Previously, their Ubuntu-loaded PCs only had the option of an integrated Intel graphics processor or using a NVIDIA GeForce GPU. Intel has a fully open-source driver stack with 2D, 3D, and video acceleration, while NVIDIA just has their cruddy xf86-video-nv driver for mode-setting support and some very basic 2D support. For the NVIDIA-backed Ubuntu PCs, Dell had turned to using NVIDIA's binary-only driver. ATI has been missing from this Dellbuntu party.
In the past, Dell hasn't exactly been fond of ATI graphics on Linux. It was almost one year ago that Dell had publicly slammed the ATI Linux driver. At the 2007 Ubuntu Live conference, Dell's Amit Bhutani had expressed interest in providing Ubuntu + ATI PCs, but their drivers were in a sorry state that would need to be improved (this was just a month after Google's Chris DiBona had slammed both ATI and NVIDIA over their lack of open-source support).
Since that time, of course, AMD has made a night and day difference with the ATI Linux driver. It's now on a new driver code-base that's shared in large part with the Windows Catalyst driver, has brought AIGLX / Compiz support, and a whole lot of performance enhancements and other fixes. That same month they had also announced an open-source strategy and began releasing hundreds of pages of GPU register specifications.
Last December on Dell's IdeaStorm, however, was a request for an ATI Ubuntu notebook. This idea had garnered more than 450 "promotions" and several comments. One of Dell's main Linux engineers, Matt Domsch, had said:
"We too are pleased with the steps AMD/ATI have made. The drivers are getting better all the time, but they're not ready for prime time yet. When they are, they will certainly be considered."
Then just earlier this week was another IdeaStorm entry and it has already received more than 140 promotions. This IdeaStorm entry had requested ATI graphics again over the rapidly improving drivers for both their open-source and closed-source versions.
Now when looking at one of the new Dell models shipping with Ubuntu 8.04 LTS, the Inspiron 530N desktop, we see an ATI graphics option. By default the PC is using an Intel GMA X3100 IGP, but there are two choices for video card upgrades. These two upgrade options are the ATI Radeon HD 2400PRO and ATI Radeon HD 2600XT. There is no option with the Inspiron 530N for NVIDIA graphics.
Both of these graphics cards use an R600 series GPU. There has been some documentation released concerning this newer product family, but a majority of the R600 3D documentation has yet to be released; hopefully the documentation will finally be out within the next couple of weeks. With the lack of this documentation or sample source-code provided by AMD, there is no open-source 2D or 3D support for the R600 series quite yet (unlike the R500 series). Though there is a first-cut DRM implementation. With that said, AMD would be using the proprietary fglrx driver that's packaged within the Catalyst Suite.
It's interesting to see Dell finally shipping Linux PCs with ATI graphics support, considering their history. However, we have yet to see any Dellbuntu notebooks with an ATI Mobility Radeon graphics processor, but now we imagine that's only a matter of time before there is one.