When you run a distro such as today’s latest Ubuntu LTS release, your Linux kernel version is 3.13. The latest version as of this writing is 3.17. That is not a problem usually as Ubuntu developers usually backport relevant, significant updates from the latest kernel into the main kernel supported in Ubuntu. Now, the question is, are there benefits to running the latest kernel version for Linux? I think so, but I think the reasons for an older kernel in an LTS release are valid as well. It is all about stability rather than features. That is not the important story today. The point today is about how the situation will develop in early 2016.
You can jump from version 3.13 of the Linux kernel to 3.16 in a supported way by moving from Ubuntu version 14.04 LTS to 14.10. That is a good, clean way to get the benefits of a newer Linux kernel. It also means that releases of Ubuntu that are not LTS will provide you with the latest kernel much sooner. This is only a useful process if those newer kernels do provide you with better capabilities.
Now, let’s look at hardware. Intel appears to have a truly ground breaking computer chip architecture in their Skylake release due between late 2015 and early 2016. The chip will run cooler, use less energy but be faster, have more advanced security capabilities, far better graphics output. All of the improvements from Intel are important with the graphics capabilities being the most visible and certainly relevant to everyone. Even better is that this advanced graphics technology will be firmly encoded in and supported in the Linux kernel well before the hardware is actually released by Intel. This is the news from the website, Phoronix, in their post, Intel Publishes More Skylake Linux Graphics Patches.
The impact of this will be felt across the board. Chiefly, you will see this front and center in Ubuntu distributions that are likely to adopt Linux kernel versions 3.19 or 3.20 mentioned in the article from Phoronix. It means that the Ubuntu distribution and its derivatives will emerge as highly able to take advantage of the latest Intel hardware. The visual capabilities should be stunning and gaming, to the extent it has grown on Linux, should be better served as a result. The possibilities are not limited to Ubuntu but all Linux distributions and systems based on Linux that used those kernels or the code updates from Intel for Skylake. This include ChromeOS which will see better web visualization support on Chromebooks. Android devices running on Intel may see gains in visual quality, game play, and digital editing capabilities.
Open source has become an opportunity for Intel to achieve far better support of their hardware through software. Through their direct involvement in the software development process to ensure that code that realizes the hardware’s capabilities to the system, they can more fully ensure that this happens at the best level of quality. The systems that incorporate this code can then benefit when the hardware implementor’s intent is more fully represented. At the other end, the open source community has the opportunity to understand this code at a deeper level. That understanding means that all participants, Intel, kernel and distro maintainers, can ensure that more components, whether software or hardware fits better together. The end-user benefits are huge and the knowledge enhanced during the process fosters conditions for further advances. As a practical matter though, it means the latest Ubuntu release running on Intel Skylake in early 2016 should be a far better system on all the major points.