The year began with Intel launching their "Sandy Bridge" processors. While the CPU performance was very impressive for these latest-generation Intel processors, the graphics performance under Linux was a problem. The drivers were not ready in time. Well, they actually were technically available, but in Git source form and not easy for Linux desktop customers. There were also some initial hurdles in the Sandy Bridge Linux graphics support. However, over the past year, the Intel OSTC developers working on the open-source graphics support have dramatically improved the situation. As this article recaps the performance over the past year, Sandy Bridge is now rocking under Linux and Ivy Bridge is ready to go.
For the past six years at Phoronix, I have written "year in review" articles covering the advancements made to the proprietary AMD and NVIDIA Linux graphics drivers -- in terms of both performance and functionality. However, the Intel Linux graphics driver has not received such annual summaries since it has not been as interesting as the high-performance, feature-rich binary blobs under Linux. With Sandy Bridge being Intel's most compelling graphics product yet and their open-source Linux graphics driver stack becoming more interesting (hey, there's almost finally OpenGL 3.0 support!), it is now deserving of such year-end summaries on Phoronix.
Prior to the Sandy Bridge hardware launch in January, the developers at Intel working on the Linux graphics stack had started long before and even had code publicly available in advance of the launch. I first spotted open-source Sandy Bridge graphics code in February of 2010. Over the course of 2010 were many more Linux kernel, Mesa, and xf86-video-intel DDX commits concerning the sixth-generation Intel graphics.
While there was good quality code available in January when the hardware began shipping, the state of the Intel driver code as found in the Linux distributions that shipped months earlier (e.g. Ubuntu 10.10) wasn't in a very good state. It was largely broken. This is what caused the initial pains for many Intel customers wanting to run Sandy Bridge with integrated graphics under Linux, since unlike Windows, upgrading your open-source graphics driver under Linux isn't exactly a very easy, reliable, and straightforward process. Then the Intel code that was even pulled into Ubuntu 11.04 was not too good for Sandy Bridge. (Though the initial Ivy Bridge support at launch early next year should be much better.)
Anyhow, in the year since Sandy Bridge launched, the code is not only working reliably, but it's received many optimizations, features like HiZ, and other improvements. See my dozens of Sandy Bridge articles and news postings for full details about the evolution of the Linux support, as a lot of progress was made in the past twelve months. Even small patches have resulted in significant wins and for a while the Linux driver was faster than Intel's Windows driver. Also during the course of this year, VA-API video acceleration support was delivered, Sandy Bridge New Acceleration (SNA) introduced, and most recently there's experimental Glamor acceleration.