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09 March 2009, 15:02

AMD stops maintaining proprietary Linux drivers for older graphics hardware

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Version 9.3 of the proprietary Linux graphics drivers from AMD, known as Catalyst or "fglrx", will be the last to support the R300, R400 and R500 series GPUs, used for example on Radeon models 9500 to X1950. In distinction to the Windows drivers, which are also losing support for older graphic chips, AMD plans no further maintenance for a legacy series of the Linux drivers. So AMD staff are advising Linux users who have such Radeon GPUs to change over to the open source drivers "radeon" or "radeonhd".

This plan has recently been confirmed by various sources, although the Phoronix web site, which specialises in Linux and hardware, was initially the only source for this information and there are many comments from discontented Linux users in the Phoronix Forums. John Bridgman, an AMD software engineer, is attempting to soothe them in dozens of comments, while still defending the decision and listing the advantages of the open source drivers.

Phoronix further reports that version 9.3 of the drivers, expected this month, will provide no further support for the recently issued X Server 1.6. This will be used in the Ubuntu 9.04 and Fedora 11 Linux distributions anticipated in April or May, so the Catalyst 9.3 drivers won't work natively on these distributions (or on their pre-release versions, which are now available). Users who actually want to change over to the new distributions may find themselves confronted with a dilemma, if perhaps, for the sake of other hardware system components, they need a driver that is only found in new kernel versions that are not available as regular updates to older distributions. They do of course have the alternative of compiling a later kernel for an older distribution themselves – but that requires advanced knowledge of Linux, and not a little time for set up and maintenance. Taking this route will moreover lead to a dead end in the long run, because sooner or later the 9.3 drivers won't work with future kernel versions either. The current Catalyst 9.2 drivers, for example, can't be compiled with the 2.6.29-rc kernels that Fedora currently uses in the developer tree leading to Fedora 11.

Linux users who own the older Radeon graphics hardware, which is still being offered for sale even now, will therefore have to suffer one of the repeatedly quoted disadvantages of proprietary Linux drivers; their dependence on the willingness of the makers to adapt drivers to the constantly changing interfaces in the Linux environment. Since, for over a year and a half, following a period of a very restrictive information policy, AMD has been releasing information more freely about driving Radeon GPUs and is even actively encouraging the development of open source drivers, the adverse effects are limited for most users. The 3D performance of some of the graphics cards no longer to be supported by the future Catalyst drivers is said to be better with current Catalyst drivers than with open source drivers. Many of the latter give little or no support for GPUs' energy saving functions, and some TV outputs are also problematic. Even proprietary AMD drivers have not been exactly popular with some users and distribution developers, because of technical problems and their rather sluggish support for new kernel and versions.

Nvidia is also removing support for some older graphics cards in its proprietary Linux drivers. Support for the GeForce FX series (the fifth generation), for example, was dropped with the 177 series drivers issued in the second half of last year. Nvidia is however maintaining the older drivers in the 173 series for these cards as legacy drivers, in the same way as the 71 and 96 driver versions for yet older cards. But some of these drivers can't be used any longer in modern distributions with current versions of kernel and This problem can be partially circumvented with the beta versions of the drivers that Nvidia staff are announcing in the Nvnews Linux forums.


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