Free Software Friendly Graphics Card

October 23rd, 2004 by Crusader

Tech Source’s Timothy Miller wrote into the Linux Kernel Mailing Listearlier this week topitch his idea for a graphicscard specifically for open source systems:

This means full disclosure on all register interfaces so that no one has todeal with anything closed source (BIOS included). The goal here is to producea graphics card which is a Free Software geek’s dream in terms of openness. IfTech Source (me being its avatar) can develop a relationship with the Linux(and BSD) community, users and developers can get a product that they wantwithout being locked out by hardware vendors that feel they have to protectevery last little bit of IP relating to their products. The EXPRESS PURPOSE ofthis product is to be free-software-friendly.

The reason this idea came up is because I, as a user of Linux, am oftenfrustrated by the lack of open-source support for graphics cards which are not”pre-owned”. Sure, SOME companies release specs so that we can develop opensource drivers, but those cards tend to be prohibitively expensive, slowerthan their cheaper counterparts from ATI or nVidia, and they STILL don’tdocument the internals of the BIOS so that the card can be ported to a non-x86system. Furthermore, since all these vendors focus exclusively on Windows,they don’t give much help to open source developers who may produce driverswhich work but which are sub-optimal in performance or stability. (Here, Ihave to make the obligatory CYA statement that there is nothing wrong withtheir business models — it’s just unfortunate for Linux users.)

So, here are some questions to answer:

(1) Would the sales volumes of this product be enough to make it worthproducing (ie. profitable)?
(2) How much would you be willing to pay for it?
(3) How do you feel about the choice of neglecting 3D performance as apriority? How important is 3D performance? In what cases is it not?
(4) How much extra would you be willing to pay for excellent 3Dperformance?
(5) What’s most important to you, performance, price, orstability?

Thanks to Slashdotfor the heads up.

So, the topic for discussion is: if such a card were developed, would you beinterested in using it for gaming (even if the performance was below par) overthe closed-source cards from the larger vendors?

There’s been additional discussion on the LKML regarding this proposal; the thread can be found here.

23 Responses to “Free Software Friendly Graphics Card”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    While it sounds like an interesting idea, I have to say no. I personally have no problem with Nvidia’s (or ATI’s) closed source system of driver development. Windows users don’t get the source code to the Windows drivers and I see no reason to expect different treatment just because I choose to use an open source OS.

    Moreover any card developed today wouldn’t be able to be “free software friendly” and still be able to meet neccessary performance standards because most of the technology neccessary to meet those speed standards is locked up in someone’s IP chest somewhere. While I applaud anyone who wants to do anything “for the greater good”, I would have to question the feasibility of a project like this. There are already several “open source” CPU designs available but outside of a few hardcore Computer Engineering nerds no one uses them. So the possibility exists, it’s just not very plausible.

    I know that I would surely choose something from Nvidia or even ATI over an open sourced card because, in all likelyhood, the cost of the OS card is going to be extremely high and it wouldn’t even meet performance standards of one of the mid-range cards from either of the the big two.

  2. Jestrzcap Says:

    Absolutely I would want to use it for gaming. Desktop performance is important (dual monitors as well). In order for me to consider purchasing it it would need to run as well as my GeForce 4 Ti4200. I -would- spend $200 to replace a perfectly good video card to replace it with a functional “open source” alternative however.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I am afraid not… I spent ~400$USD on my 6800 recently, and I don’t think any “open source friendly” gfx card could compete with it, even for a similairly high price…

    As far as I’m concerned teh nVIDIA drivers for linux & freebsd are as good as what they offer for windows(or close enough).

  4. salsadoom Says:

    huh. Its a nice idea, but frankly, as a gamer .. 3D performance is the only thing I care about beyond linux compatibility. Making it open source would be great for some people, but honestly, if it wasn’t open source -and the fastest in linux- I wouldn’t buy one whatever the cost.

    Having bad FPS in games just kills the fun to much for it to be any other way. Now — if your card was the fastest -in linux- that’d be different or at least competative within a few (ie, 1-3 tops) fps..


  5. Anonymous Says:

    I would be willing to pay 15% premium for mid-range “open” video over the price of [b]equivalently performing[/b] propriatory card if it is just rock stable.
    And yes, I’d use it for gaming too. Not for this year’s blockbusters though..

  6. Anonymous Says:

    So a guy had a dream about an open source video card. Neat.

  7. ashridah Says:

    By the time this question even becomes meaninful, it’ll probably be several years in the future. There’d have to be a current *at the time* featureset on the card, it’d have to perform within 10% or so of other similarly priced cards, and the drivers would have to be decent. Personally, i’ve got no problems sacrificing driver openness for performance. the game i play are all closed as well, and the kernel isn’t really that special.


  8. Anonymous Says:

    Do a soundcard that will work with teamspeak too.

    I thought maybe some day a linux loving university would have the engineering students build a vid card and sound card with complete open sourceness but i still wait.

    I would design this card so you could add more
    chips like powerVR was supposed to or like voodoo sli except maybe have 8 chips on the die so that they could divide the screen up for rendering speed. Don’t do the new nv sli and don’t do ati maxxx.

    Have header pins for connecting 3d activated
    cold cathode/leds/etc.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Good luck getting the funding for this one…

  10. Anonymous Says:

    The Voodoo4/5/6+ was supposed to be just such a card. I shelled out $400
    for a v5 5500 based on promises by 3dfx to release specs. They constantly
    put off the release of the specs on flimsy excuses, eventually selling all
    of their IP to nVidia and dashing all hopes of ever getting info (even the
    V3 documentation that they did provide is incomplete and buggy, but still
    betther than nothing, I suppose). After trying for a while to get the 2nd
    GPU working without documentation, I finally gave up on the card and bought
    a radeon. Not that it’s any better, other than performance wise, seeing as
    how you still can’t get specs without NDA (which is probably part of why
    HyperZ, hardware FSAA, and other features of the cards are not supported by
    the free drivers). I used to refuse to put a piece of hardware in my
    machine that was not documented well enough for me to write a driver for it
    for whatever reason, but those days are gone.. Now I regularly run
    motherboards with chipsets whose documentation is only available under NDA
    (yes, that’s right, the driver for your IDE interface was probably developed
    under NDA), a sound card whose documentation was mostly reverse engineered
    and still not complete in some places, USB and PCMCIA hardware that can only
    be supported in “compatibility mode” (e.g. no power saving or encryption
    features for wireless HID devices), etc. I don’t know why people constantly
    harp on the video cards; it’s everything. Having the source isn’t enough,
    either, since you can’t exactly fix anything or add support for anything
    without proper hardware documentation.

  11. TheGreenKnight Says:

    I have a dual boot machine, so my NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti 4600 works extremely well under Linux and any M$ sh*t that I occassionally have to resort to using.

    If such an open gfx card was made available, would it be for Linux users only or everyone?

    If it’s just for Linux users, no company would invest in a product solely for this market. Plus they wouldn’t be able to compete with the R&D of NVIDIA and ATI resulting in a substandard product.

    Personally I’m quite happy with NVIDIAs closed source drivers.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    i would really appreciate an open video card, but it is definitely important, that it has good 3d capabilities and support for shader etc.
    not to forget hardware overlays for video etc.

    and one more important thing: at least there should be a version, which would be for notebooks and maybe pda, because this is, where i personally see most of the future playing on – i am a constant notebook user for 2 years now, and there is no reason for me going back to desktop.

    i still need some routing infrastructure at home, although those nice little linux embedded ap with dsl-capabilities do work fine.

    next thing is the power consumption and heat production, which got scary in modern systems in my opinion.

    i even could think of a loadable card bios which would include the x-interface on gpu as well as a windows gdi-version in eprom for those who like an open product with windows as well…

    and maybe the card should just get a hyper fast risc cpu for running mesasoftware rendering ….

  13. Anonymous Says:

    I’m sick of low fps under linux such as games like enemy territory and doom 3 with a card that should give me smooth fps…

    For all you people bagging it out this idea, im sick to death of you all. go to hell! SUPPORT IT!! this is a great idea, it could lead to great things :D i would pay twice as much as i paid for my brand new radeon 9700 pro for something like this.

    thank you Timothy Miller!

  14. bobcat Says:

    I’d buy one if it cost and performed equally well as a nVidia card. But it has to be solid. I do play alot of games and I want speed and reliability. But would I switch to a lower performing card that cost more just because it’s open sourced? -no-

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Open Source graphics card. Yup. Want it now. Can I have it for Christmas? Can’t wait to test some of my own little optimisations…

  16. LBJM Says:

    (2) How much would you be willing to pay for it?

    $300 if it has 3d
    (3) How do you feel about the choice of neglecting 3D performance as a priority? How important is 3D performance? In what cases is it not?

    I would not be buying this card if you want a good 2d card use matrox.
    (4) How much extra would you be willing to pay for excellent 3D performance?

    I would not pay extra I would only buy the card if it had 3d faster than others out there under linux.

    (5) What’s most important to you, performance, price, or stability?

    performance and stability then price.

  17. glokraw Says:

    I’d bet on either a. getting it done in India, and or China, or b. adding up in some sensible way the
    total number of linux users, who would pay for
    a much better driver. Of course, we all pay for
    wintel drivers up front when we buy a card, so the
    idea of paying again is a bit of nuisance, but if
    real dialogue could begin with one or both of the
    biggies, discussing needs, features, and costs etc, I think a reasonable price and time frame could be set. I have no clue how much nVidia makes or loses
    on linux support, but if it were me, I’d make the
    next release at least 10% faster than windoze, demo it as such in public on identicle hardware, and put a $30 sticker on the box…then let the
    chips fall where they may…

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Any chance these products might want to work with the community? They already have hardware, I think they’re just looking for a market. It’s pretty damn crowded in with ATI & Nvidia out there in the windows world.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    I see several possibilities for this kind of card, specifically in pre-loaded systems where an OK graphics card that requires no hassel 3d is essential. As gamers, most of us will scream for performance, but for your basic wal-mart customer who wants to pick a pre-loaded linux machine off the shelf and have rock-solid stability with no hassel then I see this as a viable option. I’m sure Dell or HP (or whoever is currently marketing pre-installed linux PCs) would love this kind of thing.

    just my 2 cents.

  20. bdove Says:

    3D is must if you whant to target avarage desktop user.
    But I would be willing to get less 3D performance (compared to nvidia) if the card would be well supported with open drivers (usually means great stability).

  21. Anonymous Says:

    Isn’t Manticore something like this ?

    Doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2002 though.

  22. Anonymous Says:

    I want stability, price, performance. Only very mildly care about the source if the binary drivers work well. Having a vendor that tracks changes to the OpenGL standards and delivers good drivers is more important than having a hackable driver, or even cutting-edge hardware (which is only as good as its drivers)…

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