Linux tweaked for better graphics, video performance

Novell Tuesday released improvements to the way Linux handles graphics and video -- a move aimed at making the operating system more attractive to mainstream desktop users.

The improvements to the XGL graphics subsystem that underlies Linux will help it render images faster and improve 3-D graphics and video for users on existing hardware, said Charlie Mancusi-Ungaro, director of marketing for Linux and open-source at Novell. "This puts Linux at the forefront of where graphical desktop interfaces are going," he said.

XGL, which stands for X over OpenGL, is a version of the two-decade-old X Window System popular on Unix operating systems. It does not actually provide the desktop interface itself, instead supporting Linux desktop environments such as KDE or GNOME.

At Novell's Web site, users can see videos previewing some of the enhancements provided by XGL. They include transparent application or browser windows so that icons underneath are still visible, windows that can quickly shrink to thumbnail-size while videos continue to play, and -- for power users running many applications -- the ability to open up to four desktops on a 3-D cube interface that users can rotate for program access.

The improvements will be available to Linux users running PCs with 3-D graphics cards and relatively up-to-date hardware, meaning computers that have been bought in the last 18 months or so, said Mancusi-Ungaro.

Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert with Nielsen Norman Group, applauded the transparency and extra desktop features. But he was less impressed with the ability for application windows to be dragged halfway between desktops and viewed in 3-D. He called it "a great way to show off graphical horsepower but basically useless."

Nielsen said Linux's reputation for having a user interface that's less attractive and harder to use than those in Apple's Mac OS X or Microsoft's Windows is well-earned, and a natural result of its technical heritage.

"Linux has always been able to attract great programming talent, but not as many talented usability people," Nielsen said. He noted that it's often difficult in the free-wheeling open-source culture to veto new features that add marginal utility at the cost of increased complexity. "To have a simple unified experience that is good for the average user requires someone to say no," he said.

The features enabled by XGL throw out a preemptive challenge to the upcoming Windows Vista, which Microsoft is promising will have similar new features and more in its Aero graphical user interface.

While Microsoft has long suffered from a tendency to overstuff features at the cost of ease of use, said Nielsen, it is "taking a new approach" with Vista.

Development of XGL is led by David Reveman, a Swedish software developer with notoriously eccentric work habits even by programmers' standards. Reveman works in the top floor of a barn in rural Sweden, according to Wikipedia, with co-workers from Novell flying to the country every two to three months to collect code and post it online.

The XGL source code is available for download by open-source programmers at Freedesktop.org. The improvements will be available as an option for users installing Version 10 of Novell Linux Desktop, which is due out by the summer, Mancusi-Ungaro said. But because the code is being made available as open-source, he expects XGL to be adopted by other flavors of Linux such as Red Hat or Ubuntu.

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Eric Lai

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