Meet Linux kernel 3.17's best new features: Xbox One controller support, laptop 'free fall' protection, and more

Linux kernel 3.17—part of the series codenamed “Shuffling Zombie Juror” (yes, really!)—is now out. This means great new features are coming to a Linux distribution near you, though the 3.17 kernel's changes mostly consist of new and improved hardware support.

New versions of the Linux kernel will eventually make their way into all sorts of other devices, too. A new Linux kernel means improvements for Chromebooks, Android devices, network routers, and any number of other embedded devices.

Here's the most notable new features you'll find in the Linux 3.17 kernel.

Xbox One controller support, PlayStation controller improvements

Linux 3.17 adds support for the Microsoft Xbox One controller, albeit without the vibration feature. Microsoft released Windows drivers for the Xbox One controller back in June. Why no vibration yet? Well, as the commit message puts it: "The format of messages controlling rumble is currently undocumented, so rumble support is not yet implemented."

Some enterprising hacker will have to figure out how that rumble support works so it can be implemented. Believe it or not, Microsoft has submitted patches to the Linux kernel in the past. However, their patches were focused on getting Linux to behave better when virtualized on their own Hyper-V virtualization system. Don’t expect Microsoft to help get your Xbox One controller working properly.

xboxlivegold primary Mike Homnick

The Xbox One controller.

This release of the Linux kernel also brings improved support for the Sony SixAxis controller, which was included with the PlayStation 3. These features will help those future Steam Machines—or your Linux gaming PC—work better with those existing controllers.

Protection if you drop your (Toshiba or Dell) laptop

This latest kernel release also adds a “free fall” driver for Toshiba laptops. This feature was added for Dell Latitude laptops in Linux 3.16.

In a nutshell, Linux will now know if you drop a Toshiba laptop. The laptop contains an accelerometer that activates if you drop your laptop while it’s powered on. Linux now supports this hardware sensor, and it can send a system alert if your laptop is falling—in “free fall.”

So what? Well, the laptop can automatically halt its hard drive when it detects it’s falling, which could prevent damage to the spinning platters inside (and by extension, your data). That’s why this is known as a driver for the "Toshiba HDD Active Protection Sensor.” 

Userspace applications could also read this freefall data and do something with it. A company providing Linux-based laptops could send a notification back to the company when an employee dropped their work-issued laptop. Or, more amusingly, an application could start playing a “scream” sound file when the laptop is falling and stop playing that sound file when the laptop stops falling. Yes, this is now technically possible on some laptops. Ain’t technology grand?

“Guys, this whole ARM thing is a f*cking pain in the ass”

Linux 3.17 also includes about 750 patches for ARM hardware support. The kernel also dropped old drivers for ARM hardware that vendors are no longer interested in supporting.

Why so many changes? Because ARM support on Linux is a mess. Where Intel and AMD x86/x64 PCs can run the same Linux kernel, ARM is much more complicated. ARM devices running Linux can’t just take the mainstream Linux kernel and run it, they have to build a custom Linux kernel and hack their hardware support onto it. ARM simply isn’t standardized in the way standard Intel/AMD x86/x64 processors are.

As Linus Torvalds ranted in 2011: "Somebody in the ARM community really needs to step up and tell people to stop dicking around."

To this end, a lot of work is going towards improving ARM hardware support so the same standard Linux kernel can run on any ARM device. That’s why we’re seeing so much activity around ARM patches.

And this isn’t just a Linux problem. Microsoft faced similar woes developing Windows RT for ARM-powered tablets.

More hardware goodies

As always, there are a bunch of new hardware drivers and various improvements you’ll never even notice. You’ll just be happy when your Linux distribution “just works” with future hardware you get your hands on:

Is that it? Of course not! As always, Linux 3.17 contains many, many more changes. Thanks to the open-source development process, we get to see all the gory details and lines of code change in a way we can’t when it comes to a closed-source operating system like Windows. If you were a crazy person, you could even head over to the official website at kernel.org and click “view diff” to view the differences between Linux 3.16 and Linux 3.17: Every single line of new, changed, or removed source code.

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