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Looking for performance clues

We’ve written before about how the operating system and other software can influence test scores and even battery life. Benchmarks like the XPRTs provide overall results, but teasing out which factors affect those results may require some detective work. The key is to collect individual data points as evidence to what may be causing performance changes.

The Apple iOS 11 rollout last month is an excellent example of the effect of software on device performance. Angry tweets started almost immediately after the update, claiming that iOS 11 drained device batteries. iPhone users here at PT experienced similar issues. What was the cause of that performance drop? The hardware remained the same. So, did software cause the problem?

Less than a week after the rollout, Mashable published an explanation of possible causes. The article quotes research from mobile security firm Wandera showing that, for the 50,000 “moderate to heavy iPhone and iPad users” in the study, devices running iOS 11 burned through their battery at much faster rates than the same devices running iOS 10. They cite two possible causes:

    • devices often re-categorize the files stored on them for every new OS install, which may account for some of the battery issues.
    • many apps are not optimized for iOS 11 yet.

 

While these explanations make sense, with a little more digging, we could get closer to actually solving the mystery instead of guessing at the causes. After all, it is also possible that people are using iOS 11 differently from iOS 10. So, how could a dedicated sleuth investigate further? Anyone using benchmarks and hands-on testing to sift through various scenarios and configurations could get us closer to solving this mystery and any other software-based performance anomalies. But it’s a daunting task—changing only one variable at a time and recording the results is like pounding the streets and knocking on doors to solve a case.

In all likelihood, some combination of Apple iOS updates and application changes will improve the battery life for iOS 11. In the meantime, we wish we had an XPRT that could test battery life on iOS. Who knows, maybe some future version of WebXPRT will be able to help in future sleuthing.

Eric

Best practices

Recently, a tester wrote in and asked for help determining why they were seeing different WebXPRT scores on two tablets with the same hardware configuration. The scores differed by approximately 7.5 percent. This can happen for many reasons, including different software stacks, but score variability can also result from different testing behavior and environments. While some degree of variability is natural, the question provides us with a great opportunity to talk about the basic benchmarking practices we follow in the XPRT lab, practices that contribute to the most consistent and reliable scores.

Below, we list a few basic best practices you might find useful in your testing. While they’re largely in the context of the WebXPRT focus on evaluating browser performance, several of these practices apply to other benchmarks as well.

  • Test with clean images: We use an out-of-box (OOB) method for testing XPRT Spotlight devices. OOB testing means that other than initial OS and browser version updates that users are likely to run after first turning on the device, we change as little as possible before testing. We want to assess the performance that buyers are likely to see when they first purchase the device, before installing additional apps and utilities. This is the best way to provide an accurate assessment of the performance retail buyers will experience. While OOB is not appropriate for certain types of testing, the key is to not test a device that’s bogged down with programs that influence results unnecessarily.
  • Turn off updates: We do our best to eliminate or minimize app and system updates after initial setup. Some vendors are making it more difficult to turn off updates completely, but you should always account for update settings.
  • Get a feel for system processes: Depending on the system and the OS, quite a lot of system-level activity can be going on in the background after you turn it on. As much as possible, we like to wait for a stable baseline (idle) of system activity before kicking off a test. If we start testing immediately after booting the system, we often see higher variability in the first run before the scores start to tighten up.
  • Disclosure is not just about hardware: Most people know that different browsers will produce different performance scores on the same system. However, testers aren’t always aware of shifts in performance between different versions of the same browser. While most updates don’t have a large impact on performance, a few updates have increased (or even decreased) browser performance by a significant amount. For this reason, it’s always worthwhile to record and disclose the extended browser version number for each test run. The same principle applies to any other relevant software.
  • Use more than one data point: Because of natural variability, our standard practice in the XPRT lab is to publish a score that represents the median from at least three to five runs. If you run a benchmark only once, and the score differs significantly from other published scores, your result could be an outlier that you would not see again under stable testing conditions.


We hope those tips will make testing a little easier for you. If you have any questions about the XPRTs, or about benchmarking in general, feel free to ask!

Justin

CES 2017

I’ve attended many tech shows over the years, but this year’s CES has more energy than any I’ve attended in a long time. Part of the energy is the breadth of products. There are amazingly slim TVs that make my TV at home, which I thought was slim, look fat. And, there are beautiful 8K TVs that make my new 4K one feel old.

I’m seeing all manner of smartphones. I’m seeing mobile remote presence devices such as the one from Beam, and after seeing the latest Fenix 5 from Garmin, I think I’ve found my next smartwatch.

Photo Jan 05, 2 05 53 PM

There are many differing devices and approaches to VR and AR. There are drones everywhere. And, lots of massage chairs.

Photo Jan 05, 1 13 17 PM

There are also plenty of products, let’s call them longshots, that contribute to the Wild West feel of the show. Maybe you’d like the Hydreon FakeTV, a small device to make it seem like a TV is on in your house to keep away burglars? Or Dr. Fuji’s Body Shaper, a vibrating platform to “accelerate your workout”?

Another part of the dynamic feeling is the breadth of vendors. Almost all the big tech vendors are here, except for Apple, of course. The excitement for me, however, is the small vendors displaying things that may well never see the light of day, but give glimpses of the future. For example, while I doubt most of the drone vendors at CES will be around in a few years, I think the trend toward small, inexpensive selfie drones will be.

The main reason for the energy at this year’s CES could be the convergence of multiple big industries. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the large auto presence. Cars have been at CES before—the first time I drove my current car, a BMW i3, was at CES 2014—but this time around they seem to really want to make a statement. Faraday Future is making a splash by trying to be the next Tesla with its FF91.

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Multiple vendors, including VW, Nissan, Toyota, and Mercedes, have concept cars on display—most of them are electric and all of them are heavy on technology. The biggest tech they’re touting is autonomous driving. The auto companies are showing their products while companies like NVIDIA, Intel, and Magic Eye are displaying the tech they have as well.

Regardless of the source of the energy at this CES, I see many opportunities for the existing XPRTs to continue to be important resources. I also see how important emerging technologies like machine learning and VR/AR are going to be and how the XPRTs can be of help there as well.

Exciting times!

Bill

Tracking device evolution with WebXPRT ’15, part 2

Last week, we used the Apple iPhone as a test case to show how hardware advances are often reflected in benchmark scores over time. When we compared WebXPRT 2015 scores for various iPhone models, we saw a clear trend of progressively higher scores as we moved from phones with an A7 chip to phones with A8, A9, and A10 Fusion chips. Performance increases over time are not surprising, but WebXPRT ’15 scores also showed us that upgrading from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone 6s is likely to have a much greater impact on web-browsing performance than upgrading from an iPhone 6s to an iPhone 7.

This week, we’re revisiting our iPhone test case to see how software updates can boost device performance without any changes in hardware. The original WebXPRT ’15 tests for the iPhone 5s ran on iOS 8.3, and the original tests for the iPhone 6s, 6s Plus, and SE ran on variants of iOS 9. We updated each phone to iOS 10.0.2 and ran several iterations of WebXPRT ’15.

Upgrading from iOS 8.3 to iOS 10 on the iPhone 5s caused a 17% increase in web-browsing performance, as measured by WebXPRT. Upgrading from iOS 9 to iOS 10 on the iPhone 6s, 6s Plus, and SE produced web-browsing performance gains of 2.6%, 3.6%, and 3.1%, respectively.

The chart below shows the WebXPRT ’15 scores for a range of iPhones, with each iPhone’s iOS version upgrade noted in parentheses. The dark blue columns on the left represent the original scores, and the light blue columns on the right represent the upgrade scores.

Oct 27 iPhone chart

As with our hardware comparison last week, these scores are the median of a range of scores for each device in our database. These scores come both from our own testing and from device reviews from popular tech media outlets.

These results reinforce a message that we repeat often, that many factors other than hardware influence performance. Designing benchmarks that deliver relevant and reliable scores requires taking all factors into account.

What insights have you gained recently from WebXPRT ’15 testing? Let us know!

Justin

An anniversary update

The Windows 10 Anniversary Update release is scheduled for August 2, and we’ve been running the XPRTs on the Windows Insider preview builds. While we can’t publish performance data from developer builds, we’re happy to say that WebXPRT and TouchXPRT run well on the Anniversary Update.

The story for HDXPRT 2014 is more complicated. Back in May, we reported that it would not run on more recent versions of Windows. However, we’ve identified steps that enable HDXPRT to run on the current stable Windows 10 build, as well as the latest Anniversary Update preview. It’s running well, but it’s possible that testers will encounter other issues as Microsoft releases new builds.

We have included the steps below. We’re considering an update to HDXPRT 2014 that will incorporate these changes. If you have any comments or suggestions related to HDXPRT, please let us know.

Justin

Summary
In addition to the normal system configuration requirements for HDXPRT, testers must also overwrite HDXPRT’s CPU-Z files with newer versions and change the default browser from Microsoft Edge to Internet Explorer. After configuring the system for HDXPRT testing, testers may encounter errors related to administrative privileges when attempting to launch Microsoft Edge. Returning User Account Control settings to their default pre-configuration state resolves the problem.

Process
1. Install the latest version of CPU-Z.
      a. Open any browser and download the latest version of CPU-Z for Windows
          (currently CPU-Z 1.76).
      b. Install CPU-Z on the system, using the default settings and installation path.
2. Install the HDXPRT 2014 benchmark using the default installation process. Reboot the system
    after installation.
3. Copy all the files from the C:\Program Files\CPUID\CPU-Z\ directory to the C:\Program Files
    (x86)\HDXPRT\bin, and overwrite the existing CPU-Z files.
4. Change the default browser from Microsoft Edge to Internet Explorer:
      a. Open the Windows Settings app and select System/Default apps.
      b. Under Web browser, click the Edge icon, and select Internet Explorer from the list.
      c. At the Before you switch window, click Switch anyway.
      d. Close the Settings app.
5. Adjust SmartScreen and security settings:
      a. Open Internet Explorer.
      b. Go to Settings/Internet options/Security, and make the following changes for the Internet
           and Trusted Sites zones:
            i. Select Custom Level.
            ii. Disable SmartScreen Filter.
            iii. Under Launching applications and unsafe files, click Enable (not Secure).
            iv. Click OK, and click Apply. If a warning message appears, click Yes.
6. Restart the system.
7. Open HDXPRT and run the benchmark normally.

If, after installing HDXPRT, you encounter an error related to administrative permissions when trying to open Microsoft Edge, return User Account Controls to the default setting, and restart the system. The default User Account Control setting is the third notch from the bottom: “Notify me only when apps try to makes changes to my computer.”

Golden tickets go global

I’ve spent the last week at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. The show is somewhat reminiscent of CES in January, but with a much more European/global feel. There are seven large halls of booths with phones, tablets, accessories, and gadgets of every sort.

MWC picture

I have felt Fujitsu’s haptic technology on a tablet, seen phones operating under water such as Kyocera’s and others, and even talked with someone at Oral-B about their Bluetooth-enabled electric toothbrush.

As at CES , my primary goal has not been to play with cool gadgets, see the sights, and eat good food. (Though, admittedly, all of that has been fun!) Instead, I was here to spread the word about the XPRT benchmarks. I handed out more of the special golden tickets that invite folks to be heard by joining the BenchmarkXPRT community and to take advantage of the opportunity to have PT test devices for free with all the applicable XPRT benchmarks.

If you were not able to attend CES or MWC, or I missed you and did not give you a golden ticket (or one of our cool shirts), please contact us. We don’t want any members of the community to feel left out! And, we’d love any of the rest of you readers to join the community and be part of creating the benchmarks for the next wave of cool phones, tablets, and devices.

-Bill Catchings

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