Friday, July 15, 2016

Why synclient does not work anymore

More and more distros are switching to libinput by default. That's a good thing but one side-effect is that the synclient tool does not work anymore [1], it just complains that "Couldn't find synaptics properties. No synaptics driver loaded?"

What is synclient? A bit of history first. Many years ago the only way to configure input devices was through xorg.conf options, there was nothing that allowed for run-time configuration. The Xorg synaptics driver found a solution to that: the driver would initialize a shared memory segment that kept the configuration options and a little tool, synclient (synaptics client), would know about that segment. Calling synclient with options would write to that SHM segment and thus toggle the various options at runtime. Driver and synclient had to be of the same version to know the layout of the segment and it's about as secure as you expect it to be. In 2008 I added input device properties to the server (X Input Extension 1.5 and it's part of 2.0 as well of course). Rather than the SHM segment we now had a generic API to talk to the driver. The API is quite simple, you effectively have two keys (device ID and property number) and you can set any value(s). Properties literally support just about anything but drivers restrict what they allow on their properties and which value maps to what. For example, to enable left-finger tap-to-click in synaptics you need to set the 5th byte of the "Synaptics Tap Action" property to 1.

xinput, a commandline tool and debug helper, has a generic API to change those properties so you can do things like xinput set-prop "device name" "property name" 1 [2]. It does a little bit under the hood but generally it's pretty stupid. You can run xinput set-prop and try to set a value that's out of range, or try to switch from int to float, or just generally do random things.

We were able to keep backwards compatibility in synclient, so where before it would use the SHM segment it would now use the property API, without the user interface changing (except the error messages are now standard Xlib errors complaining about BadValue, BadMatch or BadAccess). But synclient and xinput use the same API to talk to the server and the server can't tell the difference between the two.

Fast forward 8 years and now we have libinput, wrapped by the xf86-input-libinput driver. That driver does the same as synaptics, the config toggles are exported as properties and xinput can read and change them. Because really, you do the smart work by selecting the right property names and values and xinput just passes on the data. But synclient is broken now, simply because it requires the synaptics driver and won't work with anything else. It checks for a synaptics-specific property ("Synaptics Edges") and if that doesn't exists it complains with "Couldn't find synaptics properties. No synaptics driver loaded?". libinput doesn't initialise that property, it has its own set of properties. We did look into whether it's possible to have property-compatibility with synaptics in the libinput driver but it turned out to be a huge effort, flaky reliability at best (not all synaptics options map into libinput options and vice versa) and the benefit was quite limited. Because, as we've been saying since about 2009 - your desktop environment should take over configuration of input devices, hand-written scripts are dodo-esque.

So if you must insist on shellscripts to configure your input devices use xinput instead. synclient is like fsck.ext2, on that glorious day you switch to btrfs it won't work because it was only designed with one purpose in mind.

[1] Neither does syndaemon btw but it's functionality is built into libinput so that doesn't matter.
[2] xinput set-prop --type=int --format=32 "device name" "hey I have a banana" 1 2 3 4 5 6 and congratulations, you've just created a new property for all X clients to see. It doesn't do anything, but you could use those to attach info to devices. If anything was around to read that.

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