Posted by: vwbusguy | October 4, 2009

ATI: Open Source vs Closed Source Drivers

If you’re a gamer (or video editor), there are only two manufacturers in the graphics cards business that matter – there’s ATI and nVidia.  If you’re a Linux user in the same, how these companies support their hardware is probably a big factor in your decision to buy one over the other.

For proprietary drivers, nVidia has long been winning that battle.  Their drivers aren’t perfect, but thanks to RPMFusion, they’re easy, and relatively stable.  The open source driver support for nVidia frankly sucks.  With Fedora 11, we now have nouveau, which offers 2d and kernel mode setting, but with no 3d, it means no shiny desktop effects and certainly no good card performance, which is probably why you bought the card to begin with.

ATI is a different story.  Their proprietary drivers have sucked for a long time.  While the performance may be suitable after getting them installed, they come with nasty side effects like not being able to come back from resume and screen freezes.  And even though ATI has all the information to write good drivers for modern systems, they sometimes lag forever in getting working drivers out for recent kernels.  The big difference though is that the open source drivers for ATI are great.  Most ATI cards benefit from excellent out of box support to where ATI’s closed source driver is no longer necessary.

The reason for ATI’s open source drivers being good is that ATI released the specs to their newer cards.  This gave the open source community the opportunity to develop their own drivers for the newer cards.  The results are awesome.

The Radeon HD 3xxx and 4xxx support finally matures in linux kernel 2.6.32.  These cards get kernel mode support and full 3d support out of box.  Beyond that, Phoronix has now published benchmarks of the upcoming catalyst 9.10 driver against the free open, source drivers with amazing results.

Not only will the linux community get great out of box support and open source stability, but will also get drivers that rival or overwhelmingly scold the closed source ATI released drivers!  If ATI can move the full way into making their drivers open source, it will not only be a performance and stability benefit, but a great marketing tool to a growing demographic of Linux users.

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Responses

  1. [...] post:  vwbusguy -Scott Williams-: ATI: Open Source vs Closed Source Drivers Share and [...]

  2. [quote]With Fedora 11, we now have nouveau, which offers 2d and kernel mode setting, but with no 3d, it means no shiny desktop effects and certainly no good card performance, which is probably why you bought the card to begin with.[/quote]

    I’ve been using nouveau for a while now and I’m happy with it. No need to fiddle with kernel installs or postpone kernel upgrades due to RPMFusion lagging. And my desktop effects work (well some don’t but the important ones do). KWin has support for XRender, which, IMO, makes it much more usable. Bug in the driver? Fall back to XRender until it’s fixed so that I don’t feel like I’m in another hindered environment. Lack of 2d support for gnome-shell is a step backwards :( . It means that those using nVidia cards will be forced to use the blob if they want to use gnome-shell. Intel’s new line of chips are amazing and I’ve been running things extremely smoothly with it with Free drivers. Those cards are the ones we should be promoting, not the ones that need blobs to work.

    –Ben

    • While I like and appreciate Intel’s support to the open source community, their hardware is unacceptable to most gamers and/or people who do graphic intensive things. Until Intel does a major architecture change for their video (which they won’t), wooing some of the other companies along will also be beneficial in the end. If the open source community continues to make quality drivers in a timely manner, it will mean more cooperation and hopefully full open source drivers coming directly from ATI.

  3. But I fear that some features ( support of S3tc ( patentented texture compression system ), hdcp ( same as css encryption ), or hardware support of some codecs like mpeg4 ) will never be present in the free drivers, for the usual reason.

    More ever, I have heard bad news of the financial states of ATI/AMD ), which is quite sad given your article.

  4. It’s been almost a month since your blogpost but thought I’d add that the current state of the nvidia nouveau driver in F12 beta does 3d desktop effects. Impressive.

  5. “The Radeon HD 3xxx and 4xxx support finally matures in linux kernel 2.6.32. These cards get kernel mode support and full 3d support out of box.”

    I am somewhat perplexed by this statement. I use an ATI Radeon HD3200 in my laptop. I am running Mandriva 2010 Free (Gnome) which utilizes the above specified kernel. With the default open source driver I cannot run Compiz. Why is this if the open source driver supports 3D acceleration?

    • I can’t speak for Mandriva, but in Fedora there is a mesa-dri-drivers-experimental package which enables the drivers from the 3D branch for these cards.


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