Quick-boot laptops ready for a facelift

Quick-boot laptops may soon get video editing and voice-based applications

After being hampered by slow adoption, laptops with quick-boot capabilities may soon be upgraded with new features that could make them attractive to users.

Quick-boot capabilities had been on the horizon for years but finally made a splash earlier this year, appearing in many PCs like netbooks sold by Lenovo and Sony. Without loading Windows, users can instantly surf the Web, view digital images or check e-mail just a few seconds after switching on a laptop.

But those PCs haven't found traction yet because in quick-boot mode they can't run all of the applications that work under Windows, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. For instance, in that mode such laptops cannot run media players or Microsoft Office.

Dell, for example, offers the Latitude On quick-boot option in some Latitide laptops that loads a Web browser in a few seconds for users to check e-mail or the latest news.

But users want more than just Web browsers on PCs, and so quick-boot can be a nuisance for them, King said. Quick-boot laptops run mostly Web-based applications like Web browsers and are no match for smartphones, which are smaller and can run many of the same Web-centric applications.

King gave the fast boot times a thumbs up, but said usability is a concern with mobile devices like laptops or netbooks with that capability.

"When we get into the mobile Internet devices or netbooks, it's a question of how much nuisance you will put up [with] to gain the greater capabilities of a laptop," King said.

But some companies that make quick-boot software want to reverse that notion by packing in more features while bringing down laptop boot times to just a second. Companies like DeviceVM, which offers the Splashtop software, and Phoenix Technologies, which offers HyperSpace, plan to add support for native applications that enable video editing, gaming and voice-based communication, features that are not yet widely available in quick-boot laptops.

The role of quick-boot capabilities is changing as new operating systems and PC form factors come out, said Gaurav Banga, the chief technology officer at Phoenix. The company wants instant-on laptops to mimic the functionality of smartphones, so the company's focus is on adding smartphone-like functions including voice and gaming applications, Banga said.

But more importantly, Phoenix wants to bring down the boot time for PCs so people can surf the Web or edit documents quicker, Banga said. In previous tests, access to HyperSpace software on a netbook hovered at under 10 seconds after a cold laptop boot. The company wants to try to bring that down to just a few seconds while adding applications that don't drain battery power.

HyperSpace is a watered-down version of the Linux OS that is intended to be a companion to a full-fledged version of Windows, which could take up to a minute to boot. Phoenix is researching how the software could work alongside Windows 7, the successor to Vista due for release in October. The company couldn't offer a projected date for release of a new version of HyperSpace.

DeviceVM's Splashtop quick-boot is also a watered-down version of Linux, but it is OS-agnostic, said Sergei Krupen, senior director of marketing for DeviceVM. Acer recently said that it would ship Splashtop with Acer's AspireRevo nettop, a small desktop PC the size of a hardcover book. DeviceVM is focused mainly on Web usage for consumers, but it is bringing the instant-on environment to enterprise devices like thin clients to run business applications without the need of a full-fledged desktop.

For enterprises, DeviceVM wants to make remote business applications instantly available, and the company has already demonstrated Splashtop's support for Citrix's remote communication protocol for users to run software remotely off a server.

But instead of going shopping for a specialized system with instant-on software, users could opt for a system with the Linux-based Android OS, which boasts a start-up time of up to 10 seconds. Users could even buy a netbook with an Ubuntu Netbook Remix OS, a specialized Linux distribution for netbooks, which comes with an advertised boot time of up to 15 seconds.

Instead of competing, Phoenix wants to embrace other operating systems and mobile Linux OS distributions like Android, said Woody Hobbs, CEO of Phoenix Technologies. The company is designing its software to do certain things, like running Web applications, better than full-fledged operating systems while using less battery life, he said. Phoenix wants its software to work alongside multiple operating systems.

Top PC makers Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Acer are among the companies aiming to put Android on mobile devices.

The quick-boot environments like HyperSpace and Splashtop are just a few of many mobile computing interfaces that PC makers want to put in PCs, Pund-IT's King said. Many top vendors are trying to put instant-boot capabilities into their laptops, and it's a question of whether people want a smartphone-type or laptop-type experience with their netbooks. If users prefer a laptop-type experience, they wouldn't mind a slightly longer boot time, he said.

"For my money, a 12-second boot time is no big deal, considering how long it has taken standard PCs to boot up," King said.

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