It is going on a year since showing how Unity, Compiz, GNOME Shell & KWin affect graphics/gaming performance, so here is an updated 2012 look. In this article are a variety of OpenGL benchmarks run under the current latest desktops as will be found in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS: Unity, Unity 2D, GNOME Shell, GNOME Classic, KDE Plasma, and Xfce. AMD and NVIDIA graphics were tested with both the latest closed and open-source drivers.
This testing is similar to last year's article showing how the desktop environments / (compositing) window managers affected the gaming performance when running a variety of full-screen games. This time around though it is an updated look at things with all of the leading desktops having advanced a great deal in the past year. The operating system, the desktop packages, and drivers were all using the latest packages from the Ubuntu Precise (12.04) repository as of 7 February.
The desktops under test were Unity 5.2.0, Unity 2D 5.2.0, GNOME Shell 184.108.40.206, GNOME Classic 3.2.1, KDE Plasma 4.8, and Xfce 4.8. Each desktop was using its default window manager / settings. A GeForce 9800GTX was used on the NVIDIA side when running the Mesa 8.0-rc2 Gallium3D driver and then the NVIDIA 290.10 binary driver. On the AMD side was a Radeon HD 5770 when running the R600 Gallium3D driver (with swap-buffers-wait disabled in the DDX) from Mesa 8.0-rc2 and then using the Catalyst binary blob. Ubuntu 12.04 LTS x86_64 was obviously the operating system in use atop the Intel Core i7 3960X test-bed.
Besides the performance, when it comes to the driver support for all of these distributions it was mostly in good shape. Of the four driver configurations tested, the only issue that remained problematic was the Catalyst driver still producing glitches at times under the GNOME Shell 3.2 with Mutter. The Catalyst driver is still very slow in getting all of the latest desktop environments working well, but at least it's much better than it was one year ago.
Now let's see how the Linux desktops of 2012 affect OpenGL performance across the leading discrete graphics card drivers...