Worrying trend in open-source graphics drivers

It is not so long ago that one could get high-end notebooks with integrated Intel graphics — not the most performant hardware, but with decent[1] open-source drivers directly supported by the manufacturer. Yet when I did a precautionary replacement purchase for my laptop a few months ago, the situation has changed — unless you opt for the business laptops, you either get Intel on the low-end (no Core for you) or AMD/nVidia on the higher end. There are exceptions, but not many. Dell, the company that previously allows you to tweak virtually anything, now does not offer graphics card options for its Studio line-up, at least in Germany. The Sony Vaio E-series, which I purchased, is no longer produced with an Intel card.

Open source drivers for AMD (née ATi) and nVidia cards are improving — and one is grateful for AMD to actually cooperate with open-source developers with documentation and technical help, but at the moment one is caught in a three-way bind: buy Intel and be stuck on the low end (or very limited vendor choices), buy nVidia and get great proprietary drivers and good open source drivers, but supporting the company with the most FLOSS-unfriendly business practices, or buy AMD/ATi and have good-ish proprietary drivers (provided one downgrades one’s Linux install or at least the X components) and so-so (but improving) open source drivers. Being stuck in the latter camp, I was running the open-source Radeon driver, which currently has no DRI support for the Radeon HD 5400 series (no gnome-shell. Not even gthumb, nowadays!) — but then noticed that an older problem might be resurfacing itself — that my graphics card is not being throttled down, contributing to the awful (~ 1 hr) battery life on Linux. That’s about the last straw one can take: my old netbook has snazzier graphics and better battery life[2] than my new notebook!

Going to try the newly-updated proprietary Catalyst driver, coupled with a downgraded X installation from Fedora 12, and see how it goes. Will report my experience here — and recuse myself from submitting X and kernel bug reports until the next version of X comes out and hopefully make the situation less painful.

First time in many, many years using proprietary graphics drivers, but I’m not killing my battery and my hearing (the fans are rather loud) over this.

[1] ports to new APIs tend to introduce periods of instability and performance regressions, but overall the impression is positive
[2] after close to two years, battery capacity just dropped precipitously to ~ 30% of the original, so it’s now getting a new — and higher-capacity — replacement. This is probably the last upgrade — there better be a dual-core, 2 GHz+ netbook out by the time the new battery fails (or a well-supported, affordable ARM smartbook), and it better has SSD options (Dell, what happened to your great Mini 9 SSD deal?)