Back in 2002, if you were a hip PC gamer you were probably playing Grand Theft Auto Vice City on your brand new ATI Radeon R300 graphics card and listening to Avril Lavigne's "Sk8r Boi." Now that sk8r boi is probably a sk8r grandpa, the R300 is getting a new driver with a long-awaited bug fix.
According to Phoronix, the ATI Radeon R300, R400, and R500 graphics cards are getting a new open-source graphics driver under Linux that will breathe extra life into these near 20-year-old GPUs. The new open-source driver is made by developer Emma Anholt, and is designed to give these GPUs the ability to request NIR shaders from the Mesa 3D graphics library's state tracker and use the NIR to TGSI path.
NIR is an optimizing compiler stack that sits at the core of driver shader compilers from Mesa. Basically, it's an optimization layer that tries to reduce the amount of work a GPU has to do when running 3D applications.
This means these old graphics cards will get a boost to gaming performance, and faster loading times of games. But, with how old these cards are, don't expect them to run today's latest titles at any playable frame rates due to the hardware limitations of these near 20-year-old cards. But for people that run older games, this new driver should provide a nice boost to GPU performance overall.
To demonstrate just how old these GPUs are, the R500 graphics cards, also named the X1000 series were launched in 2007 and were built on a huge 90nm process. The flagship card at the time, the ATI Radeon X1800 XT could only achieve 83 Gflops of performance (with a G). It's a far cry from today where the best graphics cards, like the RTX 3090, can achieve over 35 TFlops.
Phoronix also notes that there's the possibility of restricting NIR to just the R500 series of ATI graphics cards since the R300 and R400 cards are more hardware limited. Though this is not confirmed and is just an idea being discussed for now.
Anholt is hoping to get this driver released by the time Mesa 22.0 comes out, but additional community testing is desired to ensure the driver is stable.
It does not appear that this is accurate. What was the bug? Aaron's article doesn't say.
Isn't this a performance optimization utilizing the newer NIR and not a bug fix?
The goal of this "new" work is not to develop a new driver, but to reduce maintenance cost by migrating the older Ati R300->R500 driver to a newer shader processing backend that's also used by other Mesa drivers (such as AMD R600, the newer Intel drivers etc.), in line with Mesa's decision to fork out several very old drivers that couldn't be integrated into the current Gallium3D's architecture : most were drivers that didn't even support 3D acceleration, in short if they didn't support shader compilation they were out. R300 made the cut because it is, actually, the oldest driver that supports shader compilation - but like any old code, it has its cruft, like its specific shaders backend.
It just happens that this new backend gives better performance and is easier to debug, exposing the EXISTING WineD3D bug and thus allowing the workaround to be developed - as such the developers are rather excited about it.
This is why there is so much activity on it, as it's the "perfect" bug : reduce overall code base, improve performance and stability and the cherry on top, testing for it allows one to dig out old hardware to play around with it some more.
Yes, that's one advantage of OSS. "Obsolete" hardware may get a 2nd, 3rd... life if someone, somewhere wants to write/update the driver(s) for it for whatever reason. The logic here is totally foreign to commercial support logic.
Old graphics cards can also be useful for low cost SOHO/start-up servers (using off the shelf consumer hardware vs. actual server hardware) where graphical performance is not a factor. Usually you administrate such a server via SSH or a Web GUI but if necessary or for convenience a local GUI can be useful by adding an antique graphics card that is good enough for such purpose.
LOL, but give them a Nth chance for the next 36 months :)
Compared to a not so remote past, they are now actually reading Phoronix (for Linux) and cnx-software (for SBC). For SBC, they have quasi stopped to write "Raspberry-like" or "Raspberry competitor" in the title when talking about a new single board computer. It's a huge improvement...