AX Graphical Display Server

AX is a replacement X-Windows or X-11 server based on X11R5 and is available for most 386-, 486-, and Pentium-based UNIX systems (including our favorite—Linux).

The Accelerated-X (AX) Graphical Display Server version 1.1 is sold by X-Inside Incorporated. AX is a replacement X-Windows or X-11 server based on X11R5 and is available for most 386-, 486-, and Pentium-based UNIX systems (including our favorite—Linux).

The AX product is under continuous development, and as of this writing is available as AX version 1.2 Beta/4 for beta testers and AX version 1.1 for users who wish to purchase the current stable version (1.1). The product arrived in a plain white envelope which contained a single 1.44MB diskette, a single 3/8 inch-thick User Guide, and a two-page release note.

System requirements: any 386/486/Pentium system with 4MB of memory, Linux, at least 4MB of free disk space under /usr, a mouse, and a supported graphics board and monitor (more about this later).

System recommendations: any 386/486/Pentium system with at least 8MB of memory more than the OS requires, a 3-button mouse, swap space which is 2/3 times the amount of system memory, and a high-end graphics card and monitor.

As a general recommendation, X-inside suggests, as do I, that you get the XFree86 distribution and get it working in at least one graphics mode for your system. You will at least need the XFree86 distribution installed, as AX is only a server, not a complete X distribution.

Before you start, you will need the graphics board name and vendor, the amount of graphics memory, the graphics chip set, the display capabilities of the board; the monitor name and vendor, the maximum resolution, and maximum refresh rate; the national language of the keyboard in use, the mouse name and vendor, whether the mouse is 2 or 3 button, and the mouse interface (and if it uses a serial interface, then you will need the name of the serial device the mouse is using).

With this information, the install action is simple and straightforward. As root, insert the diskette, cd /usr/X386/lib/X11 , then tar -xvzf /dev/fd0 (assuming your 1.44MB is /dev/fd0). Next, run the install script AcceleratedX/bin/Xinstall , which creates two directories, /usr/X11/bin/Xaccel and /usr/X11/bin/Xsetup, then renames the existing X server to /usr/X11/bin/X.LINUX and makes a link from /usr/X11/bin/X to the Xaccel server. Lastly, run Xsetup to choose your graphics board, chip set, resolution modes, mouse, etc., to create the configuration file /etc/Xaccel.ini. When you exit Xsetup, you are ready to run AX.

Don't make any other changes to your system or to X-Windows. Furthermore, AX is even set up to be uninstall friendly. Xinside provides a script AcceleratedX/bin/Xuninstall which does the bulk of the work. Several files are still left on your system which you must remove by hand—/etc/Xaccel.ini and any $HOME/.Xaccel.ini files in user directories.

I took the time to run some benchmarks with the xbench suite to determine if the manufacturer's claims were real (up to 450,000 xstones and getting faster everyday). The test system was a 486/DX33 with 16MB of memory and VLB. I tested a ISA ET-4000 (9427 xstones), ISA Orchid F1280 (59,189 xstones), and a VLB Genoa Phantom ET4000/W32 (112,442 xstones). The benchmark numbers that were generated matched very well with those available from Xinside. Therefore, I feel that Xinside's benchmarks are true and believable (for more information, see their WWW site, send them e-mail, or call them). Generally, I found that AX produced a speed increase between 10 and 500 percent in various X-Window operations with higher performance gains dependent on better (read “more expensive”) graphics boards in comparison to XFree86. The AX server has direct support for almost all of the high-end graphics boards (in the price range of $250-$2500).

The most amazing part of the AX product is the configuration (or the re-configuration) process. Xsetup is a menu-driven configuration program. Simply choose your graphics board/chip set, resolution, etc., and the Xsetup program does the rest. AX has graphics board support for 170 different boards and over 36 monitors. If, however, you decide you need written instructions, the user manual provides fourteen pages of configuration details and about forty pages of technical details. I am pleased to say I did not need to use the manual. Xsetup and AX did what I expected.

The environment for which I use Linux and X-Windows often requires changing graphics boards and graphics monitors. Before AX, I might spend one-half of a day just reconfiguring X-Windows (especially for each new graphics card and monitor combination). After AX, it took about 2-5 minutes to reconfigure (generally, it took more time to close the computer case than to reconfigure).

AX has support for a variety of hardware that I did not get a chance to test, but does warrant mention. Most notably, AX contains multi-headed X-server support which allows up to 8 graphics cards to be installed and in use and permits the cursor to be moved from one screen to another (generally, each screen is displayed on its own monitor). Each board may have different resolutions and depths. Generally, all displays share all pointing devices. AX also has built-in support for graphics digitizing tablets which allows you to use a tablet instead of a mouse. Most common tablets are supported.

While AX is a good product, it is not perfect (but who can honestly say their software is bug free?). One of the mice I used during testing was not correctly identified as being a three-button mouse (instead it functioned as a two-button variety). This only happened after a cold boot; otherwise it was identified correctly. Also, the release notes warn that the VGA console may be set to a non-standard character mode (i.e. other than 80x25 mode) during the Linux boot. If you are running in such a mode, upon returning from AX your console will have its contents skewed. Currently, there is no workaround from AX. Xinside suggests that you use the 80x25 standard mode and does not consider this a bug because they have valid technical reasons for this behavior which they will explain to technically curious users.

I have been running AX for several months (during this review process) and have not had a single problem with compatibility or with stability. The AX product just seems to work. If your system requirement includes high performance X-Window graphics, then you should be taking a serious look at AX. To receive more information, contact X-Inside Incorporated via e-mail at info@xinside.com, or by ftp at ftp.xinside.com, or at their website on www.xinside.com.

Mark A. Ganter is an Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington. Mark has enjoyed Linux since the early days—version 0.12. His professional interests lie in the area of computational geometry and computer graphics. You may reach Mark at ganter@u.washington.edu.

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