A need to update graphics hardware

Not being a gaming enthusiast, having to upgrade graphics cards in PC’s is not something that I do very often or even rate as a priority. However, two PC’s in my possession have had that very piece of hardware upgraded on them and it’s not because anything was broken either. My backup machine has seen quite a few Linux distros on there since I built it nearly four years ago. The motherboard is an ASRock K10N78 that sourced from MicroDirect and it has onboard an NVIDIA graphics chip that has performed well if not spectacularly. One glitch that always existed was a less than optimal text rendering in web browsers but that never was enough to get me to add a graphics card to the machine.

More recently, I ran into trouble with Sabayon 13.04 with only the 2D variant of the Cinnamon desktop environment working on it and things getting totally non-functional when a full re-installation of the GNOME edition was attempted. Everything went fine until I added the latest updates to the system when a reboot revealed that it was impossible to boot into a desktop environment. Some will relish this as a challenge but I need to admit that I am not one of those. In fact, I tried out two Arch-based distros on the same PC and got the same results following a system update on each. So, my explorations of Antergos and Manjaro have to continue in virtual machines instead.

To get a working system, I gave Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon a go and that worked a treat. However, I couldn’t ignore that the cutting edge distros that I tried before it all took exception to the onboard NVIDIA graphics. systemd has been implemented in all of these and it seems reasonable to think that it is coming to Linux Mint at some stage in the future so I went about getting a graphics card to add into the machine. Having had good experiences with ATi’s Radeon in the past, I stuck with it even though it now is in the hands of AMD. Not being that fussed so long there was Linux driver support, I picked up a Radeon HD 6450 card from PC World. Adding it into the PC was a simpler of switching off the machine, slotting in the card, closing it up and powering it on again. Only later on did I set the BIOS to look for PCI Express graphics before anything else and I could have got away without doing that. Then, I made use of the Linux Mint Additional Driver applet in its setting panel to add in the proprietary driver before restarting the machine to see if there were any visual benefits. To sort out the web browser font rendering, I used the Fonts applet in the same settings panel and selected full RGBA hinting. The improvement was unmissable if not still like the appearance of fonts on my main machine. Overall, there had been an improvement and a spot of future proofing too.

That tinkering with the standby machine got me wondering about what I had on my main PC. As well as onboard Radeon graphics, it also gained a Radeon 4650 card for which 3D support wasn’t being made available by Ubuntu GNOME 12.10 or 13.04 to VMware Player and it wasn’t happy about this when a virtual machine was set to have 3D support. Adding the latest fglrx driver only ensured that I got a command line instead of a graphical interface. Issuing one of the following commands and rebooting was the only remedy:

sudo apt-get remove fglrx

sudo apt-get remove fglrx-updates

Looking at the AMD website revealed that they no longer support 2000, 3000 or 4000 series Radeon cards with their latest Catalyst driver the last version that did not install on my machine since it was built for version 3.4.x of the Linux kernel. A new graphics card then was in order if I wanted 3D graphics in VWware VM’s and both GNOME and Cinnamon appear to need this capability. Another ASUS card, a Radeon HD 6670, duly was acquired and installed in a manner similar to the Radeon HD 6450 on the standby PC. Apart from not needing to alter the font rendering (there is a Font tab on Gnome Tweak Tool where this can be set), the only real exception was to add the Jockey software to my main PC for installation of the proprietary Radeon driver. The following command does this:

sudo apt-get install jockey-kde

When that was done I issue the jockey-kde command and selected the first entry on the list. The machine worked as it should on restarting apart from an AMD message at the bottom right hand corner bemoaning unrecognised hardware. There had been two entries on that Jockey list with exactly the same name so it was time to select the second of these and see how it went. On restarting, the incompatibility message had gone and all was well. VMware even started virtual machines with 3D support without any messages so the upgrade did the needful there.

Hearing of someone doing two PC graphics card upgrades in a weekend may make you see them as an enthusiast but my disinterest in computer gaming belies this. Maybe it highlights that Linux operating systems need 3D more than might be expected. The Cinnamon desktop environment now issues messages if it is operating in 2D mode with software 3D rendering and GNOME always had the tendency to fall back to classic mode, as it had been doing when Sabayon was installed on my standby PC. However, there remain cases where Linux can rejuvenate older hardware and I installed Lubuntu onto a machine with 10 year old technology on there (an 1100 MHz Athlon CPU, 1GB of RAM and 60GB of hard drive space in case dating from 1998) and it works surprisingly well too.

It seems that having fancier desktop environments like GNOME Shell and Cinnamon means having the hardware on which it could run. For a while, I have been tempted by the possibility of a new PC since even my main machine is not far from four years old either. However, I also spied a CPU, motherboard and RAM bundle featuring an Intel Core i5-4670 CPU, 8GB of Corsair Vengence Pro Blue memory and a Gigabyte Z87-HD3 ATX motherboard included as part of a pre-built bundle (with a heatsink and fan for the CPU) for around £420. Even for someone who has used AMD CPU’s since 1998, that does look tempting but I’ll hold off before making any such upgrade decisions. Apart from exercising sensible spending restraint, waiting for Linux UEFI support to mature a little more may be no bad idea either.

Update 2013-06-23: The new graphics card in my main machine is working as it should and has reduced the number of system error report messages turning up too; maybe Ubuntu GNOME 13.04 didn’t fancy the old graphics card all that much. A rogue .fonts.conf file was found in my home area on the standby machine and removing it has improved how fonts are displayed on there immeasurably. If you find one on your system, it’s worth doing the same or renaming it to see if it helps. Otherwise, tinkering with the font rendering settings is another beneficial act and it even helps on Debian 6 too and that uses GNOME 2! Seeing what happens on Debian 7.1 could be something that I go testing sometime.

Still able to build PC systems

This weekend has been something of a success for me on the PC hardware front. Earlier this year, a series of mishaps rendering my former main home PC unusable; it was a power failure that finished it off for good. My remedy was a rebuild using my then usual recipe of a Gigabyte motherboard, AMD CPU and crucial memory. However, assembling the said pieces never returned the thing to life and I ended up in no man’s land for a while, dependent on and my backup machine and laptop. That wouldn’t have been so bad but for the need for accessing data from the old behemoth’s hard drives but an external drive housing set that in order. Nevertheless, there is something unfinished about work with machines having a series of external drives hanging off them. That appearance of disarray was set to rights by the arrival of a bare bones system from Novatech in July with any assembly work restricted to the kitchen table.There was a certain pleasure in seeing a system come to life after my developing a fear that I had lost all of my PC building prowess.

That restoration of order still left finding out why those components bought earlier in the year didn’t work together well enough to give me a screen display on start-up. Having electronics testing equipment and the knowledge of its correct use would make any troubleshooting far easier but I haven’t got these. There is a place near to me where I could go for this but you are left wondering what might be said to a PC build gone wrong. Of course, the last thing that you want to be doing is embarking on a series of purchases that do not fix the problem, especially in the current economic climate.

One thing to suspect when all doesn’t turn out as hoped is the motherboard and, for whatever reason, I always suspect it last. It now looks as if that needs to change after I discovered that it was the Gigabyte motherboard that was at fault. Whether it was faulty from the outset or it came a cropper with a rogue power supply or careless with static protection is something that I’ll never know. An Asus motherboard did go rogue on me in the past and it might be that it ruined CPU’s and even a hard drive before I laid it to rest. Its eventual replacement put a stop to a year of computing misfortune and kick-started my reliance on Gigabyte. That faith is under question now but the 2009 computing hardware mishap seems to be behind me and any PC rebuilds will be done on tables and motherboards will be suspected earlier when anything goes awry.

Returning to the present, my acquisition of an ASRock K10N78 and subsequent building activities has brought a new system using an AMD Phenom X4 CPU and 4 GB of memory into use. In fact, I writing these very words using the thing. It’s all in a new TrendSonic case too (placing an elderly behemoth into retirement) and with a SATA hard drive and DVD writer. The new motherboard has onboard audio and graphics so external cards are not needed unless you are an audiophile and/or a gamer; for the record, I am neither. Those additional facilities make for easier building and fault-finding should the undesirable happen.

The new box is running the release candidate of Ubuntu 9.10 and it seems to be working without a hitch too. Earlier builds of 9.10 broke in their VirtualBox VM so you should understand the level of concern that this aroused in my mind; the last thing that you want to be doing is reinstalling an operating system because its booting capability breaks every other day. Thankfully, the RC seems to have none of these rough edges so I can upgrade the Novatech box, still my main machine and likely to remain so for now, with peace of mind when the time comes.