Evaluating Linux for a Low-End laptop: my experience with xUbuntu and a 800mhz Thinkpad
If you have an older laptop it makes no sense to run a modern Windows OS on it. Older MS OSes, such as Win2k, or even Win98 run great on machines with less than 1Ghz processors. W98, however, isn't the most stable OS, and neither of those OSes are supported. In this post I examine how well Linux works on older hardware, with an old T21 Thinkpad laptop with an 800Mhz processor and 384MB of RAM.
With Linux the first question is which Distro to install. For regular desktop use, I'd hazard it doesn't matter much anymore: Ubuntu, Fedora, Suse, etc: all the big players have pretty good package management, installation routines, etc., and all have more or less the same set of pre-installed software.
Linux, however, has gotten pretty flashy as of late, and a regular desktop Distro is likely to heavily overload an older laptop. There many distros that target older hardware, notably Damn small Linux, Vector Linux, and the one I chose: Xbunutu. I pretty much chose at random, guided partly by the high opinions I've heard of the mainstream Ubuntu distribution.
Getting Xubuntu is easy; it's free, and can be downloaded via FTP, or even faster via Bit Torrent. The installation fits on 1 CDR, and also includes both a live mode where you can try out Xubuntu without installing it on your disk. I bypassed the live mode and went straight to installing Linux. Installation was super-easy, in part because there are almost no options to set at all. Xubuntu installs a somewhat minimal set of software, and expects you to add apps as you need them. The add/remove application is very easy to use, and has a search able list of all the applications pre-configured for easy installation under ubuntu. This approach is actually pretty smart: you don't wast a lot of disk space on pre-installed apps you don't even know you have, and will probably never use. Even so, my 20gig hard drive was down to just 15gigs free once the install was finished.
Xubuntu did a great job of detecting my hardware. The video card, the sound card, even the battery were all detected automatically. Since the point of this review is to focus on using Linux on a low-end laptop, however, I'll skip reviewing xubuntu/linux in general, other than to say it's quite slick, full featured, and once you get used to slightly different conventions, easy to use.
So, how does it perform on my low-end laptop? Pretty well, once it boots up! Web browsing is snappy using Firefox, with windows loading quickly and scrolling without being jumpy or choppy. Flash performance, however, was not so great. Youtube videos would play ok, and were certainly watchable, but you could definitely see frames dropping once in a while, and when multitasking (such as installing open office in the background) the audio would occasionally drop out, and the video would freeze. This may be due to the poor Flash implementation under linux - watching a DVD was no problem at all, with perfect video and audio, even when full screen.
How about doing real work? Xubuntu installs abiword as the default word processor. It cold-starts in about 7 seconds, and once loaded is perfectly snappy. Abiword is probably equivalent to Word 95 - not the most powerful tool around, but more than enough for most of us. I also installed Open Office, to see how that would perform. Open office writer cold-started in 24 seconds. While that's much slower than for abiword, interestingly it's not that bad. My desktop Athlon 3100+ running Win2k3 takes about 30 seconds to load the same program. Both apps worked great once loaded, with no typing lag, or any other signs of slow-down. I was also able to multitask just fine, with copy of FireFox, Open Office writer, Thunderbird, and the Gimp open at the same time. I don't know how well 384MB would support more apps than that, but with those four I was able to switch between apps with less than 1/2 a second lag.
The real problem, in my view, is how long it takes to boot up. From pushing the power button to the point where the desktop was fully loaded it took 2 minutes, with only about 5 seconds of that devoted to entering my usename and password. One way to potentially reduce that is to use hibernation, where the fully loaded OS is written out to disk, so that next time you can skip most of the boot and just read the disk image. Under xubuntu, however, this isn't much of a time-savings. First, it takes 42 seconds to hibernate the machine to disk, and then it takes 1 min, 20s, to resume from hibernation. Yes, it's faster than doing a fresh boot, and it has the advantage of keeping all of your current applications open, but it's still too slow.
On a side note, I was a bit disappointed by the stability of the xfce desktop. Upon my 3rd bootup, the menubar (equivalent to a combination of window's taskbar and the MAC's menubar), stopped loading, leaving me wiht just a desktop full of icons. I poked around a bit, but could never find out how to load it again. I'm guessing it somehow got messed up during the application update phase, but I don't really know.
One other notable advantage to using Linux for a low-end laptop is that a single CD and a couple of clicks gives you a completely functional machine. I didn't have to hunt around for drivers. Mainstream apps, like Firefox were already installed, and programs like Open Office could be installed by just clicking a checkbox. In contrast installing an older MS OS like Win2k would have taken much longer, what with locating drivers, and then having to install additional apps piece by piece. Funny, I wouldn't have thought linux would win that comparison, but that's just a measure of how far Linux installation has come in the last few years.
In the end, however, the slow bootup is a bit of a downer. I'm tempted to install Win2k just to get a comparison. I'm pretty sure it would be faster, but perhaps I'm extrapolating from my experience with more modern machines where Win2k and WinXP boot quite quickly. In any case, Linux is certainly a reasonable option for a 800Mhz laptop. It may come down to taste in the end - if you like Windows, then use an older Windows OS, but if you want Linux, go for that instead.