A hands-on examination of two Linux-based 'instant-on' environments that live side by side with Windows.
As any Windows user knows all too well, Windows can (and does) take a while to boot up and get online. For example, my desktop PC, which is hardwired to my router (i.e., no waiting for Wi-Fi search-and-handshake), still takes 3 minutes to power up to the point where I can be reading a Web site.
This may be acceptable for desktop users who turn on their machines every morning and then go for a cup of coffee. But if you're doing a last-minute e-mail check in an airport terminal, or using a netbook to IM a friend from a movie theatre queue, even a minute can be way too long.
At the 2009 International CES in Las Vegas this past January, I saw three new products intended to address these issues: HyperSpace from BIOS vendor Phoenix Technologies Ltd., Splashtop from DeviceVM Inc. and Cloud from Good OS LLC. More recently, Xandros Inc., a Linux and Linux-Windows cross-platform software vendor, announced Presto, which was shown at the DEMO 09 spring show.
Although both HyperSpace and Splashtop, the two tools currently available for review, are calling themselves instant-on pre-boot environments (PBE), neither "instant-on" nor "pre-boot" is quite correct. Technically, they are alternate, thinner operating systems that boot up faster than Windows (or any other full operating system). In other words, they bring you online in under 30 seconds and offer quick, easy access to the type of applications you're (hopefully) most likely want to use.
HyperSpace and Splashtop achieve their speed in part by working better with the BIOS portion of the boot-up (e.g., the power-on self test) to shave off a few fractions of a second. Mostly, though, they bypass your existing Windows OS -- with all of its services and processes to start up -- and use instead a slimmed-down Linux or custom RTOS (real-time operating system) kernel.
Speed isn't the only marketing claim being made on behalf of instant-on environments. According to the manufacturers, they are also more secure: They offer read-only or no access to the Windows partition, no user-install options, and being Linux-based, they are not vulnerable to Windows-oriented threats.
Vendors also state that these PBEs don't use as much power as the main operating system. Because PBEs are doing less computation, they run through a notebook or netbook battery's charge more slowly. For example, Phoenix claims that HyperSpace reduces battery consumption by around 25%. Mark Lee, CEO of DeviceVM, says his company's desktop and notebook tests show that while running Splashtop instead of Windows, the average power consumption is reduced by 20% to 30%, depending on hardware configuration and usage.
The other "less-power" claim comes from the faster time-to-online, which should (according to the vendors) encourage more users to turn their machines off more often, rather than leaving them on overnight to avoid the long boot-up.
Over the past several weeks, I've been testing out HyperSpace and Splashtop, using loaner machines provided by the vendors. (Good OS won't be releasing its private beta of Cloud for selected netbooks until at least sometime this March. The OEM version of Xandros' Presto is currently out, but the consumer version won't be available until mid-April.) While the versions I've been testing are official product releases, the vendors are continuing to work on them. For example, Phoenix announced and posted a new version of HyperSpace in early March, so it's entirely possible that many of the bugs, annoyances and quirks I found will be fixed over time.
HyperSpace comes in two versions: HyperSpace Hybrid and HyperSpace Dual.
HyperSpace Hybrid runs side by side with Windows, under Phoenix's HyperCore hypervisor. In other words, you can toggle back and forth between the machine's operating system and HyperSpace. According to the tech specs, HyperSpace Hybrid requires an Intel VT-enabled CPU and 2GB RAM, and can only run alongside Window Vista. (Phoenix plans to support AMD virtualization-enabled processors in the future.)
HyperSpace Dual runs as an alternative boot environment, meaning that you can only use one environment at a time -- to use Windows, you have to shut down HyperSpace, and vice versa. HyperSpace Dual can run on Intel Atom or Celeron CPUs, 512MB RAM, and either Window XP or Vista.
Phoenix offers free 21-day full-function trial downloads of both versions; toward the end of your trial, you get the option of buying a license for one year ($59.95 for Hybrid or $39.95 for Dual) or three years ($149.95 for Hybrid, $99.95 for Dual). In addition to being available as a user-downloadable install, Phoenix is also working with resellers such as Asustek Computer Inc. on embedded/customized pre-installed versions of HyperSpace.
Phoenix provided me with two loaner machines with HyperSpace pre-installed: a Gigabyte Technology W466U notebook with HyperSpace Hybrid and Windows Vista Home Premium, and a Lenovo S10 IdeaPad netbook, with HyperSpace Dual and Windows XP Home.
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