AMD drops proprietary Linux drivers for older graphics hardware
Users of Linux distributions with the latest versions of the Linux kernel and X.org's X Server will in future only be able to use the 2000, 3000 and 4000 series of Radeon HD graphics hardware with open source drivers. This is because version 12.4 of AMD's proprietary Linux graphics driver Catalyst (fglrx) doesn't work with X Server 1.12, which was released in March. Although the recently published beta of Catalyst 12.6 is supposed to fix this, while also supporting Linux kernel 3.3 officially, it was announced in April that this version only works with the Radeon HD models from the 5000, 6000 and 7000 series, which are compatible with DirectX 11. This is the case for both Linux and Windows.
AMD still plans to maintain current drivers for the DirectX 10 cards from the 2000, 3000 and 4000 series as "legacy drivers", updating them approximately every three months. However, it's currently unknown whether this plan applies only to the Windows drivers or also to the Linux drivers, as AMD did not respond to requests for further clarification. In the past, AMD only made small changes to top legacy drivers and normally did not add support for newer X Server versions and kernels; NVIDIA tends to perform such maintanence for a certain amount of time after a driver has been categorised as legacy, but also stops eventually.
With the help of patches released by some developers, the kernel module for Catalyst 12.4 drivers should still be able to be compiled with Linux kernel 3.4; this could be interesting for Fedora 16 users, who will most likely get this kernel as a regular update soon. Ubuntu 12.04 LTS and Linux Mint 13 users who install a newer kernel instead of the included Linux 3.2 could also take advantage of such patches.
However, users of the recently released Fedora 17, which uses X Server 1.12, will no longer be able to get the older Catalyst drivers to do their job; it will be a similar situation for most of the Linux distributions that will be released from now on, since they will use X Server 1.12 and its successors. Additionally, in the mid-term, bigger changes to the kernel will make it increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to combine the drivers with new kernel versions in distributions such as Fedora 16, Ubuntu 12.04 and Linux Mint 13. Those using Catalyst 12.4 drivers will then be in a difficult situation when they have another hardware component that requires a driver that is only available in newer kernel versions.
A similar situation occurred in March 2009, when AMD removed support for Radeon graphics chips between 9500 and X1950 from its proprietary graphics driver. As then, AMD is now dropping support for graphics hardware that is still available here and there. The proprietary drivers to which AMD gave legacy status in 2009 did not gain support for newer Linux kernels or X Server versions; this meant that users who did not want to put up with outdated Linux distributions eventually had to switch to open source drivers or change their graphics hardware.
The situation is not as tragic this time, since the open source drivers for Radeon HD series 2000, 3000 and 4000 are much more developed than they were for the X1000 series in the spring of 2009, thanks mostly to AMD, which has been spurring development of open source drivers for its own graphics chips since 2008. Users will still see a difference, however, since the open source drivers can't quite keep up with the proprietary drivers. While the former do support 3D acceleration for all Radeon DirectX 10 chips and many of AMD's newer graphics chips, the proprietary drivers often deliver much better 3D performance. In addition, many graphics chips with the Catalyst drivers use less power, thereby reducing the amount of power required, for example, on notebook computers, where battery life is an important factor.