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

    I'll look into powertop in a while. The issues with Windows really have a lot more to do with users than with the platform as a whole. My work PC has been running without any problems and without reinstalling the OS for over three years. My gaming system is in a similar state, and both have been through a few hardware upgrades, plus various driver and software installations.

    I don't run any "internet security suite" - be it McAfee, Norton, AVG, or anyone else. No AV, not even anti-malware (though I have scanned with Spybot S&D, Ad-Aware, and HiJackThis on occasion just to make sure). Why am I problem free? Because I know what I'm doing.

    I think the same could be said of Linux users: they're mostly problem free because they know what they're doing, and they could be problem free in Windows if they wanted to put in a small amount of effort.

    Put your average user in front of a Ubuntu installation -- or any Linux installation -- and they're going to be lost as soon as they want to do more than run email, OpenOffice, and surf the Internet. "But that's all you need!" Exactly: all you need and all you want are not the same. Windows makes it perhaps too easy for people that haven't got a clue to install programs and screw things up. LOL
  • Gamingphreek - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    Honestly, all the configuration I suggested takes a few minutes at most. There is no compiling from source and no generating makefiles.

    As someone said earlier, Linux and Windows have different philosophies in terms of setup. Linux is an OS that depends on customization, at least SOME time needs to be put in configuring it.

    Running powertop and writing a bash script takes a mere 5 minutes and can save >30 minutes of battery life in some cases. Enabling laptop mode is literally as simple as opening a file and changing the value from 0 to 1.

    Updating the kernel, mesa, and graphics is literally 6 (2 for each -- 1 to add the repository and 1 to add the key) commands long and takes <5 minutes.

    I understand this isn't an article on Linux, but these are not in depth tweaks and are things that anyone running Linux on a laptop will typically do.

    Finally, you state that an average user would be lost in Linux. Honestly this is Anandtech - a very well known and reputable Tech based website. "Average users" typically do not venture here. Should you guys stop talking about Processor Architecture since people wont know what it means?
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    My father needed to move suddenly due to a job change, so I hooked him up with a computer I scavenged out of the trash at work. It had a XP license key on it, but thanks to their wonderful restrictions on what what disc can install what version I had no working installer for that key. So I threw Ubuntu on there, which does indeed do everything he needs (allow him to play with his investments and watch Hulu). He called last weekend asking where to find a driver for a printer that was not included by default, as the solution involved several lines of code he decided to just wait until I can walk him through setting up Remote Desktop and do it from here.
  • Mattus27 - Monday, September 21, 2009 - link

    I can't believe you tested using live dynamic websites, instead of just downloading a page and all its resources and running the test from disk. The drawbacks of that should have been fairly obvious.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 21, 2009 - link

    The problem is, there is a ton of JavaScript involved with any current website, and getting all of the content for an offline version isn't quite that simple. Go try it: download everything for www.AnandTech.com to your PC and then look at that file and compare it to how the site actually looks. Try that with Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, MSN, CNN, HardOCP, FiringSquad, SlashDot, TechReport, etc. and you will find they all need tweaking to look anything approaching correct. (Well, maybe not every single one of them, but most will still end up with JavaScript files that load content from dynamic web servers.)

    Anyway, I wanted to test with "real" content and not some bogus artificial test that doesn't have anything to do with what real Internet sites are like (i.e. some of the MobileMark stuff has very questionable testing procedures). I wanted something I had control of that would still tax PCs like a real website. I've got some downloaded sites and I've been going through the HTML and modifying it to hopefully create a "static" page that I can host on our server and still have it work more or less correctly. That of course means another batch of testing, but so far it's looking good.

    I debated scrapping the current article, but figured some would enjoy the read and the joys of testing multiple different OSes. Besides, this way I can get feedback on what other tests you might like to see.
  • gstrickler - Friday, September 25, 2009 - link

    How about setting up a local caching web proxy and having all the machines connect via the proxy? It won't completely eliminate the variances of internet routing/throughput and connecting to live sites, but it should minimize them.

    As for Wi-Fi (and interference from your 2.4GHz phone), leave the Wi-Fi enabled and connected, but go ahead and connect the machines using Ethernet. The difference is drain of a modern Wi-Fi transceiver when transmitting/receiving vs "idle" is fairly small, so simply having it on and connected to the Wi-Fi access point (which will occasionally "talk" to each connected client") should be sufficient from a power draw standpoint while using Ethernet for the active network connection will be more reliable and won't be subject to the interference. You can put the Wi-Fi on a subnet that does not route to your proxy/firewall and/or give it no default gateway, which will ensure that all the real traffic in on Ethernet. You could add in an occasional Ping from each client to the WAP to ensure that the Wi-Fi card/connection stays active.

  • andrewaggb - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    Well I certainly agree that testing dynamic websites at different times is not the way to go.

    I can also understand what you are saying about trying to download a site and all the related resources, I've tried in the past and the browser method doesn't work.

    You'll probably need an external tool to download the site and all it's resources. A quick google search came up with this tool, http://www.surfoffline.com/">http://www.surfoffline.com/, I've never used it but it has a trial and it sounds like you can download entire websites and export them. Worth a shot anyways, there's probably a bunch of tools like this that "hopefully" work as advertised :-)

  • Lowly Worm - Monday, September 21, 2009 - link

    ".. we ran the same test under Windows Vista and a cheat significantly better battery life. "

    Heh.. DragonSpeak "a-cheating" on you? Makes for interesting phonetic typos.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 21, 2009 - link

    Yup. Thanks for the correction - was supposed to be "achieved", naturally. :)
  • lordmetroid - Monday, September 21, 2009 - link

    The Linux distribution you tested while mainstream, maybe not as tailored to mobility as say the Moblin distribution by intel, though still in Beta, I would loved to have seen that distribution tested considering it is specially built with focus on mobile platforms.

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