Linux speed on the desktop

I really enjoy using Linux for all of my development projects. I have Linux running on my development server, production server, backup server, file server, and one of my laptops. Wow, I forget how many boxes I have laying around. However my primary desktop remains a Windows XP box.

I tried to use Linux as my primary desktop (SUSE 9.0 – 9.2) and did so successfully for about a year. I wanted to make sure the desktop would be responsive so I threw 2GB of RAM at it, a fast SATA HD, an AMD Athlon 64 3500+ Processor…well you get the point. This machine was pretty fast in July 2004 when I built it. Plenty fast for the simple business and development applications that I use. I don’t play games so in theory I could get away with a much slower machine. However I was never able to get the “desktop” performance I could achieve with a much slower Windows box so I ended up switching back to Windows. By performance I simply mean things such as the time it takes Firefox to load, the time it takes OpenOffice to load, etc. Even webpage rendering seemed painfully slow.

Around the same time, I loaded Fedora (either FC1 or FC2, I can’t remember) on a really old box: a Celeron 1 GHz (the version that was the slower cousin of the PIII) with integrated graphics. This thing blew away my AMD Athlon 64 3500+ box. Browser load times were a ¼ of what they were on the Athlon, and pages rendered faster than when Windows 2000 was installed on this box. A later upgrade to FC4 on that box mysteriously decreased the performance.

So the big question is what is with all these performance variations? I’d assume it is the drivers for the hardware that is affecting the performance, but I really have no idea. I really don’t have the time to mess with compiling drivers and such so is there a list of hardware that performs well with Linux? Or am I using the wrong distribution (I use FC4 now for most of my boxes)? Are certain distributions bundled with better drivers? I know nVidia usually has better Linux support than ATI, but which card? I don’t think I need a $400 card for business graphics.

Any guidance would be greatly appreciated as I’m growing tired of using Windows on my primary desktop – mostly because it seems silly to do all this work on Linux via a Windows desktop. Cygwin and Exceed are great but I still have some little problems with cutting and pasting at times. A pure Linux environment would be simpler and cleaner.