GTX 1060 vs. RX 480 - The ~$200 GPU Decision For Linux Gamers
Written by Michael Larabel in Hardware on 19 November 2016 at 09:20 AM EST. 158 Comments
HARDWARE --
Without a doubt, the Radeon RX 480 is a great ~$200 USD graphics card for someone caring a lot about open-source driver support. But with the Pascal-based NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 also costing about the same, what's the better decision for a Linux gamer who may not be religious about his driver choices? Here is some food for thought.

Eric Griffith, our 2015 summer intern, brought up he was deciding between a GTX 1060 and RX 480 for his Linux gaming box. He hadn't bought a NVIDIA card in the past ten years and is currently using the venerable Radeon R9 290, but it's certainly time for an upgrade to play the demanding Linux games of today.

As far as my thoughts on the matter, it's an obvious choice if you definitely want open-source drivers: the GTX 1050/1060/1070/1080 don't even have open-source hardware acceleration on Nouveau until NVIDIA releases the signed firmware images at some point in the future. After that, it will be the traditional struggle to try to get re-clocking working well, etc. With AMD's Polaris, there has been day-one open-source driver support via AMDGPU and RadeonSI Gallium3D to take -- nearly -- full potential of the card.

When sharing my thoughts with Eric, one of the biggest non-performance-related complaints I have about the RX 400 series and recent AMD GPUs supported by the AMDGPU kernel driver is the lack of HDMI/DP audio. Not until the display abstraction layer (DAL) code finally lands will there be mainline support for HDMI/DP audio with modern AMD graphics cards. That would be a show-stopper for me if I were a routine Linux gamer since I use HDMI or DisplayPort audio with all of my setups and no longer use any external speakers. This is especially important if wanting to make a HTPC and planning to use HDMI audio to your TV / home theater... The RX 460 or so could make a nice HTPC card and provide open-source video acceleration, but no audio until DAL comes. DAL isn't coming for Linux 4.10, so the soonest we could see it is 4.11 for mainline... Sad, but at least AMD appears to be working on it more internally to get DAL ready for mainline as they aren't interested in bringing up new GPUs on non-DAL code-paths, something they hoped originally would have been settled in time for Polaris.

Not having DAL in mainline is also holding up HDMI 2.0, FreeSync / Adaptive-Sync, atomic mode-setting, and other display features supported by their proprietary driver but not found in the current open-source code.

DAL aside, my other warnings for Eric were around the risk of potential small problems. Like with Linux 4.9 on some of my cards powered by AMDGPU and at least with one of my 4K monitors, every 15~20 minutes it seems to like taking a really long blank or lose its signal for 1~2 seconds but without reporting any problems to dmesg, etc.

Then my only other wisdom to share is that when Linux games launch, still, frequently, they aren't working well out-of-the-box on day-one compared to the NVIDIA proprietary driver. Mesa is improving and RadeonSI is now at OpenGL 4.5 and AMD is now consistently working on performance improvements, but look at Deus Ex: MD on RadeonSI as the latest example. Until there is the on-disk shader cache, more AZDO work, etc, it won't be an optimal Linux gaming experience.

When weighing all factors, Eric ended up choosing the GeForce GTX 1060. There is the binary driver, but once that driver is installed, you can basically expect all functionality to be working, performance basically on-par with Windows, and new Linux games to be working from day-one. Eric will be writing some new Linux game reviews for Phoronix in the weeks/months ahead, so the NVIDIA card really makes sense for a good day-one out-of-the-box experience with Linux gaming. As he's going to be working on those upcoming Linux game reviews, Phoronix ended up sending him over a GeForce GTX 1060.


The GeForce GTX 1060 I chose was the EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 GAMING. The card is more expensive than other GTX 1060 models (the card was $239 yesterday when I bought it, today it's listed for $249; compared to the base GTX 1060 models for around $199), but it has 6GB of GDDR5 video memory. The 6GB of video memory rather than 3GB should come in handy for future Linux games plus if Eric plans on gaming at 4K or running a multi-monitor setup. This particular card is also only 6.8-inches long, so it's very compact and could make a nice SFF/HTPC if desired.

Eric will be sharing his thoughts on the EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 GAMING (06G-P4-6161-KR) / "so for the first time in 10 years, I have an Nvidia card" in the weeks ahead along with some new Linux game reviews. For those curious about the GTX 1060 on Linux today can see NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 Offers Great Performance On Linux and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460 vs. 760 vs. 960 vs. 1060 Linux Performance.

What ~$200 graphics card would you have picked as a Linux gamer and why? Share your thoughts this weekend with us in 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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