A Synopsis Of Linux Graphics Drivers

Written by Michael Larabel in Display Drivers on 9 November 2007. Page 1 of 3. 11 Comments

With all of our coverage at Phoronix of the different ATI and NVIDIA graphics drivers, if you're new to Linux or just get caught off guard by all of the different open and closed-source drivers, it can be confusing to know which driver is right for you and your needs. At the request of many readers, and the obvious need for a concise article explaining the different solutions, we have written a synopsis of the Linux graphics drivers currently available. This is really to let those new to Linux know what choices are available for them and their graphics card.

For this article, we'll assume that you at least know what a Linux graphics driver is for and that you're using an Intel, ATI/AMD, or NVIDIA graphics processor. There are many other drivers available for different graphics hardware, but Intel, ATI/AMD, and NVIDIA are the most common. Among some of the less common open-source X.Org drivers are those for SiS, XGI, MGA, Savage, and VIA.

If you're using an Intel IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor), the driver choice is easy as Intel puts all of their work behind their xf86-video-intel driver. The xf86-video-intel driver is open-source and supports the IGPs ranging from the Intel 810 to the 965 series and the latest G33/35 chipsets. This driver will also support newer Intel graphics solutions once released. The xf86-video-intel driver ships in all modern Linux desktop distributions. However, for updating the driver you must either use your distribution's package repository or grab the latest source-code via git or a released source package. The Intel driver is updated with a new release every few months to add new hardware support, new display features, and correct any bugs.

Presently, both ATI/AMD and NVIDIA focus their resources on producing closed-source drivers for their hardware. Because of these drivers being closed-source, it has led to reverse engineering and the X.Org development community coming up with open-source alternatives. However, at the same time this has led to driver fragmentation and users not necessarily knowing all of their driver choices. So for NVIDIA and ATI/AMD are closed-source binary drivers and then a number of open-source alternatives.

With there being open and closed-source drivers available, why are people choosing the closed option? Well, with the open-source drivers being developed through reverse engineering (though there are some exceptions), the open-source drivers currently lag behind in terms of features and performance. Among the reasons why closed-source drivers are chosen is because of faster OpenGL performance, TV-Out support (though a dissolving point because of open-source progress being made), prompt support for new hardware (not always true), they can be easier to use when it comes to feature-rich GUI control panels, regular driver updates, and other hardware specific features such as NVIDIA's SLI (Scalable Link Interface) or ATI's PowerPlay.

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