The Linux Build: Part For Penguins (Part 4)

11/19/2012 9:05:27 AM

Testing: value cards

Results were mixed with Intel’s HD 3000. Running Mesa 8.0.2, the Unigine benchmark barely ran, which means many modern games will be impossible to play. We had better luck with Alien Arena, which gave a comfortable 60fps, but we started to form an option that if you want to play games, you’re going to need a proprietary driver. The first Radeon GPU we tested was the HD 6550D integrated GPU on the A8-3850 APU, with version 0.4 of the Gallium open source driver. Desktop performance was good, and accelerated Unity on Ubuntu worked without any problems (as it did on the Intel). Almost as impressively, the Heaven benchmark did run better than Sandy Bridge, which is more than can said for the same demo on our ancient Nvidia 7600GTS, but the rendering was still broken. We watched silhouettes move across the screen at seven frames per second, rather than colourful textures. That’s why we then used the Catalyst proprietary drivers, which we installed manually.

Description: Description: Description: You don’t need a cutting-edge card for Linux gaming

You don’t need a cutting-edge card for Linux gaming

Our next test was with Alien Arena, which ran at a surprisingly low 25fps – more than adequate for a bit of office mayhem, but nowhere near as good as Sandy Bridge. With the Heaven benchmark, however, the proprietary drivers rendered the graphics correctly, and also delivered a benchmark score of 10fps. This might seem low, but when you consider it’s an integrated chipset and the benchmark itself isn’t optimized for playability, it’s a good result. We tried the same test with both Unity 3D and Unity 2D to see if there was any difference when the desktop was using OpenGL, and we found none – proof that the recently-released Unity 5.12 did fix the problems with OpenGL performance. We got a small step up in performance when we tested the Radeon HD 6670 1024MB. Alien Arena was now running at 25.3fps, with a low of 11fps and a high of 46fps. This is a great result for a budget card, and if you opt for the passively cooled version, it would make an ideal option for a Linux games PC and movie player.

Testing: Power cards

This leaves us with the two most powerful cards at our disposal – the Radeon HD6850 1024MB and the Nvidia GTX570. We started with the Radeon, and it was quickly scoring dramatically better results with the Heaven benchmark, returning a value of 46.2fps, minimum 15 and maximum 78.8. Emboldened by this result, we thought we’d try a couple of other tests, firstly with the native (and ancient) version of Darwinia. This ran at an exceptional 160-250fps, which means this card won’t have any difficulty with older games. However, we did experience problems when we then tried Steam. To get Bioshock to work, for example, we had to quit Unity 3D first. But even when it did work, the graphics weren’t rendered correctly. It was better news for Source games, though, as both Half Life 2 and the Lost Coast stress tests yielded good results – the latter running at 47.91fps despite its still spectacular rendering quality. Now we get to the most expensive card in our set, Nvidia’s GTX570 with 1,280 MB of RAM. We first tried it with the open source nouveau drivers, but we had no success running our benchmarks, Darwinia or Steam games, and we guess that if you’re intending to spend a considerable sum on graphics, you’ll want the best possible drivers.

Description: Description: Description: Steam on Linux means the OS is now becoming a viable alternative to Windows

Steam on Linux means the OS is now becoming a viable alternative to Windows

There are other advantages to using Nvidia’s proprietary drivers, too. The custom setting utility, for example, which can be installed alongside the drivers, is a surprisingly powerful tool. You can enable TwinView, which we’ve always found more stable than Xinerama for multiple screens, and switch between various resolutions for each screen without requiring a restart. The Catalyst drivers can do this too, but with Nvidia’s you can also overclock your hardware and monitor the temperatures of your GPU. It’s also quite handy for troubleshooting, and we’ve used the Settings tool to download EDID data from our screens and force other screens to use the same EDID data. With proprietary drivers, the GTX570 was a clear winner. It gave a strong result from the Heaven benchmark, at 66,6fps, and Bioshock ran perfectly from Stream running on Wine, so Nvidia hardware is going the way to go for native version of Steam. As to whether it’s worth the extra money, this depends on how important gaming is to you.


Upgrade your storage to a drive that’s driven only by electrons

While processors, graphics cards, RAM and network connections have all got faster over the years, hard drive technology seems to have moved on very little. Hard disk drives still use mechanical parts, and are therefore among the heaviest, slowest, least reliable and most power-hungry components in a typical computer. SSDs (solid state drives) are changing that though, and are one of the most exciting developments in PC hardware in the past five years.

Description: Description: Description: SSDs (solid state drives) are changing that though, and are one of the most exciting developments in PC hardware in the past five years.

SSDs (solid state drives) are changing that though, and are one of the most exciting developments in PC hardware in the past five years.

In this section, we’re going to look at these miraculous devices. As well as comparing the two drives we have here, we’re going to answer the most common question people have about SSDs: ““ Are they worth it?”, “How long will they last?” and How can I get the best out of mine?””

Are SSDs worth it?

Traditional hard drives contain a spinning disk, which is coated with a magnetic material. This magnetic material gets manipulated by a read/write head as it files over the disk and it what stores the data. In contrast, SSDs have no moving parts. Instead, they’re made of millions of tiny transistors (of the floating gate variety), each one capable of storing one bit of information. Because they have no moving parts, they’re quieter, lighter, more energy efficient, more durable and faster.

This is obviously great if you’re intending to use the drive in a laptop, where space, energy use and noise are all major considerations. The increased speed of the drive will also have a huge impact on PC and application startup times (and any other operation that reads from the disk a lot), and can make your computer feel dramatically quicker.

All of these benefits sound great, but SSDs are not without their downsides, and you should take these into consideration before deciding to invest. Most notably, you can’t buy SSDs that are as large as traditional-style mechanical hard drives, and they’re much more expensive. For example, the Crucial M4 128GB that we have on test costs around $120; the same cash will net you a 2TB hard drive. If you need a lot of space or are on a very tiht budget, an SSd might not be for you.

The answer to the question of whether SSDs are worth it, then, is: “It depends on how you use your computer”.


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