📅 June 17, 2017
Given a low-powered A10-7860K system for everyday tasks, is it possible to install a GTX 1050 graphics card for improved graphics?
Absolutely, but be prepared to encounter issues involving the required proprietary drivers needed to make the 1050 run with Linux.
Having acquired a 1050, here are my delightful results with Linux Mint 18.1.
Why Do This?
AMD APUs are handy, all-in-one processors. They already handle video output, so a dedicated graphics card is not required. However, if you have seen an APU motherboard, it usually has three video output ports: DVI, HDMI, and the noise-susceptible VGA. For me, the VGA output is useless due to EMI. To increase the number of digital video ports, a dedicated graphics card is needed.
3D graphics performance is also lackluster with an APU. An A10 only yields about 6-8 FPS with the Valley benchmark, but even a lowly 1050 card can produce ~40 FPS in Linux Mint 18.1 at the same 1920×1080 resolution and 2xAA.
For everyday usage, such as web browser and GIMP, an APU is sufficient, but for 3D programming, such as WebGL, a dedicated graphics card (with more video ports) is much better.
Why choose a 1050?
Price. Plain and simple.
The intended system did not require high-end processing, but it needed something–anything–better than the A10’s graphics and the motherboard’s built-in VGA port. Had the 1060 been on sale again, I would have chosen that. Given that, right now, the 1060 is practically twice the cost of a 1050, the 1050 it was.
“Why not a 1050 Ti?”
The 1050 Ti is more expensive and offers little improvement over the 1050 for what I want.
I chose the EVGA GTX 1050 SC (Superclocked) card for its low price and slightly faster clock speeds just in case I needed a card faster than the stock 1050.
Proprietary Driver Installation
Did you notice the word proprietary in the title above? It is not an option. In order to use the 1050 (or the 1060) in Linux, you MUST install the proprietary Nvidia driver.
However, do not download the provided Linux driver from nvidia.com. I had trouble with that installation, and the card did not function properly afterwards.
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:graphics-drivers/ppa
sudo apt-get update
At this point, I would recommend powering off the system and connecting the 1050. Connect your monitor to the 1050. When you boot to a desktop, Cinnamon will crash and enter a fallback mode. This is okay for now. I installed the drivers from software rendering mode, and it worked.
Now, open Synaptic and install nvidia-381 and nvidia-settings. You can also install these from the command line. nvidia-381 installs the latest 381.22 driver as of the time of this writing, and nvidia-settings installs the Nvidia control panel that provides information about the graphics card.
This installation worked okay with Linux Mint 18.1 64-bit and kernel 4.10.17. There was no need to roll back to an earlier kernel for driver installation. If you have trouble (like I did a few times), you might need to connect a monitor to the motherboard’s video output so you can enter BIOS and force integrated graphics on or off in order to tell BIOS to use the PCIe card instead. It will depend upon your system, so be prepared for trial and error. Proprietary Nvidia drivers are a weak point in Linux that can add hours of frustration.
Another HDMI Port?
If you need another HDMI port, a DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter is a handy device that works well. I experienced no signal loss or distortion when connecting an HDMI monitor through it.
What is the 3D Performance Like?
Performance is fairly decent for a budget graphics card. I ran Unigine’s Valley and Heaven benchmarks in both Linux Mint 18.1 and Windows 7 to see what it could do and to compare it with other results.
“Will the 1050 SC cause the electric bill to soar?”
Here is comparison between system idle and system running the Valley/Heaven benchmarks. Observed while monitoring wattage using the Kill-A-Watt power meter.
At system idle, the computer draws about 69-76 watts (W). Wattage fluctuates during usage (even at idle), so these values are approximates. Curiously, the system with a 1050 or 1060 card at idle drew no more power than without a GPU installed.
However, using the video card increased the wattage. Another curious note is that the APU alone caused the system to draw about 133W during the benchmarks. Again, this is total system power, not any individual component.
As expected, the 1060 SC consumed the most power at 220W during the benchmarks. Then again, the 1060 is about twice as fast as the 1050.
“The 1050 has a fan. Is the card noisy?”
Not really, but here is a curious point: The fan is always spinning. With the 1060, the fan is usually off at low usage. That means no spinning at idle or at very low load. Only when the 1060 is under more load will the fan activate.
But the situation is different for the 1050, which has a smaller heatsink. The fan is always spinning from what I observed. Even at idle or low load, the 1050’s fan is spinning away.
Is the 1050 noisy? No. The fan is quiet, and at idle or low usage, it is practically inaudible. I can hear it if close enough, but it is silent at about half a meter way. When under greater load, the fan spins faster, but the noise level remains about the same. This is different from the 1060. When the 1060’s fan increases, so does the noise — and the 1060 can become very noisy at 100% fan speed. The 1050 remains fairly quiet even under higher loads.
Stuttering 4K Videos
“What about 4K playback?”
Another reason for installing a better GPU was to experience smoother 4K video playback since the newer Nvidia cards support hardware-based 4K decoding. Got to have that. 4K videos stuttered on the APU even though 2K and below played fine. (Even 2K videos could have used better hardware for playback.)
However, I encountered a curious incident: After installing the 1050, 4K videos still stuttered just as bad a before. Why?
I tested with the 1060. Same thing. The faster 1060 showed stuttering 4K videos.
I spent much time attempting to resolve this issue to no avail. I was using VLC to play back the videos, but no matter what settings I changed, the result was the same stuttering mess. Were the graphics cards not powerful enough? Was there an issue with the proprietary driver?
It turns out that the hardware and Linux were not at fault. It was VLC, the media player I was using. I had installed version 2.2.2 from the repository, and, after researching similar issues from others, all recommended upgrading to 2.2.4+ or the beta version 3.0. I did, but the same result occurred. No improvement.
However, I noticed that other players played back 4K videos better. In fact, one player, called mpv, plays back 4K video flawlessly. mpv is available in the repository, and it can be installed from Synaptic. Look for mpv and gnome-mpv (better interface in my opinion).
Sure enough, the new player fixed the issue. All 4K videos, and all other videos including 2K, played back smoothly without any stuttering. It was beautiful to watch!
Apparently, VLC has stinky 4K support. In fact, I discovered that any high-resolution video has trouble playing in VLC. Given that VLC was my main media player, I did not think to try something else until later.
Interestingly, 4K videos play back smoothly without a GPU. Using just the A10-7860K, 4K videos play perfectly when using mpv. However, they stutter like mad when using VLC. Even Xplayer (the media player bundled with Linux Mint 18.1) played 4K videos smoothly with an A10-7860K APU. (Xplayer did show slight stuttering at a few points, so mpv is better.)
You want this program in order to monitor your new graphics card. Temperatures and xorg configurations are possible in addition to other settings. Install nvidia-settings from Synaptic.
Compiz and desktop effect animations are smooth and fluid compared to the APU. With many windows open and graphics activity (such as playing videos), I can notice a lower, stuttering framerate with the APU when utilizing desktop effects (expo, workspace switching, and more). The 1050 seems to handle higher graphics loads better, and all animations are pretty to watch in silky smooth, butter-gliding performance. The graphics upgrade is worth the improved desktop effect performance — especially if you use multiple monitors and high resolutions.
Increased Boot Time
With the 1050/1060 and proprietary drivers, cold boot time tends to increase by about 5-10 seconds compared to the APU alone. Uninstalling the proprietary driver and removing the 1050/1060 from the system returns to a shorter boot time.
Faster Browser Graphics
The EVGA 1050 SC is a budget graphics card that is a step up from APU graphics. If you need 3D performance for games and development, then this is a good low-end improvement. If you only plan to use your system to browse web sites, write emails, draw with Krita, use GIMP, or play 4K videos, then the APU’s graphics are more than enough. It depends upon what you want to do.
For the purpose, the 1050 fits the need well, but if the 1060 had cost less than its current price, then I would have chosen the 1060 over the 1050. The 1060 is almost twice as fast, and it has five video ports compared to three on the 1050. Plus, the 1060 is 100% silent at system idle and low usage.
For what it does, the 1050 is a low-cost upgrade to a graphics subsystem. It is 100% compatible with Linux, and the only hurdle is the proprietary graphics driver installation. It might take a few tries to get the drivers installed, but once up and running, the 1050 performs well. It is fun watching 3D performance jump from ~7FPS in Valley to a smoother 39FPS.
The 1050 is worth looking into for a build on the budget. Have fun!