by September 3, 2009 0 comments



The true position for netbooks today is essentially as secondary computing
devices for those who are travelling and don’t want to carry bulky devices,
particularly if they want to use it just for accessing the Net or some digital
content such as pictures, songs, video, presentations, files, etc. These devices
are more or less identical in performance as they run on the Intel Atom
processor, predominantly 1.66 GHz with 1GB of RAM and 160 GB of hard disk. We
have made this generalization because majority of the netbooks we received this
time for the shootout had these specs. But there is one more aspect which can
make the difference while choosing a netbook or while upgrading/customizing it.
And that is its OS. We can’t upgrade components which go inside the box (most of
the netbooks we received didn’t even had an option to upgrade the RAM, and if
even they had one, it was just one slot with the installed RAM). However, we can
go ahead and change the OS to get both, better performance and better look and
feel in a netbook.

What are the options?
Today predominantly all netbooks come loaded with Windows XP. And in case of
Linux, mostly it’s any plain vanilla Linux distro which ships with the box. You
can stick with Windows XP in your netbook and can get a decent performance, but
Win XP is reaching its end of life and can be discontinued very soon. So, what
to do? One option could be to upgrade to the upcoming Microsoft Windows 7. Yes!
You read it right, unlike Windows Vista, Windows 7 runs pretty well on a netbook.
We will see some test results subsequently in the article and see how well it
performed as compared against a Linux version and Windows XP. This OS not only
gives a beautiful look to your netbook but also makes it pretty secure and of
course will have a longer life. The other contender for your netbook could be a
Linux distro. But it shouldn’t be any standard Linux distro, as most of them are
big in size, and run so many applications, most of which are completely
unnecessary for a netbook. You can select any of your favourite distro and tune
it up by turning off most of the services. But if playing with Linux internals
is not your cup of tea then you should select a distro from some of the
customized Linux distros specifically designed for a netbook. You can find five
of them with this month’s DVD. We tried one of those five distros called
Eeebuntu, which is a customized Ubuntu distro for EeePCs and netbooks. But
before we discuss its performance let’s discuss more about the three prime
distros.

Windows XP
Most netbooks are preinstalled with Win XP so the direct benefit you get
here is that the drivers for Win XP will be natively available from the vendor
and you don’t have to hunt for any. But the drawback as discussed earlier is
that it is pretty old, not as secure as Windows Vista and you shall soon see the
launch of Windows 7. The other problem is that, if you don’t get it
pre-installed, installing it could be a challenge, as it doesn’t have a USB
install option natively and netbooks don’t come with optical media drives. And
the other thing which can be considered as a drawback is its static look. After
the arrival of Windows Vista Aero and Compiz in Linux, we are all too fond of
animated desktop environment. Not just because it gives us something to flaunt
but also because some of these features actually enhance productivity.

     

Copying a 100MB file from…

         
OS Installation Time
(min:sec)
Hard disk used USB to HDD HDD to HDD HDD to USB Geekbench score Boot up time Shutdown time USB Installation Office Suite
Windows XP SP3 Prof 23:57 2.69 GB 11sec 5sec 80sec 887 8sec 8sec No No
Windows 7 RC1 Ultimate 16:52 11sec 11sec 7sec 44sec 855 58sec 22 sec Yes No
Eeebuntu 12:00 6.74 GB 11sec 3sec 23sec 1011 42sec 16sec Yes Yes

Eeebuntu
One of the biggest merits of this distro or for that matter any Linux distro
is that it’s free. And when we are talking about netbooks which sometimes are
considered a device for low budget buyers, it actually makes a lot of sense as
one can further reduce the price of a netbook by some 3k just by opting out from
a paid OS. At the same time if you compare the look and feel of Eeebuntu with
WinXP, Eeebuntu is far much superior. Securitywise as well, a Linux distro like
Eeebuntu is pretty much secure than WinXP and at the same time it does away with
the requirement of installing an antivirus which is a must for Win XP saving
quite a bit of processing power and RAM. This performance becomes more
significant in case of a net book due to its low power processor. Plus, while
you install this OS, you also get a complete office suite (Open Office 3.0) and
lot many useful utilities, unlike with any Windows OS. And surprisingly, even
after installing so many utilities, it eats up less hard disk space and
installation time taken is the lowest.

But with all these benefits, there are some drawbacks as well. And the
obvious one is the lack of vendor support. There’s no guarantee that you will
get the right drivers for all the hardware sitting inside your netbook. So for
instance while we installed Eeebuntu on a netbook (an EeePC to be precise), it
still was not able to detect the LAN and WiFi drivers, and we couldn’t find them
on Asus’ website.

We did found some compatible driver for the LAN card after a lot of search
but it’s actually ironical that a custom distro made for EeePC doesn’t have all
the EeePC drivers out of the box. And I am sure for a new user finding such
drivers and configuring the devices by his own could turn out to be a nightmare.

Geekbench
In the graph, you can clearly make out that Eeebuntu has the best overall
score with a significant margin, whereas Windows XP gave a slightly better
score than Windows 7. But if you look at the details, you will see that
Eeebuntu was able to produce the maximum floating point operations per
second but it lost slightly in memory bandwidth and processor integer
performance tests. Overall, Eeebuntu was the best performing OS in our
roundup for netbooks. As is evident, Eeebuntu gave us the best performance
in most of the performance tests and also gives us more in the form of an
out-of-the box office suite. So, if you can manage some of the hardware and
support issues it could actually be a very good and cost-effective option
for your netbook.

Windows 7
The most awaited OS, hopefully we will see it in the Indian market by the
end of October 2009. It looks pretty promising for netbooks. We tried out the
Windows 7 RC1 Ultimate on the EeePC. For a change, unlike Windows Vista it
supports Atom-based machines very well and actually runs on netbooks with full
blown Aero. The look and feel was pretty nice and the installation was a breeze.
It also didn’t detect the LAN and WiFi drivers but Windows XP drivers available
from Asus’ website worked for us and once the Net was on through that driver, it
was able to detect and download the correct build of the driver from
Microsoft.com and worked perfectly. Apart from this, two network cards, all
other drivers were detected out of the box and worked fine. Moreover, the other
benefit you will get here is that you can very easily create a Windows 7 USB
installer from a Windows 7 installation DVD, which makes it very easy for
installing it on a netbook.

Benchmarks and performance
Now that we have talked about the overall benefits of these three OSes,
let’s look at some real scores and numbers and see who won the race in terms of
performance. To test the performance we tried quite a few things. We checked how
long it takes to install all these OSes on a netbook, we checked for boot up and
shutdown time, we checked for time taken to copy a 100 MB file from USB to HDD,
HDD to USB and HDD to HDD and we even ran a platform independent benchmark
called Geekbench on all Oses and saw who got the max score and where. For
testing all these we used Asus EeePC 1005HA with Atom 1.6Ghz processor, 1GB of
RAM and 160 GB of HDD. All the tests were run while the machine was on AC power
so that we don’t get any performance difference due to processor stepping, etc.
Though some of the OSes did support the USB install, we installed all these
three OSes from an external DVD drive connected over a USB 2.0 port.

Installation time
We noted the time taken for installing all the three OSes discussed above.
We made sure that we don’t count the screens where user needs to feed in data,
so the time of the actual installation process was taken into consideration. In
this test, the winner was Eeebuntu which took just 12 minutes to get installed
followed by Windows 7 which took slightly less that 17 minutes. The maximum time
was taken by our good old friend windows XP.

File copy tests
We also tried copying a 100 MB file from a USB to HDD, and vice versa, and
from HDD to HDD. We thought here we will not get any difference. But except in
the case of USB to HDD transfer, which took 11 sec for each OS, we got some
substantial difference in time. Eeebuntu won by just taking 3 seconds to copy
the file from HDD to HDD followed by Win XP which took 5 secs and Windows 7 took
7 secs. The HDD to USB transfer was the one which showed us the maximum
difference. It took 3 seconds for Eeebuntu to copy the file, where as Windows 7
and Windows XP took 44 and 80 seconds respectively for the same.

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