GNOME Shell adds CPU rendering support

The GNOME Shell - the project's answer to Canonical's touch-centric Unity interface - has achieved an important milestone: support for devices that don't have 3D graphics acceleration hardware.

The GNOME Shell - designed to operate with the GNOME 3 graphical user interface - was released in response to Canonical's Unity, the default desktop for Ubuntu 11.04 onwards. As well as an icon-heavy user interface, the two releases had something else in common: the requirement for 3D hardware acceleration hardware.

While that's not a problem for most modern computers - even Intel's current crop of processors has surprisingly powerful graphics processing technology built in - it can cause issues for those upgrading older devices, or for those running graphics hardware for which there is no accelerated driver available.

It also causes a more serious issue for free software enthusiasts: the vast majority of graphics hardware on the market today requires the use of a non-free driver - often supplied as a 'binary blob' - to unlock all the hardware acceleration functionality. While open-source drivers usually exist, these sometimes only offer 2D acceleration and rely on the CPU to deal with 3D legwork.

The result: some users find themselves unable to use GNOME Shell. That is to say, they have previously found themselves unable. Now, thanks to work done by a team of coders working on the Mesa/Gallium3D software stack, it's no longer a requirement to have a 3D accelerator chip to use GNOME Shell.

While GNOME3 currently falls back to a 2D experience - much like Unity falls back to Ubuntu Classic in 11.04 and Unity 2D in 11.10 - future releases will offer the same user interface regardless of the presence or absence of 3D acceleration hardware or driver support.

"These improvements allow the desktop effects to all be done on the CPU without any dependence on any GPU hardware driver," writes Michael Larabel over on Phoronix, pointing out that the move also allows GNOME Shell to easily operate on systems running in a virtual environment for which 3D acceleration drivers aren't available.

While the move will be welcomed by those keen to enjoy the GNOME Shell experience on as wide a variety of hardware as possible, it will do little to calm GNOME2 fans who continue to rail against the move to a clearly touch-centric user interface - something which is becoming increasingly common across the industry as the tablet boom shows little sign of slowing.