Updated: April 28, 2012
Before we begin, yes I know Ubuntu 12.04 has been released. Relax. A review is coming on soon, now focus on the topic at hand. A head-on fight! It's a fight, a real one with bytes and whatnot! Now, seriously, here's a tough question/situation for you. Ubuntu, Kubuntu and Mint all share the same DNA. So in theory, they should all behave the same, including the overall time to boot into the desktop session. What do you think?
The simple answer is, let's not guess, let's check. And what's more fun than running a comparison between these three on my new test machine, blessed with a pair of SSD. So rather than hearing magnetic platters spin, you hear electrons plink. To be fair, I already gave you a sampling of SSD boot times on top of a new machine with an i5 processor and 4GB RAM. So it will be most interesting to see if there's any difference on a supposedly significantly inferior box, with half as much RAM, an older generation of CPU, and four years of age. What do you think will happen?
The name of the game - bootchart, a handy software for Linux that can time and plot your boot session, showing you the overall progress, dependencies and time spent in each phase. Now, the problem is, each distribution uses a slightly different scheme to decide when the desktop session has been fully reached, even if not all services have completed starting up yet.
For example, Ubuntu will stop its timer the moment the desktop space comes up, while Mint will churn all the way until the last required boot program has started. Kubuntu offers a similar method to its big brother, but it comes with a decidedly KDE splash. To make things accurate, I've combined the power of software with that of a wrist watch to get the best estimate. For me, having a desktop I can click on like a happy chimp was the moment the boot session was complete.
Ubuntu 11.10 did this in slightly over 9 seconds. This is a very nice number, and quite similar to results obtained on much newer hardware, indicating that there's a limit to what super-fast disks can do and what the system is capable of.
Now, if you look at my Ubuntu boot times article, you will find that even much older and weaker computers manage a rather impressive 15-17 seconds boot times without any help from monster CPU and lightning-fast solid-state drives. This kind of puts a damper on your enthusiasm a little, doesn't it.
Kubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot reaches the desktop in about 22 seconds; that's verified with a wrist watch. The first half is identical to Ubuntu with Unity, but then you get a rather slow KDE splash that adds almost as much to the wait.
Linux Mint results
Lisa was the trickiest to evaluate. On a first glance, you'd assume that it really takes 50 seconds for Mint to initialize, but the reality is a little different. Your desktop is already usable at the 9-10 second mark, just like Ubuntu. After that, you get some services coming to life slowly, almost like European tourists flocking for their early morning espresso in the nearby coffee shop at 11 am. Bottom line, 9-10 seconds.
Not what you expected, but it definitely shows the differences in the architecture and mindset. The rather golden 10-second figure seems to be unspoken top limit for modern desktops, who seek to fawn upon the ever impatient user. Ubuntu and Mint are quick to please there. Kubuntu is more laid back and does not fear to double the anticipation, although anything below 30 seconds is fairly good.
The most important finding is not the rather expected variation in boot times for such seemingly similar distributions, it's the great lack of major time boost with SSD compared to older hardware and much slower disks. I am aware that it's possible to rig overclocked beasts with massive SSD RAID arrays and manage 2-3 second boot, but for most people, the value ratio between chosen parts and what the operating system offers by default is minimal at best. In most cases, you're good anyway, unless something is terribly wrong.
To sum it up, Mint and Ubuntu will get you there in 10 seconds or less, Kubuntu will manage in about 22 seconds. Overall, all three results are fairly satisfactory for modern standards. And let's not forget, we tested a four-year old box. In just a few days, a whole new review of Pangolin coming. Dedoimedo out.