At the end of each year for the past five years we have delivered "year in review" articles looking at the performance of NVIDIA's (and ATI/AMD's) proprietary Linux drivers. Both in terms of new features introduced during the year in their driver updates and benchmarking the driver releases to see how the performance has evolved over twelve months. With 2010 coming to an end, it is time for this year's driver reviews. We are starting this year seeing how the NVIDIA performance has matured in 2010.
This year though for NVIDIA there was not too much going on for end-users, which are both good and bad. NVIDIA's Linux driver (as well as their Solaris and FreeBSD drivers too) are at a near feature and performance parity to the Windows graphics driver. Though NVIDIA's Unix team has fell behind a bit this year in that the GeForce 400/500 "Fermi" GPUs still lack support for overclocking functionality via CoolBits like they support for older ASICs, but this isn't a huge deal and will hopefully be resolved in a future update. One noteworthy feature missing from their Linux stack though that does not look like they will be supporting anytime soon is their Optimus Technology for notebook GPU switching under Linux. They also lack the necessary requirements to properly support the Wayland Display Server under Linux, and while NVIDIA has no plans to support it right now, they will likely do so when Wayland begins gaining traction on the Linux desktop as a viable alternative to an X.Org Server.
In 2010, NVIDIA has continued supporting their new hardware under Linux at launch by their proprietary driver, although it was this year they canned their open-source driver, but it was not a huge launch since this driver was crippled in the first place. Besides bringing up support for new hardware in Linux, the driver updates this year have not brought anything too major to their Linux stack. There has been support for the latest OpenCL and OpenGL specifications, but that isn't particularly surprising and in reality isn't too important at this point seeing as there isn't much in the Linux world taking advantage of the latest OpenGL 3/4 specifications besides the Unigine Engine. Most of the Linux driver updates this year have brought in mostly bug-fixes and further work to mature their VDPAU (Video Decode and Presentation API for Unix) for offering first-rate video playback acceleration under Linux. The latest Linux driver update this year has brought support for NVIDIA Vision 3D Pro, but again that isn't too much of an exciting feature as its irrelevant to most Linux consumers. There has also been other miscellaneous work taking place in the driver updates.
For this year's NVIDIA Linux driver benchmarking we began with the NVIDIA 195.36.15 driver that was their last update of 2009 and then proceeded to benchmark the major releases of 2010: 195.36.15, 195.36.24, 195.36.31, 256.25, 256.35, 256.44, 256.53, 260.19.06, 260.19.12, 260.19.21, and 260.19.26.
To have compatibility with all of the proprietary Linux drivers from the past year we used the Ubuntu 9.10 (x86_64) release with the Linux 2.6.31 kernel, GNOME 2.28.1, X.Org Server 1.6.4, GCC 4.4.1, and an EXT4 file-system. The year-old hardware used was an Intel Core i5 750 CPU, an ECS P55H-A motherboard, 4GB of DDR3 system memory, and a NVIDIA GeForce 9800GTX 512MB graphics card. With the Phoronix Test Suite we ran Lightsmark, Nexuiz, OpenArena, Warsow, MPlayer video playback, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Unigine Sanctuary, and Unigine Tropics with each NVIDIA Linux driver release.