What Kind Of People Use X.Org's VESA Driver?

Written by Michael Larabel in X.Org on 6 December 2009 at 11:28 AM EST. 70 Comments
Yesterday we shared the first numbers from our 2009 Linux Graphics Survey that showed the open-source ATI driver is now more popular than ATI's official Catalyst driver. The full results from this survey that concluded last month will be published tomorrow, but in yesterday's graph that we showed there was also something else interesting: the X.Org VESA driver usage. Approximately 1.5% of the survey respondents were using the xf86-video-vesa driver.

This seems like a rather high percentage considering the xf86-video-vesa driver just implements the basic standard VESA core to provide very basic user mode-setting on most graphics cards and monitors, but half the time it won't even mode-set to the monitor's native resolution. The VESA driver does not implement any hardware acceleration besides support for a shadow frame-buffer (ShadowFB) on the CPU, does not support X-Video, there is no power management, and is basically only good for starting the X Server in effectively a fail-safe mode if you happened to break your proper X.Org driver or xorg.conf configuration and are need to get back into an X Server as you restore your system's graphics stack.

With interest as to what the 315 people are thinking that participated in our survey and just outright use this driver, we looked at just their numbers and are sharing a few of them today. The first item we looked at was for those using the VESA driver, what sort of hardware they stated they were using. This is where it gets even odder.

Were these just 315 people using old legacy hardware that has no maintained X.Org driver any longer? Actually, for a majority, this was not the case. In fact, 83% of the people that were said to be using the VESA driver were using either Intel, NVIDIA, or ATI/AMD hardware! The other 17% were using SiS / XGI, VIA, Matrox, or something else. When it came to the percentages of the big three vendors, Intel was at 26%, NVIDIA was at 29%, and ATI was at 28%.

There should be no reason to pick the xf86-video-vesa driver over xf86-video-intel, which is Intel's main Linux graphics driver that continues to be certainly maintained and picks up new features almost quarterly. The xf86-video-intel driver supports all of Intel's current IGPs that are on the market, though some of the older Intel vintage hardware may no longer be supported or is broken, but still these numbers should be smaller. Granted, there is also Poulsbo, but at least a new driver coming.

For the 29% of the respondents using the VESA driver with NVIDIA hardware, again, it's rather odd. NVIDIA has their well-maintained binary-only driver that supports so many features and NVIDIA also has their three legacy drivers for supporting their older graphics hardware that no longer works with their latest mainline driver. For those not wishing to use NVIDIA's binary driver, there is NVIDIA's xf86-video-nv open-source driver that at least provides mode-setting and 2D acceleration. The xf86-video-nv driver may be obfuscated and crippled in terms of features, but it supports most NVIDIA hardware out there and most of the time at least mode-sets to a better resolution than xf86-video-vesa does with most monitors. Of course, the other option for NVIDIA users is using Nouveau for kernel mode-setting, 2D, and 3D acceleration (through Gallium3D). The Nouveau project also aims to support every NVIDIA graphics card available.

Again, for the ATI hardware its even more of a mystery why anyone would be running the VESA driver. Unless you just purchased a Radeon HD 5750, Radeon HD 5770, or another Evergreen graphics card and are waiting on open-source support as you don't wish to use the Catalyst driver, there are both open and closed drivers available that are better than the basic xf86-video-vesa driver.

The ATI Catalyst driver supports the R600, R700, and R800 (Evergreen) GPUs while their older Catalyst 9.3 driver supports the R300/400/500 series with distributions running older kernels and X Servers. This driver provides a near feature parity to the ATI Windows driver and allows the customer to use their hardware to pretty much the fullest extent. On the open-source side there is then the xf86-video-ati and xf86-video-radeonhd DDX drivers along with the ATI kernel mode-setting support found in recent kernels. For the open-source ATI drivers there is 2D, X-Video, and 3D support (currently through Mesa but Gallium3D is on the way). The open-source ATI stack is quite nice and only continues to get better.

For the other 17% of the VESA-using survey participants, well, VIA is sort of toying with their Linux drivers at the moment and for those with any Volari hardware the XGI Linux driver is dead. Assuming those VESA users are using their Linux systems for a desktop, they should just read our graphics card reviews and buy a new graphics card so you can fully utilize your Linux desktop rather than being impaired by a graphics driver that is really only good for system recovery. Or at least bug some X.Org driver developers to try to get a hardware driver to at least function.

Other interesting notes from the VESA-using population is that most of them were on X.Org 7.4/7.5, so it's not like they are running some old Linux distributions where the new drivers are not available or will not build. To no surprise, most of those using the X.Org VESA driver were running a resolution of 1280 x 1024 or less.

If you actively use the VESA driver on your system, please stop by the Phoronix Forums and let us know why.
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Michael Larabel

Michael Larabel is the principal author of Phoronix.com and founded the site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience. Michael has written more than 20,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and OpenBenchmarking.org automated benchmarking software. He can be followed via Twitter, LinkedIn, or contacted via MichaelLarabel.com.

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