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the different run-levels start different apps/services etc based on the executable contents of their corressponding folder. so if you have a default run-level of 3 and then startx - you will have simply started X, whereas, if you change the run-level to 5, there may be additional processes which are also started.
One quick way to find out is to examine the contents of /etc/rc.d/rc.3 and /etc/rc.d/rc.5 - also there is nothing really stopping you from adding a link to startx in rc.3
if you change the run-level to 5, there may be additional processes which are also started.
Should have clarified this at the time, basically each run-level has different associated processes. Initially, after installing a distribution, run-level 5 will include everything in run-level 3 plus the X environment, but this is not always the case - it varies between distributions and some software might only run automatically in one run-level.
As pixellany suggests, the simpliest and surest way to ensure that you are not placing any undue burden on resoures is to examine the contents of both directories. You may find processes in both which do not need to be run.
It's true that this entirely depends on the distro, you might find distros where runlevels 4 and 5 are not even configured by default, and are equivalent to 3. But in a typical distro where 5 equals to graphical login, your assumption is basically true. The difference might not be big, but it exists nonetheless.
The main difference (if we forget about any other specific service that's started in 5, if any) is how do we login. When we login in console on 3 we tipically use agetty, mingetty or the like. When we login from 5, we are using kdm or gdm instead. The former have a footprint that can range between a few kb to a couple of MBs. The later have a ram footprint of at least a couple or three dozen MBs probably. There are other things to consider though, when you login in 3 you are spawing an extra bash session that will remain there, unless you do something like startx&exit which will fork and close the shell.
On a single user machine, if you ask me, it's a nonsense to have something like kdm or gdm just to look at it for a couple of seconds while you login. But I've never been an eyecandy lover myself and that's just my opinion of course.