My 11/02/08 Missoulian column
Why don’t computers turn on almost instantly like cell phones, MP3 players and other electronic things? It would be nice if there was less wasted time through the long “boot” – or start-up process – while waiting to be able to work.
PC’s take longer to start up than many other computerlike devices mostly because of the size of the software and the amount of data storage involved. The size of the software might not be readily apparent, but in order for the average PC or laptop to do what they do – email, Web, word processing and everything else, along with a full operating system – it takes time for the billions of bytes of memory to be loaded to operate.
There are two different kinds of memory in a PC: the hard drive and the RAM. (I’ll refer to both as memory for ease of explanation). Software – which includes the operating system, your programs and your files – is stored on the hard drive when the PC is off, and in order for the PC to run they need to be loaded into RAM, which is a faster type of memory. But it takes time to move all that data from the hard drive into RAM, and that’s a large part of the boot process. More software means more memory used and a longer boot time.
MP3 players and other gadgets use software that is simpler, and as a result smaller in size and requires less memory. And software for small gadgets is almost always already stored in RAM-type memory called firmware, so there is little time-consuming transferring going on.
But more happens during the PC boot process than moving programs from the hard drive to RAM. “Booting” refers to the old saying “to pull yourself up from your bootstraps.” That phrase was adopted back in the day for a little bit of computer code that came to life just when the computer’s power was turned on.
The job of the bootstrap code was to say “Hey, the power just turned on, let me tell the rest of the computer to do this and that and get started up.” Once a computer gets going, the bootstrap isn’t needed anymore, and so it waits until the next time the power is turned on. Bootstrap code is needed because in the world of digital computer hardware logic, absolutely everything must be explicitly instructed in order to happen. If the bootstrap code wasn’t there, then a PC couldn’t find the hard drive, couldn’t load the operating system and simply wouldn’t start up.
Back in the old days, I used an teletype machine to load bootstrap programs on paper tape – punched with thousands of holes to represent data – into computers before startup, and that was a slow process. Things are much faster now (even if they seem slow) and much of the booting process is transparent after you push the power switch.
But still, sometimes two or three minutes of boot time is too much for some users. So there are companies working on software to speed up PC boot times, and some software has been developed that works in conjunction with Windows. It promises a faster boot by temporarily sidestepping the loading of parts of the Windows operating system on the start up of a PC. The New York Times outlines some of the new technologies involved in faster boot times.
One type is called “Splashtop,” and it uses open source Linux to get some features of your PC – such as email and Web – ready to use before Windows finishes loading. If you are in enough of a hurry to want to shave 60 seconds off boot time, shop around for Splashtop or other software that offers something similar. It can be included in brand-new PCs from some major manufacturers.
If your PC boots slow and you’re technically inclined and want to try something other than Splashtop, try Googling for ways to reduce the numbers of drivers and other Windows components that load at startup. You may be able to speed up your PCs booting that way. And check Cnet.com’s article on tips for speeding up Windows XP’s startup and shutdown times.
A completely different emerging technology that promises almost “instant on” features for PCs are solid state disks, or SSDs. They are a hybrid of RAM and hard drives, and promise the high capacity and memory saving aspects of hard drives with the speed of RAM. Though SSDs that are competitively priced with current disk-type hard drives are some years away, you can buy a new MacBook with an SSD and different brands of PCs that run Windows if you want to pay a hefty premium in cost.
Booting isn’t such a bad thing, anyway. All PCs need to be restarted at some point in order to load a new copy of the operating system and programs, because software isn’t perfect, memory gets corrupted and freeze ups occur. And over time, new versions of operating systems and programs have a tendency to become more complex with features – or to use a derogatory geek term “bloated” – and they take longer to load and have more glitches, too, that sometimes require more reboots.
For Windows, I think it’s good to be patient with booting. You should have Windows Update and your antivirus set to update on startup, so it’s a good practice to start up Windows and give it five or more minutes to update itself before you start on your own work.
My MacBook effectively has a zero boot time because I rarely shut it down; I let it sleep when I take a break from work during the day, and charge it while it sleeps overnight, and when I open the lid I’m back to where I was. I can’t remember the last time I actually turned it off, but I reboot it a few times week.
Some already have a solution to long boot times for PCs, like an engineer in the New York Times piece linked previously. His solution?: “I do the cigarettes and a cup of coffee while I wait.”
Follow-up: Read how criminals make $5 million a year from fake antivirus software – “Antiviral Scareware Just One More Intruder”