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Acer Timeline Ultra M3 & NVIDIA GT 640M Review

Author: SKYMTL
Date: April 1, 2012
Product Name: Aspire Timeline Ultra M3
Part Number: M3-581TG
Warranty: 1 Year
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The GT 640M; Kepler Comes to Ultrabooks



A few weeks ago, the world saw what NVIDIA’s new Kepler architecture was all about. Unlike many of the previous generation’s cores, the GK104 within the GTX 680 was both efficient and preeminently powerful but that was the desktop version. For notebooks, the 600-series of mobile parts is primarily focused upon providing increased performance per watt and longer battery life within the mid to lower tiered market brackets.

In order to accomplish their goals, NVIDIA is moving forward with a two pronged approach that combines Kepler and Fermi mobile GPUs parts into a cohesive product lineup. Starting at the top, we have the GTX 675M and GTX 670M which are essentially holdouts from the previous generation and have simply been renamed. Some may decry this move but high end mobile gaming isn’t Kepler’s primary goal….at least not yet anyways. Plus, less and less people want to carry around a brick-like gaming notebook these days.

Things kick into gear within the quickly growing “sweet spot” of the mobile space: thin and light notebooks that have long battery life. Products here feature what we call adaptable productivity; they boast a feature rich environment for the everyday user while moonlighting as an entry level gaming / HD decoding rig if need be. This is where the Kepler architecture can really stretch its legs and as a result the GTX 660M, GT 650M and GT 640M (minus the “LE” version) all lay claim to the new advanced 28nm manufacturing process, miserly power consumption numbers and an updated design. We should also mention that NVIDIA’s Optimus technology will be available on all of their new mobile GPUs. However, desktop-centric technologies like Adaptive V-Sync and GPU boost aren’t included here.


Due to a giant leap forward in terms of performance per watt, the Kepler architecture arguably means more for the mobile market than it does for desktop systems. Notebook manufacturers can now shoehorn additional graphics capability into a smaller package. In a market that’s increasingly focused upon using the GPU in even the most basic of applications, the new 600M series becomes a no brainer in most cases.


The current darling of NVIDIA’s lineup is the GT 640M, a low power graphics processor that comes equipped with 384 cores but consumes substantially less power than similarly performing GT 500M-series parts. To some, this may not sound like a worthwhile improvement but for mobile users these types of advances translate directly into a better all-round computing experience without having to sacrifice performance for battery life.

Due to its aforementioned capabilities, the GT 640M has become a prime candidate for Intel’s upcoming generation of Ultrabooks. Even though the Ivy Bridge processors will supposedly include an improved graphics engine, some consumers will still be craving more. That’s where NVIDIA steps into the equation. While a discrete GPU may not be in the cards for every Ultrabook due to cost, heat and numerous other factors, we’ll likely see the GT 640M make its way into several Ivy Bridge based models.


NVIDIA claims the GT 640M will be “putting the Ultra back into Ultrabook” by introducing a whole new market to the wonders of high definition gaming. You see, before this GPU was introduced, Ultrabooks had to make do with integrated graphics that didn’t provide enough horsepower to play today’s latest games at low detail settings. With Kepler, the goal posts have moved since a reasonable amount of rendering ability can now be packed into a slim notebook design.


In order to break into such a lucrative up and coming niche, NVIDIA knew they had to focus upon two core aspects: optimizing power consumption while maintaining some level of performance. Kepler achieves both goals but the trick was to find a perfect balance of each aspect to create a graphics processor that large OEMs would want to use. We’ll go into a bit more detail about how this was accomplished on the next page but let’s just say that a fair amount of engineering resources were dedicated towards solving this problem.


Throughout the years, manufacturers have been gradually miniaturizing their designs but through more efficient components, battery life increased and weight decreased. With the GT 640M, this slow process of improvement has taken a quantum leap forward. We now have a GPU with the power of a GTX 285M that can be installed in a 20mm thick chassis that weighs under 6lbs and when placed into a compatible system, still achieve up to eight hours of battery life.

This kind of forward progress is quietly pushing us towards a world where notebooks have most of a desktop system’s performance but can be carted around without a problem. For argument’s sake, let’s call this the first step towards a true synergy between the GPU and CPU in order to create a single class of portable computers that can do everything from homework to gaming to photo editing.


NVIDIA has a few more tricks up their sleeve as well and while we have covered the Optimus technology in depth before, it remains the last word in GPU efficiency for notebooks. Among other things, it allows the discrete GPU to enter a dormant state in order to conserve power and prolong battery life.

What differentiates Optimus from other solutions is the way it handles the switch between the dGPU and the coprocessor housed on the CPU. Instead of requiring a manual switchover, it detects accelerated programs and enables the discrete GPU only when required, without user intervention. In theory, you should never know that it is working since the screen doesn’t flash, nor is there switch to be toggled.


Driver support is another reason why NVIDIA has claimed the edge over competing solutions in the mobile market. As 2011 progressed, NVIDIA released 16 consecutive updates for their drivers and while not all manufacturers (Sony among them) decided to roll these out to their customers, the intent for compatibility evolution was certainly there. Intel on the other hand entered a phase of comfort with their driver stack and while their rollout program has seen vast improvement over previous generations, a little over six revisions isn’t going to cut it these days. Drivers –be it for notebooks or desktops- just don’t work that way anymore since new applications are released on a regular basis that require optimizations.
 
 
 

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