Kubuntu 12.04 – Getting KDE to work with ATI Mobility Radeon HD graphics card

Well it’s taken me a few days, but I think I’ve finally got Kubuntu 12.04 64-bit installed on my laptop with the graphics drivers working correctly.

AMD ATI Graphics control panel running on Kubuntu 12.04 KDE

Why Kubuntu?

I have been a fan of Ubuntu since it first came out, until they forced Unity on us. I’ve tried to get on with Unity having tried it when they first pushed it onto the netbook remix, but just find it frustrating. It’s far too slow for my netbook (where I think the concept actually works), and I don’t like the interface for my main laptop. For the last year I first tried KDE, before I found what Linux Mint had done in combining the Gnome 3 and MATE to try and get the best of both the old and the new. I liked Mint except for two things. First there is some inconsistency, which is a little annoying. For example if you use the pull up menu rather than the pull down menu then only supports right click on the icon (I still don’t remember which one does and which doesn’t). The real problem with Mint though was that it was not stable enough for me. On a regular basis X would freeze and then one or more components would restart themselves. On a few occasions it crashed completely, which on one occasion was quite embarrassing as I was using it for a training session at the time and was hoping to show off how stable and great Linux is.

So I therefore decided to give KDE another go. I’ve used KDE on and off in the past, but really followed the Ubuntu default of Gnome for some time. KDE is now even better than it ever was. There does seam to be a few bugs in some of the applications / services, but none that compare with what I have had. As I wanted to stick with the wide choice of applications and easy of install that I’ve come to expect with Ubuntu I decided to go with Kubuntu. I also still run Ubuntu (but with xfce) on my other computers so it helps to maintain a bit of consistency.

Problems installing Kubuntu / Mint KDE and Fedora KDE

The first ting I did was tried to install Kubuntu using a USB memory stick. I was able to boot from the memory stick but when trying to install the install failed. I thought this was a problem with the installer, but now think that this may have been something else.

Leaving Kubuntu to one side for a while I then tried Mint KDE and Fedora KDE installers. Mint was the same as Kubuntu failing at the same point (Manual partitioning), but Fedora got further in the install and managed to trash my install of grub before it died on me. On the plus side there was no actual data loss (except for the partition I’d specifically asked to reformat), but being dropped to a grub prompt would have been enough to scare off newbies trying this for the first time.

After almost installing Ubuntu (that wouldn’t boot initially, but I fixed that through the bios), and almost trying the 32-bit distro, I decided that I shouldn’t really give in so easily. I thought it a bit suspicious that so many distros were failing to install and I’d also seen a few errors from Jockey (used for 3rd party drivers), so I got the feeling it had to be something to do with my laptop, either the wireless card or the graphics card. It turns out it was the latter…

Alternative install disk

So the next thing I tried was to use the Alternative install disk. This is a text based installer instead of the graphical installer used by the desktop versions. A text based installer is not nearly as bad as it sounds. It asks you all the same questions, and it just needs a bit more use of the keyboard and cursor keys rather than the mouse (a far cry from when I first started using Linux and you had to manually enter things like video refresh rates).

Once the install was complete I could login to the desktop etc. In addition my Windows partition (well I do occasionally boot into Windows – perhaps once every 3 to 6 months or so) still worked and my home and data partitions were all still intact. I did however get an error message from Jockey and I was not able to install the proprietary graphics drivers.

Don’t blame the operating system

So far this has not gone particularly smoothly, and in fact it was to get much worse before it gets better.

It is however not fair to blame this on Linux. In the defence of Linux, KDE and the various distros

Proprietary drivers do not have public source code that Ubuntu developers are free to modify. Security updates and corrections depend solely on the responsiveness of the manufacturer. Ubuntu cannot fix or improve these drivers.

If ATI (now AMD) had opened up their source code then the Linux developers would have had an opportunity to fix this.

I could have chosen to just use the free drivers, but I wanted to be able to get the most out of my 3D hardware.

If you are following this with the hope of installing the proprietary drivers yourself then I strongly suggest that you don’t unless you have a good understanding of Linux. This is not a walkthrough that can be followed by beginners without risking locking you out of your computer.

Where to go for support?

Having established that this was out of the hands of the Linux developers I went in search of updated proprietary drivers. My first port of call was the Dell website. Perhaps I was being a bit too hopeful, but Dell servers do run Linux and perhaps Dell had started to provide a bit more Linux support. Unfortunately they weren’t much help, but I was able to find out my graphics was a ATI Mobility Radeon HD (5???). I’m not sure the exact model as there are 3 different types listed in the manual depending upon the exact model, but that was enough information.

Next stop was to the AMD website. After a bit of searching I found the following driver: AMD Catalyst™ Proprietary Display Driver – Linux x86 & Linux x86_64 (Radeon)

There is a new version of the driver that was released at about the same time as Ubuntu 12.04. I downloaded that and tried to install. Unfortunately that failed with error message “DKMS part of installation failed. Please refer to /usr/share/ati/fglrx-install.log for details”. In the log it referred to a reboot being required, which I tried. Unfortunately this left me unable to login to the computer. It would go as far as the login screen, but whenever I tried to login it returned to the login prompt.

I was able to get a terminal up <ctrl> <alt> <f1> and login to that to attempt the fix. First problem then was that the wireless network didn’t come up, as that was configured within X, rather than in the init scripts. Rather than trying to configure the wireless manually using iwconfig I just connected to the Ethernet instead.

After a bit of searching I found that whilst I’d installed the headers for the basic kernel the headers that were needed were in package linux-headers-3.2.0-24-generic. I installed this using
apt-get install linux-headers-3.2.0-24-generic

and then attempted to reinstall the graphics drivers. Fortunately they installed this time using a text based setup tool.

Another reboot and I was able to login to the desktop again.

Radeon Graphics AMD Catalyst Control Center

One last problem I encountered was in trying to configure the Radeon Graphics AMD Catalyst Control Center. I could launch the read only version, but the administration link asked for a password. I entered my login password and got a failed login.

After a bit of head scratching I figured out that instead of asking for my password (as gksudo and other administrative Linux applications do) it was asking for the root password. Of course being Ubuntu based there is no root password. It is however quite simple to add a root password, although that undermines the security policy a little.

To set a root password in Kubuntu (or other Ubuntu based distribution) enter the following:

sudo -s
<enter own password>
<enter new root password>
<repeat new root password>

I was then able to use that new password to get into the AMD Catalyst Control Center


I’ve now got Kubuntu 64-bit 12.04 running on my laptop. It’s taken some getting there, but as I say it’s not the fault of the Linux developers that there was a bug in the proprietary drivers. At least AMD (ATI) have created an updated version, but installing it is far from easy and it doesn’t integrate well into most modern Linux distributions.

Unfortunately I would not recommend this method for any new users as it’s quite involved and can leave you unable to log in to Linux.