The Firefox logo.

I usually write about roleplaying games around here, but I just spend quite a bit of time chasing down a weird computer issue and I want to write about it somewhere to record the steps I took.

If you’re not a big Linux nerd, feel free to skip this. If you are and have issues with how I did things, feel free to skip this as well. If you want to read this anyway, I try to explain some of the basic concepts behind this quixotic adventure in footnotes.

What Happened

I run Ubuntu on my home desktop, and I currently updated to the latest release version, 23.10. It was a small upgrade, as I was already running 23.04. Everything worked fine.

Then I saw a video with some news about version 545 of the nVidia drivers being released. I was using 535, which again worked fine, but I heard that 545.29.02 fixed a lot of bugs and added some improvements I had been waiting for.

These weren’t part of the official Ubuntu distribution yet, so I added the Graphics Drivers PPA to my system, which did have them:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:graphics-drivers/ppa

sudo apt update

I installed the new drivers, tweaked my Firefox config to use Wayland1, and tested the new setup with a Youtube video. I saw that the videos there remained weirdly laggy, so I went back to X11 but decided to keep the new driver around for its other improvements.

It worked quite well for games and everyday usage… but I noticed that my Youtube videos were still weirdly laggy on X11, and that my computer was getting quite a bit hotter while playing them than it used to. The “Stats for Nerds” menu told me they were dropping more or less 50% of their frames, which is bad.

A little investigation showed me that the Firefox browser did not in fact play very well with that new graphics driver, at least not in the Snap version that was installed by default on Ubuntu Linux2. It didn’t really “see” my video card and so was sending all of its graphical work to the processor instead. It already did this with videos, but now it was doing this for everything.

The easiest solution to this problem by far, would have been to go back to version 535 of my graphics driver, the one I had before that worked just fine. I could wait for this stuff to get fixed upstream without worrying about it.

This is not what I did.

What I Did Instead

I went spelunking into the depths of DuckDuckGo, looking for a way to enable hardware-based graphical acceleration on Firefox. That would make it use my video card both for displaying web pages and for playing video.

Firefox has been able to do this for a while now, but the option was only enabled by default on Windows or in Linux computers with Intel graphic cards. I have an Nvidia card with proprietary drivers, so I’m out of luck.

Firefox uses something called VA-API to talk to the video card when hardware acceleration is on. On machines like mine the capability is forcibly disabled, because those drivers don’t support VA-API. It’s possible to bridge the gap, but the process for that seems to be a bit experimental still. Most people do not have the time or inclination to worry about that, and are happier for it.

After some trial and error, this was the sequence of events that led me to success.

Step One: Bridging the Gap

A developer with the horrible user name of El Farto has a Github repository that contains the code for nvidia-vaapi-driver a little wrapper program that translates VA-API calls into something the Nvidia drivers understand and vice-versa. The package is actually part of my default Linux distribution, but since I’m on the 545 drivers I needed a more recent version straight from the source. That’s v0.0.11, which has support for those drivers.

Following the excellent documentation in that repository, I did the following:

  • Compiled nvidia-vaapi-driver v0.0.11 from source and installed it.

  • Edited /etc/default/grub and changed the GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT variable to the follwing:

GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT="quiet splash nvidia_drm.modeset=1"
  • Edited /etc/environment and added the following environment variables to it:

Then I rebooted my computer, and found out the Snap version of Firefox didn’t detect my video card. Whoops!

The next step was therefore to get rid of Snap Firefox in favor of the traditionally-packaged version. Give up? Never!

Step Two: Fox Replacement Surgery

First, I added the repository with the “traditional” packages for Firefox:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:mozillateam/ppa
sudo apt update

Then I added a file named /etc/apt/preferences.d/mozilla-firefox with the following contents:

Package: firefox*
Pin: release o=LP-PPA-mozillateam
Pin-Priority: 1001

This ensures that the PPA’s version is chosen over the Snap. The next step is to remove the Snap and install the traditional package:

sudo snap remove firefox

sudo apt remove firefox

sudo apt install -t 'o=LP-PPA-mozillateam' firefox

Since my user profile is in my home directory this preserved all of my bookmarks and add-ons. Whew! And Firefox could now see my graphics card.

Step Three: Chant the Deep Magic

The final step was to change some advanced browser configurations in the dreaded about:config screen.

  • gfx.webrender.all to true -> This lets it use the graphics card to render web pages.

  • media.ffmpeg.vaapi.enabled to true -> for video acceleration

  • media.rdd-ffvpx.enabled to false -> This disables the built-in-software codecs in Firefox.

  • gfx.x11-egl.force-enabled and widget.dmabuf.force-enabled to true -> These are needed to get past the “hard blocks” imposed on the browser due to its default configuration.

These take effect after I restart the browser. Finally, hardware acceleration works! My computer heads up considerably less than it did, my videos in Firefox have a buttery-smooth framerate, and I only had to battle a maximum of two Elder Things to acquire the knowledge of how to do so.

  1. A compositor, the part responsible for drawing windows and whatnot on the screen of a Linux computer. Wayland is the new hotness in that area, X11 is the older thing it’s replacing. 

  2. Snaps are a form of packaged program that’s a bit more isolated from your base system than usual. They’re less dependent on the specific traits of your base system. Snaps are a bit more tricky for developers to configure right, but they only have to do that once.