The GeForce 290.36 (beta) drivers were just released by NVIDIA for laptops and desktops alike and besides a few fixes over the previous version, the highlight is the addition of the ambient occlusion for Skyrim and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. This adds another layer of realism to the games, with the usual downside that performance will take a hit–exactly how much varies, but we’ve tested it with Skyrim and it loses more than 10 frames per seconds on average by switching the feature on. In other words it may not be the best option for low-end or even mid-range laptop GPUs. On the plus side, it clearly separates the game from the console versions by leveraging the more capable (on average) PC hardware.
You will have to enable it manually by going into the NVIDIA Control Panel (by right-clicking on the desktop) and bring up the “Manage 3D Settings” menu. The options are Quality, Performance, or Off (default). Only trial and error will help you determine the best settings for your system.
What ambient occlusion does in a nutshell is improve shadow quality, making them more realistic at the cost of performance. Here’s a before and after picture of Skyrim running on a laptop with the GTX 580M (click to enlarge):
Sensational isn’t it? FYI: above is without ambient occlusion and below with the feature turned on. Seriously though, there is a clear improvement depending on the scenery and NVIDIA has linked to a few examples on its laptop driver download page for the 290.36 driver.