Are The Open-Source Graphics Drivers Good Enough For Steam Linux Gaming?
Written by Michael Larabel in Linux Gaming on 29 October 2015. Page 3 of 3. 53 Comments

Metro Last Light Redux results were very similar to the 2033 Redux game results with the HD 7950 and R9 290 being faster than the R9 Fury due to the AMDGPU DRM not having the re-clocking support. The Nouveau tests failed for Last Light too.

With Team Fortress 2 on the Source Engine, which is the least demanding Steam Linux game test of the bunch tested today, its performance was finally decent on the open-source driver compared to the proprietary drivers on SteamOS. Even though the GeForce graphics cards on Nouveau were only partially re-clocked, they delivered quite decent -- and playable (sans the GTX 650) -- performance compared to the proprietary NVIDIA driver. The AMD hardware also delivered good results overall and would be considered playable for the GPUs that made it to testing. The proprietary drivers across the board though remained noticeably faster before hitting their CPU bottleneck in this game.

While there are Linux enthusiasts often touting the open-source drivers (primarily Radeon) as being superior to Catalyst, that's only in cases where your graphics card plays along with this open-source driver code. You can get lucky finding a graphics card that runs nice with the open-source driver, but when testing many different cards at once, it's easy to begin finding faults. You also really need to be on a rolling-release distribution to make it worthwhile too for being able to easily fetch the latest Linux kernel, Mesa, and LLVM for the best experience with new OpenGL extensions frequently being added. However, at the same time it can also be a double-edged sword with the Radeon and Nouveau drivers not going through as much QA as the open-source Intel driver so from time to time there can be bugs/regressions -- such as I noticed just recently in Trying Out DRM-Next With Radeon/AMDGPU Drivers Ahead Of Linux 4.4 for the Linux 4.4 kernel where there are active regressions.

Beyond the various bugs and current driver shortcomings, another big issue is that the open-source drivers right now only support OpenGL 3.3~4.1 while support for newer OpenGL extensions are still being implemented. Many new Linux game releases target OpenGL 4.3 and it will still likely be months before that support is all squared away for Radeon and Nouveau, plus potentially a few more months until you'll see it rolled out based upon your Linux distribution. The proprietary drivers meanwhile have OpenGL 4.4~4.5 and are already working on Vulkan internally. At the time of Vulkan's debut, there's only an open-source Intel Vulkan driver to be expected while AMD will later open-source their Vulkan code.

So, are the open-source graphics drivers good enough for Steam Linux gaming? Truthfully, heck no, not in any overall way. If you want to play all new Linux games on launch-day (or close to their time of debut), want the best performance, and want a relatively pain-free experience, the open-source Linux graphics drivers really yet can't deliver on those goals. The open-source drivers continue making incredible strides, but there's much work ahead. The open-source AMD driver may be more stable and friendlier than Catalyst, but that binary driver still offers generally faster performance and more complete OpenGL support (along with OpenCL and other functionality still baking in the open-source world). On the NVIDIA side, well, their binary driver is clearly the win for gamers and what most Linux game developers/porters recommend.

Nevertheless, if I were to pick a graphics card right now for open-source Linux gaming, it would be the Radeon R9 290 or R9 390 series. As mentioned several times in this article, the newer GPUs like the R9 285 Tonga and R9 Fury (Fiji) don't yet have re-clocking support so their open-source performance is painfully slow. Likewise, the NVIDIA Kepler graphics cards only have partially-working re-clocking support and there isn't yet any GeForce GTX 900 Maxwell open-source driver support until NVIDIA releases their signed firmware microcode that we've been waiting on now for a year. For other good open-source hardware bargains, see my many other Linux graphics/driver benchmarks and other Phoronix articles along with the many resources found via the forums.

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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 or contacted via MichaelLarabel.com.


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