Commentary

Rich Jaroslovsky: Microsoft Needs a Swift Kick in the Boot-Up


(Bloomberg) — It took about 20 years before television viewers no longer had to wait for their sets to warm up. Yet here we are, 30-plus years into the personal computer era, and the instant-on PC remains elusive.

That may be about to change.

Today's tech consumers have grown accustomed to always-on smart phones and efficient netbooks they can leave for hours in "sleep" mode without rebooting. As a result, they are losing patience with the spinning logos, hourglasses, and twiddling thumbs that define the experience of booting up most Windows PCs. And they are showing a growing interest in hardware and software that speed up the process, or can even sidestep it.

By most accounts, Windows 7, the current version of Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) operating system, is quicker off the mark than its predecessor, Windows Vista. Microsoft cites its efforts with partners such as Lenovo Group Ltd. to optimize Windows boot-up times, and its work on power management that it says makes Windows' sleep mode the moral equivalent of instant-on.

Still, making Windows faster isn't the same thing as making Windows fast; starting a PC can take anywhere from less than one minute to more than 10, depending on its hardware and the version of Windows it's using. And leaving computers in indefinite sleep runs counter to the U.S. government's best advice on saving energy.

So if you're impatient for a better solution—and after all, impatience is what this is all about—here are three ways to get closer to the goal:

Windows Add-On— Run an instant-on operating system in addition to Windows.

A number of programs aim to work around Windows' slow boot times by simply not booting Windows. Instead, these programs — some of which come installed on new computers from Dell Inc. (DELL), Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ), Asustek Computer Inc. and Acer Inc., among others—launch a stripped-down desktop that allows you to surf the Web, handle any e-mail you can view in a browser and perform other basic tasks. Windows is there, but only to be summoned when needed.

I've been using one such program, HyperSpace from Phoenix Technologies Ltd. (PTEC), on a Samsung NC10 netbook for the last couple of weeks. If it's a quick start you're looking for, HyperSpace provides it.

Press the power button, and within 15 seconds, the Linux-based HyperSpace presents you with a customizable screen including a browser, a notepad application, RealNetworks Inc.'s (RNWK) RealPlayer media software and news, weather and stock information. I could jot a quick note, view videos from YouTube and even make calls using Skype, all without ever launching Windows.

Less SatisfyingThe experience became a little less satisfying, though, once I hit the icon on the HyperSpace desktop to launch Windows. For one thing, you can't load Windows in the background, so using HyperSpace doesn't eliminate waiting for it to boot, just delays it.

Moreover, while the two systems exist side by side, jumping back and forth between them can pose problems. I found the speed of the switch to be highly variable: Sometimes it was quite brisk; other times, especially when running off of the Samsung's battery, I faced long, uncomfortable pauses where nothing seemed to be happening on the screen. Do I keep waiting? Do I click again?

If you're like me, you may find yourself doing fewer and fewer things within the Windows environment. Which may be good for your productivity—but can't possibly be good news for Microsoft.

Solid-State Drives— Switch to a solid-state drive.

Conventional hard drives are mechanical devices, and it takes time to locate and access your data on a spinning platter. Solid-state drives, by contrast, have no moving parts; information is stored on microchips, and is instantly accessible. As a result, SSDs are faster and use 80 percent less power, according to Samsung, which along with Intel is a major supplier of the drives.

I've been using a Dell Latitude E4300 notebook computer outfitted with a 256 gigabyte Samsung SSD. No messing around with multiple operating systems here. Instead, it is pure Windows—at light speed.

Using Windows 7, the Latitude rockets from zero to ready for action in a mere 20 seconds. As an added benefit, just about every other function gets a speed boost too. Programs launch in the blink of an eye, and the computer shuts down in five seconds.

Stiff PriceAlas, the speed comes at a stiff price. There's still a vast gulf between SSDs and mechanical drives: Putting an SSD in the Latitude adds about $700 to its price, compared with a conventional hard disk of similar capacity. In other words, solid state is the way to go, but only if you've got the dough.

— Get rid of Windows.

There are more operating-system alternatives to Windows today than at any point in the last two decades. And the options are increasing.

Most obviously, there's Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) OS X. The current version, Snow Leopard, boots 10 percent to 15 percent faster than Windows 7, according to most tests. While that's good, no one would describe a Mac as "instant on." And its advantages come at the cost of higher prices and less hardware selection than its PC equivalents.

For those with less money in their wallets and more adventure in their souls, there's Ubuntu, a free, consumer-oriented Linux environment from Canonical Ltd. with startup times comparable to HyperSpace. And lurking in the wings is Google Inc. (GOOG), which is promising its own operating system, Chrome OS, for 2010.

Chrome OS was designed with instant-on in mind. At its public debut this summer, Google executives showed a netbook reaching its log-in screen seven seconds after powering up, and said they were working to bring that down even more.

All these developments put Microsoft on notice that it is going to have to move more quickly—literally—to retain its dominant position.

Speaking for computer users everywhere, I can't wait.

Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Jaroslovsky is a technology columnist and reviewer for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek.

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