Showing posts from October, 2008

What do slashdot readers think is the best low-end laptop OS?

Just a quick update: less than a month after my two posts on the topic of the best OS for low end machines, somebody posted an Ask Slashdot on the same question.  A quick glance thru the comments suggests that Linux is the most popular option, which isn't surprising given the audience. 

The real value of the Ask Slashdot article, however, is that people are suggesting actual Distros.  So far xubuntu doesn't get a lot of hits, suggesting that perhaps I didn't select the very best option for my own head-to-head tests.  If you do decide to install Linux on your low end laptop, you should check it out:

Best free calandar for 2009

You can pay $10 for a colorful calendar for 2009, or 50 cents you can print out your own. I decided to print out my own. I spent ~20 minutes trying to find a good free PDF calendar for 2009 online, but they all featured advertisements, or poor use of page space (ie really large margins, etc). So I made my own. Download my 2009 calendar here.  It's free, has no ads, and makes very good use of the space on the 8.5 by 11 page. No fancy clip-art included, but maybe you prefer that? 

What OS is best for a low-end laptop? Evaluating Win2k on a 800mhz ThinkPad

An 8 year old laptop can still be pretty useful for surfing the web, writing emails and papers, and other sorts of basic tasks. In fact, low-end laptops have become quite the rage with the $350 "NetBook", as personified by machines like the Acer Aspire One, or the Dell Inspiron Mini. But for many of us it's possible to get your hands on a old Low-end machine for much less than $350. And, unlike the Netbooks, you'll get a full-sized keyboard and screen. 

The question this post focuses on is what OS provides the best sort of performance for this kind of low-end machine.

I recently completed a post where I tried installing Xubuntu Linux on a 800mhz Thinkpad with 384MB of RAM. I was impressed with my Linux experience on the whole, but found that bootup and shutdown (as well as hibernate and resume) time was much longer than I would like. Judging from my experience with my Windows desktops, I suspected that an appropriately selected Windows OS would do better. Vista obviously wouldn't, and even XP might be too much, but what about Windows 2000 (Win2k)? Win2k was one of the first really stable Window OSes, and still has good driver support.  Win98 might have lower hardware requirements, but wasn't nearly as stable. I elected, therefore to install Win2k.

Coming fresh from my Xubuntu experience I was surprised at how much more work it was to install Win2k. You always hear about how much pain it is to install Linux, but I think that's largely historical. Today, installing Linux is actually easier than installing Windows - especially older copies of Windows which don't come pre-equipped with all the drivers you'll need, current security updates, or all the good opensource/free software that you'll want, like Firefox and Open Office. Not that it's actually 'hard' to install Windows - all the steps are easy; it's just time consuming to download the right service pack, gather drivers together, and install each one in turn.  With Linux a fully functional install took all of 20 clicks. I'd estimate Windows took more than 10-20 times as many. And with all the rebooting required, I'd guess it took 3-4 times as long to get a fully functioning OS, before I even started installing applications.

Of course you only have to install the OS once (every few years). So what really matters is performance after it's all set up.  

Websurfing was just fine, just as in Linux. Firefox could handle multiple websites at once, with no jumpiness or lag.  Flash was also better, with no more than 1 dropped frame a minute. Also, it was possible to multi-task without making Flash drop audio and video, unlike with Linux. That was almost certainly an issue with Flash being poorly implemented under Linux, as my Linux tests showed that the same machine could play back DVDs just fine. Nonetheless, I'm more likely to use Flash on a machine like this than watch a DVD... 

For doing real work, I tried coldstarting AbiWord and Open Office.  AbiWord started in 5 seconds. Open Office writer started in 33 seconds.  For comparison, AbiWord started 2 seconds faster than under Linux, but Open office actually took 9 seconds longer. Note that I did not have the quick-start program installed under Windows, since that just hides Open-Office start time in the bootup time, and wastes RAM too. As far as I know, no such quick-start program was running under Linux, so it's rather impressive that the same version of Open Office loads quicker under Linux. Not that 24 seconds is really 'quick'. Open office is a real pig, actually.  Note that once started, both AbiWord and Open Office were perfectly snappy, with no typing lag or any problems like that.  With both programs loaded, plus Firefox, I found that performance continued to remain snappy, with switches between applications taking less than 1/2 a second. 

So what about the bootup time, which was so disappointing under Linux? Bootup time from power on to a usable desktop was 110 seconds, only 10 seconds faster than Linux . Clearly, this was still too slow, so I experimented with using Hibernation, where the contents of RAM of an already booted machine is written to disk. Assuming a fast enough disk, it's going to be quicker to load that RAM image back from the disk than going all the way through bootup again. Hibernating to disk took 34 seconds.  Resuming from hibernation took 44 seconds, still longer than I would like, but a significant improvement over Xubunutu, which took 80 seconds!  So, in conclusion, I was right: Windows (2k) is faster to start up than Xubuntu was, though only significantly so when you use hibernation. And Windows is still slower than I would like. 

So, in conclusion, which is better for a low end laptop (as personified by my 800mhz Thinkpad)? Linux/Xubuntu was much easier and quicker to set up, and comes with lots of good opensource software "right out of the box" (fresh off the download?).  Booting, however, was painfully slow, as was Flash performance. On the other hand, Windows took forever to install and setup, but once configured it was fast(er) to boot (or at least, to resume from hibernation). Though I only tested two applications, it does appear that Linux starts applications slightly faster than Windows does, at least with the monolithic Open Office. In retrospect I wish I had benchmarked a few more apps, but I hadn't expected there to be much difference. Oh well, I'm sure somebody else will do it eventually. 

So it's kind of a draw, if you ask me. Other factors, such as what kind of software you want to use probably makes a bigger difference than the differences in performance. I'd go with Windows myself, since I prefer MS Office (esp. Office 2000, which is very fast to load, and lacks all the bloat of Office 2007). But if you prefer Open Office, or other Linux only apps, then clearly Linux wins. It's nice when the choice of what OS to use depends mostly on taste; after all it would be sad if I had to report that Linux fans should use Windows because it's so much faster, or vice-versa. 

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 LinuxVector 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.

Follow-up: After giving Linux a try I decided to do a head-to-head comparison between Linux and Windows 2k on the same machine. 

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