Logging on at Warp Speed

It took about 20 years for TV technology to reach the point where 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 PC that turns on instantly remains elusive.

That may be about to change. Today's tech-loving 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're quickly losing patience with the spinning logos, hourglasses, and twiddling thumbs that define the experience of booting up a Windows PC. And they are showing a growing interest in hardware and software that speed up the process, or in some cases sidestep it entirely.

By most accounts, Windows 7, the current version of Microsoft's (MSFT) operating system, is quicker off the mark than its predecessor, Vista. Microsoft says it works hard with partners such as Lenovo to optimize boot-up times and says Windows' sleep mode is more or less the equivalent of instant-on. But the U.S. Energy Dept. says constant use of sleep mode wastes electricity. Here are three ways to speed things up:

RUN A SECOND OPERATING SYSTEM.A number of programs aim to solve Windows' slow boot times by simply not booting Windows. Instead, these programssome of which come preinstalled on new computers from Dell (DELL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Asus, and Acer, among others—instantly 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 when you really need it.

I've been using one such program, HyperSpace from Phoenix Technologies, on a Samsung NC10 netbook for the last couple of weeks, and even starting up cold, the speed is impressive. Press the power button and in 15 seconds the Linux-based HyperSpace presents you with a customizable screen including a Web browser, a notepad application, and RealPlayer media software, along with news, weather, and stock information. I jotted a quick note, watched videos on YouTube (GOOG), and made calls using Skype, all without launching Windows.

The experience became a little less satisfying, though, once I hit the icon on the HyperSpace desktop to start up Windows. Instead of allowing me to keep working while the second operating system booted up, Windows took over the desktop and loaded at its usual leisurely pace. In other words, HyperSpace doesn't eliminate the wait, it just delays it.

Moreover, while the two systems exist side by side, jumping back and forth between them sometimes poses problems. Especially when the Netbook was running on battery power, I faced long 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 eventually find yourself doing fewer and fewer things within Windows.

GO SOLID-STATE.Conventional hard drives are mechanical devices that stash your data on spinning platters and take timeprecious secondsto retrieve it. Solid-state drives, by contrast, have no moving parts; information, including everything the operating system needs to boot up, is stored on microchips and is instantly accessible. As a result, SSDs are faster and use 80% less power, according to Samsung, which, along with Intel (INTC), makes the drives.

I've been using a Dell Latitude E4300 notebook outfitted with a 256-gigabyte Samsung SSD. No second operating system needed: The experience is pure Windows 7at light speed. The Latitude rockets from zero to ready for action in a mere 20 seconds. Just about every other function gets a speed boost, too, and the computer shuts down in five seconds.

Alas, the speed comes at a stiff price. Putting an SSD in the Dell adds about $700 to its price, compared with a regular hard drive 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 ENTIRELY.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's (AAPL) OS X. The current version, Snow Leopard, boots somewhere between 10% and 15% faster than Windows 7, according to most tests. While that's good, no one would describe a Mac as "instant-on."

For those with less money in their wallets and more adventure in their souls, there's Ubuntu, a free, consumer-oriented version of Linux 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 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 to retain its dominant position. Speaking for computer users everywhere, I can't wait.

Business Exchange: Read, save, and add content on BW's new Web 2.0 topic networkWhat Is Google's New OS?We won't have the full answer until the Chrome operating system arrives later this year, but Google has put helpful clips on YouTube.To see these and other stories on Chrome, go to http://bx.businessweek.com/google-chrome/reference

For past columns and additional tech coverage, go to businessweek.com/technology

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.