Wednesday, January 7, 2009

FreeBSD 7.1 Laptop Experience

FreeBSD 7.1 was release a few days ago. I gave it a run on my x86 laptop over the past few days, and I really liked everything I experienced. Here are a few quick bullets on what I focused on and encountered:

  • Stability -- No problems. The OS ran fine, and I never had to force a reboot. I did have to force a power off once or twice--GNOME hung on a shutdown menu command.

  • Audio -- The audio experience on FreeBSD was glitch free despite any other tasks I was running.

  • Flash 9 support -- I got flash 9 running in a native FreeBSD Firefox browser using nspluginwrapper. Flash audio worked fine too, and I didn't have any crashes or other stability issues.

  • Java Support -- I had a native JDK 6 running fine with Netbeans 6.5. I read that Glassfish would also work, but never installed it.

  • USB Yank Support -- This is a nit-pick for server usage, but I consider it a critical bug for desktop usage. If you yank out a mounted USB drive on FreeBSD and try to force an unmount, the kernel blows up and hangs. I did come across a post somewhere that this is now being addressed by the FreeBSD Foundation. Yay!!!

  • Misc. Stuff -- The only thing I really missed from Linux to FreeBSD on the laptop was the extra buttons support. OpenSUSE installed the necessary stuff to make the laptop's mute/volume/brightness buttons work out of the box. FreeBSD supplied the necessary module to control my laptop's brightness, but I would need to research on how to tie the buttons into brightness and volume control functionality. I also don't know if this is really a kernel issue or a user space program issue. My guess is I could probably make the buttons work by installing some user space programs and configuring GNOME.

FreeBSD would support all my computing needs, but there is still one major issue holding me back from full adoption--NVidia driver support on x64 architectures. It's unclear who exactly to blame for this. NVidia is waiting on FreeBSD full kernel support to handle the binary NVidia driver, and the kernel developers are not focused on making the extensive changes required to fully support the driver. While progress is being made, it's a slow process ( over 4 years now ). Just check out this nvnews thread for the ugly details.

One solution I have would be to run the 32 bit FreeBSD kernel. The problem I have here is the machine has >4GB of memory. Now, FreeBSD supports PAE to address all the memory, but FreeBSD does not support loadable kernel modules with PAE. I'm unable to convince myself to yank some memory out of the machine to make the graphics card work. I'd even be willing to sacrifice 3d support if I could get decent 2D dual headed DVI support in a 64 bit kernel. From reading the forums, this seems iffy too using either the nv or nouveau open source nvidia drivers.

It seems myself and many other "would-be" 64 bit NVidia FreeBSD users are out of luck for now.

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