Monday, July 08, 2013

The constant speed of Windows

Over the years, I've had a chance to see Windows in operation on many different CPUs. Starting around 1997 to present, I've seen Windows on the early Pentium processors all the way up to an i5 and one thing remains relatively constant: user interface speed. I remember long ago, how pundits were saying that the 486 was more than enough to handle word processing, after that, we didn't really notice any increase in speed.

While it is true that gamers have realized impressive gains in rendering speed, that is often because the game exploits the graphics processor, not the CPU. What I'm talking about is just plain Windows Explorer action on the desktop as well as ordinary productivity applications.

Here is a typical upgrade for a business to use for comparison: Start with the Dell Optiplex 3010 with 4 GB of RAM, a Core i5 CPU and SATA III connecting the hard drive to the motherboard. These machines typically replace Dell Optiplex 755 machines with Core2 Duo processors, 2GB of RAM and SATA II, running at 3 Gbits per second. What I find interesting is that these new machines have specs that are far better than their previous machines, yet, Windows still runs about the same as before.

Take the simple act of opening a folder on the hard drive. In the past 10 years years, hard disk interface speeds have quintupled. The interface speed has grown from 133 megabytes per second using PATA to to 600 megabytes per second using the SATA III interface, which is a very substantial increase in speed. Yet, again, with a directory filled with hundreds of files and folders, Windows will give us the green progress bar as Windows attempts to inventory the folder.

As a point of comparison, I have a 5 year old computer running Ubuntu Linux. On this machine, I have a music folder with more than 600 objects at the root of that folder. Listing the contents of that folder is nearly instantaneous. On Windows, the computer would spend about a minute running inventory on all folders and files in the folder. The result would be the same whether the computer is older or newer. The subjective speed of Windows operating on the desktop is relatively the same.

This isn't the only difference. I have a wide range of choices in desktops to install on Linux. Some are definitely hardware intensive like Gnome-Shell and KDE. They require at least 2GB RAM to feel normal. If I want something small and light, there is XFCE desktop, a desktop interface that is designed for speed. XFCE works exceptionally well on older hardware, too. Each desktop has a particular focus; some are fast and light, some are very pretty with nice animations, and others provide an alternative to the familiar menu driven interface we know from Windows. There are at least 8 different base desktops to choose from in Linux.

One reason for the apparent constant in speed observed on Windows could be traced to the desire of Microsoft to sell more licenses. Windows has an interesting model for sales. Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs like Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Acer) buy licenses from Microsoft and apply that pretty little sticker to the box. The license does not permit transfer to another box. Adding RAM? No problem. New hard drive? Easy.

But if you want more speed, there is a limit to what your motherboard will support. Upgrading the hardware in OEM boxes is not that easy if you want a new CPU. OEM motherboards are customized for the box and many of the parts, like CPU fans and fan shrouds, can be to source. If you want the latest and greatest CPU, you're going to have to buy a new box if your computer is a few years old.

The OEM Windows license is priced much lower than a shrink-wrapped box, too. Some anecdotal estimates the suggest a the cost is around $50 per license for consumer PCs. If you want to be able to move your copy of Windows around, you need to be ready to buy a full license for up to $299.

It is interesting to note that during the days prior to the release of Windows Vista, there were many articles discussing the fatter hardware requirements of Windows Vista. The purpose of these requirements was to get manufacturers on board with the prospect of selling new machines to support greater hardware requirements. At introduction, Vista was seen as bloated and high maintenance and was shunned by most businesses and many consumers.

While the Windows interface could probably run much faster, the need to sell more powerful hardware to satisfy the OEMs seems to be paramount. So if you're wondering why Windows seems to never change in speed, you now have some idea why. If you'd like an alternative to Windows, you may find one in a Linux desktop, a free desktop environment that is under constant improvement from a worldwide community of users and programmers.
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