I have seen many, many discussions about how Linux is faster than MS Windows, or how Gentoo is faster than Arch is faster than Debian is faster than SUSE. Faster? Will I really notice a few milliseconds? Will my hardware have the same speed boosts as these other people are claiming? Will some things be faster while other things get slower?
The answer is yes/no/maybe. I can definitely say that Debian IS faster than Windows 2000 on the same hardware. I can also extrapolate that since Windows XP is just 2000 with some added features (bloat), that Debian is also faster than Windows XP.
First let me set some facts. I used Windows 2000 on my home computer for about six years and tweaked every setting I could. My hard drive recently crash and I installed Debian testing (Etch), which was quickly updated to unstable. Other than my hard drive and sound card, all other hardware is the same. My old hard drive was a Samsung SATA 1.5Gb/s 120GB with 8MB cache, and my new one is a Samsung SATA 3.0Gb/s 250GB with 8MB cache (although my motherboard only supports 1.5Gb/s, so essentially it is running at the same speed). My sound card was a Sound Blaster Live! 24bit and was replaced by a Sound Blaster Audigy eX.
First comparison is boot up time. While Debian used to take longer to boot that Windows 2000, the Debian team has improved things considerably (I believe startup scripts now run in parallel, when possible), so now I believe that Debian may be slightly faster than Windows 2000. Some of this may be due to the fact that Xfce is faster to load than Explorer or the absence of an antivirus program loading at startup, but regardless I am sitting at a usable desktop sooner.
Linux also uses less RAM than Windows, especially swap (aka, page file, virtual memory) memory. Whereas Linux doesn’t touch my swap space unless I am playing a very demanding game or similar activity, the mere act of running Windows itself will use several hundred megabytes of swap memory. This is reflected in the default recommendations for swap space for each Operating System. Windows recommends that you have 1.5 times your physical memory (for example, if you have 512MB of RAM, you need 1.5GB of swap). I have often found, however, that doubling or even tripling your physical RAM provides a much greater advantage in Windows. Linux on the other hand recommends half of your physical RAM up to 512MB (for example, if you had 512MB of RAM, you would need 256MB, or if you had 2GB or RAM you only need 512MB). I have only seen my computer use up to 92MB or swap space with my 1GB of RAM, so I think these recommendations are quite accurate for Linux with no need to exceed them. Just based off of the recommendations, Windows uses three times as much swap memory.
Neverwinter Nights is one of the few commercial games to provide a native Linux binary. I am not the type of person who gives a crap about frame rates as long as the game is smooth, but I can tell you that Neverwinter Nights would momentarily freeze in Windows when I opened my inventory. That is not the case in Linux as it runs as smooth as can be. I wonder if this is due to the ext3 filesystem being faster than NTFS?
Another thing which is much faster in Linux is Java. Azureus would take forever to load in Windows and was so slow I switched to uTorrent. Linux runs Azureus at a very decent speed and takes only a few seconds to load. To be fair, Azureus took forever to load the first time due to me not having the official Sun Java runtime installed. After installing it however, Java was running faster than I ever thought possible.
Debian also leaves the field wide open as far as tweaking it for speed. Debian installed a kernel specifically built for my processor (a Pentium 4) which is something I remembered as having to do manually in the past (good job guys :)). I can also us apt-build to compile a package (or everything for that matter) from the source code with optimizations for my specific hardware (see here for more). I formatted my /tmp partition with the ext2 filesystem, because I don’t need ext3’s journaling which would slow it down slightly.
Windows 2000 is faster than my new Debian Linux installation is in 3D graphics. I blame ATI for this, as their Windows drivers are more mature than their Linux drivers, and since they recently dropped support in new drivers for the ATI Radeon 9000 (which is what I have), I don’t suppose it will get any better with time. I am able to play 3D games at a decent speed right now, but I think it should be faster.
Windows also has an advantage in running native Windows applications, as opposed to running them through Wine on Linux. Where as this may seem like an incredibly obvious statement, I mention it for the fact that Wine has been coming along at fast pace and is even to the point that it will play Half-Life 2 at a decent playable speed on my computer. A few more months and Windows may not be able to claim the lead :P. I also thought I would have to use Wine much more than I currently do as I have found good replacements for almost everything I ran under Windows.
I would like to say thanks to everyone in the Debian / Linux / GNU / open-source community for giving (one of?) the biggest software corporations a run for their money, while saving mine. I would also like to wish Microsoft good luck, because you need it.