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May 26, 2008

XP Embedded: When benchmarks lie

Providing rugged mobile computers is a constant exercise in trade-offs and balancing. Screens get bigger and brighter, processors get fasters, disk larger, and customers want all that, without paying for it in the form of larger batteries and more weight. The problem, really, is that battery technology has not kept pace with the rest of the circuitry inside a computer, and so batteries struggle to provide enough juice to keep everything running for long. When you think about it, it's pretty bizarre that the very machines that are supposed to go as fast as possible often annoy their users by constantly trying to go to sleep, stand by, hibernate or shut off. Or that they come factory-configured to run at half speed and with the backlight dimmed.

The increasing power demand of the latest electronics (and in the processor department, their cost) has driven many manufacturers to look for alternate solutions. One is to pick a much simpler processor that consumes a lot less power. That approach, however, has its own problems. Two primary ones, in fact. The first is that customers think a machine with a "slow" processor cannot possibly be very powerful. And second that, in fact, it isn't. Fortunately there's a solution, albeit one that is only suitable for certain tasks and applications.

An embedded operating system.

See, a general purpose OS, like Windows XP Professional, is just that, general purpose. You can do anything you want with it, and run anything you want on it. With that in mind, Microsoft equipped Windows XP with all the drivers and software and utilities one could possibly need. The result is a rather large operating system with numerous processes and services running all the time, all consuming memory and power, and having the potential to slow even a powerful machine to a crawl.

An embedded operating system is totally different. The idea is to only use what you need to perform a certain task and leave everything else behind. This greatly reduces the size of the operating system and dramatically reduces hardware requirements. XP Embedded is generally used for smart, connected and service oriented commercial and consumer devices that do not need all of Windows XP, yet can still run thousands of existing Windows applications. An embedded OS can easily be as small as 40MB and it's even possible to cut it all down to around 8MB with a bootable kernel.

XP Embedded is not one-size-fits all. A company will determine exactly what a machine is for and what it should be able to do. They then include as many components (hence the term "componentized" operating system) as they need. There are over 10,000 available and it's easy to create lean, nimble embedded OS platforms that can still do sophisticated high level tasks like advanced multimedia, browsing, communications or whatever a task requires. An embedded OS can even run as a real-time OS via third party plug-ins. Essentially you get the power of the basic Windows XP engine, but without any overhead you don't need.

Which means that in an embedded systems machine, benchmarks do not necessarily tell the true story. They simply measure raw power, but not how efficiently that power is put to use. What all this boils down to is that a mobile computer with an embedded OS can be much faster than you'd think it is based on its hardware specs. In fact, we reviewed some that were so quick that almost no one would believe they ran on a low-power, inexpensive processor and just a minimum of RAM. So benchmarks would tell one story, real world performance another.

This is not to say that an embedded OS is the perfect solution for all mobile computing tasks. But it can be for organizations that build their own customized, componentized OS. And for those who have very clearly defined applications that work within the confines of an embedded OS.

Posted by conradb212 at May 26, 2008 03:50 PM