If mentioning “64-bit” conjures up images of large, bulky mainframes running sluggish, industrial software, then you are in for a pleasant surprise.
I have been using Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit on a Gateway LT2114U netbook for over two years now, and the results have exceeded my expectations. Operation is quick, snappy, reliable, and it outperforms Windows XP Home (32-bit) and Windows 7 Pro (32-bit) on the same netbook.
Running Ubuntu lead to a number of interesting discoveries, so here is an article describing my experience.
Quick Facts About the Netbook
Though seemingly out of production, the Gateway LT2114U with a 10-hour battery is really just a rebranded Acer Aspire One, which is still in production and apparently selling for around $300 USD. This is quite a deal considering how versatile these netbooks are.
However, this particular model has apparently been replaced with the newer 11.6″ Acer Aspire One netbook featuring improved hardware for about the same price. So, if purchasing a new netbook, it might be worth looking into the newer model. I have not had a chance to try Ubuntu on the updated netbook, so this article applies mainly to the Gateway LT2114U and similar Acer Aspire One derivatives.
These netbooks have always received positive reviews, so there is no need to rehash the details. But to summarize the netbook I am using, it has an Intel N450 dual-threaded 64-bit CPU, a 10.1″ screen, and it originally shipped with 1GB RAM, a 160GB 5400 RPM hard drive, and Windows XP Home.
First Things First: Remove Windows
Windows XP Home was preinstalled, and it had to go. Why? One reason: Bloatware. If you have ever purchased a laptop or a netbook brand new, then you know how manufacturers preinstall so much software that it makes the computer sluggish.
This netbook was no exception. Norton Anti-virus trials, Microsoft Student Office trials, free advertisements, bloated Adobe Acrobat Reader…the list goes on. As the netbook boots, all of this unnecessary software loads together and increases the boot time. Not only that, they pester me with popups urging me to purchase the “full version for a small monthly fee,” and attempt to phone home and check for updates through the Internet. This clogs up the Wi-Fi channel.
Yes, this stuff had to go.
However, the first step was to backup the Windows XP Home installation. At this point, I had no idea if Ubuntu would work or not, so I needed a way to reinstall Windows XP Home. Installation CDs are not included. Instead, there is an installation partition on the netbook hard drive that contains the Windows installation. Not good. Fortunately, there is a BIOS option that backs up the Windows installation to a set of three DVD-ROMs. After purchasing an external USB DVD-ROM burner, the installation backups were made. Now, I can experiment to my heart’s content.
Various Operating Systems Used
Before settling on Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit, I experimented with other operating systems to see how they would perform.
Windows XP Home
Operation was not bad, but opening windows did not seem as responsive as I had hoped due to the bloatware. Too much background activity and virus scanning was taxing the processor. Uninstalling the various bloatware from Add/Remove Programs had little effect and felt like performing surgery. Too tedious. “Why not install Windows XP from a retail CD-ROM?” I tried installing Windows XP Professional (WinXP Pro) from a retail CD-ROM, but the installation refused to find the hard drive, so the WinXP Pro CD always halted. If I wanted WinXP, then the installation DVD-ROMs would be required, and that meant reinstalling the bloatware too. If Windows Home gets installed, then the bloatware is automatically installed with it. There is no option to disable the bloatware, and it makes Windows XP Home installation take about 45 minutes and an additional 30 minutes just to remove it. Ouch!
Windows 7 Professional
This installed just fine in under 30 minutes from the retail CD-ROM, but Windows 7 has higher hardware requirements. So, everyday usage performance was no faster than Windows XP Home with bloatware.
Windows worked okay but fell short of the glory I was anticipating. Time to try Linux.
After reading positive reviews, Lubuntu had its chance to shine. Unfortunately, it would install but not run. The OS would freeze on the desktop screen after logging in. No idea why. This was a year ago and Lubuntu has been updated since then, so maybe this problem has been resolved.
Xubuntu 10 worked okay as well, but there seemed to be a lag in the menus. Again, no idea why. Performance was actually worse than Windows XP Home with bloatware even though Xubuntu offered superior performance on a desktop. Xubuntu was not meant to be.
When Canonical released Ubuntu 11.04, I had to give it a try on the netbook. What a disappointment. Ubuntu 11.04 now uses Unity, which I do not care for. Unity is installed as the default desktop, and switching back to GNOME is a tedious ordeal. Not only that, Emerald causes a segmentation fault and no longer works with Ubuntu 11.04 without some serious workarounds. Ubuntu 11.04 was tossed faster than Windows 7.
Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit and Ubuntu 10.10 32-bit
This is a tie. Both versions installed painlessly in under 15-20 minutes and performed so well that the netbook felt as responsive as my desktop Linux machine. Quick bootup. No menu lag. Decent hard drive access speed. Good hardware support (except for the SD card slot). Excellent WLAN (wireless LAN) support. I was taken aback. Both versions performed better than any of the operating systems listed above including the newer Ubuntu 11.04. Everything I liked was working properly. Compiz desktop effects, GNOME, the desktop cube, multiple desktops, and Emerald were all running as smooth as silk without slowdown.
Given my preference for 64-bit computing, I chose the 64-bit version and let it dominate the hard drive. No dual-booting. After all, it never hurts to prepare early for the Y2K38 bug.
A marvellous advantage of Linux is its ability to install and run well on minimal hardware. Ubuntu 10.10 32-bit and 64-bit both consume less hard drive space and RAM than the Windows XP Home plus bloatware originally shipped with the netbook. You might think that 64-bit Ubuntu would be a resource hog. Not true. Although 64-bit required a little more resources than 32-bit Ubuntu, it is resource-friendly and responds just as snappy as 32-bit.
Using Disk Usage Analyzer, System Monitor, and the Windows Task Manager, these results were taken after clean installations:
|OS||RAM Usage||Hard Drive Space|
|Ubuntu 10.10 32-bit||163MB||3.2G|
|Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit||269MB||3.8G (Extra software installed)|
|Windows XP Home + Bloatware||287MB||6.84G|
Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit requires about 100MB more RAM when running than the 32-bit version. Required hard drive space is slightly larger as well, but both Ubuntus require less RAM and hard drive space than Windows XP Home.
Whether running Ubuntu on a desktop or on a netbook, there are a few things to make
Ubuntu run even better.
1. Set Swappiness
Set the swappiness value to 0 following a clean installation to ensure that RAM is filled before the swap area is used. The drive interface is slow, so it is best to eliminate paging as much as possible.
To set the swappiness permanently, open /etc/sysctl.conf with
sudo gedit /etc/sysctl.conf
and add the line
vm.swappiness = 0
0 = Use all memory before swapping.
100 = Swap as soon as possible
Save and reboot. Check that the swappiness value is 0 by entering
If 0, then paging will be delayed for as long as possible. This will help reduce hard drive accesses caused by paging.
2. Reduce Thumbnail Caching
Have you ever turned on your desktop Ubuntu only to watch the hard drive grind and grind shortly after power up and then watch your custom theme suddenly revert to plain old Gnome?
This is caused by excessively high thumbnail cache settings in a default Ubuntu installation. Reduce these settings to eliminate the grinding and crashing theme.
Enter gconf-editor in a terminal (Ctrl + Alt + T) to launch Configuration Editor.
desktop > gnome > thumbnail_cache
maximum_age = 3
maximum_size = 8
Timed with a stopwatch, a cold boot from pressing the power button to the login screen is just under 30 seconds. Of course, BIOS POST takes about 6 seconds, and there is no way around that.
Battery life is the same regardless of OS developers’ “power-saving” claims. True, some settings can be adjusting to maximize battery life (such as dimming the screen backlight), but in the end, a battery is a battery and the more you utilize the CPU the faster the battery will drain.
The advertised 10-hour battery life is true only if the netbook is in idle mode with its lid closed and the screen blanked. But then, what good is the netbook? No matter what operating system was tried, the battery life remained a consistent 7-8 hours of moderate use. The more CPU-intensive the tasks, the shorter the battery life. Both 32-bit and 64-bit Ubuntu drained the battery equally. Backlight brightness affects the battery life more than anything.
The most juice I squeezed out of the battery from a full charge was 9 hours 30 minutes, and that was using the netbook as an eBook reader to read PDF and text files.
Another fact never stated is that the Li-Ion battery degrades over time. After one year, the battery refused to charge beyond 38%, which only gave about 2 hours 30 minutes maximum of battery life. This is not a flaw of any operating system, but rather, this is a property of Li-Ion batteries. After purchasing a new battery, the netbook was back up to 5-7 hours of battery life.
“Running a 64-bit OS is bound to run the CPU hotter, right?”
Hmm. I cannot tell. The netbook does have a variable-speed CPU fan that spins faster and becomes louder as the CPU load increases, but it did this for all of the operating systems tried. It depends upon what you are doing, not 32-bit or 64-bit.
Watching a video file in Windows XP Home, opening multiple windows for file copies in Windows 7, watching a 720p WMV video file (yes, you can do that in Ubuntu on a netbook) in Ubuntu 64-bit, and decompressing 7-Zip files in Ubuntu 32-bit all caused the fan to kick in.
The fan is not annoyingly loud, but you hear it.
This netbook makes a superb portable DVD/video player. Now, you can watch those instructional programming videos from under the comfort of a shade tree. Just transfer the videos to the hard drive, and take a vacation. No slowdown or “jitters” were visible during playback. If Ubuntu could decode the video file, then it would play it. No questions asked.
However, as with any video file, different players produce different results. VLC (Video Lan Client) always perfromed the best. If a video file stutters in SMPlayer, then opening it in VLC usually solves the problem.
Believe it or not, Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit on this netbook will play a 1280x720p WMV video file without a stitch of jittering. However, this might be because of the codec used. All videos encoded in h.264 suffer from serious slowdown and out-of-sync audio. h.264 movies in 720p and higher resolutions are practically unplayable. Everything less than 720p seems to run well no matter what codec was used for video compression. DVDs play flawlessly.
And yes, the CPU fan does kick in at times when watching movies, but the fan noise has never been an issue, especially if using earphones.
Move over Kindle! Meet the netbook ebook reader. Okular and xpdf will rotate a PDF to full-screen for vertical reading. The netbook even closes like a book…
Talk about a surprise! One of the joys of Ubuntu is its clever use of multiple workspaces. Compiz effects such as the dektop cube are fully supported. You can rotate the cube and switch among multiple workspaces just as you can on a desktop system.
Keep in mind that increased desktop effects will cause slowdown on a netbook just as they will on a desktop machine. With only a few windows open, the cube rotates as smoothly as silk. I have had over 30 windows open spanning 6 workspaces, and the cube still rotated smoothly. It mainly depends upon CPU load. If the processor is leveled at 90-100% with a background process, then cube rotation will be jittery no matter how many windows are open.
Yes, when it comes to desktop effects, everything you are accustomed to on a desktop Ubuntu will function on the netbook Ubuntu. Do you like Expo and Ring Switcher? You will have some fun.
Both Ubuntu 10.10 32-bit and Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit perform the same. There is no speed advantage in using one over the other. Both feel snappy and responsive.
Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit menus open quickly. Unless there is high CPU load, I never have to wait for long. The mouse cursor glides over the desktop, and text editing is instant. Even using Emerald with Compiz has little effect on slowdown. However, a few elaborate GTK themes I have tried, such as Wolfe, slow the menus down. The cursor will move, but it takes a while for the highlighter to catch up.
Again, keep in mind that the more bling enabled, the slower the netbook.
“Can I program using the netbook keyboard?”
Yes. The Gateway LT2114U has one of the better keyboards for typing that I tried among various netbooks. I like the keys. The keyboard does take some time to become acquainted with due to the extra keyboard combinations, compact size, and different feel.
Of course, an external USB keyboard can be plugged into any of the netbook’s three USB slots allowing you to use an external keyboard if you prefer.
Either way, the keyboard is fully recognized by Ubuntu, so all of the keys and their combinations work.
Volume and backlight controls are adjusted using the Fn (Function) key plus the arrow keys.
SD Card Slot
The netbook contains an SD card slot for reading and writing SD cards. This slot is recognized under Windows but not Ubuntu. Therefore, the SD slot is unusable.
Hard Drive Speed
The hard drive interface is the biggest bottleneck. It is not that fast. I have tried installing a 7200 RPM hard drive, but the performance was little better than the default 5400 RPM drive.
Opening applications and windows is still quick in 2-5 seconds depending upon the load, but not as quick as a desktop system. This is due to hard drive activity. Firefox and Opera take up to 8 seconds to open upon a cold boot.
If there are file copies or other hard drive intensive processes running, then expect to add a few seconds to the delay.
On the plus side, the ext4 file system is used, so no matter how much software is installed, the netbook feels just as snappy as it did upon a clean installation.
Gotta love Linux.
Will A Solid State Drive (SSD) Be Faster?
Yes, but not by much due to the slow drive interface. I performed a clean install of Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit/32-bit, and Windows 7 (all separately) using a Samsung SSD 64G, and the results were not as impressive as expected.
The drive interface is not fast enough to take advantage of an SSD.
First, there is barely an improvement in cold boot time. The 7200 RPM drive boots to login in under 30 seconds, while the SSD takes about 26 seconds.
However, applications do open faster and menus are always more responsive. With an SSD after a cold boot, Firefox opens in 2 seconds while Opera opens in 3 seconds. Nautilus opens in 2.5 seconds on an SSD compared to 5 seconds on a 7200 RPM drive.
There is very little advantage to using an SSD other than lighter weight (the Samsung SSD feels like a feather) and protection against shocks that could kill a mechanical hard drive. An SSD is also 100% silent whereas a mechanical 2.5″ hard drive emits a faint spinning noise.
Since an SSD consumes less power than a mechanical drive (usually), it should add a few minutes to the battery life (according to SSD manufacturers). Not sure how true this is since other factors, such as CPU activity and backlight settings, seem to have a greater effect on the battery.
Oracle VirtualBox runs like a charm. Yes, you read correctly. I had good success running Windows XP, Vista, and 7 inside VirtualBox…but slowly.
It can take several minutes for Vista and 7 to load inside the virtual machine and guest performance can lag, so keep virtual machine usage light and run one at a time for best results. Running too many virtual machines at a time will slow the netbook down to the point of uselessness. However, this was only a proof-of-concept experiment.
RAM is most important. To run Vista and 7 well as guests you need at least 1GB of virtual RAM. This means a 2GB netbook memory upgrade is required. Windows XP has more modest requirements and runs well with 256-512MB of virtual RAM.
Even though Windows XP Professional refuses to install on the netbook hardware, it installs and runs inside a virtual machine.
This article could continue indefinitely expounding the advantages of using Ubuntu on a netbook. Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit performs just as good as Ubuntu 10.10 32-bit. While 64-bit might consume an extra 100 MB of RAM, everything else is identical, and performance exceeds my expectations. Apache2 and Cherokee servers also run well for creating a web server on the go.
I am very happy running Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit on a netbook. Lightweight and fast, this has become as useful as a desktop machine while consuming less electricity and offering portability.
The bottomline: Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit installed on a Gateway LT2114U or equivalent Acer Aspire One runs good. Real good. It surpasses both Windows XP Home or Windows 7 for its “snappy feel” and performance, and it involves less hassle than Ubuntu 11.04.