How-To Geek

6 Tips For Improving Game Performance with Steam on Linux


Steam for Linux is finally out. Whether you’re an old Linux user who’s never cared much about gaming performance or a new user dipping your toes into Linux gaming, we’ll help get those games running as smoothly as possible.

A variety of things can impact performance, from the versions of the graphics drivers you have installed to the desktop environment you’re using and the way you’ve installed Ubuntu on your computer.

Use the Best Graphics Drivers

If you’re using a year-old Ubuntu system with the default graphics drivers, you won’t see the best gaming performance possible. The launch of Steam for Linux has caused NVIDIA to take note and improve their drivers – NVIDIA says that the R310 drivers can “double the performance and dramatically reduce game loading times.” Valve has also worked with Intel to improve their drivers.

To be sure you have the best graphics drivers, ensure you’re using Ubuntu 12.04 (which is officially supported by Valve) or Ubuntu 12.10.

  • On Ubuntu 12.04: Open the Additional Drivers application from the System Settings window or the dash.
  • On Ubuntu 12.10 or later: Open the Software Sources application from System Settings or the dash and click the Additional Drivers tab.

Install the NVIDIA driver marked experimental from here. If you don’t see any NVIDIA drivers, you’re likely using onboard Intel graphics with the open-source driver. You don’t have to install any additional drivers if you’re using Intel, but be sure your operating system is updated using the Update Manager application.

Use NVIDIA Graphics Instead of Intel on an Optimus Laptop

If you’re using a laptop with switchable NVIDIA and Intel graphics, you have a bit more work to do. Switchable grahpics aren’t yet supported out-of-the-box on Ubuntu. You’ll need to install Bumblebee to make this work. We’ve covered making NVIDIA’s Optimus work on Linux and you’ll also find up-to-date steps on the Ubuntu wiki.

If you’re doing this, WebUpd8 has instructions for using the experimental NVIDIA R310 drivers with Bumblebee. You’ll want those, too.


Image Credit: Jemimus on Flickr

Log Into Steam’s Big Picture Mode From Ubuntu’s Login Screen

By default, Steam is launched as a desktop program. If you don’t want your desktop environmentgetting in the way, you can log directly into Steam’s big-picture mode from the Ubuntu login screen. This will prevent applications running in the background from slowing down your gaming and give you a seamless, full-screen gaming experience.

OMG! Ubuntu! hosts a package that will add the option to your login screen as long as you have Steam installed.


Use Full-Screen Mode

Ubuntu’s Unity desktop uses desktop compositing. Windows draw their contents off the screen and the desktop compositing manager draws them back onto the screen. This allows the Unity desktop (and other desktops such as GNOME Shell and KDE 4 with compositing enabled) to provide slick, 3D effects.

With most applications, you won’t notice any slowdown. However, if you’re playing a game, this adds additional overhead, slowing down the game. Some people have reported the redirection can reduce performance by up to 20%.

With the latest updates, both Ubuntu 12.10 and 12.04 now have the “Unredirect Fullscreen Windows” option enabled by default. When this option is enabled, full-screen games will run at maximum speed, skipping the compositing manager and its slowdowns. Ensure you’re updated using Ubuntu’s Update Manager so you can take advantage of this improvement.


Use a Non-Composited Desktop

If you do want to play 3D games in windowed mode and get maximum performance, you’ll need a non-composited desktop.

If you’re using Ubuntu 12.04, you can select Unity 2D on the login screen. Ubuntu 12.10 users will have to use a different desktop environment, as Unity 2D is no longer available.

Unity and GNOME Shell don’t allow you to disable compositing, although many other desktops do. You may want to try Xfce, KDE, or another desktop environment – just ensure you disable compositing in the desktop you choose. (Perform a Google search to learn how to disable compositing on your desktop of choice.) You’ll lose the fancy graphical effects, but windowed 3D rendering will speed up.

Don’t Use Wubi

Wubi is a very easy way to install Ubuntu. Unfortunately, the use of Wubi incurs a significant performance penalty for disk reads and writes. If you use Steam in a Wubi installation, you’ll see significantly slower load times than you will on a proper Linux partition.

Wubi is a great way to try Ubuntu, but you’ll want to set up a dual-boot system with Ubuntu on its own partition to get the best performance. Note that enabling encryption will also reduce input/output performance a bit, although it shouldn’t be as drastic as Wubi’s performance hit.

Phoronix has benchmarked Wubi’s performance impact in the past, and the results aren’t pretty.

Do you have any other Linux-specific tips for getting maximum game performance? Leave a comment and share them!

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/6/13

Comments (15)

  1. rKiller

    What can I say I don’t use Ubuntu and my PC is damn powerful not only that all games windows one run @ 60 FPS

  2. thejrcrafter

    hey guys,
    -i installed ubuntu on a chromebook (specifically the acer c7) and i wanted to know if i would experience the same lag as i would if i installed thru wubi. since chromebooks have very locked down bios, i needed to use a shell script to install ubuntu, but it makes its own partition on the hard drive for the os, it doesnt create a file on the chrome partition.

    -also, i tried adding the x-swat repo to that ubuntu installation (x-swat is a bunch of graphics drivers, google it) and every time i use the computer i got system errors that i figured out were gpu hangs. these happened like every ten seconds from the time i logged in. i was able to play portal 2 on wine, but the error windows kept interrupting gameplay. i eventually reinstalled ubuntu without x-swat and it was fine.

    i am using ubuntu 12.04 lts.

  3. Darakus

    I tried steam on Ubuntu and it worked fine as long as I was using the newest drivers. The ability to bypass a desktop environment and go right into big picture mode has potential.

    I have also tried steam on Arch Linux and it worked better. Although I had to install a couple dependencies manually. Most of the improvement I saw was from running xfce with no compositing as well as just a lighter system in general.

  4. ken

    I hope that somebody on this website will tell us how to properly install anti radeon drivers in Ubuntu and Linux Mint. So far I can’t get past that hurdle. Please somebody put up a good tutorial for that. Then we can play lots of games proper. Thanks.

  5. Stephen

    Why is every Linux article about Ubuntu? Some people actually prefer Fedora over Ubcraptu.

  6. Dave

    Nice to see you mentioned about nVidia and Intel GFX drivers, but what about AMD ones?

  7. da_bull

    @stephen, i cant vouch for the other articles, but this one is geared towards steam for linux. which is currently supported by UBUNTU.

    I understand your pain though, i use ubuntu alot and its not given a lot of cred from the linux community. Ive tried some other destros, but, for lack of web articles, i always found myself back to ubuntu. Always wanted to arch linux and build my own kernel. but as i had stated before, there arent many web articles (compared to ubuntu/debian) that will help me with that endeavor.

    …you should feel better that its a linux destro that steam is beginning to embrace.

  8. Steve S.

    Good ole Linux. Ubuntu is hated by the true Linux crowd because it makes it easier for Windblows users to try and use Linux. The Windows user likes Ubuntu because they can get web help and advice to learn and slowly move into the Linux OS. The true Linux user hates this because then they loose their “elitist” title because now there’s more people stepping into their community and possibly taking their jobs. It will never end. It’s a circle that will continue but in turn they loose out because programs and games don’t come to their community as fast as Windows.

  9. Keltari

    @Stephen – because most Linux users have abandoned Fedora long ago. Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distro right now, although I prefer Mint.

  10. Joseph

    I don’t get it. If you have Wubi, shouldn’t you run Steam and the games on Windows instead? If you already have Windows installed. Why run a game in an operating system, running on another operating system?

  11. TheFu

    Graphics drivers on Linux are not like they are on Windows – newer IS NOT always better. I’ve had the latest “stable” drivers from ATI and nVidia completely hose my system. It doesn’t happen always, but it has happened multiple times for each maker. Just a month ago, some ATI drivers (ubuntu repository) crapped out media playback for me.

    It is best to use the proprietary drivers from the distro repositories, NOT directly from the vendors. I think the vendor testing for their Linux drivers isn’t funded as well as for “other” OSes.

    @Keltari: People that use Linux for work tend to prefer RPM-based distros. At work they run RHEL or CentOS, so at home they run Fedora. It makes perfect sense. At work, I use Ubuntu Server and Debian, so at home, I prefer Ubuntu.

    I’ve never seen Ubuntu hated by the “true linux crowd.” At our LUG meetings, we help and discuss all versions on all platforms from routers, to media center devices of all sizes, to Android, to netbooks, notebooks, desktops and servers. The smallest ARM computers or the 42 rack servers are all welcome.

  12. Agnar150

    You see Linux is always a problem. Just run Windows your experience will be better. By the time you figure out and fix the performance issues, no one will be using Steam anymore and have moved on to other platforms

  13. Huxley

    I used the proprietary AMD drivers (HD6950) and they cause all kinds of problems. Quit a game and the screen gets stuck on half black/half game screen; if the PC sleep it comes back to a black screen and I have to reboot; torn images in desktop effects. etc
    I went back to the open sources ones and they work fine. Haven’t tried any intensive games though. Civ 4 under wine did get choppy at full res, but at least it works.

    Tempted to get an Nvidia card now if I’m going to play more intensive games on linux.

  14. GamingOnLinux

    AMD drivers work okay on Linux, but just okay. They can be finnicky. The nVidia drivers are much better. Hopefully someday AMD will improve their Linux support but for the time being, nVidia is the best way to game on Linux.

  15. Peter

    I have to agree with Ken’s statement. We need a more streamlined way to install ATI drivers on Ubuntu/Linux Mint. I don’t like or use Intel and NVIDIA products, I like AMD and ATI, but I don’t like how much of a pain it is to try and install the proprietary drivers for ATI.

    Once ATI starts supporting Steam for Linux a lot better, I will completely make the switch from Windows to Linux Mint 14 dual boot with Ubuntu 12.10.

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