Ubuntu Drivers

Monday Apr 29th 2013 by Matt Hartley
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These tips can help you find and install the Ubuntu drivers you need for video cards, printers, scanners and wireless devices.

Over the years, I've watched as Linux hardware support slowly caught up with proprietary operating systems and, later on, surpassed them altogether thanks to modern Ubuntu drivers, as well as drivers for other distros. Video card, sound card and peripheral support have all seen a massive evolution since the earliest days of Linux on the desktop.

However, despite these gains, some problematic vendors still don't make using Linux very easy. And even though Linux maintains the largest database of retroactive older hardware support in existence, Windows still has some vendors making difficult drivers for select hardware.

In this article, I'll share tips and tricks for avoiding hardware selection headaches, while also ensuring that the hardware you're choosing has usable Ubuntu drivers available.

Video Card Driver Considerations

These days, there is driver support for products made by vendors ranging from VIA and Intel, down to NVIDIA and AMD/ATI. But things can become a bit fuzzy when deciding which video cards are going to provide the best experience for the end user.

For desktop computing, I've found AMD/ATI and NVIDIA are about even in my own experience. However, I've heard that many folks feel strongly that AMD/ATI is on its way to surpassing NVIDIA as the preferred vendor for those seeking the best Ubuntu driver experience for video cards.

On the notebook/netbook front, Intel is still the big winner in this space. With their ever-improving performance and lower power usage, Intel provides ample video rendering performance for most people, despite being an integrated graphics solution.

Now, on to the drivers that power these graphic solutions. Some people feel strongly that Intel doesn't offer great open source drivers, but I beg to differ. The drivers they offer, or more accurately, the drivers Intel delivers are generally pretty solid. Fact is, Ubuntu users are going to be provided with the most stable Intel graphic drivers out of the box. And iff you're interested in working with bleeding edge drivers from Intel, you might carefully investigate this new driver updating program from Intel.

NVIDIA and AMD/ATI drivers, by contrast, will provide you with two different options. NVIDIA users can use the provided open source video driver that is activated after a successful Ubuntu installation. You might be surprised to discover that the NVIDIA open source driver also supports a dual-monitor setup simply by selecting this option under the display settings thanks to RandR compatibility. However, the open source driver falls short with OpenGL support. To use OpenGL video games, you're going to need to follow the following steps to install the proprietary video driver:

  1. Open the Ubuntu Dash and search for Software Sources.
  2. With Software Sources open, browse to the Additional Drivers tab.
  3. Select the radio button for the recommend driver for your NVIDIA card.
  4. Click apply and enjoy.

Open source AMD/ATI video drivers are also great to use, as they're installed out of the box on PCs running AMD/ATI video cards. Like NVIDIA, the AMD/ATI open source video driver does a solid job providing usable dual-monitor support via the display settings. Sadly, this open source driver also lacks the ability to support OpenGL video games very well. This means if you're playing video games requiring OpenGL, you're also going to want to follow these steps:

  1. Open the Ubuntu Dash and search for Software Sources.
  2. With Software Sources open, browse to the Additional Drivers tab.
  3. Select the radio button for the recommend driver for your AMD/ATI card.
  4. Click apply and enjoy.

Printers and Scanners

For most of us, a combined all-in-one printer/scanner is going to be the most common device we use in our day to day printing and scanning. While there are exceptions to this rule where dedicated printers and scanners are still used, most of the Ubuntu drivers you're going to be seeking will be for all-in-one devices.

If you're shopping for a new all-in-one printer, my advice is to stick with HP, regardless of whether it's a laser printer or one of the inkjet variety. No matter which you choose, opting for one made by HP is going to provide you with a great user experience. HP printers are not only supported well by CUPS printing, but the scanner functions of HP all-in-one printers are also well managed by SANE.

HP offers one additional set of tools not found with other printers, called the HP Linux Imaging and Printing toolbox. Also known as HPLIP, this set of printing tools provides HP users with a set of useful features not found on the Ubuntu desktop otherwise. Thanks to HP Ubuntu drivers, HPLIP provides users with status updates, wifi printer setup functionality, ink levels and other information. Trying to manage these same features with non-HP printers is generally doable, but nowhere near as intuitive.

Regardless of which printer you happen to choose, you should make sure the printer drivers for Ubuntu are available on a typical Ubuntu installation. Some printers, however, won't work out of the box and may require you to search elsewhere for compatible drivers. Epson is one such vendor, although some Epson printers will work without any extra hassle. To find out if your Epson printer is supported, you will need to visit the Epson Linux download page and search for your device. Most of the popular Epson printers will have drivers available from the Epson Linux driver search portal.

Lexmark printer support used to rarely work on a default Ubuntu installation; however, in recent years it has gotten a lot better. Ubuntu drivers for Lexmark printers can be matched from the Lexmark printer model page.

Like Lexmark, Canon printers have been historically difficult to match up reliably on compatibility. Even the download page for Canon drivers indicates there is zero Ubuntu driver support for your Canon printer. If it does happen to work out of the box, consider yourself very lucky as Canon printers are not Linux-friendly by any means.

The process installation of printer drivers depends greatly on whether or not your printer is supported with a default Ubuntu installation or not. If it's provided immediately with good support, then you only need follow these directions to activate the printer driver for your select printer:

  1. From the Unity Dash, search for printing. Then click on the icon that looks like a printer.
  2. Next, you'll need to click on the Add button.
  3. Select your printer, click forward and then apply.

If your printer isn't detected, then odds are you'll need to use the above linked resources and install the needed driver. In most cases, this installation will be provided by a Deb package, which will be installable via the Software Center. Simply download the package, then double-click on it. The Ubuntu Software Center will take care of the installation for you.

Wireless Device Drivers

Wireless device drivers usually fall into two distinct categories – natively supported devices and drivers requiring the use of Ndiswrapper. My recommendation is to seek out wireless devices that are natively supported. Chipset vendors that fall into this category include Atheros, Ralink, Realtek and Intel. Over the years, I've used the Wireless Kernel website, which has a tremendous list of wireless drivers that makes figuring out which devices are best supported on Ubuntu a whole lot simpler.

Once you have an idea which chipset you wish to match up with a wireless device, simply use an Amazon search or Google to find wireless devices that match up with that wireless driver. For example, if I wanted to match the rtl8187 Realtek driver up with a device, I can search Amazon.com for devices using that driver and a number of possible matches will appear. Ubuntu compatibility lists are horribly out of date, which also renders them useless, so those who rely solely on compatibility lists for Ubuntu are both wasting their time and often working with bad information.

If you're stuck with wireless devices that require a Windows driver, this means you're going to need to learn to use the Ndiswrapper installer available with Ubuntu. So install Ndiswrapper from the Ubuntu Software Center. With Ndiswrapper installed, go ahead and check to see which chipset your wireless card is using. From a terminal, run this command:

lsusb -v

The end result may look something like this:

 idVendor            0x0586 ZyXEL Communications Corp.
 idProduct           0x340f G-220 v2 802.11bg
 bcdDevice           48.10
 iManufacturer       16 ZyDAS<
 iProduct            32 ZyXEL G-220
 iSerial             0 

The actual text may be much longer, and you will have to dig through a lot to locate the following: ZyXEL G-220 v2. This is the brand and model of USB dongle being used. To figure out whether a driver is available or not, you can run this command:

hwinfo –network

If a native driver is available, it might look something like this:

32: None 00.0: 1070a WLAN                                       
  [Created at net.124]
  Unique ID: 
  Parent ID: 
  SysFS ID: 
  SysFS Device Link: 
  Hardware Class: network interface
  Model: "WLAN network interface"
  Driver: "zd1211rw"
  Driver Modules: "zd1211rw"
  Device File: wlan0
  HW Address: 
  Link detected: no

You may notice the driver and driver module are both detected as zd1211rw. This means that the ZyXEL G-220 device has a natively supported driver called zd1211rw labeled under device wlan0. In other words, you can connect easily with network manager.

If the results of the above command don't present you with a driver, you will need to install a Windows driver for your device using the details gathered from your previous lsusb -v command.

For the next step, you'll need to installed a simple-to-use front-end to Ndiswrapper called ndisgtk. Using this database of usable devices, locate your USB wireless dongle and then follow the installation instructions for extraction. With everything extracted, you can then use ndisgtk to setup your device. Simply start the software, click on Install New Driver, then browse to the correct directory to select the appropriate Windows driver file. Finally, click Install.

Final Thoughts

If there is one takeaway from this article it's this—buying a new computer with Ubuntu pre-installed is always the easiest option. This may not be a solution for everyone, but it will mean you're never going to be troubled with Ubuntu driver hassles so long as you own that computer.

For those of you with existing PCs and notebooks, this guide will help to shine some light on dealing with common Ubuntu driver considerations and how to make the best out of a computer that likely came with a Windows sticker affixed to its keyboard or case.

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