Free ATI Drivers

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I’m quite surprised at the lack of blog posts there have been about the news that ATI will be working with the Open Source community to develop 100% free 2D and 3D drivers for the Radeon chipsets. This is real big news, considering that, if you ask most Linux enthusiasts what the biggest problems in GNU/Linux distributions are, it normally comes down to the few extra proprietary software that people have to install, which are usually Java, Flash, drivers and binary firmware blobs.

Intel has been providing specifications to the community for some time now. Now that ATI (now part of AMD) will be doing the same, it will hopefully put a good deal of pressure on Nvidia to also provide specifications.

Unfortunately, Ubuntu 7.10 is already in feature freeze, and won’t ship the free ATI drivers. Mark Shuttleworth said in an interview that even though it won’t be available in the initial 7.10 release, it will be installable via ATI’s installer, and the Ubuntu team will provide the new drivers via an update, once packaged and tested.

Since I mentioned Flash earlier, I think it’s worth saying that the GNU Gnash project is moving very fast, and works as a replacement for Macromedia Flash for many users. It will be provided in Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon), due for release next month.

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11 Responses to “Free ATI Drivers”

  1. Ahmed Says:

    Java _is_ now Free Software released under the GPL. Read

  2. jonathan Says:

    The Java Runtime Environment is still non-free, at least, last time I looked, the best license I could find it under was the Java distributors license, which isn’t a free license.

    I’ll be very happy if you can prove me wrong though.

  3. Meneer R Says:

    The free drivers will take a while. They are not available instant-ly. From the specification they need to be made and tested.

    What I think Mark was referring to is the (also new) binary (closed-source) drivers of ATI, that increase frame-rate (read: performance) from 2x to 15x (on older cards). The binary driver was a complete overhaul according to ATI.

    Also the Free driver specification will target r500 cards and up. The specs in between r200 and r500 are not their to give away unfortunately. They might not even exist. In other words they improved the binary driver for the old and new cards a lot. (they have been working on this new driver for more than a year now). And they will make sure their hardware and technology in the future is such, they are allowed to give away the specification and can legally provide a skeleton driver.

    Also, the r500 cards contain less tricks. Standard 2d stuff, is just stuff the driver puts ON the card. There is no special hardware anymore, just a general purpose programmable highly concurrent GPU.

    After r500 AMD will create an official specification much like i368 and x64 are. In such they will not just allow, for example, Intel to create a 100% compatible graphics cards (so both can use the exact same driver), they will actually encourage them to do so. Intel will love this, and so will AMD, because it will kick NVidia out of the market.

    It will sort of commodize 3d cards much like chips are now. Open specifications, any hardware vendor is free to create a compatible chip. Both intel and amd currently play by the rule of who is first to develop a standard interface for a new chipset, will gets the lead.

    The whole closed-source secrets hardware times are gone. Then again, graphics cards are not AMD main bussniss. They bought ATI to do just this. Unfortunately, it took a year for the culture within the ATI deparment to change to AMD’s sane bussniss practises.

    I for one, welcome our new ATI overlords ;-)

  4. jonathan Says:

    Wow, well said, Meneer R. I too, welcome them. And yes, you’re right, I misread the interview with Mark Shuttleworth, it does indeed seem that they were referring to the new closed drivers.

  5. anonim Says:

    “Intel has been providing specifications to the community for some time now. Now that ATI (now part of AMD) will be doing the same” AFAIK Intel hires Xorg hackers to develop the free intel driver, they develop the source code. ATI says they’ll provide specs. It’s not the same, it’s great to have specs, but code is better.

  6. Jeff Schroeder Says:


    You are actually completely incorrect about Intel. Intel employs x hackers such as Keith Packard to do development of their drivers. They do *not* release specifications for their hardware to anyone. Their ipw3945 wireless driver includes a binary only daemon (the latest version includes a binary blob sans the daemon).

    No, AMD is not doing what Intel did, they are doing more by releasing the specifications. Keep in mind that the specifications are only available under NDA to companies like Redhat and Novell to make drivers, but that is ok.

  7. David Nusinow Says:

    Intel hasn’t provided specs yet, just the driver itself. The driver is clear and well commented, but it’s not a full spec though, so we have to rely on Intel to implement certain new features. If AMD really follows through and releases full specs and funds development of open drivers the way Intel does, they’ll be ahead of the game within a year.

  8. jonathan Says:

    Ah, I assumed that having the free drivers is just as good as having the specifications. I certainly stand corrected! Thanks David, Jeff and anonim for pointing that out!

  9. thebluesgnr Says:

    Until “the specs” are out it’s hard to say. Intel’s drivers *could* be a better document of how their hardware works than ATI’s specs.

    Also, more importantly than the work Intel does on their drivers is that their engineers also work on Xorg, Mesa, etc; that infrastructure is shared by all drivers, including the to-be-written ATI driver.

    Jeff: ipw3945 with a binary daemon is a thing of the past. iwl3945 was released quite a while ago and is already used by default on Fedora and openSUSE (though not Ubuntu for some reason).
    Speaking of which, hopefully AMD will have a standard wireless chipset for their platform. Most laptops with AMD processors ship with WiFi chips that don’t have Free drivers available.

  10. CraigM Says:

    I would have been excited about free drivers for ATI, but I sold my ATI 9600XT card a while back and bought a replacement NVidia card. Open or not, the ATI drivers drove me away from them and into their competitors. I’m all for NVidia opening their drivers and code as a result of ATI opening their drivers and code, but as far as the ATI decision directly affecting me, I’m afraid that time has passed for now. When the ATI drivers surpass the NVidia drivers (and they will, depending on how well ATI plays with the community), then I’ll reconsider an ATI purchase.

  11. SeaMac Says:

    Agreeing with CraigM, I had a 10-year love-affair with ATI, starting with the VGA Wonder and ending with a 9200SE board. It was a progressive downhill slope, ie with Mach32 being grossly incompatible with VESA, Mach64 having blit issues in Win95 and no stable X driver, no 3d driver even today, the R7000VE was stable 3 years after I bought it and performed poorly all the while, the 9200SE went 2 years without X support and crashed Windows XP typically within 1/2 hour of operation, driver shipped with “VPU Recover” daemon for XP which would detect lockups and hard reset the card… they actually shipped it like that, and even promoted the “feature” as something NVidia didn’t have… crash correction. I tried to reach their PR department to let them know how I felt and their email address as advertised on their site was not even set up to receive mail, bounced “no such user”. It will take a lot more than opening up their specs before I will buy or reccommend their products again, in fact it is an embarrassment to me that I promoted them so much in the past.

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