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Heck, doom3 runs better on my x850 and x1900 (an extra 10 fps in demo1 on the x1900) than it does on a HD4850, all using the open source driver. I can also use the highest quality textures on NWN with the two former cards, something still not supported on the HD one. I'm quite happy with the progress being made with the r300 driver.
And neither should hardware be EOL'd that's just 3 years old.
In terms of hardware (i.e. stopping production) GPUs generally EOL very quickly, since there's not much point in continuing to manufacture something that's slower and built on a larger process node than the latest-and-greatest.
In terms of software/drivers, AMD hasn't dropped support of R500 and earlier, they just aren't releasing new versions of their closed-source driver (lord knows why you'd want them to; it's buggy enough when it only has to focus on *new* cards! ). The OSS driver soldiers on, with plenty of development work being done by AMD. In fact, they're making sure the R300-500 Gallium driver is working before they start on the R600+ driver.
Perhaps I'm being unfair to NVidia. A few people have posted here who have been unable to use their GF4s for a couple of years. I realize GF4 is back in the R300 timeframe but just using that as an example because there have been posts here about it. What would the NVidia response be (in 2010, not 2007) to those GF4 owners ?
bridgman is right. Nvidia's 71xx series of proprietary drivers have long since stopped support for the latest Xservers. This means old cards circa Geforce 2 don't work. If it weren't for nouveau, these cards would be nigh useless with the latest distros. Now the same slow/dropped support is happening with the 96xx series of drivers.
At least with ATI, OSS drivers will ensure that your card doesn't turn into a useless brick. Gallium3D and KMS support means that your card will take advantage of hardware acceleration on video, SVG, OpenCL, and other yet undefined future standards. I'm very satisfied with everything ATI has done.
Since about one year, ATI has dropped support for my R500 based thinkpad T60 in fglrx. I am using gentoo (stable), so I eventually had to move to radeon. While this is able to serve my needs in most respects (I am no gamer), there is one _very_ serious flaw: power managment. Measured in watts, this has gone from 14 (when using powerplay) to 20-25 (using DynamicClocks) with the switch. I am a scientist relying on my notebook for work, and as I am traveling a fair amount of time, the reduction in battery live by about 30% is a serious issue.
I appreciate the work which is going into the opensource driver, but ATI has left me without proper GPU power managment for one year now, and I don't see stable support for serious power management for me in store anytime soon. The consequence for me is: my next machine most likely won't contain ATI hardware anymore.