[conspire] How to check if a mobo is compatible with Linux

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Sat Mar 22 02:09:18 PDT 2008

Quoting K Sandoval (indigo.kai at gmail.com):

> I was wondering how do you research a motherboard or other hardware to
> verify it is Linux compatible?

Well, first you have to understand the concept of chipsets (versus
marketing names, versus model numbers), and then set about determining
the truth of what's _actually_ present, despite most reviewers being
technically incompetent, manufacturers not caring and mostly delegating
the matter of information-publication to their marketing departments,
and a lot of talkative users "knowing" things that simply aren't true at

A driver needs to be, fundamentally, written to be compatible with the
programming interface hardware of a chipset.  What's a chipset?  It's
late, I'm tired, and I'm not going to use a particularly well-chosen
example; instead, I'm going to use the one that comes first to mind.

ATI makes a whole bunch of video chips ("GPUs", graphics processing
units) called "Radeon" this-and-that.  That's a perfect example of what
I mean by a marketing name.  "Radeon" doesn't really mean squat, except
in very general terms "graphics chip manufactured by ATI that does
hardware-level 3D acceleration".  See:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radeon .  Various other companies, plus 
ATI itself, incorporate Radeon-type chips into both video expansion
boards and motherboards.

One example, from quite a few years back, is the ATI model 9700 video
chip -- the chipset -- which was used in ATI's "Radeon 9700 Pro" video
card and, for all I know, probably a bunch of other people's cards.  In
this one case, the model of card ("Radeon 9700 Pro") is closely related
to the chip, but the two (model of card versus chip) may be quite

Anyway, let's say you were, back in the day, looking at the specs of a
workstation, and you read that it came with an ATI Radeon 9700 Pro video
card, and were curious about Linux support.  First step is to determine
the video chip, which in this case is pretty easy.  Then, you start
searching on things like

   "ati radeon 9700" linux
   "ati 9700" linux
   9700 linux video

Note the quotation marks:  Many search engines use that syntax to signal
that you're interested only in hits that have those words in that
particular adjacent order, as opposed to anywhere on the page.

One important thing to bear in mind is that most of the so-called
information sites out there aren't going to make it easy for you.  E.g.,
it's often non-trivial to find out that goshdarned chip that underlies a 
video or ethernet board, etc. -- in part because they tend to quote
marketing names and board models only, and say little or nothing about
the chips within that equipment.  Also, you might have noticed that,
regarding motherboards, many Web sites will cite only _one_ chipset as
being the motherboard's chipset:  Generally, that will, in fact, turn
out to be the nortbridge chip, which for reasons I mentioned upthread
has essentially no driver significance, and will incompetently fail to
identify the utterly crucial southbridge chip.  (You pretty much have to
just grit your teeth and keep searching.)

> What websites to do you check?

I have a modest attempt to help people with this problem, here:
"Help Resources" on http://linuxmafia.com/kb/Hardware/

Notice that the page has (among other things) a "link farm" of
hyperlinks to primary information sites on Linux driver support for
various categories of hardware.  It's just the cream of sites I've 
found useful for determining Linux driver support for, say, webcams, 
or for USB devices in general, or any number of other things.  I hope it

> How much information do you look for when reviewing recommendations on
> blog post or vendor sites? Or are the posting on these types of sites
> even worth reviewing?

Well, dunno.  You would always need to consider the source, i.e., is it
just another gamer punk's offhand opinion.  ;->

One thing that's difficult to reduce to an easy formula is the _sort_ of
things (hardware items) to avoid and favour, generally:  You want chips
and board designs that aren't low-end junk, that are standardised and
have been on the market for 1+ year, that perform well for the category
but aren't exotic specialty items, that don't rely on peculiar, stunt
features or badly designed bus connections that were never a good idea
in the first place (e.g., back in the day, scanners, CD drives, and so
on that connected to parallel printer ports).  

See:  http://linuxmafia.com/~rick/lexicon.html#moenslaw-hardware

> I am looking to build a new system and I have some funds.

The more _important_ part of your posting started there, and I'll be
getting (back) to it, but not tonight.

> That still leaves me with building a new system for me.

Just one initial thought:  Are you sure you wouldn't prefer a laptop?
My own household has almost entirely switched to laptops over the years,
and that's been one of the general trends of the last decade.

If you do wish to consider that in lieu of a conventional workstation
box, that option would eliminate the need to build a system, of course,
and you would be looking around at things like pricing of good 1-2
year-old used laptops.

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