Firefox’s Linuxy Hardware Acceleration Problem

Linux and Firefox have long been a winning combination, but recently a snag came up that threw their future into question.

The problem arose with the release of the ninth beta version of Firefox 4, whose hardware acceleration features have been widely anticipated. Those capabilities were evident in the ninth beta, sure enough — but not on Linux.

“We tried enabling OpenGL on Linux, and discovered that most Linux drivers are so disastrously buggy (think ‘crash the X server at the drop of a hat, and paint incorrectly the rest of the time’ buggy) that we had to disable it for now,” wrote Mozilla developer Boris Zbarsky recently in a comment on the Mozilla Hacks blog. “Heck, we’re even disabling WebGL for most Linux drivers, last I checked.”

According to a subsequent update on OSnews, OpenGL has in fact been implemented on Linux, but only the proprietary Nvidia driver has been white-listed so far.

Bottom line? Some Linux campers aren’t very happy with Firefox right about now.

‘Bloat Called Firefox’

“I went for chrome long ago and will never return back to bloat called firefox,” wrote a blogger named “somebody” in the OSnews comments, for example.

Then again: “You complain that a new browser didn’t immediately provide a well-functioning browser for Linux?” countered avgalen. “Ooooh, the irony. Developing Multi-Platform is very difficult especially if you cannot rely on the underlying platform or have cutting edge technology requirements or other platform dependent bits.”

Alternatively: “Until graphics card manufacturers take Linux seriously, these problems are always going to occur,” wrote Burnhard on Slashdot, where a parallel conversation soon arose. “That’s why it’s stupid to use the argument that OpenGL is better than D3D because it’s cross-platform. It’s only cross-platform insofar as there is actually an implementation on Linux. After that, I’m wondering if it’s better to use D3D and Wine instead of native GL!”

‘I Will Stick with Chrome’

Then again: “I used to love ATI cards until I started using Linux,” chimed in Ash Vince. “Then I found the Nvidia driver was far more stable than the ATI drivers by bitter experience. I have never had a single issue with the Nvidia closed source driver in the past 7 years.

“Open source or closed does not matter to me if only one works correctly,” Ash Vince added.

Linux Girl happened to be down at the blogosphere’s Damaged Driver Saloon when news of the Firefox problem broke. She fired up her Quick Quotes Quill and began to gather some opinions.

“I tried the beta and it worked well for me on Debian GNU/Linux,” blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl over a fresh round of Peppermint Penguins. “It was quick enough, but the separate address and search boxes annoyed me. I will stick with Google Chrome for the time being.”

‘It’s Like Taco Bell Syndrome’

Regarding the lack of hardware acceleration, “I think it is only fair to give that other OS a head start,” Pogson added. “After all, it has so many other problems slowing it down: re-re-reboots, malware, bloat, DRM, and phoning home, to name a few.”

There’s “no hardware acceleration for Linux users with broken OpenGL implementations because the X server explodes if you turn it on under Intel or ATI graphics,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza asserted. Hardware acceleration is implemented for Nvidia users, however, “who have working and possibly even compliant OpenGL,” he pointed out.

Intel’s graphics solutions “have always been something of a joke on any OS, and ATI has been kicking out buggy drivers since forever,” Espinoza added. “I had apparently driver-related problems with Mach64 video and I’ve had problems with every ATI card I’ve messed with since.

“For me it’s been like the Taco Bell syndrome, where I go back for disappointment every few years… except I no longer eat at Taco Bell or buy ATI video cards,” he said.

‘Try Submitting Some Bug Reports’

Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack, on the other hand, said he is “not sure who to blame” for the problem.

“I’ve been running a lot of games that use Open GL with no problem, but I tried enabling it on firefox and the Xserver didn’t crash — Firefox did,” he added. “Perhaps instead of publicly whining they could try submitting some bug reports.”

Similarly, “I have seen a lot more instability on X with OpenGL,” noted Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “For example, OpenGL-using games crash or even crash the X server, or they lock up. I do think that has some serious issues here which need to be addressed.”

In fact, “I have seen more driver-caused crashes on Linux (both kernel-mode and user-mode) over the last year than I had in the previous 10,” Travers added. “In these areas, a lot more work needs to be done.”

Still, “it seems to me that WebGL is still in its infancy,” Travers suggested. “If it starts to take off, these problems will no doubt be addressed. I am somewhat optimistic.”

‘Linux Is a Mess’

As far as graphics goes, “Linux is frankly a mess,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told Linux Girl. “X-Server simply wasn’t built for advanced GPU features and honestly shouldn’t even be in a desktop in the first place.

“I mean, how many home users are gonna be remoting into their box using X-Server? There are plenty of better tools for that job, like RDP in Windows and VNC cross platform,” hairyfeet added.

OpenGL, meanwhile — “despite what many FOSS guys think — is more about CAD than hardware accelerated video,” he asserted.

“That is why I’m hoping Shuttleworth will just fork the whole mess away from the direction it has been going and finally give us a ‘Linux for the masses,’ which with his maneuvers of late is what I think he is gonna do,” hairyfeet concluded. “Mobile and hardware acceleration are not just the future but the present, and unless Linux can offer that there is simply no chance of it gaining any real traction.”

‘It’s Still the Network’

Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, wasn’t so sure the issue would be a big one for most users.

“Anyone who’s bought a computer in the last few years probably has enough horsepower ‘under the hood’ to render both the desktop environment and video full-screen in most resolutions without hardware acceleration .. at least until Firefox decides to do some housekeeping and grab 100% of cpu,” Hudson explained.

“Add in those of us who have a supported nvidia chipset, and it looks like the only ones left out in the cold are people who have older, under-powered single-core non-supported machines,” she pointed out.

“Then again, for many, it’s the applications, and ‘HD video’ on the Internet still leaves a lot to be desired,” Hudson noted. “Whether your desktop is rendered via OpenGL is not the problem — it’s still the network, especially the final mile.”

In short, “for pretty much everything including low-resolution video, you don’t need OpenGL support in the browser, and for HD video, you won’t be using a browser unless you’re a masochist,” she concluded. “But if you’re a masochist, you’re probably running Windows anyway.”


  • Only a Linux user would really care about this problem and their really is not that many. Let’s face it, Linux is very much worse then Apple in the 90’s when nobody worried about supporting OS9 really well. The numbers are not great and who really wants to spend that much time worrying about 2% of your browsers user base?

  • Now tell me why Firefox should spend so much time fixing Linux version of Firefox? I mean Windows is where their user base is. I actually think WebKit spends more time on a Linux browser then Firefox. Linux is a after thought to most. It gets the hand me downs.

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