Old hardware and Linux

HP NC6220 Laptop

The 14-inch Hewlett-Packard NC6220 laptop [3] was the dinosaur in the test field at almost 13 years of age. Today it would cost between $50 and $100 dollars. The business series device has 2GB of RAM and an 80GB hard disk with an EIDE connector. In addition to Gigabit Ethernet, it has an Intel 2200BG WiFi card, which already supports modern encryption methods according to the WPA-2 standard and achieves a transfer rate of 54Mbps.

The laptop had the 32-bit version of Q4OS installed, which by default uses the KDE 3.x-based Trinity Desktop Environment [4] that impresses with its low resource requirements. Because Q4OS allows you to import other desktop environments at the click of a mouse, the test team also integrated the Mate environment [5], which is based on a similarly aged Gnome 2.x.

Amazingly Agile

After installation, the computer was amazingly agile despite its Stone Age single-core Pentium M series processor and technically outdated hard drive: Trinity was up and running after about 25 seconds. Starting the kernel took about 4 seconds and the userspace environment 20 seconds.

Analysis showed that preload and network services and hard disk mounting were slowing down the boot process. The slow mounting of the hard disk can be traced to the filesystem check the system performs for safety reasons each time it is started (Figure 1). The picture was not much different with the Mate desktop. The kernel took 4 seconds, and the userspace environment was ready for use after 20 seconds.

Figure 1: The HP NC6220 startup behavior under Q4OS needs improvement.

Small differences in RAM showed up between the desktops: Whereas Trinity used 384MB of RAM, or 392MB when including shared memory for the graphics card and the cache, the Mate environment was satisfied with 350 and 360MB, respectively. Thus, Mate proved to be even more economical in resource consumption.

To test the negative influence of slow EIDE mass storage on the performance of the system during many accesses, the Toshiba hard disk was replaced with an OWC SSD [6]. The boot time of the system with Trinity was reduced to about 15 seconds, of which the kernel took less than 4 seconds and the userspace environment a good 10 seconds.

Even the most time-consuming services changed and were processed in less than a second. Despite a filesystem check that was also preset in the SSD, the system mounted the disk significantly faster (Figure 2). A similar picture emerged with the retrofitted Mate desktop: The boot times until the system was fully operational were about 15 seconds.

Figure 2: Even on the NC6220 with an EIDE interface, an SSD really speeds things up.

Next, the system transcoded video to check processor performance. The free HandBrake software makes intensive use of special instruction set extensions in modern processors and is capable of multithreading, resulting in significant speed advantages on multicore processors. In this test, as expected, the aged Dothan processor had to admit defeat.

When transcoding the source medium into a Matroska container with PAL resolution using the H.264 video format and an audio track in AAC format, the CPU worked continuously at full load, averaging just 8 to 10 frames per second. One reason is that the processor only supports the MMX2 and SSE instruction set extensions, not modern technologies like SSE4 [7]. Machines with processors older than the Core 2 Penryn generation are generally not suitable for demanding multimedia tasks (Figure 3).

Figure 3: For demanding tasks, the Dothan CPU has to admit defeat.

Esprimo Mobile D9510 Laptop

The D9510 [8] laptop produced in 2008 by Japanese-German joint venture Fujitsu Siemens is available for $80 to $140. It comes with a Core 2 generation dual-core processor and 4GB of RAM. The system can use the 64-bit variant of Q4OS to access the largest possible amount of RAM.

The D9510 has far more modern mass storage than the HP NC6220: Instead of the slow EIDE interface, the disk subsystem uses a SATA II bus [9], which promises significantly more agile system behavior. The system sported a conventional 2.5-inch hard disk.

The Q4OS operating system installed on the D9510 without any problems; as expected, it showed far better startup times than the NC6220. Here, too, network initialization, hard disk mounting, and the preload service applied the brakes at boot time (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Dawdlers on the Fujitsu Siemens laptop.

Between two physical cores and the processing of individual system services in parallel, the overall latencies were lower on the D9510 than they would be on single-core processor devices. The Fujitsu notebook only takes around 21 seconds with the Mate desktop and a good 19 seconds with Trinity before it is ready for use. However, memory usage was significantly higher than with the HP Compaq notebook: Trinity and Mate grabbed between 520 and 530MB of RAM.

The Penryn processor was far better at transcoding a video DVD than the Dothan processor, thanks to the integrated instruction set extensions and the two processor cores. Although HandBrake used both processor cores almost to capacity and memory requirements increased significantly, the computer achieved rates of between 45 and 70 frames per second (Figure 5), which makes this setup suitable for applications that require a little more computing power.

Figure 5: The Fujitsu Siemens laptop was running at full capacity when asked to transcode video.

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