30 Seconds to Boot Up? That’s 29 Too Many
NEW laptops that boot up in 30 seconds? Too slow for me. Five seconds? Better, but what I want is a machine that’s ready in about a second, just like my smartphone.
I’m fully aware that expressing any impatience with a computer’s boot time invites derision. When the entire globe is engulfed in an economic crisis, measuring the seconds required to start different computers may seem the most trivial of concerns.
Still, I’m not alone. Unhappiness with boot times, which commonly run 45 to 60 seconds, is shared by many computer users, as reflected in much online discussion of the issue.
I’ve come to believe that the unhappiness does not illustrate impatience. Rather, it reflects an important shift in computing, as we increasingly rely on our laptops not as machines that we use for long stretches at a time, but as machines for using the Internet, often and briefly, and not much else. We don’t tolerate, and have never tolerated, long wait times that are disproportionate to the activity that follows them. If we need to spend only a few seconds looking up something on the Web, it’s only natural that we want the preparatory time to be as close to zero as possible. It’s not impatience, just proportionality.
Smartphones provide access to e-mail and the Web. And now a fast-growing category of notebook computers, called netbooks, do the same, but with bigger displays and keyboards than the phones. Netbooks are lightweight and inexpensive — around $400 for many models — but to be truly useful, they need to be on and ready to go immediately, the way smartphones are.
We hear computer manufacturers promoting laptops that can boot faster than ever, but they prudently avoid direct comparisons with smartphones. The manufacturers have speeded up boot times by equipping some Windows machines with a separate subsystem that contains its own central processing unit. If you choose to use this when you turn on the machine, Windows is bypassed and a mini-operating system is loaded instead, along with a limited set of applications that include a Web browser and a few other software odds and ends.
Limited functionality doesn’t bother me: a browser and e-mail will keep me happy. But these machines take too long to reach a state of usefulness. At present, the only way to bring a laptop to life quickly is to summon it not from a cold state, nor from deep hibernation (suspend-to-disk), but from standby mode (suspend-to-RAM), in which the last session is stored in memory. Network connections are lost, however, and holding the data in memory drains the battery.
One manufacturer whose ultralightweight netbooks have helped to create the category is Asus, based in Taiwan. To achieve faster boot times, Asus equips its Windows machines with Express Gate, a subsystem that it says can boot up in as few as eight seconds, depending on the speed of the processor and hard drive. The company sent me a 6.2-pound G50V gaming machine for a test drive. I found that, in Express Gate mode, it took only eight seconds to boot up, as promised, but this was only a preparatory step. In checking my e-mail, 43 seconds elapsed before the browser loaded, my Wi-Fi connection was established and Gmail opened.
A wholly different approach is taken by Arjan van de Ven and Auke Kok, engineers at the Intel Open Source Technology Center, who set out to create versions of Linux that boot up in only five seconds, instead of the 45 normally required. They were also determined to boot up with the main system, without relying on a special subsystem like Express Gate. They succeeded, demonstrating their feat at the Linux Plumbers Conference in September with an Asus Eee PC 901, equipped with a solid-state drive, which helps, but a slow Atom C.P.U., which does not.
Mr. van de Ven has since used the same techniques to reduce the boot time to only three seconds on laptops with the much faster Core 2 Duo C.P.U.’s. The time needed to connect to the network and load a browser, however, was not included.
Still another approach, and to me the most intriguing, is being readied by Dell for release by year-end. Its Latitude On feature will not try to claim the fastest boot time on the block: it will still take 40 to 45 seconds to get its special non-Windows subsystem up and running. But once it is on, it can stay on indefinitely because it’s engineered with a low-voltage processor to conserve battery power between charges. A Dell spokesman said the laptops in the lab were getting “almost four days” of use on a single charge.
HERE’S what catches my interest: When you’re not using a Latitude On laptop, its screen will go dark, but it’s not in standby mode — it’s in a “low-power state,” as Dell terms it. This permits it to keep network connections alive, including Wi-Fi and 3G mobile broadband and even virtual private networks, while it continuously loads e-mail in the background. With a touch, the screen lights up in 1 to 2 seconds, Dell says, just as a smartphone does.
That’s exactly what I’d like to have. In fact, that’s all I want: I don’t want to lug around the main system; I want just the subsystem that’s engineered for unbroken Internet connections and frequent, brief looks. Dell, however, is not offering this as an inexpensive netbook. Latitude On will be packaged as one feature on a fully loaded notebook marketed to corporate executives; Dell has not announced pricing but currently those models begin at $1,999.
More bad news: its intended customers, corporate I.T. departments, have directed Dell to require a password from a user every time the machine returns to full power.
No, thanks. I will wait, then, for the next generation of instant-on machines, maintaining Internet connections even when the screen is darkened, serving uncomplainingly for days on a single charge and priced inexpensively — and with passwords made optional. If that takes a while, fine. I’m patient.