Friday, July 13, 2012

ArchLinux - Use at your own risk

Update: update-archlinux-ati-catalyst-issue.html

I have an HP Pavilion g series laptop running ArchLinux. With 17" wide screen and quad code AMD A6 processor, I really have nothing to complain. I love Arch. It allows me to be on the bleeding edge. Among all the other distros that I have tried in the past, Arch gave me the most control with out as much hassle. Today, I use ArchLinux exclusively on my laptop. And getting front row passes for being able to try the latest and greatest of features of Linux almost makes me giddy. Except, I am stuck with AMD Radeon graphics built in the APU.

AMD/ATi are not very keen about providing regular driver updates for the AMD Radeon chip that is in my computer. The open source driver lags far behind the proprietary driver in features. The proprietary driver relies on xorg-server version 1.11 while the latest xorg-server is version 1.12. Staying stuck with xorg-server 1.11 means that while my X server is slightly behind on features and security updates, but also are all the components that depend on it, for instance, XFree86 drivers for my input devices. During every system wide update, I have to be extra careful as to not update any of the XFree86 drivers as there is not a hard dependency extablished for xorg-server between the versions that I use. An incompatible input device driver renders my keyboard and touchpad unuseable as soon as X session takes over, regardless of me using the laptop keyboard and touchpad, or an external keyboard and mouse.

This was a little easier until a few days ago. The version of Catalyst driver available was 12.4 which had a hard dependency on xorg-server 1.11. All I had to worry about were XFree86 drivers.

Few weeks ago, AMD released a new Catalyst driver for newer hardware, version 12.6. Unfortunately for me, my hardware is not capable of utilizing that driver as it was excluded from the driver. When I installed it without reading the Arch Wiki page about the upgrade, I noticed that bottom right corner of my screen displayed a watermark - Unsupported Hardware. 12.6 version of Catalyst however is listed as an upgrade to the 12.4 version of Catalyst. So now it shows up in my list of upgrade. Changing the pacman mirror for Catalyst resolved the issue as the new mirror only had 12.4 available for download.

A few nights ago, I was in bed at around 10:30 PM and I was hoping to sleep right away. I decided that since I hadn't run a system update in the past few days, I'd go ahead and run a quick update before sleeping. I fired up Apper, a universal KDE package manager that works with Pacman as well as Apt-Get for debian based systems, and saw 30 some applications awaiting updates. I scrolled down the list and unchecked the usual suspects: xorg-server 1.12, etc. I realized that somehow, I had failed to notice Catalyst version 12.6 in the list of updatable software and did not exclude it. I realized my mistake one X server restart later when the nasty watermark became visible. I figured it was not as big a deal and fired up Apper with the intention of downgrading the Catalyst driver to 12.4. Except, it wasn't there. I decided to switch to the open source driver for the time being while I investigated what might have happened. The open source driver was installed and I was at the login menu. All looked good, except, my keyboard and touchpad wouldn't work. The open source driver has a dependency on latest version of xorg-server. I realized later that when I installed tthe open source driver which caused the xorg-server upgrade, I hadn't selected the XFree86 input driver for synaptic to be upgraded. The version of the input driver that was installed had a dependency on older version of xorg-server and now the missmatch was causing rendering my laptop useless as soon as X session started.

Fast forward couple of very frustrating hours and I was able to break the boot process before X session loaded to get terminal access to a half ready system. Then after remounting the root partition as read/write, I unstalled xorg-xserver and all the installed dependencies. A reboot later into a more usable and now network aware system, using terminal, I installed the open source ati driver. Once I was able to log into the KDE session, I fired up Apper again, and this time more careful about it, I manually downloaded the correct version of Catalyst driver from the mirror site, uninstalled the open source driver and downgraded xorg-server and the hard dependencies as well as XFree86 input driver. I then using pacman installed the 12.4 version of the Catalyst driver and restarted X server. I was now able to login and use the system and begin my efforts at documenting my experience.

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