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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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    What I would love is to have a definitive Linux source that I can use that will "just work". But that's probably asking too much. I've now got suggestions to try the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Moblin on the NV58, and Archlinux.

    And hey, if anyone lives near Olympia, WA and wants to come give the Linux install some fine luvin' let me know. LOL
  • stmok - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    quote('What I would love is to have a definitive Linux source that I can use that will "just work".')

    That isn't going to happen. Simply because Linux isn't Windows or OSX. They approach things with different paradigms.

  • Per Hansson - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    Hi, something I have noted when installing AMD laptops with a clean RTM WinXP disc and not the bundled one that includes all drivers + lotsa more crap you don't want;

    In all cases the systems have not been throttling the CPU speed or CPU voltage, I have had to install the AMD PowerNow! driver and then everything has worked (even though both AMD and Microsoft say this is included with XP!)

    The difficult part is actually finding the driver, since both AMD and MS feels it is not needed it can be a real pita, please verify with CPU-Z or similar if your systems have this issue
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    Vista definitely worked properly - I saw CPU speeds of down to 1050MHz (5.25 x 200) on the NV52. Since XP and Win7 both achieve similar results, I think it's working right but would have to check. I'll try to be more careful for the next tests. :)
  • jasperjones - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    I assume you ran Ubuntu with the 32-bit Flash plugin (that's available on x86-64 via nspluginwrapper (Netscape plugin wrapper).

    I'd be curious to see how results are with the native x86-64 Flash which is available as an alpha on Adobe Labs.

    For the last two or three years, I've had nothing but problems with 32-bit Flash on a 64-bit OS and those problems finally somewhat subsided after moving to the 64-bit native alpha build.
  • clavko - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    Actually, graphics card power management with open source ati drivers (xf86-video-radeon and xf86-video-radeonhd alike) is not up to par with custom power management of fglrx proprietary driver. If tests were made using open source drivers, some of the battery time difference should account for that.

    However, I find it quite fair comparing Windows to Ubuntu, given that Ubuntu really is considered vanilla, desktop user distro. Obviously, things are not exactly "there" yet, but I'd be interested in power consumption with newer fglrx drivers, perhaps on OpenSUSE.
  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    On my laptop (T40, 1.86GHz Pentium M Sonoma) I primarily use Ubuntu, with XP when I need Photoshop or Lightroom. I never measured the battery life exactly, but never felt it was that different, certainly not by a third. Do you have the scripts to run the internet test I could try and see what my results are?

    I also never felt Firefox was notably different between XP and Ubuntu, both misbehave in different ways. The notable exception is flash in 64bit Ubuntu on my desktop, which is of course more hit-or-miss.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    Send me an email.
  • gwolfman - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    When I originally purchased my Dell Mini 9, it shipped with Ubuntu. Rather than coming with the standard/original kernel, it came with the Low Power Intel Architecture (LPIA) kernel. I'm not sure what optimizations are done with regards to the kernel, but do you think it's worth looking into with regards to the bad numbers you got from the default kernel bundled with your Ubuntu install? Maybe there are some optimizations for battery life in there that are not included in the standard kernel.
  • vol7ron - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    As nice as these tests are, I think the reliability/consistency may be overlooked a little bit. I'm not saying it's not reliable/consistent enough, you've already touched on that in the final paragraph, with regards to the websites themselves. What I'm saying is that there are other factors that may be affecting battery life.

    Are you using a multimeter to measure the power consumption, or are you just letting the battery drain and measuring time? I'm guessing that if you just let your computer start up and run it's battery drain naturally (no erroneous applications running), the battery life would also vary in minutes.

    I also am assuming that these devices aren't cooled to the same temperature, before tests begin. Heat not only dissipates the energy stored in the battery, but it also requires more power to the fans for cooling. As I've touched on in another article, processor speeds vary - that's something that is truly hard to keep consistent, since it is irrelevant to BIOS settings. It'd be interesting to see if a processor running at 2.096 vs one running at 2.104 over an extended period of time has enough impact on battery life.

    That being said, it's also known that processors vary in clock speed even after it's started, so I'm not sure if any points I've made can be applied in setting a realistic control at this point.

    My last point is about the battery itself. Manufacturers claim the battery is "good for" a certain period of time, but these batteries are often "cheap" in quality. I think a few uses could impact the natural battery life; this goes back into testing regular start-up/shut-downs, w/o running any tests.

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