Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Retiring Leonardo

Well, having upgraded every other machine in our office to Windows Vista and Office 2007, with everything now running really smoothly, I decided to upgrade my old faithful desktop, affectionately known as “Leonardo”.

As a 4-5 year old machine with an AMD Athlon XP 2700+ processor and 1.5Gb of RAM, my old friend was still running Windows XP and Office 2003 pretty well, but switching back and forth between a Vista/Office 2007 notebook and the previous generation desktop was becoming a bit of a pain, so it was time move forward.

Having now performed 5 or 6 XP to Vista upgrades, the Leonardo migration proceeded without a hitch, though at the end of the process, a Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 1.0 was reported, which for those familiar with this measure, spells trouble. For comparison, the average business laptop nowadays has a WEI of between 3 and 4, and the highest rating machine we have in the office is 5.3. And sure enough, poor old Leonardo running Vista and Office 2007 was struggling to cope with some of the more graphical and processor intensive stuff we do – tellingly, stuff that ran perfectly acceptably under XP and Office 2003 with exactly the same hardware.

The obvious thing to do was upgrade the graphics card, so I rummaged through my box of old components (every aging techie horder has one of these), and managed to find a 64Mb ATI card to replace the 16Mb card that was in there originally, which improved the situation quite a bit.

Then came the new improved Leonardo’s first real test on project work, which for us means a lot of heavy Excel number crunching (VB script driven) and constant switching back and forth between Excel and PowerPoint, PowerPoint and Word, etc.

After a couple of hours, I’d had enough. The performance had dropped below the threshold of tolerability as a result of the upgrade for the kind of work I do. I daresay that if I were the sort of user that sits in Word or Outlook all day and doesn’t do much multi-tasking and application switching, the performance would be perfectly adequate, but for a more demanding “information worker”, to coin a Microsoft phrase, this kind of top-of-the-range machine from 4-5 years ago is essentially rendered unfit for purpose by the Vista and Office 2007 combination.

I can’t say I was that surprised, to be honest, and it was the excuse I needed to go out and buy a nice new 2.6Ghz Core2 Duo HP box, which really allows the new Microsoft desktop to be exploited to the full. Of course I would have had to upgrade at some point anyway, but it was still a shame to see a perfectly functional box having to be retired from routine business use, though perhaps that’s just me being sentimental as life moves on.

Standing back a little, looking across all of the Vista/Office upgrades I have done, I would say that that mid-range to high-end machines that are less than 18 months old usually run fine with the latest Microsoft desktop, and while some users complain about a drop in performance, it really isn’t that noticeable in our experience. I couldn’t tell the difference on my 18 month old 1.8Ghz Core Duo Sony Vaio, for example, and even if there was a small performance drop, the increase in usability and productivity makes up for it many times over. The lower the machine spec, however, the more noticeable the performance difference is, which is something to be aware of from a user satisfaction and productivity perspective when upgrading older machines.

As a caveat on the above, I must stress that the experiences I am reporting here are very subjective – we haven’t performed any lab tests or actually measured anything methodically, I am just speaking as someone who has been involved in real world migrations in a small business environment. In fairness, I should also point out that we are probably not representative of most small businesses either, in that we are essentially a company full of power users who really put MS Office through its paces, so we are likely to hit the wall with performance issues sooner than most.

So what about Leonardo?

Well, one option is to give him to the kids, but I have always fancied having a go at this Linux thing at some point. So if anyone can recommend an appropriate distro for a Linux virgin.....


Alfonso said...

The Linux question is a no brainer: Ubuntu, or better yet if you don't want a too different GUI use KUbuntu. You'll be surprised.

coffeelover said...

Ubuntu Linux. It does indeed 'just work' and will be rather smooth on your spec machine. It is available as a LiveCD, from which you can install it, giving you the opportunity to try-before-you-bu... well, commit.

I've successfully used the LiveCD on an AMD Athlon XP 1800+ with 1.5 GB RAM and it ran rather smoothly with the full graphical interface.

Incidentally, after 5-6 years of XP upgrades and updates, culminating in an upgrade to Windows Vista, my AMD Athlon 64 3000+ machine with 2 GB of dual-channel RAM and a 300 GB hard drive was really feeling the strain. Upgrading the hard drive to a 500 GB SATA beast and installing Vista from scratch has massively improved performance. Lesson to learn? Install from scratch rather than accommodate the junk accumulated from years of upgrading and updating. If at all possible!