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Five Years Later, Intel Poulsbo Is Still A Linux Mess

Intel

Published on 15 March 2013 01:03 AM EDT
Written by Michael Larabel in Intel
23 Comments

Next month marks five years already since Intel released their Atom "Silverthorne" processors for netbooks and nettops in conjunction with the Intel "Poulsbo" SCH bearing PowerVR-derived GMA 500 graphics. To this day, aging Intel hardware with PowerVR-based graphics continue to be a big problem for the Linux desktop.

In the early days of Poulsbo with the Imagination PowerVR SGX-535 graphics core that Intel marketed as the "GMA 500", Linux desktop users and developers considered it to be a bloody mess. Intel couldn't ship open-source drivers for Poulsbo since it's based upon graphics IP from Imagination, unlike their in-house GMA / HD graphics.

There were several different Poulsbo Linux drivers out there, but none of them worked too well and required maneuvering to get a working graphics stack for the hardware. They weren't maintained too well and in 2013 I haven't heard of the drivers being maintained in any serious capacity in quite some time.

Coming in 2011 was then the GMA500/Poulsbo DRM driver. The driver is un-accelerated but at least provides for kernel mode-setting and can then be used with the xf86-video-fbdev or xf86-video-modesetting DDX drivers with an X.Org Server.

Five Years Later, Intel Poulsbo Is Still A Linux Mess

One year ago I wrote on my Poulsbo Linux experience with Poulsbo Looks Better On Ubuntu 12.04, But Still Ugly. At that time, the KMS driver was working but the 2D performance without any GPU-based acceleration was poor.

Since that article using Ubuntu 12.04, I had run into some mode-setting issues with an Intel Atom Z520 (found with the CompuLab Fit-PC2) as well as some rendering problems. Those issues were covered within Years Later, Intel Poulsbo Remains A Bloody Mess. That article from June had covered the regressed state of GMA500 with the open-source DRM driver.

With doing the recent Atom Z520 benchmarks for the 12-Way ARM/x86 system comparison using Ubuntu Linux, a Ubuntu 13.04 development snapshot with the Linux 3.8 kernel was loaded on the same hardware. Now using the latest Linux kernel stable series, the rendering issues and mode-setting kinks have been worked out!

The display is being lit up properly as expected, but the 2D performance is now even worse off than it was one year ago with the Ubuntu 12.04 tests... With Ubuntu having abandoned Unity 2D in Ubuntu 12.04, the default Unity desktop of Ubuntu 13.04 is being rendered over the CPU-based LLVMpipe Gallium3D driver.

Five Years Later, Intel Poulsbo Is Still A Linux Mess

Running any sort of OpenGL with LLVMpipe on the Intel Atom Z520 is destined to be a disaster. The Atom Z520 is a single-core 32-bit processor with 512KB of L2 cache running at 1.33GHz and the instruction set extensions end with SSE3... It's a horrible situation for depending upon LLVMpipe, among other situations where you should avoid LLVMpipe. So the default Ubuntu 13.04 experience on the five-year-old Intel Atom hardware once popular with nettops and netbooks is a frightening mess.

In five years time there's been no project with code that's materialized for providing a reverse-engineered 3D/GLES driver for Poulsbo. Most of the capable open-source graphics driver developers that have the knowledge to productively develop a Poulsbo driver are tainted by NDAs for working on other hardware that has PowerVR graphics from Imagination (e.g. Nokia, Texas Instruments, etc).

At least mode-setting is working well for a few different HDMI/DVI displays tested, but the desktop experience is horrible with Unity. Fortunately, it's just a matter of switching to a VT and then apt-get'ing Xfce, LXDE, or another lightweight desktop that's not contingent upon a compositing window manager. When running Xfce on Ubuntu 13.04 with the Z520 nettop, the 2D experience was better, but still rather sluggish. Simply put, even if you find any Intel Poulsbo hardware in a grand bargain bin, I'd still recommend avoiding it unless desiring a low-power low-performance Linux server.

After years of Intel SoCs with PowerVR graphics, I am so excited for a few months out with the introduction of the Atom "Valley View" products that boast in-house (Ivy Bridge class) graphics where Intel OTC developers have already been working on open-source driver support.

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