Intel finally fixes their graphics problems

It took way too many years but the impossible is now here

Intel - logoIntel has done something that I never thought they would do, they fixed the root of their graphics problems. No we are not talking about performance, bugs, or even the impending Haswell GT3e/Crystalwell, we are talking about the management problems that made any silicon they offered irrelevant.

For the last five or more years, Intel has been putting out integrated graphics solutions that have ranged from laughable to barely tolerable. Since the Sandy Bridge generation the solutions they offered reached the level of tolerability. Ivy Bridge released the following year increased that to nearly adequate, and the upcoming Haswell, especially in GT3 guise with Crystalwell will finally leap the hurdle into adequacy. They have come a long way since the days of the DX9ish chipsets that almost nearly functioned right.

SemiAccurate has long been critical of the Intel graphics program because of one big problem, their drivers. Over the last few years they have started to take graphics seriously on the hardware side but the drivers have remained a mess especially on the Linux side. For some odd reason, Intel thought drivers were not for users unless they were in source code form.

You might recall the low point that this laughable policy brought with the debut of Sandy Bridge. If you booted Sandy Bridge in any available distro on release you would get a black screen. Intel countered that the drivers to fix this were available mere months after the chip hit the market. If you bought a Sandy Bridge laptop you had a doorstop for many weeks.

But wait Intel countered, mere weeks after the chip came out, barebones drivers with almost no features were proudly launched without any fanfare, publicity, or warning. Conveniently for the user those drivers weren’t actually available on the Intel site, nor were they even linked on the Intel site anywhere. The driver download page didn’t even have references to them. For some unfathomable reason Intel seemed to think this was a sane way to support their customers, who doesn’t relish the thought of building the driver they use from source and resolving dependencies manually? Complaints were met with laughter, straw men, or threats that the only way to change the situation was to situation was to close their open drivers.

If you kept complaining, as SemiAccurate did at every opportunity, they would point out that the source code was all you need. Downloading the source, building the drivers yourself, recompiling the kernel, putting all the files in the right places, editing all the configuration files to recognize them, and resolving all software dependencies yourself is a doodle for the average user, right? Who would have even the slightest problem doing such a trivial task?

If you did all this correctly when you rebooted you might have functional graphics. Not 3D accelerated graphics mind you, just a screen that wasn’t black. What more could you want from your laptop than this? All it took was a day’s worth of work, or a few days, or a week as long as you didn’t hose your install so many times you gave up in frustration. If you weren’t in a hurry, you could continue to use your laptop as a doorstop or handy couch leveling tool until the next distro came out, I know, I did. That would only be six months at the most, then you would get drivers guaranteed to be both old and not updated until the next distro came out. If you are aware of the cadence that chips come out on, two distros equals a new silicon release. If you waited for a second new distro, the next Intel CPU would have been released by that time and it all starts again. Wonderful Catch-22, eh?

Compare and contrast this to AMD and the situation there. There are both closed and open drivers from AMD. The closed ones being far more optimized than the open ones but have all the IP issues that surround proprietary code so the open ones tend to be bundled with distributions. Some have objections to closed code, others do not, but the choice is up to the individual user whether or not they want to download and install them.

If you want to get the proprietary divers, you simply go to the main AMD driver site, pick your product from the drop down list, then pick Linux from the OS choice list. Unlike Intel it is listed. Nvidia’s offerings are about as diametrically opposed to Intel’s as is possible, they have probably the most complete proprietary drivers out there but are as antagonistic to open drivers as is possible.

That said, if you don’t mind proprietary drivers Nvidia has some very good ones.

Since Sandy Bridge the woeful state of Intel drivers has gotten much better and functional drivers are included in the distributions long before the release of new chips. Haswell had support about a year before the chip was released and the processes that were put in to place to do this continue on strongly. Drivers are updated and released on a quarterly basis so all is well in the world, right?

Wrong. The drivers are still only available in source code form, if you have a bug or a problem, you are back to doorstop mode or building everything from scratch on your own. This makes Intel CPUs with graphics an untenable solution for anyone who understands the consequences of having problems and downright laughable on the server front. Until Ivy Bridge you could get an Intel CPU without graphics, but since there is no Ivy without graphics it is untenable top to bottom. Intel is now making noise about GPU compute servers and OpenCL for the data center. How funny do you think a megadatacenter manager will find it when Intel tells him to to wait for the next Linux distro to solve a problem, or barring that, build the drivers from scratch and all the rest?

The cure for these ills was simple enough, Intel puts the code out there for the drivers but they still refuse to put a user accessible build on the web much less acknowledge their existence on the main website. Doing both of these things may not be completely trivial and it may come at some cost, but the builds are available internally so why not just slap them up on the web? Like the rest of the drivers Intel offers there is no support so use them at your own risk and only if you choose, otherwise wait for the distro to support them some time in the future. Maybe. Nothing wrong with having to upgrade your entire OS to fix a driver bug now is there?

No matter what was said and how logical the arguments put forward were, Intel was intransigent. Management didn’t get it nor did they care so this sad state of affairs continued for literally years. Intel crowed about being the second largest code contributor to Linux, how they are the only one with actual open drivers that they support, and how good they were in theory. It was all true on paper but in practice the end-user could only get drivers that were a minimum of six months old, likely buggy, and not optimized. The theory was great but the practical reality made Intel graphics untenable for real world use.

Last Friday SemiAccurate got a call from Intel and they said something the author thought would never happen, they fixed management problems surrounding Linux drivers. There are now compiled drivers on the net at 01.org.

More shocking is that Intel both acknowledges that they exist on the main driver page and, *BLINK*, links them. This has been a battle SemiAccurate has been fighting for literally years and it is now over, Intel is doing all the right things for the right reasons in almost all the right ways. Who would have believe this day would ever come?

Not only that but if this trend continues on like the others Intel will be setting the high bar for open source graphics. Their drivers are still horrifically lacking in supported features compared to other operating systems but the gap is closing fast. They are being optimized farther with each subsequent release and there are no more black screens on new hardware. AMD is comparatively lacking in their open source drivers but notably better with their closed source ones. Nvidia is antagonistic to open source but provides the best closed drivers out there.

So with a single long overdue wave of the hand Intel just set the high bar for graphics drivers, lets hope others see this as a challenge. The author would not have believed it if he was told this day would come in a relevant time frame as late as a week ago. Whatever happened at Intel to cause these changes we welcome it and hope it keeps up. More shocking is that there no longer appears to be a reason to avoid Intel laptops without a discrete GPU. The only down side is that Intel just took away my favorite dead horse to kick but that is a problem I can live with. Well done whoever did whatever you did.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate