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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  • nortexoid - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    I'd like to see a test done using "regular" office apps (openoffice, acrobat reader, etc.) and NO internet browsing. (Yes, that's how I use my computer off the plug usually.) It would weed out the performance usage hit taken by Ubuntu when flash is running.

    It might also be interesting to do a test with tweaked systems, e.g. by tuning Jaunty with PowerTop or similar apps. How does each OS perform when FULLY optimized for battery life (without sacrificing features or much performance, of course)?
  • 7Enigma - Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - link

    I know there are users (Jarred apparently you are one of them) that run a system without antivirus/spyware, but you are (or at least should be) in the minority. Linux distro's apparently can get away without it, but on ANY Windows box it's a MUST HAVE. Also disabling those other services (while good at reducing variables) again undermines the system's protection and comparisons to a general usage scenario.

    In your article I do not think you mentioned what you tweaked (but I could have overlooked this). From my initial impression when reading the article you took both OS' as they were default installed and then tested from there. I think you skewed the results badly in the favor of the Windows platforms by doing this, and I say this as a Windows-only user (never used Linux in any flavor). The first thing I do after a fresh install (still on Vista) is turn off all of those programs you did, along with a host of other services/eye candy using BlackViper's Vista Tweaks. This significantly speeds up the OS in all aspects but can hardly be considered most users configs.

    At first reading these comments I was firmly on the "sour grapes" to all of the Linux users complaining about what distro was used, or why X wasn't tweaked by going to a website and reading a tech article, but now I kind of agree with them. Your experience with Windows and lack of experience with Ubuntu had you setting up one for failure before the first test was even run.

    Either you test both OS' as they are default installed (driver incompatibilities aside), or you need to have a Linux semi-guru set up your Ubuntu box. My recommendation is the former, as the latter has so many variables it's probably not worth testing in the first place.

    Aside from the Ubuntu portion I enjoyed the article. It was very interesting to see how the different power profiles jockeyed for position. I would like to second an earlier commment that asked for idle time to shutdown numbers. Let's be honest, most of us are not going to surf continuously from 100% to dead battery. Rather we are more likely to use the laptop for a bit and then walk away, and come back later. It also will give a good indication of those background tasks impact on battery life (if you don't disable them in your config). I have a sneaky suspicion XP might look very good as it seems to be quite a bit more bare-bones than Vista/7.

    Thanks again.
  • code65536 - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    An Intel engineer explained it some years ago in a blog posting: XP's max battery basically throttles the CPU's frequency down all the time. For example, on my Core2Duo, it'd mean that the CPU will operate at 800MHz all the time, even when it's busy. On the other hand, if Windows gives Speed Step a free hand and lets Speed Step determine the speed, then the CPU will operate at 2GHz when busy, and slow to 800MHz only when it's idling. According to this Intel engineer, it makes no sense to have it always throttled to 800MHz, because that means that tasks will take longer to finish, and the CPU will spend less time idling (which is when the CPU *really* saves power), and he labeled the max battery mode as the "what the hell are you doing?" mode.
  • Drizzt321 - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    I completely understand your complaints on the length of time required to run the test, plus recharge the battery. Have you considered buying a 2nd or 3rd battery and finding an external charger? Or would that kill the results of the test because the battery would be different?
  • PepperPot2 - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    I fail to believe you included the default grub time in the boot as this to do so would be unrepresentative of real use. Who would sit there and wait for it to time out rather than just press the enter key triggering the boot process? Anyway a default install of ubuntu (where it is the only OS on the machine) doesn't show the grub menu, only a 2 second alert to allow you to bring it up if you want. I then immediately boots.

    My experience with ubuntu is totally contrary to the conclusions you just posted about speed. We've have ~20 installs of Ubuntu 9.04 at work on old machines (7 yrs old) to a machine I built 1 month ago. In all instances the staff find it it is smoother and quicker to use than the dual boot copy of vista or XP.

    The boot time on XP is clear nonsense, when ubuntu boots to the desktop you can use it almost immediately. XP is typically totally unusable for ~30 seconds while it loads more crap in the background. Vista is worse.

  • jasperjones - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    That's true, XP and Vista are pretty unresponsive for a minute or so after boot on your average entry-level laptop. OTOH, Ubuntu is snappy once you see the GNOME desktop. 9.04 is called jaunty ducy ;)

    However, the same can be said of Win 7. It keeps loading stuff after you see the desktop, but that doesn't make the system feel sluggish--not at all
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    The Windows boot times are stopped when I see the default system try icons appear (WiFi connectivity, volume, etc.) so the system is pretty much usable at that point. As for GRUB, it's a 2 second timeout, which I could bypass by pressing enter twice, but that still leaves around 8 seconds from the POST to the point where it looks like Ubuntu is actually loading. What's going on during that time? If we subtract POST times, then Ubuntu would look even worse. I can see about tweaking GRUB to skip straight to loading the OS and see if that helps as well... when I get time.
  • jasperjones - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    FYI--one can simply configure GRUB to not wait for user input by editing /boot/grub/menu.lst and changing the second or third line from "timeout x" to "timeout 0"

    But I generally completely understand the argument not to change too many things from the default installation of Ubuntu, as it's doubtful that the average user would do it.
  • maveric7911 - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    I would love to see a properly installed and setup distribution of linux in this review (not bashing love that you included linux at all). As others stated above Archlinux would be a pretty good choice. All packages come optimized and things like native 64bit flash and other native 64 bit applications are apart of the stable repository "no adding repos necessary". Also as mentioned, not using the hardware accelerated driver of ati or nvidia will take a big hit on power right away. I'm always available to assist with any linux testing and/or questions.

    Sr Linux Engineer
  • andrewaggb - Tuesday, September 22, 2009 - link

    What I would like to see is Jared run all the tests on his version of Ubuntu, then let a linux expert have some ssh love to tweak it all up, and then let Jared run the tests again and see how much difference he finds.

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