lower powered hardware, while still retaining much of the visual clarity you want with high-resolution gaming.
But nobody wanted to know. The extra code needed to add this into the developers' game engines obviously wasn't seen as worth it for individual titles on a platform as seemingly niche as the PC.
Lucid though has taken this away from the games themselves, and is creating an ecosystem that it can add to a machine to enable the resolution switching in any game on the fly.
The essential idea is to dynamically adjust the resolution of the 3D scene so that it can run smoother and faster, while still keeping the GUI/HUD of the game rendered in the native resolution. That way the overlay doesn't expand and end up taking over the screen - as it would if you dropped resolution as a whole - and remains clear and crisp and out of the way of the 3D scene.
As Lucid's demonstration showed, dropping the resolution of the actual 3D scene itself this way doesn't harm the image quality too much, and adds a whole heap onto the performance side. You can also, as Lucid is doing with Dynamix, offset much of the image degradation of dropping resolution by using less GPU-intensive post-processing effects to help smooth things out.
The trade-off then is visual clarity. Because the new technology is enabled on the fly, you can immediately see the loss of fidelity - there's a faint smudging visible around the edges, like you'd see anyway running the game in a non-native resolution.
But when you're switching from unplayable-but-sharp to smooth and a little less clear, it's a pretty easy choice. And Lucid hasn't finished optimising yet and is confident it can sharpen things up more in future iterations.
If you want a completely high-end, high-resolution gaming experience then you're still going to need a discrete GPU. But if you just want to play a 3D title with smooth frame rates on your Ultrabook/integrated graphics processor, you're not going to be that bothered about a little loss of clarity.
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At the moment Lucid is only looking at this in the mobile sphere, but we also spoke about whether the same could be applied to small form factor machines, the sort of little PCs you stick under your TV for media functionality.
From the sofa the slight smudging is going to be barely visible, and with Valve and its big-screen gaming Steam initiative gaining traction, having a wee PC capable of gaming on your TV is actually quite desirable. This could really open up PC gaming to a whole new section of the PC world.
Now Intel is starting to take notice again and so are the laptop manufacturers. Lucid didn't fully realise just how well-received the software would be and is now being tasked with using it in the first round of Haswell laptops due for release in the middle of next year.
And if the 2x GPU performance of the 4th Generation Core Architecture holds true that could mean 40fps in Crysis 2 on an Ultrabook. Now that's tantalising.