First open-source graphics card available

May 23, 2008 // 9:09 a.m.

Tags: #amd #ati #development #fpga #gpl #hardware #hdl #logic #nvidia #open-graphics-project #open-source #pci-x #programming

If you're a Linux nut who'll only be happy when your entire computer is fully open-source, you'll be pleased to hear that you can take a step closer to your goal thanks to the Open Graphics Project.

The project, which began touting for expert engineers to help build a graphics card free from any proprietary limitations four years ago, has announced the availability of its OGD1 graphics card according to hacker news site Hack a Day.

The specs of the OGD1 aren't likely to have AMD or Nvidia sweating just yet, but it does provide the basics of what you might need in a desktop graphics card: 256MB of DDR400 graphics memory, a pair of programmable FPGA processors to do the donkey work, a pair of DVI dual-link outputs as well as an analogue RGB output and an S-Video link for hooking up to older TVs, and a 330MHz 10-bit DAC – all hooked up to a PCI or PCI-X bus.

It's not quite ready for mainstream usage, however – the group is keen to point out to prospective purchasers that the cards are sold “blank” with no internal logic aside from a basic system of diagnostic checks. If you actually want to use your new open-source graphics card, you'll have to program the FPGAs yourself. In other words, it's a hacker's toy – not a serious contender to a retail card.

That shouldn't dishearten you, however: this method of development is, after all, how Linux started – first you get a barely-working shell to the engineers so they can tweak it and make it work better, then you provide an installable version to the enthusiasts who do the same, and eventually you end up with something the end-users can install and use with no technical knowledge required. Well, that's the theory, anyway.

As well as the requirement to own your own FPGA programming equipment – and to know how to use it in anger – you'll need pretty deep pockets: getting a card from the initial run, which lacks the economies of scale present in commercial graphics card production, is going to cost you £750 – although you do get a £50 pre-order discount. Timothy Normand Miller, of the Open Graphics Project, is quite open that the price is a “fund raiser” and doesn't represent actual development costs so far, saying that “in order for the OGP to be able to design and build more open hardware in the future, we need to raise money.

Despite the high price – and even higher barrier to entry on the technical side – the project does present a possible vision of the future of computing, split into two camps: the mass-produced closed-source world, which has the fastest hardware; and the bespoke open-source world, which is free from restrictions. It'll be interesting to see where this one goes.

Any HDL programmers fancy getting their hands on a graphics development platform, or does the price need to come down and the specification need to go up before you consider it? Share your thoughts over in the forums.