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A Vista vs. Linux Matchup - Part 3: Hardware Wars
by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Jan. 31, 2007)

Foreword: This is Part 3 of a series that pits Microsoft's new Vista OS against Linux's fair-haired boy, Ubuntu. At the conclusion of Part 2, our fearless curmudgeon had just finished configuring his test system to dual-boot Vista Ultimate and SimplyMEPIS 6.01, an Ubuntu-based Linux distribution with a KDE desktop.

Note: If you missed the previous installments of this series, read them here:

A Vista vs. Linux Matchup

Part 3: Hardware Wars

by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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When last we left my exploration of Vista vs. Ubuntu/MEPIS Linux, I had the system up and running in a dual-boot environment.

Now, came the interesting part: seeing how each operating system would work, or not, with the hardware on my HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n PC. When it was first built, in early 2006, this was a high-end system. Today, in early 2007, it's still a powerful system; but, it's in no way, shape, or form a cutting-edge PC. In other words, neither Vista nor MEPIS should have too much trouble with the hardware. Right?

Well, I was half-right.

To start with the very basics, neither operating system had any trouble using the PC's hyper-threaded 2.8GHz Pentium D 920 dual-core processor, 4MB of L2 cache, 800MHz front-side bus, and 2GB of DDR (double-data-rate) RAM. Both recognized and appropriately used those system resources.

MEPIS provides a detailed look at what's what in memory, and that's not much at all with the Linux in a resting state.
(Click to enlarge)

With both systems completely idle except for their memory map programs and the screenshot program, MEPIS has a memory footprint of less than 100MB, while Vista is pounding down its foot with over half-a-gigabyte of RAM.
(Click to enlarge)

For the purposes of my evaluation, I didn't make the best possible theoretical use of the hardware, however, because, on this 64-bit system, I used 32-bit versions of both OSes. I did this because both Vista and Linux still have teething pains on 64-bit systems. They'll run just fine, but there are nowhere near enough 64-bit hardware drivers or applications for either one.

Actually, Vista has far more trouble than Linux does with the 64-bit environment. Microsoft decided, in the interests of security, to require 64-bit Vista drivers to be digitally signed. If they're not signed, they don't load, they don't run, and that's the end of the story. That actually does make some sense. For example, it will stop some rootkit attacks cold. On the other hand, it also means that there are darn few digitally signed drivers available.

Therefore, since I was interested in seeing how Linux did against Vista on a level playing field, I decided not to go 64-bit. When it comes to 64-bits, Linux has a clear advantage in hardware compatibility. You could argue it does that by being less secure, but consider the track record: Windows, as secure as the web built by the itsy-bitsy spider in the rain spout; versus Linux, no known significant viruses or rootkits. All things considered, I'm not worried about Linux's lack of digitally signed drivers.

Both operating systems ran flawlessly with the Maxtor 300GB, 7200rpm SATA hard drive. And, both of them were able to recognize and use the system's dual-layer, multi-format LightScribe DVD/CD burner drive and the DVD-ROM drive. Vista was also able to use LightScribe, which enables you to burn gray-scale graphics and lettering onto special DVDs and CDs, whereas MEPIS doesn't have this functionality built-in.

LightScribe recently released its own driver and software for RPM-based Linux systems such as Fedora and openSUSE. The drive vendor Lacie, however, has also released software -- 4L: LaCie LightScribe Labeler for Linux -- that enables any Linux, including Debian-based ones such as MEPIS and its parent Ubuntu, to use LightScribe.

The usual array of memory card reader ports -- CompactFlash I and II, SmartMedia, Memory Stick and MS Pro, Secure Digital (SD) and MMC MicroDrive, and XD Picture Card -- worked well. The USB 2.0 and FireWire ports also ran without a hitch for both OSes.

Moving right along, while installing the operating systems, I ran into a complete failure of an operating system to recognize an integral component of the system. The naughty operating system? Vista.

Yes, I know you've been taught to think that Windows runs everything, and that Linux is the one with hardware driver problems. Well, yes, Linux does have some shortcomings with drivers thanks to proprietary drivers, but Vista has its troubles, too.

Vista's problem child surprised me though: it was the audio. I can't recall the last time any operating system I worked with had trouble working with a motherboard's onboard audio. While Vista had no trouble finding and activating the Intel High Definition audio chip (aka Azalia), what it couldn't work with at all was the common-as-dirt RealTek ALC 882 audio chipset.

The result was that while Vista could push Dolby 5-1 media audio to my media speakers, it actually couldn't use my plain-old vanilla speakers. I checked into this further, and quickly discovered that I was far from the first person to run into this problem. At this time, there also doesn't appear to be a solution.

Vista found the high-end audio, but it couldn't find the basic audio.
(Click to enlarge)

MEPIS, on the other hand, immediately recognized and put all the system's audio to work. At this very moment, I'm listening to the Dropkick Murphys' Boston-branded Celtic-Punk off the system using my favorite Linux music player, Banshee.

No trouble with the audio hardware in MEPIS.
(Click to enlarge)

Not long after my musical interlude, I switched back to Vista... and found that Vista has other audio problems.

My test system's high-end audio outputs are S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) compliant. S/PDIF is probably the most common high-end audio port around for PCs today. It also has no built-in DRM (digital rights management) capability, and that turned out to be an important matter.

When I switched back to Vista, I tried to play Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot CD. Whoops! Not a single sound emerged from my speakers. After a little investigation, I found that Vista disables media outputs that don't incorporate DRM, when you try to play DRM protected media through them.

My test system's high-end S/PDIF audio port lacks built-in DRM. Without that functionality, Vista won't play music through the PC's speakers with Windows Media Player 11. MEPIS, on the other hand, has no trouble playing online music. In this case, I'm using Streamtuner.
(Click to enlarge)

That was a kick in the head. I have a fully legal CD in my hand. Any other version of Windows will play it, Linux will play it, Mac OS will play it, and my CD player will play it, but if you're using S/PDIF for your computer-driven audio and Vista, you're out of luck. If you have a card with a Toslink optical digital audio port, you will be able to play it.

One of the ironies of the situation was that this very album had been first released on the Web without any DRM, in part as a protest against DRM. Ah well, that was yesterday.

There's a very detailed report on just how Vista goes wrong with DRM, which I recommend to you. I'll just content myself by saying an operating system -- any operating system -- is not the place for DRM.

Next up, I came to the system's Agere Systems PCI K56flex data/fax modem. It was, of course, a WinModem. These accursed modems consist of a bit of hardware and a lot of Windows code. Vista has no problems with it, but MEPIS was unable to work with it.

Now, most people assume that Linux, by and large, can't work with WinModems at all. That's not true. Many WinModems will work with Linux. The trick is to find the right driver for your modem. The motherlode of Linux and WinModem information is at Linmodems. An extremely useful site for Ubuntu Linux family users is the Dial Up Modem section of Ubuntu's online documentation. Alas, in my case, I'm stuck with a WinModem I can't get to work.

Since the chances of me using a modem on a desktop system is somewhere between slim and none, I don't regard this as a major failure.

Things, however, did go much better with my PC's networking systems. Unlike any other tower PC I've ever met, this HP system comes with both an Intel Pro/100 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet port and 802.11g WiFi. As you would expect, both Vista and MEPIS took to the Ethernet like ducks to water. What might surprise you, though, is that MEPIS had no trouble swimming away with WiFi as well.

While Linux often has trouble with WiFi, thanks again to proprietary drivers, the WiFi system on the m7360n uses an Atheros Communications chipset and Linux can work with most, albeit not all, Atheros-based WiFi devices. This works thanks to the Madwifi project, which has worked for years on enabling Atheros equipment to work with Linux. While not all Linux distributions include Madwifi, MEPIS, fortunately for me, does.

If you're stuck with a laptop that doesn't use Atheros WiFi hardware, there are also many other Linux WiFi drivers. And, if worse comes to worse, you can always try using a Windows WiFi driver in Linux by installing NDISWrapper. This project implements a Windows driver API and the NDIS (Network Driver Interface Specification) API within the Linux kernel. You then take a working Windows wireless network driver, say the one with Vista, and use it to connect to WiFi networks. For the best reference to Linux and WiFi, visit Hewlett-Packard and Jean Tourrilhes's Wireless LAN resources for Linux site.

Again, in my case, though, there was no fuss or muss. Both OSes just worked with both network interfaces.

I was also pleased to find that MEPIS, as well as Vista, could work with the TV tuner and video capture chipset -- the Conexant Falcon II NTSC. Between it, and the GeForce 6200SE graphics card, it boasts S-Video and composite inputs and outputs, coaxial cable TV, and FM antenna ports.

Neither operating system had any trouble turning the PC into a TV. Here, we see a shot from a recent episode of Ugly Betty being rendered by VLC media player on MEPIS.
(Click to enlarge)

While it's enjoyable to watch TV with both operating systems, I won't go into anymore detail on it since (1) the Conexant only has a single-tuner, and (2) it doesn't support HDTV. If you want to get serious about a 2007 "media center" using either Vista or Linux, you'll want a much more recent and capable TV video card.

Finally, I come to graphics. Here, I have to report that while both operating systems worked with the NVIDIA GeForce 6200SE video card, neither worked with it as well as I had hoped. Of the two, I was most disappointed with Vista.

Now, the GeForce 6200SE is no speed demon. Instead of having its own video RAM, it cannibalizes 256MB of the system's main RAM. No one expects to get any kind of WOW experience from this card.

What I did expect, though, was, given the rest of the system, to be able to at least run Vista's fancy-pants new GUI, Aero, decently. Wrong.

While I was installing Vista, it told me that my "Windows Experience Index" was going to be 2.4. Let me translate that for you: my graphics quality was going to be mediocre. A 3.0 is considered adequate for Aero.

A Vista experience of 2.4 isn't a good experience. Time to go out and buy a graphics card with its own dedicated 256MB of RAM -- or should that be 512MB?
(Click to enlarge)

Things were better on MEPIS, but its 3D graphics, using both Beryl and Compviz were, well, OK. While working with these, Linux finally lived up to its reputation as being difficult to install.

Other Linuxes, such as openSUSE with Compviz and Foresight with Beryl, already incorporate the 3D, special-effect windows managers. On those systems, installing a fancy graphics manager goes much easier.

That said, I installed both Beryl and Compiz. Most Linux users probably could install them. But, Mr. Joe Windows? Forget about it. He'll never get it done. That said, I got more eye-candy goodness from MEPIS than I ever did with Vista.

Along the way, I might add, I updated the graphics drivers in both operating systems. In the case of MEPIS, it made a real difference. With Vista, well, if the new driver improved things, I couldn't tell.

Don't get me wrong. Both operating systems did well at showing videos and snapping 2D applications in and out of focus. It's just that if you wanted to have a spectacular graphics experience, you were at the wrong PC.

What I learned from this experience is that Microsoft has low-balled Vista's requirements even more than I had thought they had. Seriously, if you're going to run Vista and you want Aero, get a high-end video card with 256MB of dedicated memory -- 512MB would be even better. I have to say that my last thought on both Vista and Linux is that if you really, really want the best possible graphics... get a Mac.

Putting aside Apple hardware, where all the software works with all the hardware so long as it's all up to the minute, I found that MEPIS actually has better hardware support for this PC than Vista.

Now, that may change as Microsoft puts dollars into hardware vendors' hands to support Vista. But, for now, if you're going to upgrade your operating system on an existing PC, Linux gives you the better shot of everything working correctly.

On the other hand, if you're planning on viewing or listening to DRM-protected media of any sort, Linux is clearly going to give you better hardware support. By incorporating DRM into the operating system, Microsoft is going to make it very difficult for everyone from PC DVR (digital video recorder) users to just a guy who wants to play a DRM-crippled CD to be certain that everything will work properly.

Adding insult to injury, since DRM protection schemes must evolve constantly, to stay ahead of hackers tearing them down, I have little doubt that one day you'll come home to find that a Vista update to DRM-protection has just locked you out of your media collection. You know, the same collection, which had worked just fine the day before. Repeat after me: DRM does not belong in operating systems.

Next up, I'll start looking at what both Vista and MEPIS have to offer with their basic, built-in software. See you then.

Continue to Part 4 here:

Part 4: Software Wars - Bundled Apps

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