Before we install Linux on our computers, we usually try to make sure that we either have an NVIDIA or an AMD / Radeon GPU – the graphics chip-set – so that we can use either the proprietary NVIDIA drivers designed by their company to run under Linux, or so that we can use the proprietary ‘fglrx’ drivers provided by AMD, or so that we can use the ‘Mesa‘ drivers, which are open-source, and which are designed by Linux specialists. Because the proprietary drivers only cover one out of the available families of chip-sets, this means that after we have installed Linux, our choice boils down to a choice between either proprietary or Mesa drivers.
I think that the main advantage of the proprietary drivers remains, that they will offer our computers the highest version of OpenGL possible from the hardware – which could go up to 4.5 ! But obviously, there are also advantages to using Mesa , one of which is the fact that to install those doesn’t install a ‘blob’ – an opaque piece of binary code which nobody can analyze. Another is the fact that the Mesa drivers will provide ‘VDPAU‘, which the ‘fglrx’ drivers fail to implement. This last detail has to do with the hardware-accelerated playback of 2D video-streams, that have been compressed with one out of a very short list of Codecs.
But I would add to the possible reasons for choosing Mesa, the fact that its stated OpenGL version-number does not set a real limit, on what the graphics-chip-set can do. Officially, Mesa offers OpenGL 3.0 , and this could make it look at the surface, as though its implementation of OpenGL is somewhat lacking, as a trade-off against its other benefits.
One way in which ‘OpenGL’ seems to differ from its competitor in real-life: ‘DirectX’, is in the system by which certain DirectX drivers and hardware offer a numeric compute-level, and where if that compute-level has been achieved, the game-designer can count on a specific set of features being implemented. What seems to happen with OpenGL instead, is that 3.0 must first be satisfied. And if it is, the 3D application next checks individually, whether the OpenGL system available, offers specific OpenGL extensions by name. If the application is very-well-written, it will test for the existence of every extension it needs, before giving the command to load that extension. But in certain cases, a failure to test this can lead to the graphics card crashing, because the graphics card itself may not have the extension requested.
As an example of what I mean, my KDE / Plasma compositor settings, allow me to choose ‘OpenGL 3.1′ as an available back-end, and when I select it, it works, in spite of my Mesa drivers ‘only’ achieving 3.0 . I think that if the drivers had been stated to be 3.1 , then this could actually mean they lose backward-compatibility with 3.0 , while in fact they preserve that backward-compatibility as much as possible.