Monday, November 19, 2007

The problems with ATI graphics and Ubuntu 7.10

I've had a Sapphire ATI X1950 Pro video card for over 30 days now, and it's crossed my mind more than once to send it back to Newegg and get an nVidia replacement. The greatest annoyance with ATI are the drivers, and considering that this graphics chip (R570) and the card itself have been on the market for over a year, there is essentially no excuse for the continuing problems trying to get the card to do its best either under Windows XP or Linux. That's not to say the card is particularly bad. When it works it works beautifully. But getting it to work is a royal PITA. Trying to get it to work under Linux, either openSUSE 10.3 or Ubuntu 7.10, only adds insult to injury.

I finally got the latest Linux ATI driver (8.42.3) installed, built and running by following (for the most part) specific Gutsy instructions on the Unofficial ATI Linux Driver Wiki. I'd like to make one thing perfectly clear. Do not, I repeat, do not install the default ATI drivers via the restricted repository. In fact, using Synaptic, uninstall linux-restricted-modules- if they're on the system at all. Completely. Then follow the second half of the instructions linked to above. That was the only way that I could get the latest ATI drivers to work. The problem with this striction is if you have a system that depends upon another 'restricted' driver (such as for wireless networking). I have no helpful suggestion for you there.

One more warning. Steer clear of Envy. It may work for older versions of Ubuntu, but it's nothing but trouble for 7.10. It knows nothing about the latest version of the ATI driver. In the process of foolishly using Envy it corrupted my driver installation. In order to recover I had to re-install the ATI DEB files and re-run the driver build process from the command line before I could get back to a graphical desktop.

After finishing installation and after properly configuring the system I was able to enjoy all the pretty eye Compiz Fusion candy you see on YouTube and other locations. I then started to do some basic OpenGL testing and ran into immediate problems. The example below compares glxgears running without and with Compiz effects.

As you can see there's definitely a problem with OpenGL. Not only with glxgears, but fgl_glxgears, Google Earth, JOGL-based apps (WorldWind Java, for example), even OpenGL-based Ubuntu screen savers such as Skyrocket. Incredible corruption and application instability hits when effects are enabled, and when the screen saver fires up, the whole desktop becomes unstable and literally unusable, requiring [Ctrl][Alt][Backspace] and a re-login to get things back to near-normal.

As you've guessed by now I have effects disabled. I can live without Compiz. The few features I'd really like from Compiz, such as the nice shadowing around the windows, I can really live without if I have to. I've gone to the trouble to install Nodoka from Fedora 8, and that gives me a nice UI, much nicer than what comes stock on Ubuntu. Nodoka 'compensates' for the lack of enabled Compiz effects. Maybe, between now and the release of Ubuntu 8.04, the ATI drivers and the upstream windowing manager will mature further, especially when using advanced ATI graphics boards.

A Proposal

If the Debian/Ubuntu developers are going to continue to insist that the restricted modules system be used, then they should extend it to make it easier to know about alternative drivers, especially latest-and-greatest. A good place to start IMHO would be to add a new keyword to the linux-restricted-modules-common file in /etc/default. For example, consider a new keyword, ALTERNATE_drivername, and how it might be used:
In this hypothetical example I've told the restricted module manager where to find my specific driver, and to use it instead of the default in volatile. Yes, it breaks on updates, but it's a start and far simpler than all the fruitless gyrations I've read about in forums and via Google trying to get an alternative driver shoe-horned into the system.

Now before you comment, right now, under Ubuntu 7.10, there is no way to just drop the latest fglrx driver into the volatile folder (/lib/modules/2.6.22-14-generic/volatile) because the volatile folder gets wiped and rebuilt on every reboot. Oh, if it were only that simple. That's why I propose the ALTERNATE_ keyword. Who knows. Maybe somebody will think it's a good idea, too, and act on it.


An older story by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, "ATI releases Catalyst 7.10 drivers for Linux desktops", talks about the current driver release and in particular states the the following:
The AIGLX support isn't quite ready for prime time. "We've still have to do a bit more testing before we officially support AIGLX in Catalyst, but in the meantime we wanted to provide the Linux community with a preview, to let everyone know that it is coming soon," said a developer for ATI, headquartered in Markham, Ontario.
They're right about one thing. I don't have the xgl server running, and I'm quite happy for that. And I can attest to the drivers not being "quite ready for prime time." So I guess I'll wait until the next release, which I sincerely hope is before the end of the year. And I can vouch for the performance of the latest drivers. I'm getting the fastest graphic performance under OpenGL I've ever gotten on old europa.


  1. Actually, I got the very same card, and it works beautiful under windows xp and under ubuntu 7.04 - it doesnt work under 7.10 - so, guess whom to blame? ATI or ubuntu?^^

  2. Actually, your comment fits in with my own experiences and thoughts with regards to openSUSE 10.2 and 10.3, as well as Ubuntu 7.04 and 7.10. It's not just the video card difference, but other problems. I feel that older versions of both distributions are better, and both share the same up-stream updates to their X windowing system. So If I 'blame' anybody I blame them.

  3. I just installed Ubuntu 7.10 last night and had constant problems with the on-board ATI Radeon xpress 200 graphics card and drivers. And was unable to get the ATI driver install to work. I will follow your directions for installation. Thanks for your help on this.

  4. Finally someone has recommended to not install the restricted drivers. I've been reading through all the Ubuntu forums and trying everything to get my nvidia card to work on 7.10 and I've had no luck at all.

  5. hi
    i have been trying to install ubuntu gutsy for long time , but every time i start the live cd it gets stuck when it starts loading , giving me a msg "failed to load your x server your graphical user interface " , can you help me with this please .
    P.S i have an ATI radon 2000 express on board , and it is restricted driver on 7.04 i wasn't even able to start the desktop effects with it
    Thanks .

  6. The only option open to you is to select "Start Ubuntu in safe graphics mode." This will give you a basic graphics screen from which to work. If that doesn't work then the only alternative left is to select "Install in text mode", which defeats the purpose of a modern graphics-oriented OS these days.

  7. i have a ATI Radeon Xpress 200M on board graphic works fine on windows.(at least for the applications i run)
    i use opensuse 10.2 .i followd the instructions on the opensuse wiki page and i was able to install the drivers.they are working fine.when 10.3 was released i hopped the same will hold good for it.....but when i installed 10.3 the graphic driver failed completely and i was only able log into os in the text mode.neither startx nor stardkde worked.these were even before i installed the graphic driver.i tried installing the new driver but with out i had no option but to stick with 10.2.i tried all the options fail safe mode, and nothing seems to work....

  8. Hi guys,
    Ive got a great pc with a suprb graphics card it even run crises and call of duty 4 but i dont know what my ghraphics chipset is can any body help. I installed ubuntu 7.10 i cant get compiz fusion to work or any desktop effects im only leting it use a gig of ram i donno wats gone wrong with my pc or is just dogy linux acting up again does any body know how i can get my desktop effects to work. and how would i get compiz fusion to work. guys i raely need help.


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