6 Tips For Improving Game Performance with Steam on Linux

By Chris Hoffman on January 6th, 2013

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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