Need for Speed: PS3 Linux!

Turn your PS3 into a dual-boot game machine and Linux box.

Can we get the hottest video game system from Christmas 2006 and turn it into a Linux box? You bet!

If you're still thinking about video game systems as being just a wee bit more technologically advanced than an old Coleco or Atari 800, you've got quite a surprise coming the first time you crack open the proverbial hood. Although the new Nintendo Wii (pronounced “we”, oddly enough) has some slick hardware, as does the Microsoft Xbox 360 device, the real winner in the technology race is the rather amazing Sony PlayStation 3 system.

Built around an IBM Cell Broadband Engine processor, the PS3 includes a high-def Blu-ray drive, four USB 2.0 ports, an NVIDIA graphics processor with 256MB of separate video RAM, support for CompactFlash, SD and memory stick devices, Ethernet, built-in 802.11b and g, Bluetooth, an HDMI port and support for all the video resolutions you can imagine, including 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i and the holy grail, 1080p. Sounds like a computer, not a video game system, doesn't it?

The Blu-ray optical drive system boasts support for most of the older disc formats too, including CD-ROM, CDR+W, DVD, DVD-ROM, DVD-R and DVD+R. If you're not familiar with the battlefield of HD video, Blu-ray can support up to 54GB of data per disk, which is pretty amazing if you're still using a CD burner! The other HD disk format is HD-DVD, but that's not supported. On the other hand, Blu-ray already has more than a hundred movies in retail channels, so the PS3 is also quite a capable HD video player.

The Cell processor itself is a pretty amazing piece of hardware, sufficiently so that Terra Soft Solutions (Loveland, Colorado) has worked with Sony to create a PS3-based supercomputer center. Imagine, hundreds of rackmounted PS3 devices running complex weather simulations rather than WWII games. The Cell processor runs at speeds greater than 4GHz and can handle 256 billion calculations per second, with 2.5MB of memory on the chip itself, squeezed in with a processor design that uses 234 million transistors (www.ibm.com/developerworks/power/cell).

One more important spec: with a 60GB hard drive included, the PS3 will run you about $599 US at most retail outlets, if they even have PS3 units in stock. And games? Well, there are a few dozen available at this point with an average price of about $60 US, and the standard game rental channels (GameFly, Hollywood Video and so on) should have PS3 games available for rent by the time you read this article.

Okay, so it's a darn cool computer with some terrific capabilities hiding in a sleek black shell, but is it really just useful for playing video games or can you do something else with it—can you turn it into a Linux system?

I Admit, I Liked WebTV

Perhaps the most obvious question to ask is why bother? I mean, if you buy a PlayStation 3, you're going to be investing in the fastest next-generation gaming console on the planet. Why the heck would you want to boot in to a sterile Linux environment instead?

Well, the answer isn't because the PS3 replaces your regular Linux box if you're a geek. To me, the question of running Linux on the PS3 revolves much more around whether you can essentially add functionality to the PS3 for households that don't have a computer. What if you could run all the PS3 games, watch Blu-ray HD movies and gain full interactivity with the Internet too?

It's the 21st-century answer to the late, underappreciated WebTV device. Tech geeks never quite got the point that a lightweight device with a wireless keyboard that hooked up to a regular TV was never intended to compete with a $5,000 Alienware Gaming PC. But WebTV still had great utility to those people who didn't want—or couldn't figure out—a personal computer, be it a Mac or PC. Simple, simple, simple. WebTV offered a Web browser and e-mail system and not much else, and for many people, that was just fine.

Think along these lines, and Linux on the PS3 suddenly seems like something that's worth doing, because the PS3 hardware is so darn powerful and capable. The target audience isn't people who could easily run Windows Vista, Mac OS X Leopard or Linux on a separate computer, but those people who would find the lightweight solution just fine. As a result, my primary testing for this solution are those two killer apps: Firefox for Web surfing and Thunderbird for e-mail.

First, Configuration Requirements

Sony actually contracted with Terra Soft Solutions to produce a version of its Yellow Dog Linux (henceforth YDL) for the PlayStation 3, a smart move considering that Linux people were going to cobble together a solution anyway. Terra Soft initially produced YDL for the IBM-chip-based Mac PowerPC systems, offering up a quite capable Linux alternative to Mac OS X.

The PS3 doesn't include any useful input devices (other than a game controller), so you need to buy a USB keyboard and mouse or, perhaps, just dig one out of your closet like I did. You'll also want a USB Flash drive for a temporary boot drive. Fortunately, I have a 2GB SanDisk Flash drive that worked just fine. They're about $70 US at your local computer shop. Ironically, my Flash disk came from Microsoft, with Vista promotional materials pre-installed—not anymore!

Start by partitioning the hard disk in your PS3 so you have space to install Linux. This is pretty easy. Boot up the PS3, then go to Settings→System Settings→Format Utility, choose Format Hard Disk, say yes to the questions about reformatting the entire disk, and then eventually you'll be able to choose a Custom partition. Choose the Allot 10GB to the Other OS, which still gives you 50GB in the bigger unit or 20GB in the smaller unit (the 30GB model of the PS3) for games and other PS3 stuff. We've come a long way from Pong, somehow....

Now, it's time to turn to your removable drive, whether you're going to use a Flash drive like I did or try a CompactFlash, SD card or similar. You need to create a directory ps3, and then a subdirectory therein called otheros, and download two files, one from the Sony Web site (www.playstation.com/ps3-openplatform, save it as otheros.self) and one from Terra Soft Solutions (www.terrasoftsolutions.com/support/installation/ps3/otheros.bld, save it as otheros.bld).

Armed with both of these files (total size is about 8MB, by the way, so my 2GB drive is vast overkill), eject your drive from your PC or Mac and insert it into one of the USB ports on the PS3 itself. You'll also want to burn a full YDL DVD installation disk based on the OS you can download for free from the Terra Soft Solutions site, or you can just buy an installation package that includes both an install and source DVD disk, installation guide and lots of additional goodies, including six months of support, for $99 US.

Now, it's time to install Linux. Let's hope it doesn't mess up my fancy $600 video game system, eh?

To install, go to Settings→System Settings→Install Other OS, and the bootloader should be found automatically and be selectable. As always with the PS3, the X button on the controller selects the specified choice and lets you proceed.

Uh oh, I hit my first snag, with the bootloader complaining “No appricable [sic] install data was found” (yes, they didn't fix the spelling error). Because the file from Terra Soft initially unpacked with the filename exoboot, I tried renaming it thusly to see what happens. Nope, somehow that meant that the PS3 didn't find any possible external bootloader. Ah, perhaps it's a Mac versus PC problem, because I downloaded and copied the files onto the USB device with my Mac. Okay, I reformatted the thumbdrive, redownloaded and re-installed the two files onto the USB drive with my trusty Windows XP device.

That was the problem—most confusing, because on the Mac I saw a download of otheros.bld.gz that unzipped to a file called exoboot, which I simply renamed to otheros.bld. It was corrupted somehow, because when I downloaded the two files onto the thumbdrive from the PC and then tried to install the OS, it worked like a charm!

Now, it's time to tell the PS3 that you want to boot in to the new system, rather than the default PS3 operating system. This is done by going to Settings→System Settings→Default System and selecting Other OS. Before you reboot, however, install the YDL install DVD and hook up your USB keyboard and mouse.

Flip the power switch to reboot the PlayStation 3, and after a few seconds, it'll read the install DVD and pop up with the familiar penguin and a long stream of boot messages, just as us Linux folks are used to by this point in time. You'll then get a prompt kboot: at which point you can simply press Return to boot YDL or type in boot-game-os to get back to the world of the PS3.

Tip: you also can reboot into the Game OS by holding down the power button for five seconds when you power on. It'll ignore the Linux partition from then on, however, until you go into the System Settings and choose Default System→Other OS again.

After a minute or two of streaming text, you'll get to the YDL Version 5.0 install screen in Anaconda, where you can now start clicking on Next until your mouse button gets tired. Actually, just a few clicks in you'll find that the system complains that “The partition table on device sda was unreadable” and asks if you want it to initialize the drive, erasing all data. You do want to do that, and as always, I recommend you choose automatic partitioning.

Figure 1. YDL

Figure 2. Installing YDL

Figure 3. YDL Partitioning Warning

Figure 4. YDL Checks for Dependencies

The rest of the installation is pretty typical of a Linux system, with root passwords and so on. All told, it took about an hour to install everything onto the PlayStation 3 from the YDL install DVD—perfect time to check your e-mail or grab a cup of tea!

Finally, finally, a Reboot button lets me restart the PS3 with its newly installed other OS. Compared to the beautiful PlayStation 3 user interface, I have to say that a Linux reboot sequence is sure ugly!

Again, as with a typical Linux install, I now see a series of first boot configuration options, including setting the date and time, specifying an initial nonroot user and, unlike many Linux installations in my experience, the YDL for PS3 installation correctly recognizes and configures the system for the PS3 soundcard.

One login later, and I'm running the X Window System with Enlightenment as the theme and find that Firefox is already conveniently installed. Even better, the system has by default correctly found my DHCP server and configured itself so that I'm on-line and ready to go.

______________________

Dave Taylor has been hacking shell scripts for over thirty years. Really. He's the author of the popular "Wicked Cool Shell Scripts" and can be found on Twitter as @DaveTaylor and more generally at www.DaveTaylorOnline.com.

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Sony are major dicks!

Anonymous's picture

Well as you mentioned above, Sony have been dick in restricting the RSX from linux distros.

Seriously, why do they think, people using the ps3 as a pc will lessen their games sales? If I had a dated pc (which I happen to have lol), I would rather save the money saved for an upgrade to my pc (or a splash for a new system), by using my ps3 as a fully functioning pc for gaming.

With all that saved cash, I could buy more ps3 games, PSN content and games, than if I had to buy a new pc.

The only games Sony would then ever have to worry about me not buying for the ps3, would be pc only titles (titles I would buy anyway even if I did not have a ps3). Every other game that is multi platform would see me buying the ps3 version, since it would work hassle free, with the sony controller and have trophy support.

Well let us hope Sony reverse this decision in future updates or someone manages a work around to Sony's lockout (I would be happy to donate to yourself if you were ever interested in doing this ;), I am sure there are thousands of other ps3 owners thinking along my lines, you could be looking at a nice sum for retirement lol).

Woops got so carried away

Anonymous's picture

Woops got so carried away bashing Sony, I forgot to ask my initial question I had;

Is it possible to install a usb linux distro to my usb flash drive, then install it to the ps3? If that is not possible, is it possible to make/download a live cd of the usb linux distro, then use that to install to the usb flash drive?

Basically I do not want full linux capability (since I am noob at it lol), all I want it for is to be able to play back unsupported video formats on my ps3 (.mkv .h246 etc). I would prefer to watch these videos on my larger lcd than my small pc screen ;). Also would not mind playing some Monkeys island on the ps3 :D, does scumm emulator even work for linux? I would think about other retro consoles to emulate, but I still have my nes, snes, megadrive, master system and atari st lol.

noob

barry foye's picture

i want to put linux on my ps3 so i can play pc games on it like the new call of duty world at war, day of defeat and other such games, i'm also looking forward to the new empire|total war game.

i only recently discovered that i could put linux on my ps3 (as my title points out i'm just a noob to all this).

the reason being is that my pc is now quite dated and is not up to the task of running new games, i have no problem springing for a new pc but before i do would like to see if the ps3 works instead.

can any one give me a good answer with lay terms as my programme knowledge and what not is quite non existant.

i'm sorry if i'm bothering people with my lack of understanding, but it's hard to find answers online without trawling through post after post of half answers, slagging off and mis information and this post seems to have people who know what their talking about and good information

thanks in advance :-)

Because Sony choose to be a

Anonymous's picture

Because Sony choose to be a dick, they decide lock out RSX GPU on the PS3, thus the linux system only has limited power using the cell processors. Most mordern PC games can not run on a PS3 based Linux. Another reason for sony to lock out the GPU is that if people are just going to play PC games on their system, they won't make any money on the PS3 games. Remember every PS3 Sony sells they lose about 200 bucks(2006 estimate). Now with the new systems, with only 2 usb, not backward compatible with PS2 games and no media card reader slot. They still lose about 30-50 bucks per system. Not only Sony is losing in market shares in console, they are losing in game sales as well. I search a long time on eaby to get my hand on one of the used PS3 original 60GB, but it was worth it, consider the system cost 800 bucks to make and I got it for 460 on ebay. If you want to play your old PS2 games and want enough USB port so you don't have pull and plug just to get to your SD card stuff, get the original 60GB.

LJ Calls that article In-Depth?

zakhur's picture

I read the article.

Then I read it again.

Oh, sigh, linux isn't a multimedia powerhouse, just like it hasn't been for 10 years. THAT is the message that stuck in my mind.

Well, gee, if all you look at is RH/Fedora where the focus is servers, that is the conclusion you will reach.

But it isn't accurate.

I see more help requests from desktop users of Fedora than any other distro. Occasionally someone will find some hardware that MEPIS won't install on and detect AND set up, but not often. Yellow Dog isn't Fedora Core, but it is not far away. At least Terrasoft is showing some testosterone in selecting e17. I have had that running on one of my systems for a year and I still like its tidyness.

The fact is, there ARE distros out there that work out of the box with tunes and DVD play and such. Some are pretty beta, yet, like ArkLinux, which holds a lot of promise for WinSheep, but has some weird crashes of multimedia desktop apps, especially internet radio. (I defy you to find one with fewer clicks to install, or with a mission control that looks more like the one in WinXP), so if they ever get enough support to get the bugs under control, maybe the author can write a happy article.

And then there is that French company, Mandriva, which oriented on desktop users and gained a pretty loyal following. Despite a LOT of mistakes, they have survived, and are growing, and have now released a Beta Corporate Desktop. It is not what a linux user would love, as most of the update tools don't work (being disabled to support a new install/update scheme called FIBRIC) and it is based on their moving bug target, Cooker, right on the bleeding edge.

A few days ago, I entered the local Fry's to look at laptops. I had two requirements in mind. 1) The Keyboard had to fit my oversized hands at least as well as any ordinary keyboard, and the blasted touchpad mouse had to be capable of being disabled so my hands would not activate it when I was typing, and 2) It had to do 3D desktop in Linux. Lesser requirements were tunes and DVD play. I brought along a test kit. It was on a 2G USB Memory Stick.

I booted from Mandriva Flash, a Dane-Electric USB memory with about 1.1G taken up by the system, and checked, to the utter amazement of the salesperson. I found 4 that did 3D, but all had dinky keyboards, so I left without a new laptop. The salesperson was fascinated and played with the office tools for a while.

The salesperson asked why I carried a bootable system on a stick. I explained that when traveling, I might have to use a computer in a hotel business center or an office. I needed something that could pretend to be part of a windows network and which would leave no traces, taking my business results with it. I had added a little software to the stick, UML and emacs, and the windows domain stuff, but otherwise it was the same as it left the factory.

Well I can't blame Terrasoft for using FC/RH as their baseline. They, too are concentrating on servers. And SONY's selecting them was obviously a marriage de convenance as they were the only ones close to producing linux for the PS3.

Concentrating on servers has been the safe course for linux distros. Those who didn't, often did not do well as a business enterprise. Storm Linux? Mandrakesoft? (They emerged from their own ashes, but were in bankruptcy for a while) ArkLinux? (Bero's Titanic capabilities carry that one, but no commercial possibility seems likely) Symphony OS? (A very good idea, but again it is the effort of people who are one step from the poor farm, largely because they are working on it).

I contribute $ when I can, and I contribute effort, bug reports, and sometimes code when I have the time.

Anyway, so the linux available for the PS3 is NOT a multimedia giant. There are linices out there that ARE. And the path to conversion has been paved by having a working linux with real tools already on the box. And someone could probably do something interesting with Yellow Dog and the source rpms for Mandriva or Arklinux, or by making packages from source tarballs. If I were not fully engaged in something interesting for consumers, making use of linux for a revolutionary product, it might be me.

But sighing about the lack of this or that won't solve the problem. I hope the impression I received from the article was not the message most others perceived. It sounds like someone frustrated and ready to give up on linux.

PS2 Linux is better

Paulo Pinto's picture

I confess I suffered a big disappointment with PS3's Linux support.

I own the PS2 Linux kit and was hoping to get a similar support for PS3.

However that is not the case as we found out.

So currently if you want to develop homebrew games for the new generation of consoles, the only solution is the 360 with XNA.

I don't accept the excuses that some people are giving on the Net by saying that we could just make use of the SPEs for a software rasterizer. We have 3D hardware support, so we should be allowed to access it, at least partially like on PS2 Linux.

Dumbed down hardware

johnzbesko's picture

I've installed YDL on our family PS3 with the expectation that I could play videos from my PC over our home LAN and on our large screen HDTV. Alas, it is possible to get video to play (xine, mplayer) but not in fullscreen mode. This is a result of a handicapped video driver that X in YDL must use. How disappointing to find out the PS3, with its state of the art graphics, cannot play linux games as well as my PC.

When can we expect an improvement?

Dumbed Down Software

zakhur's picture

Actually, software written for an Intel or AMD 64-bit processor cannot be expected to perform any better on a CELL.

You have your Power Processing component, much like the CPU of Intel or AMD in the sense that it is a RISC with some microprogramming, which does some execution reordering, branch prediction, etc, and off to the side you have eight Synergistic Processing Engines WITHOUT branch prediction, aggressive prefetching, or any of the things we have come to expect processors to do invisibly or in the background. On the PS3, 7 of those SPEs are available, one being used by the system.

You have to consider loop unrolling, multiple buffering (yes the SPU has instructions to access its own huge cache and DMA to interleave fetches from main memory), and the extensive use of arrays in designing the algorithms. The SPE has MANY instructions that are SIMD (Single Instruction, Multiple Data) like the SSE instructions on the Intel Processor or the AMD, so feeding the SPE arrays to process gets things done in a hurry.

The programming has to be different to take advantage of the many hardware threads available. It even requires a different way of thinking about algorithms. It is easy to feed the SPE standard programming that would result in much slower execution than on a more conventional CPU.

So the answer to your question is when we have better software tools (in progress) and when we have people who have trained themselves to program efficiently on the CELL Broadband Engine. I think a year will see people doing things with CELL than no one today believes to be possible, like converting video streams on the fly from one format or scanning method to another, not in hours but in seconds, or rendering images of 20000x16000 in full animation also on the fly.

The really nice thing about organizing algortihms for the CELL is that if performance is not sufficient, it can be improved without redesign by adding more CELLs in parallel.

Maybe now is a good time to make practical use of Oz and Mozart. Over distributed networks, its fault-intolerance made it mostly impractical for mission-critical apps, but now... With the distributed net on a single chip, things might be much improved.

I think that if sony

Angel Genchev's picture

I think that if sony released the full specifications on ps3 hardware - very soon, if not - unpredictable.
For linux games it depends on how difficult is to implement 3D support. I`m wondering what ps3 is using to render 3d - a 3D chip or it`s software that`s running over cell-processor cores.

3D on the PS3

Ysangkok's picture

No hardware-accelerated 3D on the PS3. No one has released drivers. X.org runs on generic drivers.

PS3 Linux

Dan's picture

Um... it is linux. Write your own drivers. That is the ultimate beauty of linux. You want it to do something? Do it yourself don't wait for the driver to be written by someone else, then post it to a website and let others enjoy the fruit of your labor.

It may be the ultimate beauty of Linux, but...

Gamechaser001's picture

It may be the ultimate beauty of Linux, but not everybody can do programming, I can't understand heads or tails on how to program, i'm lucky to know my way around the terminal/command prompt let alone how to program my own Linux software, why not have somebody who knows what they are doing create the software, put it on a website, then have us programmingly challenged Linux users get a peice of the pie?

If Sony would provide

Anonymous's picture

If Sony would provide documentation on their video device, it would be much, much easier to do so.

Simply go to IBM and get the Cell BE specs...

YourMaMa's picture

The PS3 has IBM's Cell BE processor. No need for video/graphics chip as the 7 SPEs can easily crunch all video/graphics requirements. Simply need to be programmed correctly - SONY is obviously doing it in their PS3 games....

Not really

Anonymous's picture

The PS3 has an nVidia GPU, similar to what you'd find on a 3D card in your desktop. Professional game titles for PS3 offload 3D rendering to the nVidia GPU and use the Cell for other things, like a realtime physics engine.
nVidia would have to release a PPC Linux driver before the GPU would work, and I believe Sony may have to allow you to access the GPU anyway.

Any updates to the video drivers?

faheyd's picture

Any updates to the video drivers?

I'm not buying a PS3 until there are existing accelerated video drivers for Linux. And no, I'm not writing them myself as there are plenty of smarter people available for that chore.

Better Drivers

Dave's picture

Since you asked faheyd, the answer is "sorta".

Unsolo has developed a SPU accellerated setup that can let X manage to run full 1080p movies without a problem (but still plenty of bugs to hammer away at, it's a Google summer of code project now as well) no matter what firmware version you wish to use. If you stay below version 2.10 firmware, there is another project that was able to get DMA access to the RSX directly and provide basically the same thing.

As you might guess, this isn't what many of us would like which is a "real" RSX driver courtesy of Sony or Nvidia (a binary that isn't open source would be acceptable) to provide easy access to 2D and 3D accelleration. There are also at least some gains being made at useing the SPU's to do some of the "harder" work that the PPE just isn't good enough for, like H264 encoding/decoding (currently a 1080 H264 movie won't playback smoothly, the PPE just doesn't have the power on it's own for this). The main issue on the PS3 under Linux is the fact that while there is a decent amount of software available (thanks to Mac's use of PowerPC for all those years), almost all of it is run entirely on the PPE and can't be easily ported to use the "real" power of the Cell B/E which is the SPU's.

While currently some of the access to "good" gameing and multimedia is still only available from a quick reboot into the GameOS, Linux is getting closer and definately filling in some of the gaps. You can create a decent Freevo or Myth frontend, have a good Internet Browser, or even setup a DVR on the Linux side plus get some real productivity apps. Things are getting better even if the pace is slower than most of us want, even Sony is helping out a bit at least on the GameOS side, with additions like DIVX support.

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