The Most Innovative ~$50 Graphics Card For Linux Users
This ~$50 USD graphics card is open-source friendly, can drive four display outputs simultaneously, passively cooled, and can fit in a PCI Express x1 slot. It's a unique card offering good value especially for those Linux users wanting open-source friendly hardware.
Earlier this year ASUS announced the GT710-4H-SL-2GD5. In the months since we didn't hear anything more about it given the pandemic but recently saw it became available via Internet retailers and picked one up for testing.
This ASUS graphics card is powered by an old NVIDIA GeForce GT 710 "Kepler" graphics processor, but what makes the card interesting is:
- Four HDMI outputs that can be driven concurrently. Most GT 710 graphics cards are still on the likes of DVI and VGA. This is the first budget card we have seen with four HDMI outputs.
- It's passively cooled. The GT 710 doesn't need much cooling but most of the cheap GT 710 cards available still stick to using a small heatsink fan. The graphics card is half-height but at the expansion slot is full height for being able to handle the four HDMI ports.
- PCI Express x1 connectivity given performance isn't likely of much concern to customers and the ability to slot several of these ASUS GT710-4H-SL-2GD5 into a single system if wanting to drive many outputs.
- It retails for ~$50 USD. I picked up the card for just $55 which still puts it among the cheap GT 710 cards available in 2020 while being more unique than the rest.
With those unique attributes, it's far more interesting than the other GT 710 cards that have been out for several years.
For Linux users particularly though the use of a Kepler GPU is good if you are a free software purist... Kepler is the last NVIDIA GPU generation aside from the GTX 750 (Maxwell) that doesn't require signed firmware for initializing the hardware. Thus you can have a 100% free software solution with the Kepler GPU unlike newer NVIDIA GPUs on Nouveau or even newer Intel and AMD GPUs also requiring firmware blobs for hardware initialization. With Kepler there is the ability to provide 3D acceleration without any form of a firmware binary.
Not only is the Nouveau support for Kepler 100% pure, but this is at the moment the latest generation of NVIDIA GPUs supporting re-clocking so that the graphics processor can move above its often very limited boot clock frequencies. Due to the signed firmware requirements of newer generations and the inability to have proper power management (PMU) controls by Nouveau, the newer GPUs are crippled in being stuck at their boot clocks. But with Kepler there is the ability to push the hardware to its highest performance state albeit is done manually without any automatic re-clocking at this stage.
While old and slow by today's modern standards, the GT 710 is likely faster than yet-to-materialize open-source GPU design attempts.
So with the GT710-4H-SL-2GD5 you can actually have a decent open-source solution free of any firmware blobs. But the other Nouveau limitations apply like currently no Vulkan driver and video acceleration not being as robust as the proprietary driver stack. But if you don't mind binary blobs, Kepler is still supported by NVIDIA's official closed-source Linux graphics driver.
So all in there is a lot of potential from this graphics card for some unique use-cases whether you just want to drive four displays and not too concerned about speed or wanting a fully open-source rig.