On July 22nd a new set of kernel packages was released for Vector Linux, my chosen primary and current favorite distribution. This was the second build of the 2.6.21 kernel with Con Kolivas’ CK2 patchset, replacing a test build released on July 8. In the past the only reason I’ve recommended upgrading a kernel is to close security vulnerabilities or to add support for new hardware. Recently, though, there is another very good reason: noticeably improved performance, particularly if you are currently using kernel 2.6.19 or earlier.
For example, users are noticing significantly faster load times for Seamonkey and Firefox. Even if you have a new, snazzy system in today’s multimedia intensive computing world you probably push it to near the limit at times and a newer kernel may really make a difference. For those with older, slower systems this is, of course, absolutely huge. So… if you haven’t done it yet see if your distro has recently issued a new kernel package and consider installing it.
Relatively new Linux users may approach this with trepidation and rightly so. There is always some risk in moving to a new kernel. The key is that you NEVER, EVER upgrade a kernel. You install a new one and keep the old one in place. That way if something does go wrong you can always go back to what was working before.
If you are a newcomer and you successfully install a new kernel but are using proprietary binary drivers for some of your hardware you may be about to learn why so many Linux users consider binary blobs evil. The driver is almost always built for a specific kernel. Some distros will hold up a new kernel until they can get new matching binary drivers. Many won’t, particularly when security patches .are involved. Many hardware vendors are a bit slow to get new drivers out there. Keep all this in mind if it applies to you.
This also points out one of the major differences, both philosophical and practical, between Microsoft and Linux. Microsoft had no qualms whatsoever about releasing Vista, an update to Windows that required the vast majority of their user base to either replace their existing computers or at least significantly upgrade them. Microsoft figures that bigger, ever more resource intensive operating systems and applications are no problem since there is always newer, faster hardware out there. Linux developers, OTOH, know full well that even on the newest hardware there is good reason to have the most efficient, sleekest, fastest code possible so long as functionality is not sacrificed. The more efficient the code the more you can do with the system, period. For companies and individuals on a budget the fact that investments in older hardware can be leveraged for a longer period of time doesn’t hurt either.