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Graphics Cards Under Linux

written by: Tolga BALCI•edited by: Michael Dougherty•updated: 12/9/2010

Graphics cards were one of the main headaches with Linux about 10 years ago. But that was 10 years ago and this means 10 light years in computer terms. Today it’s just the opposite. Let’s see the changes and our options to choose a graphics card.

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    It was years ago when we had to type the amount of memory and -sometimes- the brand of the graphics card in the Linux console hoping that our graphics card would be properly recognized by the system. Even so, there was a significant probability that the graphics card would not properly start when you fired up your desktop environment. But those days are long over and for about 8 years I personally have not had a single issue with graphics cards, nor have the people who use Linux around me. As you may have guessed, this was all about the device drivers.

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    Graphics Card Drivers: NVIDIA and AMD/ATI

    NVIDIA Logo So far NVIDIA is the most Linux-compatible graphics adapter available for Linux. Looking at the various forums, I see that the proprietary ATI drivers often need some tweaking with the X Windows system settings to get the card working properly compared to proprietary NVIDIA drivers. I am not trying to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) here, but it is my personal observation that NVIDIA plays best with Linux. If you have an ATI card, it is still fine, since the Catalyst drivers are available from ATI’s web site for download. If you run into problems, simply google for your graphics card + Linux and 99% of chance you will get an immediate solution.

    ATI Logo Either NVIDIA or ATI, you will usually be able to use your graphics card perfectly under Linux with the proprietary drivers. The key word here is “proprietary” since the drivers released by these manufacturers are not open source. They are simply self-contained files, which install and set up everything in your system. There are also open source drivers available, written by the community but most of the time they are not able to configure your graphics card to its full potential simply because the developers do not have access to the graphics card specifications. I personally do not have any problem with the proprietary drivers, as long as they are written properly. (I have run into some problems with my NVIDIA GeForce 8400 GS graphics card and solved the problem. You may want to give it a look).

    Before heading for a download, open up your package manager and install the kernel headers and sources packages together with any recommended dependencies. The proprietary drivers need the headers and sources to run.

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    Graphics Card Drivers: Intel

    Intel Logo Intel’s on-board chipsets almost all run perfectly under Linux. This is due to openness of Intel, who releases the card specifications to the developers and provide their open source device drivers. Intel graphics cards are on-board graphics adapters, found mainly on the notebooks and Atom powered netbooks and some desktop motherboards. The desktop I am using now has on-board Intel graphics card and it works out of the box with any Linux installation (if you are curious, I have put an NVIDIA card in the same machine for increased performance).

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    I perfectly understand the psychology that people tend to remember the negatives rather than the positives. I have touched the fact that some devices, due to the drivers released by the manufacturer, may have some problems under Linux, the same way they have some problems under Windows. What you basically need to do to overcome the problem is to go to your distribution’s package manager and follow it to install the drivers. In Ubuntu, you can go to System -> Administration -> Hardware Drivers and have the drivers installed automatically.

    Do not think that your shiny widescreen monitor and your new graphics card are not supported under Linux. The support is almost perfect and you can only understand how beautiful to use Linux when you install it and get it up and running.

    Don’t fear the penguin!