A look at Lucid’s Virtu MVP Mobile
If you read our news section, you might have seen us talk briefly about the latest from Origin. No, I’m not talking about the Steam substitute to which EA keeps tying its new games. I’m talking about Origin, the Florida-based boutique gaming PC vendor founded by ex-Alienware employees three years ago.
In August, Origin became the first company to offer Lucid’s Virtu MVP virtualization technology on a mobile platform. All of its Eon-series laptops, from the diminutive 11.6″ offerings to the 17.3″ monsters, became available with Lucid MVP software as a free, no-strings-attached option.
The touted benefits are very much the same as for Virtu MVP on the desktop. Lucid’s GPU virtualization mojo purportedly provides power-saving benefits by dynamically assigning tasks to the most ideal graphics hardware. The MVP software also includes Virtual Vsync, which is meant to eliminate screen tearing without compromising input responsiveness, and HyperFormance, which is supposed to boost responsiveness further. It all sounds rather enticing, especially on a notebook.
We were intrigued.
Happily, the folks at Origin offered to send us their EON11-S, a compact gaming notebook with an 11.6″ 1366×768 display and some surprisingly fast hardware under the hood. The base config starts at $955 with a Pentium B960 processor, 4GB of RAM, GeForce GT 650M 2GB discrete graphics, and a 320GB 7,200-RPM hard drive. Our review sample has been optioned up to include a faster processor, the quad-core Core i7-3616QM, as well as double the RAM and a 256GB Samsung 830 Series solid-state drive in place of the mechanical hard drive. Nevertheless, the machine has the same 11.2″ x 8.1″ footprint and 1.4″ thickness as the base model, and it tips our postal scale at 3.72 lbs—rather light for a quad-core gaming rig with a relatively speedy GPU.
Could this diminutive gaming laptop be further enhanced by the addition of Virtu MVP Mobile? That’s what we set out to discover.
How exactly does Virtu MVP work?
Virtu MVP is, as its name indicates, is a virtualization technology that adds an additional software layer between the operating system and the graphics processor(s). Lucid’s driver intercepts DirectX calls from games and other applications and fulfills them with the help of the GPUs, to whom it doles out work. On Intel-powered desktop systems, one of Virtu MVP’s biggest selling points is that it lets games run on a discrete GPU without walling off access to the Intel integrated graphics’ Quick Sync video encoding block. Without Virtu, plugging in a discrete GPU disables the IGP and makes QuickSync unavailable.
Virtu MVP offers power efficiency benefits, as well. On a desktop, users can plug their display into the output port for integrated graphics and still have access to the discrete GPU. That discrete GPU is called upon by the virtualized driver to run games and other demanding applications, and frames are forwarded to the IGP for output to the display. When it’s not needed, the discrete GPU sits at idle, and the IGP handles menial graphics duties on the Windows desktop. Lucid calls this configuration i-Mode. Users also have the option of connecting the display to the discrete GPU, a setup Lucid refers to as d-Mode. This approach doesn’t present the same power-saving benefits as i-Mode, but it does enable full access to the proprietary control panels and driver optimizations of GPU vendors like AMD and Nvidia.
On notebooks like the EON11-S, there’s no way to switch manually been i-Mode and d-Mode. Instead, Origin tells us Virtu MVP Mobile runs on top of Nvidia’s Optimus dynamic switchable graphics technology. Optimus determines whether the IGP or the discrete GPU drives the display, calling upon the discrete GPU only when the user runs graphically demanding tasks like games. Origin says Virtu MVP Mobile switches between i- and d-Modes accordingly, all on the fly.
Virtu MVP and its mobile implementation combine the aforementioned virtualization technology with two rather intriguing features. Those are dubbed Virtual Vsync and HyperFormance.
We’ll tell you what we know about them, but we should explain up front that piecing together a crystal-clear picture of these features’ inner workings has proven to be rather difficult. We’ve spoken with Lucid about them multiple times, and whenever we press for details, the company’s explanations tend to be either not entirely clear or a little bit evasive. We get the sense that this vagueness is somewhat intentional. Perhaps Lucid simply doesn’t want to get down too deep in the nitty-gritty of things with journalists, lest competitors figure out the recipe to its special sauce.
We do have a rough notion of what the features do, though, and Lucid has been explicit about the expected benefits. So, we can at least enlighten you on that front.
Both features rely on knowledge of the display refresh cycle to determine when and where screen tearing occurs. Screen tearing, for the uninitiated, refers to instances where the display ends up showing parts of two or more different frames during the same refresh cycle. Tearing can happen whenever the GPU’s frame rate doesn’t match the display’s refresh rate. In cases where the GPU is too fast, the display might receive frame B before it’s finished drawing frame A, and then frame C might arrive before frame B has been fully drawn. So, you might see the top third of frame A, the middle third of frame B, and the bottom third of frame C during that refresh cycle. If the GPU is too slow, the display might have to re-draw part of a stale frame until the next frame comes along. The result is visually similar.
Virtual Vsync works to prevent tearing when the GPU delivers too many frames. Lucid’s software determines which frames would make it to the display before the end of each refresh cycle, and it simply discards surplus frames. The GPU still does the same amount of rendering work, but surplus frames are never sent to the display. Traditional vsync, by contrast, forces the GPU to match the display’s refresh rate, which usually prevents more than 60 frames per second from being rendered (since most LCD panels have a refresh rate of 60 Hz).
Traditional vsync may seem like the more efficient approach. According to Lucid, however, vsync has the side-effect of reducing how rapidly the game responds to keyboard, mouse, or controller input. That’s because limiting the frame rate can also slow down the game’s main program loop, which processes all of those inputs every time it runs. A fast-paced multiplayer shooter might run at 120 FPS on a modern gaming rig, which would mean its game loop refreshes every 8.3 ms. Enabling traditional vsync would lengthen those refresh cycles to 16.7 ms, since the frame rate would be limited to 60 FPS. Using Virtual Vsync, on the other hand, would preserve the rapid refreshes and eliminate screen tearing.
Virtual Vsync can be complemented by HyperFormance. When both features are enabled, Virtual Vsync discards surplus frames as usual, and HyperFormance jumps in to ensure those surplus frames aren’t fully rendered by the GPU. Some rendering tasks, like texture fetches, must still be accomplished in order to keep GPU caches warm and to fulfill inter-frame dependencies. However, tasks like post-processing and some shader effects can be skipped altogether. That means unseen frames are processed faster, the game loop runs faster still, and input responsiveness is, hopefully, even higher.
HyperFormance can also be used on its own—without Virtual Vsync. In that case, Lucid tells us the software allows screen tearing to occur, but it ensures partially displayed frames aren’t fully rendered. The exact mechanics involved elude us. However, the goal seems to be the same as for HyperFormance with Virtual Vsync: speed up the game loop in order to boost input responsiveness. Interestingly, Lucid says using HyperFormance on its own can actually amplify input lag in some titles.
Outside of such fringe cases, the theory is that using HyperFormance, Virtual Vsync, or both technologies together shouldn’t incur a performance hit. Lucid’s timing algorithms run on the Intel IGP, so the discrete GPU doesn’t need to do any extra work to keep track of frames on the display; it’s free to devote all of its attention to rendering. Sounds pretty much like a free lunch.
Our testing conundrum
Sadly, testing Virtual Vsync and HyperFormance is much harder than it seems.
In a conventional graphics configuration, all frames are created equal. They all follow the same path through the graphics pipeline, and they all end up on the display. Measuring frames per second—or frame times, as we do in our inside-the-second reviews—yields accurate and valuable information about real-world performance.
Virtual Vsync and HyperFormance turn that concept on its head. Their entire raison d’être is to ensure frames are not created equal—that some frames never make it to the display, or that only certain frames are fully rendered. Statistics about frame times or frame rates instantly become misleading, because they don’t discriminate between visible, invisible, and partially rendered frames. That problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Fraps, the tool we use to monitor frame rates and conduct our inside-the-second testing, operates above Lucid’s driver in the graphics pipeline. Fraps monitors API calls from the game, just before the Lucid mojo kicks into gear and decides what to do with each new frame.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario that demonstrates our problem:
Game X runs at an average of 80 frames per second, and all frames are sent to the display. Enabling vsync (the regular kind) caps the frame rate at 60 FPS. Pretty straightforward stuff. Now, what if we enable Virtual Vsync? The frame rate counter is going to climb back to 80 FPS, but the display will still receive only 60 frames each second. Add HyperFormance to the mix, and unseen frames will dramatically increase in number, since they’ll only be partially rendered. Our FPS counter might spike up well over 100 FPS—but the user still won’t see more than 60 frames each second.
The reported frame rate may roughly hint at the speed of the game loop, which will in turn gives us a tentative sense of input responsiveness. However, the numbers will give us no indication of what the player actually sees. On top of that, there’s no reliable way to measure slowdowns or some of the other issues our inside-the-second testing has exposed.
Faced with no easy way to conduct empirical testing, we decided to test subjectively, instead. Over the next couple of pages, we’ll use our keen senses, which have been sharpened by years of graphics hardware reviews, to determine whether Virtual Vsync and HyperFormance improve the gaming experience on the Origin EON11-S. We’ll also keep an eye on Fraps’ FPS counter to get an idea of what’s going on behind the scenes.
Let’s start with games that have been officially validated by Lucid to be compatible with Virtu MVP.
The experience in supported games
Despite its age, Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4 is a poster child for the benefits of Virtual Vsync with HyperFormance. It suffers from the exact problems the technology seeks to resolve, and it’s the game Lucid shows off in its demonstrations. We got our own demo at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year.
On a system like the EON11-S, Call of Duty 4 runs very fast. Fraps reports frame rates in excess of 130 FPS in the game’s starting area, and that’s with all the detail options maxed out. COD4 is, as you’d expect, very responsive at those settings—but there’s an awful lot of screen tearing, as well. That tearing is especially noticeable during lateral strafing or quick mouse movements. With so many frames being sent to the display, object edges almost seem to shimmer when the camera moves.
We can fix the tearing by enabling regular vsync in the options, thereby limiting the frame rate to 60 FPS. However, that setting has a clear and palpable impact on input responsiveness. Mouse movements feel laggy and sluggish, a bit like sticking your hand in a tub full of water and trying to move it around as quickly as possible. You can feel resistance—something getting in the way.
Going into the Virtu MVP Mobile control panel and enabling Virtual Vsync instantly takes care of that problem. Screen tearing still doesn’t occur, but the game responds much more rapidly to input. Fraps’ frame-rate counter jumps back up to 130 FPS and above. Remember, though: most of those frames aren’t making it to the display.
Does HyperFormance help any? A little. Frame rates as reported by Fraps more than double, rising to 270 FPS and above. Do the math, and it would seem the game loop is updating every 3.7 ms at that rate. There does appear to be a further improvement to input responsiveness, or at least, mouse movements and key presses translate instantly to action on the screen. That’s good.
What isn’t good is HyperFormance’s impact on animation fluidity.
Animation in COD4 isn’t perfectly smooth no matter what setting is used. When moving from side to side, for instance, objects don’t follow a continuous lateral progression. They tend to slow down and speed up again a few times a second, in what can best be described as a jerking motion. HyperFormance visibly exacerbates that issue. It introduces what we call hitching, whereby animation stops briefly and then jumps forward several frames—sort of like when a scratched CD skips. (Kids, ask your parents.) This hitching happens at random intervals, and it tarnishes the experience enough that you’d probably want to leave HyperFormance disabled in COD4. Virtual Vsync is responsive enough on its own and doesn’t make the jerking animations any worse.
Now, what about more recent titles?
Like most modern, graphically intensive games, DICE’s Battlefield 3 isn’t really a good candidate for Virtual Vsync on the EON11-S. Virtual Vsync only kicks in when the frame rate exceeds 60 FPS, but the EON11-S’s GeForce GT 650M graphics processor isn’t nearly potent enough to run BF3 that fast with the eye candy turned up. In fact, we had to step down to the “Medium” preset to keep the game playable at 1366×768. Frame rates ended up in the neighborhood of 45-55 FPS at those settings, which was enough to give HyperFormance a shot on its own. Lucid says HyperFormance by itself is effective from 45 FPS on up.
Without HyperFormance, BF3 on the EON11-S looks very fluid, with completely smooth animations and decent input response. That changes when we flip the HyperFormance toggle. Fraps reports a frame rate increase of about 10 FPS, and input responsiveness increases in a palpable way. Movements feel much more instantaneous. At the same time, animation fluidity clearly worsens. Occasional hitching is visible, and much like in COD4, lateral strafing causes objects to jerk across the screen instead of moving in a single, smooth, continuous motion. Screen tearing also seems to cause more severe shimmering around object edges during movement.
This is a tough one. In a multiplayer context—and Battlefield 3 is one of those games conducive to very heated multiplayer battles—you may want to switch on HyperFormance, animation fluidity be damned, just to enjoy quicker response. Your kill-to-death ratio might depend on it. The visual tradeoff can’t be understated, though. HyperFormance gives motion a sort of grittiness, like riding a bike on gravel instead of smooth pavement. Some players may find that detracts from the experience enough to live with slightly laggier controls.
Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is also a little too demanding to run above 60 FPS at maximum settings on the GeForce GT 650M, which precludes benefits from Virtual Vsync. We settled on the game’s “High” detail preset at 1366×786, which yielded frame rates upward of 45 FPS or so.
Skyrim comes with regular vsync enabled by default. Disabling it requires the addition of a parameter—”iPresentInterval=0″— to the Skyrim.ini configuration file in C:\Users\YourUserName\My Documents\My Games\Skyrim. We played the game both with and without that parameter before giving HyperFormance a shot.
With regular vsync enabled, one immediately notices cursor lag in the menus. In-game movement is buttery smooth, but there’s definitely a touch of input lag there, too. Modding Skyrim.ini to disable regular vsync does away with cursor lag, and it mitigates some of the in-game input lag, as well. However, it also makes animations jerky and introduces some very obvious screen tearing.
With HyperFormance, frame rates jump to 65-119 FPS according to Fraps, and in-game input lag is reduced. Controls feel practically instantaneous. However, the jerkiness and unevenness of motion is actually worse than with regular vsync disabled and HyperFormance off. In a game like Skyrim that doesn’t really prize twitch responses to in-game stimuli, the tradeoff seems too great to be worthwhile.
We tried enabling Virtual Vsync in addition to HyperFormance to see if it might alleviate the unevenness of motion, and it did… sort of. Frame rates returned to their previous level—45-61 FPS or thereabouts—and motion became smoother, but the initial input lag returned. That makes sense. Lucid clearly states that Virtual Vsync doesn’t yield benefits over regular vsync below 60 FPS. When HyperFormance is paired with Virtual Vsync, rendering tasks are only skipped for surplus frames that don’t make it to the display. There weren’t any such frames in this case.
One last thing to note: enabling HyperFormance without Virtual Vsync automatically disables Skyrim‘s built-in vsync. The user doesn’t need to bother with the config file edit. That’s pretty convenient, at least.
The experience in unsupported games
All three games we’ve tried so far have been validated by Lucid. They have their own entry in the Virtu MVP Mobile control panel, and they work without issue, visual artifacts, or instability.
Lucid can’t validate every game, however. The official support list is long (“hundreds” of titles long, the company says) but it’s largely made up of older games—titles like BioShock 2, Fallout New Vegas, Metro 2033, Left 4 Dead 2, and Unreal Tournament 3. Newer games are fewer and farther between. We’ve seen Battlefield 3 and Skyrim are in the list, but many fresher releases like Borderlands 2, Dishonored, and Sleeping Dogs haven’t yet been added.
That said, users are free to add titles to the list manually and see how things work out. The results are by no means guaranteed, but Origin tells us it’s had good luck with that approach. We felt like giving it a try, too, so we did.
We picked Borderlands 2, DiRT: Showdown, and Max Payne 3 as our guinea pigs. You might have seen those games featured in our last GPU review. Virtu MVP Mobile has official support for the original Borderlands and DiRT 3, so we were hopeful that the sequels would behave themselves with HyperFormance enabled.
Borderlands 2 dashed those hopes. Switching on HyperFormance in the game causes random objects to disappear from the scene every time the mouse is moved. Too bad. In all fairness, though, the game’s controls do feel quite responsive even with regular vsync enabled.
DiRT: Showdown plays much nicer with Lucid’s tech. Enabling it doesn’t cause any visual artifacting that we can see. At 1366×768 with the “High” detail preset and 2X antialiasing selected, HyperFormance causes frame rates to rise from around 50 FPS to as high as 80 FPS. However, we can discern no palpable difference in responsiveness, and HyperFormance incurs the same side-effects as in other games we’ve tried so far: jerky animation and a general sense of grittiness. The game feels totally smooth and fluid without HyperFormance.
Max Payne 3 is the best behaved of our three unsupported games. HyperFormance doesn’t cause any visual artifacts that we can see, and it appears to improve input responsiveness to some degree. Yet again, however, animation fluidity is compromised.
In this case, the downsides clearly outweigh whatever small responsiveness improvement we can discern. Max Payne 3 already feels plenty responsive at the default settings, so impairing animation fluidity for a minor responsiveness boost just isn’t worth it.
Virtu MVP Mobile vs. Optimus
Before we move on to our conclusion, let’s address one final question: does Virtu MVP Mobile incur any drawbacks compared to Optimus? As we noted earlier, Origin says Lucid’s virtualization scheme runs on top of Nvidia’s switchable graphics technology. Origin also told us battery run times should be as good or better with Virtu MVP Mobile than with Optimus.
That claim was easy to put to the test. Disabling Virtu MVP Mobile simply involves uninstalling the software through the Windows Programs and Features control panel. So, that’s exactly what we did. (Virtu MVP’s desktop implementation has an on-off switch, but the mobile version works differently.)
With Virtu MVP Mobile uninstalled and Optimus the sole master of the EON11-S’s graphics hardware, we recorded a battery run time of 3 hours and 26 minutes. This was in our web browsing test with Wi-Fi on and the display brightness pegged at 50%. When the Lucid software was installed and operational, the run time dipped slightly to 3 hours and 24 minutes. In other words, we’re looking at a sub-1% difference, which probably isn’t statistically significant. Virtu MVP clearly doesn’t reduce battery life substantially compared to Optimus, but it doesn’t bring about any improvements, either.
Nor does it compromise the seamlessness of graphics switching. The screen doesn’t flash when you unplug the laptop’s AC connector, and there’s no visible switch that occurs when high-definition video or 3D games are launched. The system skips back and forth between the integrated and discrete graphics in a way that’s entirely transparent to the user, just like when Optimus is left to its own devices. The two technologies seem to complement each other nicely.
No question about it, Virtu MVP Mobile works. Virtual Vsync and HyperFormance both behave as advertised in supported games, and they even work in some unsupported games, as well. Lucid has developed some very impressive software, and the fact that it doesn’t impede Nvidia’s Optimus switchable graphics technology is particularly commendable.
But that’s not what we sought to find out. Our question was: do these technologies improve the gaming experience on the EON11-S?
That’s a tougher question to answer. As we saw in our testing, Virtual Vsync has very limited uses on a system like this one. Older and less visually demanding games can undoubtedly benefit, as Modern Warfare did in our testing, but newer ones are held back by the GeForce GT 650M. That is, they’re held back to the extent that users must compromise between image quality and performance, and frame rates over 60 FPS are rarely attainable unless the graphical detail is lowered.
HyperFormance can be used with more games on the EON11-S, and the improvements in responsiveness are usually clear. Whether those improvements make up for a loss in animation fluidity is another matter, though. Hard-core multiplayer gamers may feel that’s the case, especially if they play competitively. Others may prefer a little more input lag if it means the illusion of motion is better preserved. I’d say I belong to the latter category.
Ultimately, though, Virtu MVP Mobile is helpful to have around on the EON11-S, and it certainly doesn’t hurt. If HyperFormance or Virtual Vsync don’t benefit whatever games you’re currently playing, then you’re free to disable them. You can always switch them on again if the need arises. Battery life and seamless switching between the IGP and GPU aren’t compromised, either. The only real issue we encountered was that updating Nvidia’s GeForce drivers broke Virtu MVP, but that was fixed by simply reinstalling the Lucid software. All in all, having these extra tools in your toolbox is pretty painless.
A word about the Origin EON11-S before we sign off. This is a great little machine. Ultraportable laptops capable of running modern games at medium to high settings are hard to come by these days, and this one does it admirably well. Battery life is surprisingly decent considering the size, weight, and hardware payload, too. And offering Virtu MVP as a free add-on is definitely a nice touch—even if the benefits aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be.