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I run KDE4 on my grandparents computer which they use for email internet etc... and KDE4 is definitly less optimal than KDE3
It shouldn't require more than a 2Ghz celeron and 512Mb ram to run the desktop itself snappily (which it doesn't)
I still run KDE3 on my laptop from the kde-sunset overlay on gentoo just because I like it that much more interface wise... some of the utilities are more polished in KDE4 but meh... I dislike the whole UI rendering and caching mentality they are using it makes it feel sluggish IMO compared to KDE3 it could be some other completion that causes it but that is what comes to mind.
If you think KDE4 uses less ram I don't know what you must have been smoking... its bigger and slower. The exception to that might be quad core desktops with Nvidia graphics there I can see how it might be faster.
and you turned off composite and nepomuk/strigi of course ...?
If you really want to compare memory including cache, run this command to flush the disk cache before logging in:
su -c "echo 1 > /proc/sys/vm/drop_caches"
After logging in, use each app for a few minutes before checking the stats so that it has a chance to reload whatever it actually needs.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you run KDM 3/4, some of the KDE libraries may already be loaded which will throw off the before/after logging in stats. Either way, it's not like KDE4 is using 400MB more than KDE3.
If that number includes shared memory, a higher amount could simply mean that the newer version uses more shared libraries (which might be loaded anyhow for different purposes), not that its own memory usage is higher.
Disabling Akondi, Desktop Effects, nepomuk will bring the memory usage down. The odd thing is I use to run KDE on a P2 350MHZ with 128 Megabytes of ram. KDE 3.3?
The real problem is Xorg 7.4 - 7.5 and Linux 2.6.22 - Linux 2.6.31. These things are the ones eating the ram up.
It's as if there were some secret instructions that executed in the older Xorg and Kernel that get turned off in the newer one's. CISC -> RISC.
As a test I took a copy of Slackware 12.1 which ships with I believe the 126.96.36.199 kernel and installed it to a Pentium 1 / 233mmx computer with 64 Megabytes of memory. It was swapping out at the command prompt with no Xorg loaded.
The 2.6 kernel's memory management is a hog. I haven't really read into any modern memeory management algorithms since I read the Dinosaur book. That's probably linux 2.2?
So I can't really be sure if Xorg has much to do with it at all.