LJ Archive

Accelerated X Laptop Display Server v4.1

Michael Scott Shappe

Issue #47, March 1998

The Accelerated X servers are traditionally excellent products on the desktop—I've been using them on desktop BSD/OS and Linux boxes for a long time—providing both adequate stability and excellent speed relative to the freeware efforts.

  • Manufacturer: Xi Graphics

  • Phone: +1 303 298 7478

  • Email: info@xig.com

  • URL: http://www.xig.com/

  • Price: $199 US

  • Reviewer: Michael Scott Shappe

Those of you who read my review of the Fujitsu 420D laptop know that one of my few complaints with it was that they chose to use the NeoMagic video chip—a chip which XFree86 cannot support because NeoMagic has chosen to keep their programming specifications proprietary. As a result, I have been trapped in sixteen-color VGA limbo for quite some time. This has not been a major hardship, since my primary application is word processing (see my review of WordPerfect 7 for Linux next month), but it's annoying, nonetheless.

The only X server available for Linux at the moment that does support the NeoMagic chipset (among many other chipsets) is Xi Graphics' Accelerated X Laptop Server. The Accelerated X servers are traditionally excellent products on the desktop—I've been using them on desktop BSD/OS and Linux boxes for a long time—providing both adequate stability and excellent speed relative to the freeware efforts. (None of which means that Xfree86 is a slouch either in speed or stability; as free products go, XF86 is excellent. It's just that Accelerated-X is usually somewhat better.)

The laptop edition of the latest version, 4.1, appears to be no exception to this track record. Unfortunately, it appears to carry over a few of the warts of past versions as well and introduces one new one which I find extremely annoying.

Good News First

The good news is that Accelerated X delivers what it advertises: a faster X server, loaded with the most recent extension standards, with a very wide range of supported hardware. Its modular architecture means that the server software will not become obsolete with innovations in display technology—all it'll need is a new module. New and updated display card modules will be available for free from Xi Graphics' web server. Several other features, including the X server extensions (such as PEX) and the font-rendering engines, are also modularized, meaning that these can also be updated or extended without having to upgrade the server.

Particularly pleasing to me, of course, is that the server supports the NeoMagic 2093, providing 24-bit color at 640x480 resolution, 16-bit color at 800x600 and 256 color at 1024x768 on an external monitor. According to the documentation, it also supports a hot key to switch in real time between the LCD panel and an external monitor. Chips with more video memory are supported with more colors and higher resolutions with the maximum resolution theoretically possible being 1900x1440, although no currently available video chipset for a laptop has that much memory.

Presumably, it would provide 1024x768 on a larger LCD panel, if available; as it is, 800x600 is the maximum resolution supported on my laptop's panel.

Installation is a straightforward affair—become a superuser, mount the CD, change directories to the mount point, and type ./Install. If you have an older version of Accelerated X installed, the installer will move it out of the way before proceeding. You get a choice of which packages you wish to install, and then the installer just does its work.

The Xsetup program has two modes. The text-based version should be familiar to anyone who has ever installed any version of Accelerated X, and there is now a fully graphical version that, if possible, starts up a minimally-configured X server at 640x480 and allows point-and-click configuration. The first time I ran Xsetup, I got the text version by default; after that, I always got the graphical version unless I asked for the text version. The graphical version has a few more options than the text version, leading me to believe Xi Graphics feels that the text version is to be used to get the basics set up and after that you should be far enough along to use the graphical version.

The improvement in speed over XFree86's VGA16 server was immediately noticeable, even with the greater color-depth (16-bit instead of 4-bit). Window manager menu performance was snappier, as was the minimizing and maximizing of windows. WordPerfect, which previously had shown some lag when typing (a lag which I had already suspected to be a combination of both a non-optimized server and a slower font-server) behaved much better, and scaled fonts seemed sharper.

Now the Bad News

Before I start on the bad news, I want to make a point. There's probably going to be more complaining here than there was complimenting above. Don't confuse quantity and quality. This product does deliver on its main promise: a better, faster, stronger X server that isn't free but won't bankrupt you.

For all of that, there are a number of problems, ranging from mere warts to outright bugs, that I, for one, do not expect in a product as mature as this one. Many of these complaints seem to boil down to Xi Graphics not completely thinking through the “user experience” on a laptop.

Installation is, as I said, fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell from the documentation, if you have any brand of X Server installed other than an older version of Accelerated X, it will install over it, rather than moving it out of the way. This isn't entirely a bad thing, particularly if you've installed lots of other packages, but it could lead to complications. Newer versions of Xfree86 ship shared libraries with version 6.3 to match the X release (X11R6.3). Accelerated X, while implementing X11R6.3, leaves the shared library revision at 6.1. With both in place, the higher numbers will be used by the dynamic loader, and the mismatch between libraries and server could lead to strange results. This problem is documented, as is the workaround.

The other installation and set-up problem is that the graphical Xsetup frequently crashes after you've asked it to test out a configuration, leaving you to start the whole thing over again. Worse, it won't let you save after certain changes without testing it first. Since there are other ways to configure things, and since it doesn't happen every time, this is not a show-stopper, but it's hard to excuse.

Documentation, generally, is a problem. The Accelerated X Laptop Server is billed as a separate product, sold separately from the Desktop Server with an entirely separate license. Yet, at least my review copy shipped with a generic manual that answers few laptop-specific questions. In particular, neither the manual nor the Xsetup program makes any effort to point out that it doesn't much matter which monitor you select unless your laptop has an external monitor feed and you're planning to use it. There is no separate menu item for “LCD Panel”, nor any mention of even the possibility.

On a related note, Xi Graphics does not seem to have taken into account the keyboard provided with most laptops. The standard hot keys for selecting among several possible resolutions (ctrl-alt-+ [+ on the numeric pad] and ctrl-alt-- [- on the numeric pad]) are almost impossible on most laptops, and there's no way to remap those functions to other keys.

Then there is the price disparity. The Laptop Server is, as far as I can tell, the exact same program as the desktop server, shipped with different video drivers. That's fine—as a programmer, I'm all for code reuse and modular architecture. But the laptop server is nearly twice the price of the desktop edition and comes with not just different but fewer drivers.

Finally, there is a major wart in the released version, which may not be a bug in the X Server but should at least be documented, that requires more than common knowledge to work around. On some laptops (mine included), if you start up in any “text” screen mode (such as the default 80x25) and then start an X Server in a resolution higher than 640x480, the resulting display area is offset by an inch, leaving a blank space to the left of the display and leaving the rightmost inch of the display unavailable (this is true of XFree86 as well). There is now a patch that solves part of the problem, but I don't think the product should have been released with this very visible problem.

The workaround for this problem requires quite a bit of tweaking of configuration files usually left untouched. The details are arguably beyond the scope of a review, but may prove useful to people who have bumped into the problem (both with this product and with XFree86) and became frustrated. They appear in the sidebar (Some Hints) and also on my “Linux on Lifebook” web page at http://www.publiccom.com/web/mikey/lifebooklinux.html.

That said, I discovered an updated NeoMagic driver on the Xi Graphics FTP site (ftp://ftp.xig.com/) which, when applied, solves part, but not all of the problem. With the patch applied, I can now start up in text mode and then start the X server and everything works perfectly. However, virtual consoles still don't work right—switching results in a blank screen—and the text mode is not restored after the X server terminates.

The Bottom Line

I must admit, I'm very happy to run my laptop with more than just 16 colors under Linux, and I'm very pleased with the speed of the Accelerated X server. But I am very disappointed with the problems that still linger in the product. At version 4.1 and a price tag of $200US, I expected a highly polished product with no bugs or glitches in basic functionality. It is particularly frustrating to see the product hitting so close and yet missing the mark.

If Xi Graphics can iron out these problems and perhaps bring the price down to a level with its Desktop Server product, I will have no difficulty wholeheartedly endorsing this product. Even as it is, I do recommend it as an adequate solution for those who find they need more capability than Xfree86 can give them on their hardware.

Some Hints

Michael Scott Shappe is a senior programmer for AetherWorks Corporation, a technology startup in St. Paul, MN. He's spent the last 10 years hammering on Unix systems of various stripes and addicting the unsuspecting to the Internet. You can peruse his personal web page at http://www.publiccom.com/web/mikey/ or send him e-mail at mshapp19@idt.net.

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