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Exploring GNU/Linux on PlayStation 3

12 September 2007

It has been public knowledge since before the launch of the PlayStation 3 that it is capable of installing a GNU/Linux operating system. But how is this done and why would we want to do it? We examine the reasons for installing Linux on the PS3 and illustrate how well the console fits the role of a general purpose computer.

We recommend reading through the article in full before actually changing anything on your system. This is not a thorough how-to guide, but we have provided links to the necessary resources to get you up and running. By reading our guide you should get a pretty good idea of what to expect as far as the installation goes. Reviews of specific operating systems may be forthcoming in the future.

What is Linux?

GNU/Linux is an open source operating system for computers, comparable to Windows or OS X. It has been developed by a wide community of hobbyists and programmers, largely in their spare time and for free. There are many different distributions (flavours) of Linux but they all share the same roots.

The main distributions that run on the PS3 at the time of writing are Yellow Dog Linux, Fedora Core, Ubuntu, Gentoo and Debian. These each offer a different view of what Linux should be and have slightly different ways of doing things.

Why on PS3?

The most obvious reason to install a full desktop operating system on your PS3 is to give you all the features of a PC on top of a great gaming and multimedia machine. With Linux you can use the console for word processing, image manipulation, web browsing and even programming. In fact, IBM even provide a compiler and documentation to get you started on programming for the Cell Broadband Engine at the heart of the PS3.

Aside from that, using an open source operating system will give you access to seemingly endless repositories of free software. Everything from editors to games can be run as long as it is compiled for the system. The distros mentioned all have databases whereby you can download a program to do just about anything you could imagine.

Amusingly though, it probably won't be able to run the Linux version of Unreal Tournament 3, but that's what the console's for. It'll work fine on the system software, which you can switch to at any time.

With all these benefits, there are, of course, some downsides to consider. The two biggest hurdles are software maturity for the Cell BE and the limited memory of the PS3.

PS3 Linux hasn't been around for very long so a lot of the free software for the platform is just recompiled code designed for more conventional PC architectures. As such some of it doesn't work and some of it works  but very poorly. There are already many good programs out there and with time the software will mature but it's worth bearing in mind nonetheless.

The other issue is more permanent as the PS3's memory is not upgradable. Just over 200MB of system memory is available for use as access to the RSX graphics chip has been restricted and thus its memory is out of bounds. Many people seem to find that using a lightweight distro with a small window manager is the best solution, but performance is still not great.

How to Install Linux

Before we begin, it is important to note that the installation process requires you to format tand partition the hard drive. This means that everything stored on the drive is deleted, and then it is divided into two portions: one for the PS3's gaming side, and the other for Linux. If you have anything saved that you want to keep, be sure to back it up!. That includes save games, profiles, downloaded games, music and anything else you want to salvage.

The first step is to decide which distribution you want to install. We have already mentioned some of the different options available and we recommend you check out their websites to get a feel for what each one offers.

Once you're ready to take the plunge, you'll need a keyboard and mouse. You can't use the Sixaxis controller, but any standard USB peripherals should do.

That's all well and good, but how do we get started? You should look at the official websites maintained by the developers of your chosen distro. That's the best place to look for up to date instructions on installation. These sites are listed here for your convenience:


Final Thoughts
From all accounts, the PS3 makes a reasonably good Linux desktop where having lots of RAM isn't vital. The software library is generally excellent and still improving. As developers learn to take advantage of the hardware, programs are becoming more mature and offering pretty good performance. It's also worth bearing in mind that Sony may open up access to RSX, at least partially, some time in the future.

PS3 Linux is not without its problems, however. The shortage of main memory will always be a problem and for that reason I can't reccommend running a system that uses the K Desktop Environment (KDE). Gnome should run a lot smoother. E17, the desktop environment that ships with Yellow Dog, is even smaller and according to sources, faster than Gnome, so it is definately worth checking out. Another alternative is to run xfce, which comes with Xubuntu, an Ubuntu variant.

Without access to the RSX, high definition video playback is quite unpleasant at present. Developers are working on accelerating video on the Synergistic Processing Elements (SPEs) of the Cell BE so that situation should improve over time.

In the end, the PlayStation 3's ability to run Linux is an advantage over other platforms and adds quite a lot of potential value to the system. Over time, more of that value will be realised in more mature and efficient software targetted specifically at the Cell BE and connected hardware. The only disadvantages compared to a PC are the lack of an upgrade path and the limited memory, which can be worked around.

We'd recommend you check it out if you have any interest in using the PS3 as a complete desktop computer, programming for the Cell BE or extending the capabilities of an already impressive home entertainment hub.

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