OS Mobility Explored

by Jarred Walton on September 21, 2009 6:00 PM EST

For the past couple of weeks, we've been running tests on a few laptops to investigate how various factors impact battery life. Our first article looked at browser battery life, and the results were interesting to say the least. Most browsers were relatively close, but the use of websites with Flash content tended to tip the scales in favor of Internet Explorer. We have more tests in store today, this time looking at battery life with different operating systems along with other aspects of day-to-day OS use.

Representing the Microsoft camp, we have the venerable Windows XP SP3, our current standard of Windows Vista 64-bit SP2, and the up and coming Windows 7 64-bit RTM. Not too fond of Microsoft operating systems? We've got you covered there as well, with benchmarks using Ubuntu 9.0.4, although it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that we encountered some difficulties getting Linux configured properly. We'll have more to say about that in a moment. This isn't a Linux/Ubuntu review by any means, as we're just looking at the out-of-box experience with as little tweaking as possible. If you're running Linux on a laptop, though, the results will be… enlightening.

Our two test laptops from Gateway make another appearance, the AMD-based NV52 and the Intel-based NV58. These are both entry-level laptops, but more importantly they both use integrated graphics so battery life is actually reasonable. If you have a high-end laptop with discrete graphics, changing your operating system isn't likely to make nearly as big of a difference. We've already compared performance of the two Gateway notebooks, so the focus here is going to be on how much of a difference the operating system can make. We did use the same settings where possible, so you can also make comparisons between the two platforms if you so desire. However, our general opinion hasn't changed with the use of different operating systems.

If your focus is on battery life and general performance, the Intel-based NV58 is clearly superior. On the other hand, AMD's integrated graphics are typically twice the speed of Intel's GMA 4500MHD, so users interested in gaming/graphics and video decoding might be better served by the AMD setup. Then again, if you want the best of both worlds - high-performance and improved gaming performance without compromising on battery life - you might be interested in spending more money. We have a review of Dell's Studio 14z in progress, which uses an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics paired with an Intel CPU. Yes, it's more expensive - potentially a lot more expensive! - than both Gateway system, and it doesn't come with an optical drive, but it provides better performance than the NV52 and NV58 and similar battery life to the NV58. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

Besides looking at battery life, we are also going to provide a few quick benchmarks under the three Windows operating systems. These are not comprehensive benchmarks by any means, as we simply ran the various Futuremark 3DMark/PCMark tests suites, but they do provide a point of reference. In addition, we'll be looking at common day-to-day OS tasks like the time to boot/shutdown, hibernate/resume, and sleep/wake. If you're curious about which OS is the fastest and best suited for use on a laptop, this article should provide some answers - and perhaps a few new questions as well.

Test Setup
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  • Veerappan - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    I'm not sure if it's possible at this point, but if you can, would it be possible to try out a copy of the 9.10 Alphas that are available? They should hopefully fix some of the intel driver regressions.

    Also, as an FYI/diagnostic, there's a CPU speed applet that is available in Gnome. Right click the top panel, select 'add to panel', and then somewhere there's a cpu speed monitor. That can be used to see if SpeedStep/Cool'n'Quiet are working correctly. You can even take it a step further, and change the permissions of the applet to allow you to change which CPU speed governor is active if you find that the CPU is running at full speed constantly.
  • lyeoh - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    By the way, you should not use external sites during your test. The fact that you said "perhaps a Flash ad server was temporarily down" means you are doing it wrong.

    Different flash ads could be very different in CPU usage.

    What you should do is snapshot/save the complete pages loaded from the websites you want, put them on a standardized webserver under your control, and then get the browsers to load the pages from that webserver. Disconnect the test network from the internet to prove that the page loads up fine without requiring external connections (css etc). You may need to include a test DNS server that fakes the replies, or stick to using IP addresses to access the test pages e.g.">">">

    Once you have standardized on a set of pages, this means you don't have to redo the tests on all computers weeks/months later when you have another laptop to test. You only need to test the new device - since the pages are the same. Don't change the webserver too much either (but given the low loads it's unlikely to affect things much - unless it's really really slow).
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    Already in progress, after my round two Internet testing still proved too variable. As noted elsewhere, though, I want the content to be as close to realistic as possible. Law of averages says that most of the ads will balance out. It's also possible my home wireless phone knocked out my home WiFi a few times, which would mean several minutes (more?) of non-traffic. Many times I'm not around while letting the battery drain, since that's a bit of a waste of time.

    I need a new home phone for sure, though. The 2.4GHz model I bought several years back wreaks havoc on my 802.11n network.
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    You need a home phone at all?
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    Babysitters might need something to call us, yeah. Could leave a cell with them I suppose, but I also use it for business/fax.
  • 7Enigma - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    I highly recommend the Uniden DECT6.0 models. The kit I got about 6 months ago to replace crappy old units was ~$110 for 3 units. Additional units (if your manion requires :) can be added easily to the setup for another $30-40. No wireless issues whatsoever. And it's the first phone I've been able to use out to my curb without issues (brick exterior with plaster walls = bad signal). The only gripe I have is there doesn't appear to be a way to change the caller ID name when it comes in. You can program your own numbers in, but when you receive a call it always shows only how caller ID recognizes it.

    Got mine from the egg.
  • mschira - Monday, September 21, 2009 - link

    on my Atom based laptop. Flash is mostly used for annoying advertising. And it eats CPU, makes the budy slow.
    Booo to flash...
  • dnd728 - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    If Adobe merely added a button to freeze all Flash animations or even just freeze all Flash in non-active tabs, then like a hundred power plants could have been scraped…
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    Which is what FlashBlock does. :) Of course, Linux browsers by default don't normally auto-play Flash I don't think. I enabled that with Firefox and then used FlashBlock to stop it, just for an "apples-to-unoptimized-apples" comparison to Vista.
  • bigboxes - Monday, September 21, 2009 - link

    Whatever. I use adblock plus and see few ads. Flash, however, is a part of how we view the internet. It's a part of our experience. If you want a text only internet please feel free to step back in the wayback machine to 1988.

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