Linux vs Windows (Part 2)

System performance

Let’s be clear about some thing: our experience of Windows 10 was plagued with bugs and annoyances. But we were testing a preview, and as such it wouldn’t be fair to give any credence to them. Bugs not withstanding, the new operating system, once installed on a suitably specified computer, is impressively quick in general use. Heeding the frustrations of so many Windows 7 users bemoaning lengthy startup and shutdown times, Microsoft has taken definitive action.

The Borderlands series is one of a growing number of AAA titles available for Linux and is in good company with the recently ported Bioshock Infinite and Shadow of Mordor incoming.

So in Windows 8 a new trick was introduced where system processes are summarily dumped to the disk on shutdown, so that they can be speedily reloaded during the next boot. This partial hibernation means that only user processes need to be loaded from scratch, so the time it takes to get to the login screen (assuming the user is not vulgar and passwordless) is slashed.

The technique is still in evidence with Windows 10, which managed to boot from an SSD in about six seconds, which is roughly the same time as it takes to get from Grub to the SDDM login manager on a slimline Arch installation. Day-to-day browsing and poking around the (still largely unpopulated) App Store, was also swift and responsive.

The difference is that we’ve only been using the Windows install for about a week, once a few apps and a few (thousand) obscurely titled runtime libraries are installed the age-old curse of Windows  decline will kick in. Our Arch Linux install has been used nearly every day for over a year, has all manner of long-forgotten packages installed, and remains blazing fast. One exception used to be playing Flash videos, which rapidly crippled the system. This was easily solved by uninstalling the Flash plugin because its entirely unnecessary nowadays and serves only as a vector for the delivery of viruses.

A modern computer is required to enjoy a smooth-running Windows 10 (see the hardware section), running it on a virtual machine proved particularly painful. By comparison pretty much any computer built in the last 10 years will happily run a lightweight desktop, such as LXQt or Mate, with no fuss whatsoever.

Add to that a slightly more modern graphics card (being one that supports at least OpenGL 1.4 and has 128MB of video memory), and it will easily manage a standard Ubuntu installation (the stated minimum requirements are 1GB or RAM and a 1GHz CPU). One of the many strange things that Windows aficionados tend to get excited about is the up and coming DirectX 12. Microsoft announced it at GDC in March last year using words including “richer scenes, more objects, and full utilization of modern GPU hardware”.

Naturally this has implications for gaming, an area where Linux continues to be trumped by Windows. The situation is getting better – there are now over 1,000 Linux games available on Steam. Many triple-A titles have been ported to Linux, and popular FPS adventure game Dying Light even saw an unprecedented Linux launch at the same time as its Windows counterpart.

Unfortunately, the numbers tell us that Linux gaming is still something of a niche occupation: Around 1% of Steam users (that’s a staggering 1.2 million users, extrapolated from the 125 million active accounts) are running it on Linux (even if that doesn’t indicate how many are dual-booters). Many Linux users choose to maintain a Windows install solely for gaming where they can enjoy a bigger selection of titles (around 5,000) and more often than not better performance.

There are a wealth of indie titles available for Linux titles and many of these will run just as swiftly as they do on Windows. High-budget titles though are all-too-often poorly ported. The main issue is the conversion from DirectX to OpenGL, which is often sidestepped by using a wrapper such as Wine or E-on. For best results, users still have to resort to the proprietary drivers for most games, and Nvidia (despite its generally poor attitude towards the open source community) tends to trump AMD performance-wise. Mesa, the FOSS implementation of OpenGL, currently only supports up to OpenGL 3.3, which is over five years old.

Newer versions of the proprietary drivers support version 4.5, introduced about a year ago. AMD made efforts to break the DirectX stranglehold with its new Mantle technology which AMD promise is coming to Linux, eventually. It saw much fanfare when Battlefield 4 was launched (boasting a performance boost of up to 45% over Direct3D) but lately, while explicitly stating that it’s are not abandoning Mantle, AMD seem to have directed effort elsewhere. Newer OpenGL techniques, dubbed Approaching Zero Driver Overhead (AZDO), offer similar performance boosts, as does DirectX 12.

OpenGL itself is over 20 years old and, like the X protocol, will eventually be phased out. Its stewards, the Khronos Group, has already announced its successor – Vulkan. Valve’s Source 2 engine already supports Vulkan and more will follow suit. In the meantime, many major game engines (Cryengine, Unity, Unreal etc) support Linux through OpenGL, so the number of Linux titles is only going to increase.

Desktop & apps

The Windows 10 desktop will not be for everyone – people coming from Windows 7 will have to get their heads around Live Tiles, and some system settings are hard to find. The old Control Panel is still there, but so too is a new one simply called Settings, which you’ll find nestled in the Start Menu. Such duality also features in the Start Menu itself, which seems to be composed of two largely autonomous panes: the menu itself and the Live Tiles to the right.

Windows 10 makes much ado about this Maps application, it’s quite neat at showing us Portland, but we could use Bing maps just as well on the web on any platform.

Apps can be added, albeit clumsily, from left to right, but going the other way is verboten. In general, re-arranging live tiles was a haphazard affair, sometimes they coherently snapped to the grid, sometimes they wound up at a seemingly random location.

Dragging tile groups around proved to be much more reliable. Besides gaming, one hitherto ineluctable point that precluded many from migrating away from Windows was the application ecosystem.

Whether its playing the latest games ( see Performance, left ), tinkering with TPS reports in Microsoft Word , or pushing pixels in Adobe Photoshop , there’s always going to be stuff that can’t be satisfactorily replicated in a Linux environment. Outside the workplace though, Microsoft Office is losing its stranglehold. Most people will find everything they need in LibreOffice and many people prefer to work online with Google Docs.

Gimp is more than sufficient for basic photo editing, but Photoshop gurus will still find much to scoff at. As a Linux user, if you do ever find yourself confronted with a DOC file that Google or LibreOffice can’t comprehend, then you can use Office Online (via a Microsoft account) to convert it to PDF.

The UK government (not exactly known for being digitally progressive) has even selected Open Document Format as a standard. Many major businesses, eager for another excuse to bandy the word ‘cloud’ around, have successfully transferred to Google Docs, so DOC, that most wretched of file formats, will mercifully not be around forever. Through Office365 and Creative Cloud Microsoft and Adobe are moving their operations skyward and changing to subscription-based service models.

At the moment this still means that the relevant applications still live on your computer, but in future we could see these behemoths transform into web apps and ascend into the cloud. If that happens, and does so in an appropriately standards-compliant manner, then people will finally be able to live the dream and ‘run’ them on Linux. Open source software is inexorably improving, so by then Inkscape and Krita could have usurped Illustrator, and Scribus could have feature-parity with InDesign .

But don’t hold your breath. Users of Windows 8.1 may lament the demise of its affectionately-titled Charms bar in the new release. However, the shortcuts it housed, particularly the frequently sought for Settings, are now all available from the Start Menu.

Windows 10 is surprisingly pleasant to use on a touchscreen device, and while it still has a split-personality feel to it these two egos are sufficiently segregated so it pretty much works like ‘old Windows’ when used with a keyboard and mouse.

Hot corners have been abolished, so there’s no danger that letting the pointer stray into some reserved territory in the north-east will trigger a massive occupation of the desktop by a ‘Start screen’. Overall, the Windows 10 desktop is most closely resembled on Linux by Cinnamon, excepting the Live Tiles. Part of the reason for Linux Mint’s popularity is this desktop, which is at once modern and traditional, respecting the age-old WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) paradigm.

Plasma 5, the latest incarnation of the KDE Desktop, is another fine choice that retains traditional desktop idioms, and it even works with touchscreens, assuming you can find a touchscreen that works with Linux.

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