That long wait while Windows cranks up can be avoided, says Rich Jaroslovsky
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 got used 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's operating system, is quicker off the mark than its predecessor, Windows Vista.
Microsoft cites its efforts with partners such as Lenovo Group to optimise 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 US 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.
RUN AN INSTANT-ON OPERATING SYSTEM IN ADDITION TO WINDOWS
Several 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, Hewlett-Packard, Asustek Computer and Acer, among others - launch a stripped-down desktop that allows you to surf the web, handle any email you can view in a browser and perform other basic tasks. Windows is there, but only to be called up when needed.
I've been using one such program, HyperSpace from Phoenix Technologies, on a Samsung NC10 netbook for the past couple of weeks.
Press the power button and within 15 seconds the Linux-based HyperSpace presents you with a customisable screen including a browser, a notepad application, RealNetworks's 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.
The 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 pauses.
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.
SWITCH TO A SOLID-STATE DRIVE
Conventional hard drives are mechanical devices, and it takes time to find 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 per cent less power, according to Samsung, which 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.
Alas, 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 US$700 ($945) 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 past two decades. And the options are increasing. Most obviously, there's Apple's OS X. The current version, Snow Leopard, boots 10 per cent to 15 per cent 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 with startup times comparable to HyperSpace.
And lurking in the wings is Google, which is promising its own operating system, Chrome OS, for 2010.
Chrome OS was designed with instant-on in mind. At its public debut last year, Google executives showed a netbook reaching its log-in screen seven seconds after powering up.
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.