Over the last year, ATI has shocked observers by not only taking the video card performance crown from nVidia, but also keeping it. This trend appears bound to continue for the foreseeable future with the recently released Radeon 9800 that has taken much of the spotlight away from nVidia's card intended to surpass the 9700.
With that reputation and ATI's recent offering of its first proprietary GNU/Linux drivers, we were interested to see if a follow-up driver was in store to provide compatibility with XFree86 4.3, which was released earlier this year. To an extent, ATI's outreach to the Free Software community has already provided support to 4.3, with full support for the Radeon 9700's 2D capabilities already supported in the XFree86 Project's release.
However, 3D acceleration, and by extension, accelerated OpenGL support, has not yet been forthcoming for the newest iteration of XFree included in Mandrake Linux 9.1, Red Hat Linux 9 and SuSE Linux 8.2. To find out what ATI was planning, we contacted the Ontario-based company and had a conversation with their Manager of Developer Relations, Michael Smith.
Smith, who seems understandably excited about the performance of ATI's drivers and hardware, explained the situation to us. On the top of my mind were the quasi-open drivers of nVidia and the Free Software drivers that have come from ATI's cooperation with the community in the past, and so we asked about the likelihood of full Free Software (or quasi-open) support for ATI's flagship cards in the future. According to Smith, the fact that the Radeon 9700 features a programmable architecture makes it highly unlikely that Free Software developers can fully support the driver without ATI releasing specific specifications that could potentially be risky to make available until the technology is no longer as crucial to ATI's competitive edge.
There are also real advantages to ATI's driver being separated from the XFree86 core distribution, Smith asserted, saying that “it's a nightmare for the XFree developers” to keep all of the different modules up-to-date. Practically speaking, he noted, it would be a pain for ATI's customers to have to download XFree CVS or wait for the yearly XFree release cycle to get the latest Radeon driver improvements.
Also important to ATI, apparently, is keeping the driver unified across the board. This is important, Smith said, both for developers working with ATI products and for ATI itself to be able to provide the high performance drivers it makes available for Linux in addition to Windows.
So when will we see this unified driver upgraded to support XFree86 4.3? According to Smith, it could be within a month. In our conversation, he mentioned that they already have the driver working in-house, and that the major hold up had been waiting for the new Red Hat release to be made available (Red Hat Linux 9 was released at the end of March).
That led us to another common question about the ATI drivers — “What about Debian support?” Smith said that for the moment they found that RPM (Red Hat Package Manager format — used by Red Hat, Mandrake and SuSE) was the best way to deliver the driver, but that the company was “open to other models” in the future. Speaking of Debian, it would seem that LindowsOS is the first distribution to actually bundle the proprietary Radeon driver. Those using other variants should breathe easier knowing that ATI is working to get the driver bundled with other distributions in the future as well, although, for the obvious reasons, what distributions may be getting the driver couldn't be revealed just yet.
So which driver is best for business applications? Smith said that for most purposes the Radeon driver included with XFree86 is probably equal to the proprietary driver for non-3D purposes. Still, with potentially exciting new OpenGL concepts surfacing just this past week, we tend to think that the ATI driver could be useful for enterprise deployment sometime in the future, even if your organization isn't in a computer graphics related industry.
And, of course, what keeps employee moral higher than a nice OpenGL screensaver?