Would you believe that Wine, the open-source, program that enables you to run some Windows programs on Linux, is faster than native Windows XP on the same hardware?

I have trouble buying that one too, but according to the Wine crew’s latest benchmark runs, it’s true.

These were primarily graphic tests. Both systems, Windows XP SP 2 and Gentoo with Wine 0.9.5, were asked to show their stuff on a 3.8GHz Intel 570 Pentium box with an 800MHz FSB (front side bus), a gigabyte of 533MHz DDR2 (double data rate) RAM, and a 60GB IDE ATA100 hard drive.

If you just look at the top-line results, it looks like Wine isn’t just edging out XP, it’s killing it! It won the majority, 67, of the total tests.

A closer look at the results, however, reveals that while Wine is remarkably good at letting users run Windows applications, it’s not as good as that top number might make you think.

For example, while Wine does better on most of the 3DMark2000v1.1 1024x768x16 tests, which measures older methods of producing 3D graphics, its wheel fall off when it tries more complex 3D manipulations, such as pixel shading and point sprites, as measured by the 3DMark2001SE 1024x768x16 test suite.

Translated from gamer graphics talk, you’re not going to be running top-of-the-line 3D games on Wine anytime soon.

That doesn’t mean you can’t play games. On the popular Quake 3 time demo at a setting of 1024x768x32, Gentoo and Wine clocked in at between 7.0 and 7.8 percent slower than Windows. That’s certainly playable.

Where Wine does take the lead, however, is in many of Futuremark’s PC Mark-04 tests. These are overall system tests. While Wine didn’t do well in graphics, it did take home first place in such areas as memory access and CPU performance. It also did better than XP at basic file copying.

Overall, for many bread and butter issues, such as loading the application, Wine lagged far behind XP. Loading a Windows application in Wine took 37.1 percent longer than it did in Windows.

I think, though, that focusing on these numbers, either at a quick glance, which makes you think Linux is the winner, or at a closer level, where XP is for practical purposes clearly the leader, misses the point. With Wine, or its commercial brother, CodeWeavers Inc.’s CrossOver Office 5.0, you can run many of the most popular Windows programs on Linux.

We all know someone who might be willing to try Linux, except that “It doesn’t support Quicken, Word, Dreamweaver, iTunes, whatever.” With Wine or CrossOver, that’s not a problem. You can run these, and many other big-time Windows favorites.

I’m not just talking to hear myself talk here. I’ve not only tested CrossOver fairly thouroughly to find that it works well, I also use it on all of my Linux desktop systems.

While I’d love to lead a Windows-software-free existence, I can’t. Every now and again I have to use a website that just won’t work quite right with anything except Internet Explorer. Or, I run into a complex Word document that simply won’t translate perfectly into OpenOffice.org 2.0. For those times, Wine and CrossOver Office are invaluable.

It’s not really that important that Wine or XP is faster at a given task. What’s important is that Wine lets me run Windows applications on my Linux desktop at a decent speed. From that perspective, Wine’s a winner regardless of benchmark numbers.