Instant On

Why can't your computer wake up as quickly as your BlackBerry?

3 min read

The computer inside a BlackBerry or iPhone boots up in seconds, so why can’t your laptop?

Some of Microsoft Windows’ start-up time is inevitable, says computer architect Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group, in Seaford, N.Y. “There’s too much to do—initialize all of memory, start up the hard disk, assign virtual memory, and more.” He says even embedded systems like an iPhone or cable modem, which don’t have to look for keyboards and printers, still take 10 to 30 seconds to do these things.

Some of the problem is simply sloppy programming and a philosophy that everything needs to be initialized before anything is available, says Gaurav Banga, chief technical officer of Phoenix Technologies, in Milpitas, Calif., a company that has written BIOS (basic input-output software), going back to the pre-Windows era.

Running a third-party disk defragmentation tool, cleaning out the Windows Registry, and emptying the Recycle Bin and temp files all help speed the boot process, as does updating to the latest service pack. Steve Bass, author of the TechBite newsletter, advises savvy users to prune the list of start-up programs, run third-party utilities like TuneXP, or even reload the operating system and start fresh.

Depending on your machine (and your technical confidence), a BIOS update may slice off a few seconds. Banga says Phoenix makes a replacement BIOS that takes only 2 to 4 seconds to load, compared to a typical 10 seconds for the one on a netbook like the Samsung NC10.

None of these fixes, though, get you instantly up and running at an airport gate. Rather than fight with Windows, one increasingly practical option is an “alternative boot environment” (ABE), which gets online much faster, mainly by cranking up only those programs that are needed. ABEs aim to have your browser connected to a known network within 12 seconds.

Current ABEs include Phoenix’s HyperSpace and Xandros’s Presto, both available as downloads, and DeviceVM’s Splashtop, available only when preinstalled by a computer manufacturer. All these are—although they don’t tout it—Linux-based environments.

Yet another alternative is to put your computer to sleep rather than shutting it down. But many machines still take too long to wake up and shake hands with the network.“The big bottleneck is reinitializing the peripheral devices,” says Envisioneering’s Glaskowsky. “The device drivers have to wake up the hardware, set up tables in memory, and get ready for normal operation. But we have an example of a mainstream operating system that can come out of sleep in a second or two: Mac OS.”

There’s hope that Microsoft’s next system, Windows 7, will do better. Phoenix’s Banga says, “We are working with the kernel team. You might see a Windows 7 that boots in 30 to 40 seconds, instead of the 120 that Vista takes.”

Microsoft is also independently trying to reduce boot and resume times for Windows 7. Michael Fortin, who leads a team in the Core Operating System group, recently wrote in a company blog that strategies include initializing drivers in parallel when possible, cutting down on the number of system services being started, and reducing the microprocessor, disk, and memory demands of the services that are absolutely needed.

“To me, the real solution for instantly available computing is not to wake quickly; it’s to never sleep,” says Glaskowsky, who helped lead Montalvo Systems, a company working on just such an architecture before it sold its assets to Sun Microsystems in April 2008. “You design the system so it’s always running the major desktop OS but functioning internally like a cellphone—always on, even if it’s a very low operating state.”

Or, for checking e-mail and browsing the Web as fast as making a phone call, Glaskowsky says, just use your phone.

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