Update the Intel graphics driver on Debian stable

Debian stable is safe and comfortable, but Debian testing has got better performing Intel graphics drivers. Let’s stay comfortable and get the newer drivers anyway.

The Debian GNU/Linux project recently migrated the Intel graphics drivers version 2.99.917 into their testing release channel. If you’re on the Debian stable release, you’re currently using the more-than-a-year-old 2.21.15 driver. The older driver doesn’t support Intel’s most recent graphics cards and you’ll either have a non-functioning graphics driver or serious performance problems.

Luckily, you can easily upgrade the graphics driver running on Debian stable to the testing version and leave the rest of your system on stable. You may experience package dependency conflicts, but Debian is pretty good at resolving these automatically. Be warned, though! This is unsupported.

You’ll have to adjust your package repository to install some software from the testing channel without updating the whole system. The instructions below will setup the system to know about packages from the testing channel, but ignore all of them unless expressly told otherwise. You’ll also have to tell the repository manager what your preferred release channel is.

  1. Run apt-get update && apt-get upgrade to ensure your system is up to date
  2. Paste the following into the file /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/80defaultrelease (create it if it doesn’t already exist):
    APT::Default-Release "stable";
  3. Paste the following into the file /etc/apt/preferences.d/pinning.pref:
Package: *
Pin: release a=stable
Pin-Priority: 900
Package: *
Pin: release a=testing
Pin-Priority: -500
  1. Paste the following into the file /etc/apt/sources.list.d/testing.list:
deb http://httpredir.debian.org/debian/ testing main contrib non-free
deb-src http://httpredir.debian.org/debian/ testing main contrib non-free
  1. Check that you’re release is called “stable” inside /etc/apt/sources.list (if not, adjust the pinning name above)

Your system should now have been made aware of the Debian testing repository but it hasn’t downloaded or installed any packages from it yet. You can verify this by performing the first step again. No new updates should be found assuming everything was set up correctly (and assuming that no updates were released in that small time window, of course.) You should double-check the last step against the name in the second step if you see a massive list of available updates.

Once everything is set up, you can update the repository listing again before finally instructing your system to install the updated xserver-xorg-video-intel video driver from the Debian testing repository:

  1. apt-get update
  2. apt-get install -t testing xserver-xorg-video-intel
  3. reboot

You can test that the correct driver is loaded by running “glxinfo | grep "OpenGL vendor string"”. The test command should return “Intel Open Source Technology Center”.

Whether you’d no working drivers before or older but working drivers, you should notice performance improvements in everything from watching videos on YouTube to gaming through Steam.

These instructions can be used for any package. Be aware that for every package not from your main repository, you’ll introduce some risk of breaking functionality or the system. Use it sparingly, or you’ll probably have fewer problems by migrating entirely away from Debian stable and over to the testing channel.