Monday, January 21, 2008

The State of ATI Graphics for Linux

Over a year ago, my laptop that I use for work, had a meltdown, and would no longer work. I had to get back to work as quickly as possible, so I went to Best Buy to purchase a new one. In that situation, I made a decision to purchase a laptop with the ATI XPress 200M PCI-E integrated graphics chip. Now, at the time I was very hesitant, because I had read many reports of problems with all ATI discreet and integrated graphics under Linux. Well, it turns out that the reports were well founded, and I had lots of problems trying to use the proprietary graphics drivers from ATI. They were buggy, slow, and my laptops suspend and hibernate functions simply didn't work at all. I had none of these problems with my old laptop which used an Nvidia chip set. Needless to say, this was frustrating, and the open source driver, which I would prefer, but ATI doesn't release their specifications, so I couldn't actually use the majority of the features of the graphics chip. For example, no 3D support, no support for proper widescreen resolutions, and generally poor performance. Again, these issues with the open source drivers aren't the fault of the developers, but still falls squarely on ATI as well. So, what to do?

At this point, I used whatever seemed to work best at the time, and many times found myself switching between the proprietary driver and the open source driver, depending on which one at the time seemed to work the best. Needless to say, this was a real pain to deal with, but I really didn't have much of a choice in the matter. I still needed to make a living, and didn't want to take the laptop back and try another one, just to find other issues. So, I stayed patient, and kept testing each successive release of the available drivers. Then a breakthrough occurred.

First, a couple of months ago, ATI released a new proprietary driver that was based on a new code base, and I have to say, the performance is impressive. While it didn't address all of my issues, at least I had a stable driver that actually had good graphics performance. Many applications, that were really frustrating to use, suddenly became responsive and a joy to use. Whew! Now, this wasn't the end of the problems, but it certainly was a new beginning that had a lot of promise.

Now, the latest release of the driver, finally has my laptop usable in all situations. After reading the release notes for the latest release, I noticed that suspend and hibernate fixes were included, which had me intrigued. Maybe, I would finally be able to use my laptop without power for longer periods of time? Well, I installed the new release, and after seeing that everything was still stable for all my daily activities, I decided to test suspend/resume and hibernate functions. Well, I have very good news to report. Both functions work as expected! I couldn't be more happy at this point. I have a fully functional laptop where all the graphics features work, and I can use it with or without power in confidence. That's not the entire story either.

It turns out, that along with this transition to the new code base, that ATI has also started to release the specifications for their newer graphics architecture. While, that will not impact me, it certainly is a great step in the right direction. I actually wish that they would simply stop the proprietary driver, and just work in conjunction with the community to produce and support great open source drivers, but at least its a step in the right direction.

While I still have some reservations about using ATI products under Linux, the progress lately has me thinking that ATI products should be something I evaluate when making my next purchase.

No comments: