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Firefox 4 beta ditches OpenGL rendering for Linux users

Buggy graphics drivers force acceleration abandonment

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Considerable fanfare greeted Friday's release of the ninth, and apparently final, beta version of Firefox 4, which boosted the popular web browser with hundreds of bug fixes and a raft of powerful new features.

Along with faster speeds, hardware acceleration has been one of the most widely anticipated of those new features, and it did indeed appear as expected, for Windows and Mac users. Those using the open source Linux operating system, however, weren't so lucky.

"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 Friday in a comment on the Mozilla Hacks developer blog. "Heck, we're even disabling WebGL for most Linux drivers, last I checked."

No compositing acceleration

It turns out OpenGL hardware acceleration has been implemented on Linux, but only Nvidia's proprietary driver has been whitelisted so far. Others have been too plagued by bugs and other issues, according to OSnews.

"If your drivers are decent (some of the closed source ones can be, Nouveau can be sometimes), you do get something akin to Direct2D on Linux through XRender," Zbarsky explained. "So while you don't get compositing acceleration, you do get faster canvas drawing and the like."

"drawImage, for example, can be much faster on Linux than on Mac," he added. "But only if you manage to find a driver and X version that happens to not suck." That, however, can be a challenge.

'We could really use some help'

Plans do call for WebGL to be enabled for Nvidia's proprietary driver, but for now, GL-accelerated rendering on Linux has been deprioritised because of "how much work it would be to get it to work in general," Zbarsky wrote.

Looking ahead, Zbarsky asked for help in improving Firefox's hardware acceleration on Linux.

"We do plan to put more work into the Linux end of this, look for workarounds for the various bugs, etc.," he noted. "But we could really use some help from Xorg and distros and the like here."

The latest Firefox beta can be downloaded for free from Mozilla's website. The final version is due by the end of February.

A way to test it

In the meantime, Linux users interested in experimenting with the browser's hardware acceleration can re-enable OpenGL by setting "layers.acceleration.force-enabled" to "true" and "layers.acceleration.disabled" to "false" in their preferences, Zbarsky added. "You can use about:support to see whether you're getting GL-accelerated rendering after that."

For now, however, although Firefox 4 is certainly an exciting release, it's a little less exciting for Linux users.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.



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