Chapter 4. Hardware Compatibility

Table of Contents
4.1. General
4.2. Architectures and Processors
4.3. Peripherals
4.4. Keyboards and Mice
4.5. Other Hardware

4.1. General

4.1.1. I want to get a piece of hardware for my FreeBSD system. Which model/brand/type is best?
4.1.2. What are the limits for memory?
4.1.3. Why does FreeBSD report less than 4 GB memory when installed on an i386™ machine?


I want to get a piece of hardware for my FreeBSD system. Which model/brand/type is best?

This is discussed continually on the FreeBSD mailing lists but is to be expected since hardware changes so quickly. Read through the Hardware Notes for FreeBSD 12.1 or 11.3 and search the mailing list archives before asking about the latest and greatest hardware. Chances are a discussion about that type of hardware took place just last week.

Before purchasing a laptop, check the archives for FreeBSD general questions mailing list, or possibly a specific mailing list for a particular hardware type.


What are the limits for memory?

FreeBSD as an operating system generally supports as much physical memory (RAM) as the platform it is running on does. Keep in mind that different platforms have different limits for memory; for example i386™ without PAE supports at most 4 GB of memory (and usually less than that because of PCI address space) and i386™ with PAE supports at most 64 GB memory. As of FreeBSD 10, AMD64 platforms support up to 4 TB of physical memory.


Why does FreeBSD report less than 4 GB memory when installed on an i386™ machine?

The total address space on i386™ machines is 32-bit, meaning that at most 4 GB of memory is addressable (can be accessed). Furthermore, some addresses in this range are reserved by hardware for different purposes, for example for using and controlling PCI devices, for accessing video memory, and so on. Therefore, the total amount of memory usable by the operating system for its kernel and applications is limited to significantly less than 4 GB. Usually, 3.2 GB to 3.7 GB is the maximum usable physical memory in this configuration.

To access more than 3.2 GB to 3.7 GB of installed memory (meaning up to 4 GB but also more than 4 GB), a special tweak called PAE must be used. PAE stands for Physical Address Extension and is a way for 32-bit x86 CPUs to address more than 4 GB of memory. It remaps the memory that would otherwise be overlaid by address reservations for hardware devices above the 4 GB range and uses it as additional physical memory (see pae(4)). Using PAE has some drawbacks; this mode of memory access is a little bit slower than the normal (without PAE) mode and loadable modules (see kld(4)) are not supported. This means all drivers must be compiled into the kernel.

The most common way to enable PAE is to build a new kernel with the special ready-provided kernel configuration file called PAE, which is already configured to build a safe kernel. Note that some entries in this kernel configuration file are too conservative and some drivers marked as unready to be used with PAE are actually usable. A rule of thumb is that if the driver is usable on 64-bit architectures (like AMD64), it is also usable with PAE. When creating a custom kernel configuration file, PAE can be enabled by adding the following line:

options       PAE

PAE is not much used nowadays because most new x86 hardware also supports running in 64-bit mode, known as AMD64 or Intel® 64. It has a much larger address space and does not need such tweaks. FreeBSD supports AMD64 and it is recommended that this version of FreeBSD be used instead of the i386™ version if 4 GB or more memory is required.

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