Since I'm doing the Linux thing, I'm going to start writing more informational articles describing handy tips that I feel are useful. If you read my last post, you'd know I'm now using a Debian GNU/Linux system that has an Nvidia video card.
Video has always been a bit of a sore spot in the Linux and Unix world. It wasn't until the late 1980's that Unix systems even had a graphical subsystem (XWindows, as it is still known). Even today, the hardest part of bringing up a useable Unix-based system is getting the video adapter to work with XWindows. Today, most systems use a fork called Xorg.
While it would seem that the only video card you can buy will either contain an Nvidia or ATI chip, that's not entirely true. It is interesting (at least to someone like me) that Nvidia graphics cards are more often seen on Linux-based systems and ATI-based cards are more often seen in the BSD world (Free/Net/Open). Probably just a coincidence, but when I read forum posts, that's what I tend to see. Since we're talking about Linux in this article, let's get down to the business of installing some accelerated drivers for our Nvidia-based card.
One of the first places to look is the Nvidia Driver Debian wiki. Per the wiki, there are two ways to install the driver. The first method is the Debian method, which, while it may be easier, it also may be lagging behind driver versions. I chose the second method, which involves downloading the driver binary from Nvidia's website and manually installing it. There are a few caveats, namely that it's possible to screw up the install, not work, or require a reinstall if you upgrade your kernel since the driver compiles a kernel module. I didn't run into any installation problems but I would imagine that I'd have some difficulties if I upgraded my kernel. Nothing terrible to worry about though.
One thing to note is that driver availability for older Nvidia cards (made before 2005) is probably non-existant. So while you can probably get by using the generic VESA driver, you probably will no longer be able to use the latest Nvidia driver and therefore the 3D acceleration. See this section on the Debian Nvidia wiki for more info.
First, download the driver from here: driver download. Do remember that this driver is a propriatary, closed source driver. If that offends you, you should probably stop here. My understanding is that there is an open source Nvidia driver on the way so if you don't need 3D acceleration (obviously you haven't tried Compiz Fusion), this article isn't for you. I'm willing to bit the bullet and install a non-free driver for the sake of fully utilizing my hardware and will certainly move to the open source version when it shows up.
Next, you'll want to download your kernel source. Actually, I got by just getting the header files. Open your favorite terminal and type 'sudo apt-get install linux-headers-2.6-686'. If you don't have the sudo program installed (and you SHOULD), just su to root and issue the apt-get command again without the sudo part. I'm assuming you're running a 2.6 kernel on 686 hardware. Most people should no longer be running an i386 kernel.
Now for the fun part. You might want to write this down or open this article on another machine. To install the driver, you need to fully exit your X session. No, you can't open a terminal session from GDM. I'm particularly lazy, so I just rebooted into single user mode. Either way, you need to completely get out of X and be at a root prompt. Change to the directory where you downloaded the driver and chmod it to 755 if needed. Now run it, ignoring the runlevel error. Accept the license. You may get an error about the version of GCC installed on your system not matching what was used to compile the kernel. Do NOT just ignore this. Exit the installer. In my case, GCC 4.1 was used to compile my kernel so I just did a '#apt-get install gcc-4.1'. Next, you'll want to export the location, so first do a 'which gcc-4.1'. In my case, I did a 'export CC=/usr/bin/gcc-4.1'. Now rerun the installer. You should be good to go from here. The installer will build a custom kernel module, back up and modify your X config, and tell you if things have completed successfully. If that's the case, exit the installer and reboot!
Once I was back up I did a test by running Doom3 and was happily surprised to see it come right up. I have to admit, it's nice to run a system with no proprietary drivers, but I can't complain that Nvidia is gracious enough to provide a driver. After all, they don't have to since the majority of their customers are on a Windows system and developing and testing a Linux driver takes resources from that. So I say kudos to Nvidia for making a solid driver that installs easily and just works!
As anyone who has known me knows, I'm definitely a Mac user. I've used Apple hardware on and off since the Apple II days. The first Mac I actually bought, however, was a G4 tower. Most of the time before that was spent hating Apple and suffering in a Windows world.
This went on until a good friend took the time to show me what his G3 could actually do. Of course, back then, Mac OS 8 was the de facto OS and Mac OS X was still a research project. I initially resisted but started liking what I saw enough to say "I want one!". It was then that I bought my first Macintosh, a 400 Mhz PowerPC G4 PowerMac. It came with 64 MB of RAM, an 2x AGP ATI video card with 16 MB of RAM and a whopping 20 GB hard drive. It also came with the venerable 400 MHz PowerPC 7400 (G4) processor with the AltiVec "Velocity Engine" vector processing unit and 1 MB of backside cache. This CPU smoked any Intel Pentium 3 at the time and was classified by the U.S. Government as a supercomputer since it was capable of at least a Gigaflop of performance. Another nifty component this machine has is a gigabit Ethernet interface. No other PC I can remember at that time (we're talking late 1999, early 2000) had that and most didn't have an Ethernet interface (56k was still the bomb-diggity). Needless to say, for $1599, this was a very nice Macintosh.
I endured many months of ridicule but really enjoyed my G4. One very interesting point was that the Playstation emulator, Connectix Virtual Game Station, actually ran Playstation games on my G4 faster than a Playstation! I continued to love my G4 until I decided it was time to go back to school.
At that point, I got my first Apple notebook, the Powerbook G4 Titanium 867. It basically had double the specs of the PowerMac. I wound up selling my PowerMac to a friend that needed a new machine which I thoroughly regret to this day. I had been running Mac OS X 10.0, then 10.1 on the PowerMac with Mac OS 9 "Classic" alongside it. The PowerBook came with Mac OS X 10.2 "Jaguar" and it was a rather large bump in speed from earlier releases as well as actually having software to use.
Shortly before graduation in 2004 I bought a shiny new PowerMac G5 (Dual 2.0) as well as a 23" Apple flat panel (graduation present to myself of course!). It had easily six to ten times the speed of my notebook and is what I currently still have. Not planning on selling it and making the same mistake twice!
Since that time, a subtle but continuous shift has been going on with the direction Apple has taken its business. Back when Mac OS X debuted, Apple was very gung-ho about it's core business: selling Macs. It also had a miniscule share of the overall PC market, so it was still playing catch up after the success of the iMac line. Development of new hardware and Mac OS X happened at a frenzied pace, as evidenced by all the announcements of cool new technology. This continued to happen until around 2006, when the iPod really started becoming a large part of Apple's revenue. Then the iPhone debuted in 2007. And there was the Apple TV. Suddenly, Apple is no longer a PC maker and is instead a consumer electronics maker. They even dropped "Computer" from their name.
I started noticing many changes to what were Apple's core business: Macs and Mac OS X. Now there's nothing but tie-ins to the iTunes store or some other non-PC product or service. New notebooks now have HDCP built in to appease Hollywood in its neverending quest to make water not wet. Everything Apple does surrounds the iPod line or the iPhone now. People say it's supposed to be a halo effect to get you to buy a Mac but I call bullshit on this one. If Apple can sell an iPhone to someone who just wants to make phone calls, they will. There's no indication at the AT&T store that you should also own a Macintosh to get the best experience. Apple is now the new Sony: a consumer electronics behemoth that does much, but nothing very well in particular. Their OS is now comparable to Windows: a tiny portion of it is engineered to get stuff done and the rest is engineered to get in your way and wrest control of your computer from you. And resist as I could, I just couldn't stay away. Until now.
For the past several months, I've been evaluating more than one Free/Open source operating system for use as a replacement. After lots of time spent on all three, I wound up settling on Debian GNU/Linux. Why? Because Debian is a very mature and actively developed distribution of Linux. I tried Ubuntu for a month and a half and it just feels like it's got more "stuff" than I need. I presume this is for handholding new Linux users. It would appear that I'm not the only one getting a little more than sick of the way Apple treats its power users. Two "A-list" bloggers (gawd I hate that word), Mark Pilgrim and Cory Doctorow, are also former Mac users and for very much the same reasons I am (only they did it 3 years ago).
I've used Linux plenty in the past, first installing Red Hat 5.1 on an old 486 back in the day and even managing to get X windows to bend to my will. Today's Linux distros are nothing like that. Everything just kind of works and the stuff that doesn't isn't so hard to fix. I would place the hardware support in Linux about where Windows 98 was: if it works, it works, but if not, prepare to get dirty. To that end, I built a pretty nice box:
* Intel Quad Core Q6600 CPU
* 2 GB PC-8500 DDR 2 RAM
* 1 TB Seagate SATA hard disk
* Nvidia GeForce 9500 GT video card with 1GB RAM
* Gigabyte EP45-DS3l motherboard
* Logitech wireless mouse, wired keyboard
* Repurposed LaCie Big Disk Extreme 500GB Firewire 800 drive
* PCI express Firewire 800 card
* Dual layer DVD burner
By today's standards, these specs are probably a mid-range Windows Vista machine. Yet, by running Debian, I get spectacular performance, no annoying product tie-ins, and best of all, my operating system does what I want and nothing more (yes, that's you, DRM). In layman's terms, this means I control my computer at all times instead of being forced to prop up an entire industry dedicated to preventing me from doing what I want with the stuff I've got. For those of you with entirely too much time (hey, you've made it this far), read here about what goes into ensuring you can't "pirate" content on Windows Vista.
As a parting note, it was nice to build a PC again after a 4 year hiatus. I got all that hardware for less than the cost of a Mac mini and it's certainly more capable. I was rather shocked at just how cheap and powerful PC hardware has become as of late. Since I didn't have to buy a PC and pay the Windows tax, I also saved more cash. And in these times, that's certaintly a good thing. Next time I'll post a list of what apps I'm using so any Linux enthusiasts out there can compare and contrast.
So long Apple, it was fun while you were a PC company.