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The Rough Story Of Intel Sandy Bridge Graphics For Mac OS X

Michael Larabel

Published on 25 July 2011
Written by Michael Larabel
Page 1 of 5 - 46 Comments

When Apple released Mac OS X 10.7 Lion last week Wednesday, they not only put out their new operating system, but they also released new Mac Mini and MacBook Air hardware. The primary changes for both the Mac Mini and MacBook Air refresh is that both form factors are now shipping with Intel's latest "Sandy Bridge" processors, there is the new Thunderbolt I/O, and of course, they are shipping with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. This hardware update led me to immediately order the new Mac Mini as the latest piece of Apple hardware at Phoronix. Not because Phoronix is part of the Apple cult (since, after all, Phoronix is the leading Linux hardware site), but an immense curiosity about the Intel Sandy Bridge Mac OS X graphics driver. In particular, to see how Apple's Sandy Bridge driver compares to the Linux and Windows driver. Well, that was the plan at least, prior to the untimely demise of the new Apple hardware.

Intel's Sandy Bridge (SNB) hardware enablement under Linux (namely for the much-improved HD 3000 graphics) has been quite an interesting journey. A quick check yields that on Phoronix I have written about the Intel SNB Linux support in 90 news items and it's been the subject of 29 featured articles, whether it be looking at the performance of their latest SNB processors or seeing how the Linux driver is maturing. Sandy Bridge graphics was first brought up on Phoronix nearly a year before the hardware actually launched. Since early 2010, Intel's OSTC (Open-Source Technology Center) developers as part of Keith Packard's team had been working on the GPU support.

As the hardware was nearing its launch at the Consumer Electronics Show this past January, it looked like the Linux support was ready. But come to find out, the initial support was a big challenge. We did not have any of the new Intel hardware in advance this time around, but the other media publications that had the media access complained loudly about the lack of "out of the box" support on Ubuntu 10.10, etc. When Intel finally supplied me with one of their popular Core i5 2500K CPUs in January, I found other problems that ended up being due to one of the Cougar Point motherboards causing real pain. In the end, with a different Sandy Bridge motherboard, the open-source Linux graphics driver was then working.

When the Linux support was finally up and running, it wasn't smooth sailing permanently. The Intel graphics driver components that worked their way into Ubuntu 11.04 were still not up to par and the upstream support had even regressed in the Linux 2.6.39 kernel (the semaphores problem). Thus, unless you're building the Mesa / kernel / DDX from Git or using other third-party packages, the level of Sandy Bridge Linux graphics support can be disappointing in Ubuntu 11.04 and other modern releases. Finally with the summer and fall updates should everything be in order for carefree graphics support.

The Linux Sandy Bridge support has not been all doom and gloom, but the Intel Linux developers have made a number of key improvements since the Sandy Bridge hardware launch. On multiple occasions, they made key performance improvements (i.e. here, here, and here). Just last month, Intel released a new driver acceleration architecture for their DDX that made some huge performance improvements in key areas. Besides just the OpenGL numbers, Intel had also brought VA-API decode and encode support to Sandy Bridge for making it a nice option for video playback.

There's also been many other Linux highlights -- both good and bad -- during the past half-year that Sandy Bridge hardware has been around, as talked about in the dozens of Phoronix articles on the topic. Because of this bumpy road, which in the end lead to a pleasant place, seeing Apple now offering Sandy Bridge hardware with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion made me extremely curious. Could Apple's first-cut SNB graphics driver be even better than where the Linux driver is at today? Will the OpenGL performance be crippling at first or have Apple engineers already tapped all the available performance optimizations that the Intel Linux engineers only accomplished in recent months? Questions like these just tempted me enough to buy the new Mac Mini straightaway. (Having Thunderbolt support also bolstered my interest in purchasing the hardware, to watch the Thunderbolt I/O support on Linux mature.)

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