2013 Holiday Shopping Guide For Linux PC Hardware
As last year's What Linux Users Need To Know When Holiday Shopping For PC Hardware article was quite popular, here's my thoughts on the latest PC components and recommendations for those that may be purchasing (or hoping to receive) new computer hardware this holiday season and intend to use it on Linux.
For those that haven't caught up with my writing of hundreds of open-source / Linux articles each and every month -- a majority of them about Linux hardware -- and the thousands of Linux hardware reviews and benchmark analysis articles written at Phoronix over the past nine and a half years, here's my latest personal Linux hardware thoughts for the 2013 holiday shopping season.
I'll begin with graphics cards since that's the most hotly contested PC component when it comes to driver compatibility, feature support, and performance under Linux. This year we've seen the Radeon driver tack on many new features and more quickly support new hardware, Intel continues to make significant strides and investments into their open-source driver, and the Nouveau driver for open-source NVIDIA support keeps making improvements. If you are a Linux gamer and don't mind using the closed-source hardware drivers, I would highly recommend the latest NVIDIA graphics cards.
For those after high-end hardware on the closed-source driver, recently I've been happily running many GeForce 700 series tests. The GeForce 780 Ti is beautiful on Linux (that article also has a 14-way AMD/NVIDIA Linux comparison with the binary blobs) as is the GeForce GTX TITAN. The GTX 760/770 are also great and for those after more affordable and lower-end hardware there's graphics cards like the GeForce GTX 650 and other lower-end GeForce 500/600 models.
I go without recommending AMD Radeon hardware this year for gamers using the binary driver since at the moment, there's Radeon R9 290 series Linux troubles for the latest "Hawaii" graphics processors and they haven't been corrected by the latest Catalyst update. Additionally, all too often now when new games ship on Linux via Steam there are frequent notes from the developers about Catalyst driver issues or recommendations to use the NVIDIA binary driver. The Catalyst driver is still a lot better than where it was years ago, especially many years ago, but for the best high-end Linux gaming experience you will definitely be best off with NVIDIA graphics hardware this holiday season. The NVIDIA Linux driver performance also matches that of the NVIDIA Windows driver.
If you're looking after integrated graphics or aren't a gamer and don't need any fast GPU, look no further than Intel's Ivy Bridge or Haswell processors. Haswell in particular is a very big upgrade and Intel continues to make much progress on their open-source driver. With Intel their only Linux driver is open-source so there's no choices to make about two drivers. The Intel Haswell graphics are energy-efficient, VA-API provides hardware video encode/decode, there's now OpenGL 3.3 support with the latest Mesa, and the Intel driver is becoming rather feature-rich. However, the Intel Windows driver is still better than the Linux driver and often faster too.
If you want to use a discrete graphics card but swear by only open-source software, that's where AMD can suit you well on the Linux desktop. AMD continues to improve their open-source graphics driver and Gallium3D drivers (namely R600g and RadeonSI). However, I wouldn't recommend buying one of AMD's newest graphics cards. The open-source R9 290 Hawaii open-source support is still very primitive and has a lot of work left. While it's improving, the Radeon HD 7000 series hardware that also uses the RadeonSI Gallium3D driver (any GCN GPU will use this driver), the support isn't as mature as R600g.
If you want a top-notch open-source experience right now with AMD hardware, I would recommend any Radeon HD 5000 or Radeon HD 6000 series graphics card. That's the sweet spot on the open-source AMD side and it will be that way for the next few months until the RadeonSI code is pushed further along. When using any open-source driver, make sure to upgrade to the latest Linux kernel and Mesa drivers for the best support. It's with the slightly older hardware where the Gallium3D driver performance can begin to compete with Catalyst.
For more recommendations on the GPU / driver side check out my recent graphics card reviews and graphics driver articles. I'll also have a new multi-GPU multi-driver Ubuntu OpenGL comparison due out soon. Side note: If you're thinking of getting a new TV or monitor this holiday season that is a 4K "Ultra HD" display, later this week I will have the first thorough look at running 4K Linux gaming with various AMD Radeon and NVIDIA GeForce graphics cards using the different drivers on Ubuntu Linux to see how well the experience is at this very high 4K resolution.
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