Monday, 12 May 2008

Ubuntu vs XP - Old Hardware Shootout

Now that I've upgraded the hard drive in my testbed laptop it is time to do a re-install to get things back to the way I want them.

Seeing as I'm setting up the laptop for Dual Booting, this is a good chance to compare the "out of the box" settings for Windows XP versus Ubuntu 7.10.

"But Windows XP is old hat now!" I hear you cry. Well, not so. In fact Microsoft are targeting XP on the new low-spec laptops such as the Asus Eee PC, system specs that aren't a million miles away from my test laptop.

System spec: Toshiba Satellite Pro 2600 @800mhz, 256meg ram, 40gb hd, 1024x768 lcd display, built-in wireless.

Working hard drive transferred from older PC

OK, so this isn't something that the regular user is going to do very often, but sometimes if you are upgrading your hardware moving the OS may be something you need to do.

In my case a hard drive was taken from a working dual-booting laptop, which had been set to boot between Windows XP Service Pack 2 and FreeSpire.

On booting the disk on the new PC, FreeSpire autodetected all the new hardware including the on-board wireless card, the higher-resolution screen and sound. Even the new wireless network card auto-connected to my home network.

Windows XP refused to boot. Not even into Safe Mode.

Winner: Linux

Installing a Dual Boot system from scratch

If you do want a dual boot system then the easiest way to do so is to install XP first, making sure that you size your Windows partition to leave enough space to install Linux. In my case I'm dedicating 15GB to Windows XP and the remainder of the 40GB drive to Ubuntu.

Installing XP is a breeze, boot from the CD, follow the prompts and an hour or so later we have a working version of XP. Surprisingly XP actually detected all the hardware. Usually this isn't the case, but here I've been really lucky. Everything including the on-board 3D, built-in wireless card and sound works perfectly.

Ubuntu is installed next. Again, installation is a piece of cake and took a similar amount of time. Ubuntu detected the Windows install and added it into the boot menu. All the hardware except for the 3D card worked perfectly. Accelerated 2D is supported on Linux for the onboard graphics, but no 3D support. Sound and wireless worked perfectly. Even the onboard modem Toshiba Soft-Modem was detected and worked. Ubuntu also mounted the XP partition at login.

Winner: Windows XP


Windows XP Pro makes the first created user account a full administrator. This account has full control over the system. The Windows XP firewall is automatically installed and active. Windows also gives warnings relating to missing AV software.

The first created account in Ubuntu is given regular user access, but can perform administrative tasks by re-entering your password. A firewall is available (it is part of the Kernel) but not configured. GUI front ends for the firewall can be installed via the package manager. Generally speaking AV software is not required but can also be installed in the same way.

Pro's and cons on both sides here (although personally I'd edge towards Linux).

Winner: Draw

OS Updates

For OS updates both Windows XP and Ubuntu performed identically, both allow you to either have notifications, download ready for install, or automatic install of updates.

Windows Update now allows updates for some Microsoft products, such as Office. Ubuntu allows updates for all software packages that have been installed via its package manager.

Ubuntu also allows a complete distribution upgrade via the package manager, so if you've installed Ubuntu 7.10 upgrading to 8.04 is a simple task.

Winner: Linux

Wireless Support

Both XP and Ubuntu were identical in network support. Both were able to connect to my home wireless point, both were able to browse the network from the GUI, both saved the network password and auto-connected every time after.

Winner: Draw

Power Saving support

This is another case where both OS's were identical. Both support suspend to RAM, both support full hibernation. The CPU's speed-step facilities were supported on both. Soft power-down worked identically.

Winner: Draw

Internet / Email support

Both OS's come with web browsers, both support install of Flash Player via the browser.

Both can connect to a variety of instant messenging services.

Both come with email packages (although the Linux one has more features).

Winner: Draw

Multimedia Support

First with Windows we have Media Player. Browsing to my videos share I chose a couple of videos using a variety of codecs (XVid / DivX, Ogg). On each occasion Media Player gave the message that it was searching for the codec, before giving up and failing to play. After manually searching for codecs on the internet and running the installers most videos were able to play. MP3 support was there out of the box.

Ubuntu defaults to Totem for its media player. On trying the first video (which used XVid) Totem gives the message that it is searching for the required codecs, launches the installer, allows you to choose three sets of codec packages, installs them and plays the video. After the initial codec install all other videos played without any problems. MP3 support was added the same way.

Winner: Linux

Software Installation

On Windows you'll need to download and run installers for any apps you require. There is a good selection of commercial apps, and many FOSS (Free Open Source Software) apps are available for Windows.

Ubuntu has less commercial software available, but a wealth of FOSS applications, many of which can be downloaded, installed and upgraded through Ubuntu's package management tools.

If you want to use FOSS software and would like proper package management then Ubuntu wins. If, on the other hand, you want to use commercial software (and the majority of games) but have no real package management then go for Windows XP.

Winner: Draw

Overall Winner: Linux

OK, so a lot of this is down to personal opinion. Both systems work equally well for many tasks, both can give a good user experience. Ubuntu wins out on ease of use, especially when it comes to multimedia functions. Windows XP wins for choice of commercial software (especially games).

On low end hardware though Ubuntu does give a more up-to-date user experience, and comes with a full range of productivity / entertainment software, something that Windows XP will never be able to match.

I was very lucky that Windows XP detected all the hardware. It's been my experience that this usually doesn't happen. Normally you would need to install at least some separate drivers (although usually driver CDs are provided). Increasingly Linux works "out of the box."


Anonymous said...

Ubuntu uses a lot more disk space than does XP--a critical issue for those with a limited HD capacity.

There's a particularly vexing issue too with some video cards (i.e. the SiS 672 series) that limits the display to irritatingly large resolutions.

Also under Ubuntu, obtaining appropriate drivers for common hardware is an exercise in endurance and faith.

Finally, and the unkindest cut of all (and one that should have easily and decidedly tipped the balance between the two OSs),the installation of drivers for less-than-current hardware. Like other Linux-based OSs, Ubuntu demands a level of technical skill that's simply beyond the ken of the average Joe or Jose.

DanO said...

Thanks for commenting.

Unfortunately, if you are installing a non-slipstreamed version of XP (for example vanilla Service Pack 2) by the time all the updates have been installed you'll not be far off the Ubuntu install size (yes, you can remove the uninstall directories from c:\windows but how many "average joe" users would know that?).

As with any operating system your mileage may vary when it comes to hardware support. Windows XP can have just as many problems with old hardware. For example my Mustek USB scanner won't work with XP without some serious messing about (and hacking some NT4 drivers to work IIRC). On Ubuntu the same scanner was plugged in and "just worked." My old Parport Compeye scanner was another story entirely - it wouldn't work on XP or on Linux.

Personally I've found that Linux tends to have far wider support for older hardware - plus you can test your hardware from the Live CD before making your decision as to whether to install.

If you check the archives you'll find one example of where XP was certainly the better choice for an old laptop - but in this case Ubuntu definitely won out.

As for the "average joe" - my personal experience as a computer engineer is that installing XP and configuring hardware for it is beyond most users ability too.

At least with Ubuntu in most cases the hardware works out of the box. But yes, where it isn't fully supported it can be frustrating.