Linux Technology Explained

AMD vs. NVIDIA GPUs on Linux: Which Should You Use?

Christian Cawley Updated 16-06-2020

When it comes to choosing a fast graphics card, there are two main options: AMD and Nvidia.

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There are several factors that set them apart. On Windows, speed is all that matters—Nvidia GPUs (graphical processing unit) tend to be faster than AMD. But on Linux, there are other things to keep in mind.

But what should you choose for Linux—an AMD or Nvidia GPU?

Is Intel Graphics the Best Choice for Linux?

Before comparing AMD and Nvidia, it’s worth considering the key alternative.

The only graphics card provider you can absolutely be sure to work is Intel’s integrated graphics. While they may not be that fast, Intel’s integrated graphics have improved considerably Integrated vs. Dedicated Graphics Card: 7 Things You Need to Know Wondering if you should use an integrated vs. dedicated graphics card? Here's what you need to know to make your decision. Read More . They’re also very battery friendly in comparison to Nvidia or AMD’s graphics cards.

Intel support is available out of the box, with drivers fully open source on Linux. Many games are also quite playable, if not as well as with dedicated graphics cards. You’re also assured to have Wayland working if you wanted to test it out, due to its open source nature.

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GPU Drivers: Proprietary vs. Open Source

There are two types of drivers you can install to get your graphics cards working, namely proprietary drivers or open source. While there are good and bad aspects to both, they differ if you’re using a Nvidia or AMD graphics card.

What is the best video card for Linux?
Image credit: Stefan Ledwina via Flickr.

For the best results, the proprietary drivers are always better. But if you have a philosophical objection to proprietary drivers, the open source alternatives are more attractive.

Should You Use Nvidia Graphics Cards for Linux?

While there are open source and proprietary Nvidia drivers for Linux, the best performance comes from proprietary drivers. Nouveau, the open source driver for Nvidia cards, delivers overall poorer results than its proprietary counterpart.

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Much of the work done by nouveau is through reverse engineering the proprietary Nvidia driver. It’s similar to how the Wine project recreates a Windows environment to run programs like Microsoft Office on Linux How to Install Microsoft Office on Linux Microsoft Office on Linux is possible. We cover three methods for getting Office working inside of a Linux environment. Read More . Basically, developers look at the results of a program and work backwards from there.

This has its drawbacks, mainly on the speed and compatibility fronts. Proprietary Nvidia drivers are far faster than nouveau, especially with newer graphics cards.

Another drawback is that nouveau lacks something that the proprietary driver has: reclocking. This allows the GPU to work harder, and thus perform faster (at the cost of more power). Unfortunately, only a few Nvidia GPUs Nvidia Graphics Cards: Which One Is Right for You? Nvidia graphics cards are the most popular for a reason. But which model should you buy and why? We explain the jargon, the cards, and their performance. Read More can use this with nouveau installed, none of them very new.

The difference in speed is considerable, especially for newer graphics cards. Some benchmarks show that the proprietary drivers can perform up to nine times faster than their open source counterparts.

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Simply, nouveau is suitable for drawing your desktop, but gaming has a way to go.

Is AMD the Best Graphics Card Option for Linux?

For the most part, it doesn’t really matter which kind of drivers you install for AMD graphics cards. They’re well supported across the board, though using open source drivers is the preferred method. In fact, there are many cases where the open source drivers (AMDGPU for newer cards, and Radeon for older ones), are on par with their proprietary counterparts or even faster!

Compared to Nvidia’s open source driver there is better support for newer graphics cards. This is partially due to AMD’s support for the open source community, providing documentation and manpower for driver development.

But while AMD open source drivers are decent across the board in the, your performance will still be noticeably slower than using a Nvidia graphics card with proprietary drivers.

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AMD vs Nvidia: Which Is Best for Graphics Switching?

Almost all laptops and desktop PCs ship with integrated Intel graphics. Discrete GPUs from Nvidia and AMD are optional extras for laptops but can be added manually on desktops.

Graphics switching is the capability of a computer to select which GPU to use. For basic tasks such as web browsing and word processing, the Intel GPU is chosen. For gaming, video editing, and similar, the discrete GPU is used.

Proprietary and open source Nvidia and AMD drivers for Linux all support graphics switching.

Does AMD or Nvidia Support Wayland?

The Wayland display server is integral to the development of Linux and is available on most major Linux desktops.

AMD and Intel graphics both work with Wayland using open source and proprietary drivers. Nvidia is a different story.

While development of this is expected by 2021, Nvidia’s proprietary driver only works with GNOME’s implementation of Wayland.

Which Linux video card supports Wayland

Compositors for Wayland need a special API (application programming interface) What Are APIs, And How Are Open APIs Changing The Internet Have you ever wondered how programs on your computer and the websites you visit "talk" to each other? Read More , implemented by the graphics driver. The API that’s currently in use the most is called GBM (Generic Buffer Management). So long as you’re using an open source driver (AMDGPU/Radeon/nouveau), Wayland will work.

As Nvidia’s proprietary driver uses a different API (EGLStreams), things are different. Many compositors don’t support for this, the GNOME desktop GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops You're interested in Linux, and you've come across "GNOME", an acronym for GNU Network Object Model Environment. GNOME is one of the most popular open source interfaces, but what does that mean? Read More being the major exception. The open source alternative similarly doesn’t support Wayland.

Which Is the Best Graphics Card for Linux: Intel, AMD, or Nvidia?

For Linux desktop computers, it’s a much easier choice to make.

Nvidia cards are more expensive than AMD and have the edge in performance. But using AMD guarantees superior compatibility and a choice of reliable drivers, whether open source or proprietary.

The same is true for Intel, although this solution is slower.

If you need Wayland support, AMD and Intel are the most reliable options. Otherwise, take a chance on Nvidia. It hasn’t had a great relationship with Linux over the years, but the growth of Linux gaming is changing that.

Made up your mind? Here’s how to install proprietary graphics drivers on Linux How to Install Proprietary Graphics Drivers in Ubuntu, Fedora, and Mint Most of the time, you'll be fine with open-source software on Linux. But if you want real gaming and graphical power, you'll need proprietary drivers. Here's how to get them. Read More .

Related topics: Buying Tips, Drivers, Graphics Card, Hardware Tips, Linux Gaming, Linux Tips.

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  1. Andy Turfer
    August 5, 2018 at 9:03 pm

    An excellent article, although it's over a year old now and could do with some updating. Either that, or you could write a follow up to explain the current state of affairs between AMD and Nvidia on Linux. Lots of things have changed, like the inclusion of the AMD drivers (modules) in the 4.15 kernel (and above, of course). This means you can plug in an AMD GPU in (for example) Kubuntu 18.04, and not have to install anything!

    After 10 years of Nvidia on Linux, I've finally decided to switch to "Team Red" (AMD). I'm just so sick and tired of having to grapple with the proprietary Nvidia drivers, and I hate the way Nvidia treats the Open Source community.

    Just one example: this article touches on the subject of "re-clocking". The nouveau team have been quite successful in reverse engineering firmware for the older Nvidia cards, but they cannot use the same methodology for the 900 and 1000 series Nvidia cards because the firmware on these is signed! This is the reason why you can get an old computer with a GTX 750 and nouveau running faster than a modern computer with a GTX 1080 and nouveau. Just to explain: without the ability to re-clock, the modern cards use the clock speed that is set when they power up, which is very, very, very slow.

    Nvidia have really dropped the ball with their latest proprietary 390 and 396 Linux drivers. Games aside, the desktop performs like a pig. Even the open source nouveau drivers (without re-clocking) handle a composited desktop better. And since I spend more time in the Linux desktop that I do in Linux games, this is extremely important to me. The proprietary Nvidia drivers are so bad that I've parked Linux gaming for the time being, and am now using the Intel HD 4600 iGPU on my old Core i7-4790. Even the low-powered Intel iGPU handles the Linux desktop much better than the proprietary Nvidia drivers! Things are much "smoother" and much more responsive (as as I mentioned above - I spend much more time in the Linux desktop than I do in Linux games).

    This is the reason why I'm switching to AMD. I had no idea AMD were being so awesome and cooperative with the Linux community, and I had no idea how far their open source (and even closed source) drivers have progressed. This has been a real eye-opener for me, and a very tangible lesson about why "open" (FOSS) is better than "closed" (proprietary). With the latter, you are beholden to a third party - a faceless corporation that really couldn't care less about a minority segment of its users.

    I should get my AMD Vega 56 tomorrow, and will definitely write up my experience with the installation/performance under Linux. I'll probably even film it and upload it to my YouTube channel :)

  2. John
    April 28, 2018 at 7:42 pm

    I don't game so both of my AMD graphics are older 8000 series. I use the open source ones on two desktops and both work just fine for what I do. Fact is even AMD dropped support awhile ago for a APU with a 8510G GPU and a 5545m CPU in a Mini ITX board. So having open source drivers is not a big deal.

  3. M. Robinson
    August 2, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Definitely AMD for my desktop and integrated Radeon on my notebook. Because they provide open source drivers.

    Too bad AMD won't open-source EPYC's Platform Security Processor Code. Security through obscurity is BS: Your security is a cat in a box that you can't open — but it's OK, because the box says the cat is alive and well.

    The proprietary microcode, few seem to understand, running on these SoCs confirms the need for transparency. Not at all would I feel safe with an AMD or Intel brain stem. And mobile devices are rolling with a Qualcomm back-brain and brain stem — it's getting harder and harder to breath. That's Orphan Black-Black jacked.

  4. Doug
    August 2, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    Here's a Dell link regarding Optimus issues and an official workaround for the Latitude e6420.
    http://www.dell.com/support/article/us/en/19/sln298431/a-guide-to-nvidia-optimus-on-dell-pcs-with-an-ubuntu-operating-system?lang=en

    • Austin Luong
      August 3, 2017 at 5:14 am

      That's right. I mentioned in the article how Ubuntu has a custom workaround for switching between Nvidia and Intel graphics. It even has its own control panel to choose which one you want to use.

      The main drawback of it is that unlike PRIME or Bumblebee, you need to log in and log out of your current session for the switching to apply. Plus, it's an Ubuntu-only solution.

      • Tim Locke
        June 6, 2018 at 10:08 pm

        Don't you mean "...log out and log in..."?

      • tim
        May 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

        The Ubuntu approach to Optimus is better than bumblebee for most users (it supports external monitors, bumblebee doesn't) so Ubuntu-based distributions are a good choice for Linux Optimus users. This includes a lot of distributions.

        The Ubuntu idea is available to arch too, so all of the arch derivatives have something similar. Nvidia continue to improve the Optimus experience. It's seems a bit crazy that we need to log out so that the nvidia card can be powered down, unlike windows which can turn it on and off on the fly, but it takes only a few seconds.

        bumblebee does turn the nvidia card on and off on the fly, but at the cost of no external displays, which on Optimus computers are linked only to the nvidia card (which means even for Windows, the nvidia card can not be powered down if external monitors are in use).