The Linux XFree86 HOWTO

Eric Steven Raymond

Thyrsus Enterprises

$Date: 2001/09/09 08:29:29 $

Revision History
Revision 7.22001-09-09Revised by: esr
XFree86 site has changed directory structure.
Revision 7.12001-08-09Revised by: esr
Configuration has changed, and is now much simpler.
Revision 7.02000-08-21Revised by: esr
First DocBook version.

This document describes how to obtain, install, and configure version 4.1.0 of the XFree86 version of the X Window System (X11R6) for Linux systems. It is a step-by-step guide to configuring XFree86 on your system.

Table of Contents
1. Introduction
1.1. Other sources of information
1.2. New versions of this document
1.3. Feedback and Corrections
2. Hardware requirements
3. Installing XFree86
4. Configuring XFree86
4.1. Normal Configuration
5. Running XFree86
6. Translations

1. Introduction

The X Window System is a large and powerful (some might say excessively large and overly complex) graphics environment for UNIX systems. The original X Window System code was developed at MIT; commercial vendors have since made X the industry standard for UNIX platforms. Virtually every UNIX workstation in the world runs some variant of the X Window system.

A freely redistributable port of the MIT X Window System version 11, release 6 (X11R6) for 80386/80486/Pentium UNIX systems has been developed by a team of programmers originally headed by David Wexelblat . The release, known as XFree86, is available for System V/386, 386BSD, and other x86 UNIX implementations, including Linux. It includes all of the required binaries, support files, libraries, and tools.

Complete information on XFree86 is available at the XFree86 web site,

In this document, we'll give a step-by-step description of how to install and configure XFree86 for Linux, but you will have to fill in some of the details yourself by reading the documentation released with XFree86 itself. (This documentation is discussed below.) However, using and customizing the X Window System is far beyond the scope of this document---for this purpose you should obtain one of the many good books on using the X Window System.

1.1. Other sources of information

If you have never heard of Linux before, there are several sources of basic information about the system. The best place to find these is at the Linux Documentation Project home page. You can find the latest, up-to-date version of this document there, as

1.2. New versions of this document

New versions of the Linux XFree86 HOWTO will be periodically posted to and comp.os.linux.announce and news.answers. They will also be uploaded to various Linux WWW and FTP sites, including the LDP home page.

You can always view the latest version of this on the World Wide Web via the URL

This document was originally written by Matt Welsh in the dim and backward abysm of time. Thanks, Matt!

1.3. Feedback and Corrections

If you have questions or comments about this document, please feel free to mail Eric S. Raymond, at . I welcome any suggestions or criticisms. If you find a mistake with this document, please let me know so I can correct it in the next version. Thanks.

Please do not mail me questions about how to make your video card and monitor work with X. This HOWTO is intended to be a rapid, painless guide to normal installation using the new interactive configurator. If you run into problems, browse the XFree86 Video Timings HOWTO. (This is the up-to-date HTML version of XFree86's `Videomodes.doc' file.) That document tells everything I know about configuration troubleshooting. If it can't help you, I can't either.

2. Hardware requirements

You can find an up-to-date list of supported cards and chipset types at the 4.1.0 status page.

The documentation included with your video adaptor should specify the chipset used. If you are in the market for a new video card, or are buying a new machine that comes with a video card, have the vendor find out exactly what the make, model, and chipset of the video card is. This may require the vendor to call technical support on your behalf; in general vendors will be happy to do this. Many PC hardware vendors will state that the video card is a ``standard SVGA card'' which ``should work'' on your system. Explain that your software (mention Linux and XFree86!) does not support all video chipsets and that you must have detailed information.

You can also determine your videocard chipset by running the SuperProbe program included with the XFree86 distribution. This is covered in more detail below.

Supported video cards will work with all bus types, including ISA and VLB and PCI.

One problem faced by the XFree86 developers is that some video card manufacturers use non-standard mechanisms for determining clock frequencies used to drive the card. Some of these manufacturers either don't release specifications describing how to program the card, or they require developers to sign a non-disclosure statement to obtain the information. This would obviously restrict the free distribution of the XFree86 software, something that the XFree86 development team is not willing to do. For a long time, this has been a problem with certain video cards manufactured by Diamond, but as of release 3.1 of XFree86, Diamond has started to work with the development team to release free drivers for these cards.

The suggested setup for XFree86 under Linux is a 486 or better with at least 8 megabytes of RAM, and a video card with a chipset listed above. For optimal performance, we suggest using an accelerated card, such as an S3-chipset card. You should check the documentation for XFree86 and verify that your particular card is supported before taking the plunge and purchasing expensive hardware.

As a side note, the personal Linux system of Matt Welsh (this FAQ's originator) was a 486DX2-66, 20 megabytes of RAM, equipped with a VLB S3-864 chipset card with 2 megabytes of DRAM. He ran X benchmarks on this machine as well as on Sun Sparc IPX workstations. The Linux system was roughly 7 times faster than the Sparc IPX (for the curious, XFree86-3.1 under Linux, with this video card, runs at around 171,000 xstones; the Sparc IPX at around 24,000). In general, XFree86 on a Linux system with an accelerated SVGA card will give you much greater performance than that found on commercial UNIX workstations (which usually employ simple framebuffers for graphics).

Your machine will need at least 4 megabytes of physical RAM, and 16 megabytes of virtual RAM (for example, 8 megs physical and 8 megs swap). Remember that the more physical RAM that you have, the less that the system will swap to and from disk when memory is low. Because swapping is inherently slow (disks are very slow compared to memory), having 8 megabytes of RAM or more is necessary to run XFree86 comfortably. 16 is better. A system with 4 megabytes of physical RAM could run much (up to 10 times) more slowly than one with 8 megs or more.

3. Installing XFree86

It's quite likely that you obtained XFree86 as part of a Linux distribution, in which case downloading the software separately is not necessary. Or you may be able to get RPM binary packages built for your machine, in which case you can just install those using rpm(1). In either case you can skip this the rest of this section.

The Linux binary distributions of XFree86 can be found on a number of FTP sites. On the XFree86 site they are here. You will want either the Linux-axp-glibc21, Linux-ix86-glibc20, or Linux-ix86-glibc21 subdirectories, depending on your processor type (axp=alpha, ix86=Intel 80x86) and Gnu C library version.

Before doing anything else, download and run the `' shell script first. This may tell you about prerequisites you'll need to have in place before continuing your installation. Complete instructions for installing the XFree86 binary distribution are at

The binary directory should contain release notes for the current version in RELNOTES. Consult those for installation details.

All that is required to install XFree86 is to obtain the above files, create the directory /usr/X11R6 (as root), and unpack the files from /usr/X11R6 with a command such as:

gzip -dc Xbin.tgz | tar xfB -

Remember that these tar files are packed relative to /usr/X11R6, so it's important to unpack the files there.

You need to make sure that /usr/X11R6/bin is on your path. This can be done by editing your system default /etc/profile or /etc/csh.login (based on the shell that you, or other users on your system, use). Or you can simply add the directory to your personal path by modifying .bashrc or .cshrc, based on your shell.

You also need to make sure that /usr/X11R6/lib can be located by, the runtime linker. To do this, add the line:


to the file /etc/, and run /sbin/ldconfig, as root.

4. Configuring XFree86

4.1. Normal Configuration

Configuring XFree86 to use your mouse, keyboard, monitor, and video card correctly used to be something of a black art, requiring extensive hand-hacking of a complex configuration file. No more; recent releases have made the process nearly trivial. It simplifies matters a lot that there are no longer separate servers for different kinds of cards, just modules loaded by a common server.

If you're enabling X as you intall a Linux distribution, the distribution install script will ask the few questions needed to configure X. Otherwise, all you need do to configure it is fire up the command XFree86 -configure.

Both methods depend on the fact that all new PC hardware these days ships with monitors that can tell X what their capabilities are. When invoked in this mode, X does that query and also polls your hardware for the presence of a mouse and keyboard. It then writes out a configuration file thar is used by later runs of X.

One minor point to keep in mind is that, if you're like most people using a current PC, your keyboard is actually what XF86Setup calls `Generic 102-key PC (intl)' rather than the default `Generic 101-key PC'. If you pick the default (101) the key cluster on the extreme right of your keyboard (numeric keypad and friends) may stop working.

5. Running XFree86

With your XF86Config file configured, you're ready to fire up the X server and give it a spin. First, be sure that /usr/X11R6/bin is on your path.

The command to start up XFree86 is


This is a front-end to xinit (in case you're used to using xinit on other UNIX systems).

This command will start the X server and run the commands found in the file .xinitrc in your home directory. .xinitrc is just a shell script containing X clients to run. If this file does not exist, the system default /usr/X11R6/lib/X11/xinit/xinitrc will be used.

A standard .xinitrc file looks like this:


xterm -fn 7x13bold -geometry 80x32+10+50 &
xterm -fn 9x15bold -geometry 80x34+30-10 &
oclock -geometry 70x70-7+7 &
xsetroot -solid midnightblue &

exec fvwm2 

This script will start up two xterm clients, an oclock, and set the root window (background) color to midnightblue. It will then start up fvwm2, the window manager. Note that fvwm2 is executed with the shell's exec statement; this causes the xinit process to be replaced with fvwm2. Once the fvwm2 process exits, the X server will shut down. You can cause fvwm2 to exit by using the root menus: depress mouse button 1 on the desktop background -- this will display a pop up menu which will allow you to Exit Fvwm2.

Be sure that the last command in .xinitrc is started with exec, and that it is not placed into the background (no ampersand on the end of the line). Otherwise the X server will shut down as soon as it has started the clients in the .xinitrc file.

Alternately, you can exit X by pressing ctrl-alt-backspace in combination. This will kill the X server directly, exiting the window system.

The above is a very, very simple desktop configuration. Many wonderful programs and configurations are available with a bit of work on your .xinitrc file.

If you are new to the X Window System environment, we strongly suggest picking up a book such as The Joy of X: An Overview of the X Window System by Niall Mansfield (Addison-Wesley 1993, ISBN 0201-565129). Using and configuring X is far too in-depth to cover here. See the man pages for xterm, oclock, and fvwm2 for clues on getting started.

6. Translations