July 24, 2009

ASUS N10J Netbook with nVidia GeForce 9300M Graphics

I recently purchased an ASUS N10J (please don't post a lot of flames about ASUS abandoning Linux, I am aware of it, I have written them a letter of protest and I am trying to get a refund of the "Microsoft Tax", but I got the N10J at half price, and it was just too good to pass up).  It is a very nice netbook/notebook, despite the fact that it came preloaded with Windows Vistaster Business, which is so lame on it that it is basically unusable.  So far I have installed the following on it:

- Ubuntu 9.04 - both the normal distribution and the Netbook Remix

- Ubuntu 9.10 Alpha 3

- Moblin 2.0 Beta, 21 July distribution

- Fedora 11

- openSuSE 11.1

- Mandriva One 2009.1

All work very well (and of course all run circles around the pre-installed Vistaster), but there is one bit of quirkiness...

One of the things that makes the N10J so interesting is that although it is an Intel Atom N270 based system, with the associated Intel 945 chip set, it also includes an nVidia GeForce graphic display adapter, and has a switch on the side to enable and disable the nVidia.  The idea is that you can enable the nVidia adapter when you need high performance graphics, and disable it when you want to save battery power.

Most of the distributions use the open source 'nv' driver for the nVidia by default.  (The exception to this is Fedora 11, which uses the 'nouveau' driver by default.)  However, there is no 3D support for the 'nv' driver, which makes the Ubuntu Netbook Remix disktop perform very poorly.  When the mouse cursor is moved onto any of the desktop icons, it takes about 5 seconds before something happens, then another second or two for the icon to be highlighted and enlarged.  Not nice.  However, switch off the nVidia adapter, reboot, and the N10J comes up with the Intel graphic adapter, which has adequate 3D support, and the desktop performance is perfectly ok.  Not the situation one would expect!

There is a simple solution to this problem - install the proprietary, binary-only drivers made available by nVidia.  Once you have Ubuntu installed and updated, make sure that the nVidia adapter is enabled and then go to "System / Administration / Hardware Drivers".  After looking around a bit, it should tell you that the proprietary driver is available, and you can activate it.  Once that is complete, reboot and the UNR desktop performace will be excellent.

There is unfortunately a down side to installing this driver.  It replaces some of the config files and libraries with nVidia-specific versions, which causes the Intel graphics not to work, so you will not be able to boot Ubuntu with the nVidia disabled.  If being able to select between the two at will is important to you, it wouldn't be too difficult to figure out exactly which files are being modified or replaced, keep two copies of them, and install the appropriate copies on boot.  I personally don't need to select between the two, so I haven't bothered doing that.

There will hopefully be another, perhaps better, alternative in the future, if and when the nouveau driver is available with 3D support.  But I just checked their web page again, and it still explicity states that 3D support is preliminary, experimental, and not likely to function well if it all.  If they do get that working, perhaps it will co-exist with other drivers somewhat better.


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