Well, epic for a Free software geek. Kim and other normal people just chuckled, and at best grinned when I told them.
I’m now running openSUSE on my desktop, which has an AMD RadeonHD 4350 card. That card is fast enough for my graphics needs (compositing window management, a dated game once in a while) and still passively cooled and providing two DVI outputs for my dualhead setup. I’ve been using an NVidia VGA before, but switched to AMD/ATi when I last upgraded my desktop workstation (to an Intel Quad core, meaning new mobo, graphics as well). I picked a RadeonHD card instead of an NVidia chip because of AMD’s open dealing with specs, something which I deeply despise in NVidia. So, NVidia, there you go: You lost me as customer because you’re too closed a company.
Now bitching about NVidia is not the (primary ;)) goal of this post. The goal of this post is, that with openSUSE 11.3′s graphics stack, I’ve been able to run a composited desktop with the Free radeon driver finally. While there were some hickups in the installation procedure (normal for a beta release), it now all fell into place, and I’m enjoying fast, beautiful graphics with a completely Free software stack. That is a lot of work from the Xorg people that has finally come to fruition: There’s the new DRI framework in the Linux kernel, along with drivers supporting compositing for many of the "newer" RadeonHD models, the compositing support for newer chips that has landed in the latest Xorg, all on top of the EXA acceleration infrastructure. If you’re interested what you can expect from your upgrade to 11.3, check the feature matrix compiled by the Xorg devs.
I’ve tried the setup on Ubuntu Lucid Lynx in the first place, since that’s what was installed on the workstation before, but didn’t have much luck. The kernel shipped with Lucid is just one version too old it seems, so lacks the functionality necessary to accelerate graphics suitable for compositing. For that reason, I’ve upgraded the kernel to 2.6.34, but only to find out that my Xorg is not good enough. Tried installing newer packages from the xorg-edgers repo, but that just resulted in my system hanging solidly during boot. (That’s to be expected if you’re using bleeding edge Xorg, and upgrade your own kernel, but still a shame it didn’t just work ;-)). I assume that new upcoming Ubuntu will provide this nice out of the box experience as well, but I didn’t try it.
For many users, the most interesting thing is probably that the Free radeon driver (and to some degree the Intel graphics driver as well) provide the best user experience for running a KDE Plasma desktop. Using the NVidia driver, the desktop always feels sluggish. That’s supposedly due to NVidia not accelerating some calls that are made while switching windows, so a couple of milliseconds are added there and the whole thing feels less responsive. It’s not as bad as it was, about 2 years ago, but there’s still a notable difference in snappiness when using a low-end (non-poulsbo ;)) Intel chip compared to anything using the nvidia.ko binary driver — and that’s just pathetic given the NVidia hardware is supposedly much more powerful. The same, even if to a lesser degree, is true for ATi’s binary driver, the (in)famous fglrx.ko. This one, while it works OK-ish, also suffers slightly from this lagginess. Switching to the free driver makes the whole thing just very snappy. I could well imagine that those who are complaining about a perceived slow system are suffering from just this problem — bad graphics drivers. If you’ve recently compared the binary and free drivers for RadeonHD cards, please leave a comment so we can see if this — rather vague — theory of mine (binary drivers suck, Free ones feel faster) is true for more people.
So, what’s the epic moment? Well, the epic moment for me was seeing KDE Plasma start up with the Free driver, enable compositing automatically and by that delivering a much more beautiful and functional desktop to me, out of the box. I’m happy that with the new graphics stack in openSUSE 11.3, the same will be the case for many users out there.