What Linux means for the Consumer - Drivers, Open Source and Support

When a consumer installs a Linux system, this has various consequences for him, which are sometimes hard to estimate at first. I've written a little summary touching the differences to Windows and Mac OS X in drivers, open source and support.

Drivers
Linux is not yet as far spread as Operating Systems like Windows or Mac OS X. This means that hardware corporations which have little money or skilled staff usually don't publish their own Linux driver and ship it along with the hardware when you buy it. In short: There currently is usually no driver disk for Linux.

But that's not really as a big a problem as it seems at first. One point is that - especially if the poor or skill lacking company is smart and publishes detailed product specifications - drivers are often written by the community. This has the disadvantage that it takes longer and when a device is first release, there is not usually no driver ready yet.

But it also has several advantages: Once drivers are written, they are usually open source. For the advantages, see below in my next point. And the drivers eventually are often better and more extensive than the drivers delivered by the hardware manufacturer. E.g. the bttv drivers of my TV card worked much better and longer than their Windows counterparts. And there was even an additional driver not present in Windows for a sound chip on the TV card to digitalize TV and line input sound up to a rate of 192 Khz -- for a TV card produced in 199X! My current sound card - using the snd-hda-intel driver - for some reason has a significantly better sound in Linux than in Windows, where it pretty much lacks any bass.

A huge advantage is the common API of drivers. In Windows every manufacturer writes his own drivers with their own API, and their own software to use the API. E.g. A DVB-T digital TV card has a Windows driver, and a special decoding and recording software for each and every single card. Sometimes the main chip and driver comes from the same manufacturer for several cards. But it's still often difficult if possible at all to use another software than the one supplied by the manufacturer.

In Linux, there is a common DVB interface. This means you can not only use the same software for all DVB-T receivers, you can even often use the same for DVB-T(errestrial), DVB-S(atellite), and DVB-C(abel). And it makes perfect sense that instead of tens of quickly written (and often buggy) different applications for different cards, you have a selection of a few really good programs. (E.g. Tvtime and others for analog, Kaffeine and others for digital reception -- and I mean for all supported ones).

In Windows, if there is a new group of popular hardware, like WIFI or Digital TV adapters, you need to wait for Microsoft to release a common API and hope they do. That's likely to happen only in the next Windows Version (e.g. XP, Vista). And then everything must be backwards compatible. This means that a better API might not be introduced for Windows XP ever, and advantages for new APIs are restricted by the requirement that all old APIs have to still work exactly the way they did. With open source drivers in the kernel tree, you can just modify the drivers along with the API. It's all in the same place and some changes are simply a matter of "search and replace".

Once a good open source driver exists, and especially if it gets integrated into one of the main driver projects, it usually works out of the box. This means you start Linux, even from a Live CD, and the hardware, e.g. a sound card, scanner or TV card just immediatelly works without any fuss like driver installation or configuration. It's not like installing Windows and then downloading the drivers for all your software, but if the driver is well supported, it just all works after installing the sytem. That's why Live CDs are so useful to test the Linux compatibility of a computer's hardware. And another great thing is that these integrated drivers are automatically updated for you - for Ubuntu even without the need to reboot (for other distributions you need to pay for this feature). This prevents security risks, which are much more rare in Linux, anyway.

Open Source
Open Source is a guarantee that a good product can have a long life-time. Drivers are one excellent example. If you have an open source driver, and it's of good quality and integrated into the Linux kernel or one of the main user land driver projects (SANE, CUPS, ALSA), you will have a driver for a very, very long time. This means that unlike with Microsoft and Mac OS X systems, you will not need to buy a new scanner, because you can't find a driver for Windows 7 or the "Snow Leopard", but quite the contrary the driver usually gets better and better and you often have no problems whatsoever with using a 10 years or older scanner, printer, sound card, TV card, etc with the newest Windows version.

My DVB-T adapter has lots of features it lacks in Windows, including recording up to 4 channels in one bouquet at once, 50 fps deinterlacing, hardware accelerated video decoding, automatic scheduled recording, etc. I just got a new sound card, which uses a lot less CPU and doesn't have a few of the Windows issues like skipping and beeping during playback. Even the pretty new Intel poulsbo chipset already works better for me in Linux now than in Windows (lower battery consumption, better video scaling and hardware accelerated video playback, much faster resume from suspend (feels like 1 second max, dmesg says 2.5 seconds; Windows takes a felt 4-15 seconds), ...). Thanks to Linux my Netbook is now a full featured surround sound FullHD video center and it consumes even less battery than in Windows.

But open source also means that things are customizable. This would of course also mean that if you can program yourself you can potentially modify and fix as many issues with software and drivers as your skills permit. And this is one of the main driving forces of Open Source. But it also means that if there is a problem, the fix can be applied where it makes the most sense. Let's make another example in comparison to Windows.

In Windows if there is a bug in the suspend to ram mechanism, which causes problems for a certain hardware, this is quite hard to figure out in the first place. Because you don't know how the Windows mechanism works. If it was publicly known, Linux would have a much easier way with ensuring suspend to ram compatibility for more hardware. Once you figure out where the problem is in Windows, you still have no way of fixing the problem where it occurs.

Because you can't modify any Windows components. That's completely different in Linux - here anyone can modify anything. I once wrote a small Linux kernel patch myself, and I'm really not that much of a programmer. But with the help of some kernel developers I fixed my own problem and then posted my first Linux kernel patch.

Another great example is powertop. It's a tool to check what decreases your battery time in Linux by looking into which applications wake up your CPU from power saving modes and how often. For this to work the kernel had to be modified. Once this was done you could find out which programs are the main cause. And then, because they are also usually open source, you could modify them as well so they don't wake up the processor as often. And that's how my netbook now consumes less power - in some scenarious a lot less - in Linux than in Windows. All this would not be possible in a closed source world. The same is now done for latency with latencytop btw.

Support
The disadvantage with support in Linux and Open Source is that if you don't pay for it, you won't get people who will treat you like you paid for it. This means it's very un-wise to contact driver or other software developers and say: "You've got to fix this!" Because they really, really don't have to. They are in no way obligated to you. You should always remember that. Only some people get paid for their work for open source at all. Many start a project and keep working it to scrach and itch (see here, and here). And I think it's how Linus started the Linux kernel project sometime long ago. If you want support that treats you like you've paid for it - get paid support!

But the big advantage in Linux support is that if you have a clue, you have access to incredibly smart people. You can talk directly to the developers and they usually know their stuff really, really well. Yes it can be a problem to get an answer sometimes, but if you've read the manual, you really know what you're doing, keep in mind that you didn't pay them and appropriately contact them very politely, you will be amazed how much is possible.

I still remember how helpful, friendly and patient the KDE plasma developers were when I wrote my first plasma-applet. I remember how the Linux kernel developers take every issue seriously and try to help you find the problem, especially with regressions.

And in my view it's so incredibly much better than most hardware manufacturers who you pay with buying their products to get support. You usually first get stuck with incompetent telephone support and are really lucky if you ever get to contact the driver developers or someone anywhere near them. And then those driver developers usually get their money for writing bleeding edge new drivers for new hardware, or they need to write a driver that's compatible with the newest Windows release (without really knowing how everything works on the Windows side).

They usually have little patience and understanding for a not working driver in some system and say that your supplier should fix the issues. (E.g. NVIDIA would say the graphics card manufacturer should fix the problem and Intel would say your Notebook manufacturer should deal with the problems.) But open source developers will usually understand you well, because that's often why they wrote the driver in the first place, so as many people can use it without problems as possible. Here the problem is usually not the lack of will, but of your politeness, your and their time and other resources.

Conclusion
You have to ensure that hardware is Linux compatible before you buy it. If you're lucky and you find open source driver integrated into the Linux kernel or one of the main driver projects, you are most likely to be able to really enjoy your hardware in Linux for a very, very, very long time and there will be no need miss out on the newest features and software coming for free with the newest release of your favorite distribution. If something doesn't work you're expected to do your part and google and try everything you can to fix it, including postings in a forum and on a user mailing list before contacting the developers. This way they have more time for and fun with actually fixing the problem.

But it also means that for not paying for Windows and the drivers, you can't expect the same support. If you want the same level of support, try offering money to the developers you want the support from (paypal helps) or buy a support service. I'm sure they're much more likely to help you in a way similar or better than Windows then.

I'm happy about your thoughts and comments. And remember I don't get paid for writing this either - as you can't even see ads on this page.

All trademarks belong to their respective owners, not to me.
(Windows, Windows XP and Windows Vista->Microsoft, Mac OS X -> Apple, Linux to Linus Torvalds etc.).

5 comments:

  1. Wow great well rounded article. I think a section explaining the differences in software also. Things like you don't have iTunes but you have plenty of other good media players. If there is a piece of Windows software you need check the Linux apps available via the distro's built in software center (I use Ubuntu not sure on other distro's). I think a lot of the native Linux apps are better anyway.

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  2. Nice article but I think you undersell Linux compatibility with an awful lot of hardware! Most distros put a lot of effort into working 'out of the box'. As an example, with my favourite distro (SimplyMEPIS) I can plug in an HP printer and be pretty confident that the next thing I will be able to do is print a document. Absolutely no driver installation or setup required!

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  3. Nicely written article. One small correction needed. You said: "Even the pretty new Intel poulsbo chipset already works better for me in Windows now than in Windows (lower battery consumption, better video scaling and hardware accelerated video playback, faster resume from suspend, ...)."

    I presume you meant "Even the pretty new Intel poulsbo chipset already works better for me in Linux now than in Windows (lower battery consumption, better video scaling and hardware accelerated video playback, faster resume from suspend, ...)."

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  4. Thanks! I've corrected that.

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