Tired of waiting for Windows to boot? HyperSpace and Splashtop can help

A hands-on examination of two Linux-based 'instant-on' environments that live side by side with Windows.

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Splashtop

Unlike Phoenix's HyperSpace, you can't buy DeviceVM's Splashtop as a software product. You get it by purchasing a system that it is pre-installed on (currently, vendors include Asus, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Lenovo Group Ltd.). This has its good and bad points: On the one hand, it limits your choices; on the other, it ensures that Splashtop will work on the hardware and will be installed correctly.

DeviceVM's Splashtop runs on x86 hardware equipped with processors from the Intel Atom and higher. Most Splashtop systems have been Windows XP or Vista, but according to Sergei Krupenin, senior director of marketing at DeviceVM, Splashtop can work with any operating system, including Linux. (It can even run on Apple x86 systems, but Splashtop currently does not ship on any Apple products.)

According to DeviceVM, Splashtop does not write anything into the Windows partition, but will only do pre-defined read access, providing protection against viruses and malware. Vendors can work with DeviceVM to include pre-approved sites (such as, say, Facebook) or custom apps. For example, the Lenovo S10 install will include Lenovo's social Web site forums.

How well does it work?

I tried Splashtop on an Asus F6V notebook loaded with Vista Business that was provided by DeviceVM.

Pressing the Splashtop hot key -- in this case, a bar at the back left of the keyboard -- brings Splashtop up. (You boot directly from Windows via the regular power button.) It took about 10 seconds to get to the main Splashtop screen and nearly 30 seconds more to get to a Web site, including having to select the browser, and click either the browser's "Try Again" or Refresh button to re-establish the Wi-Fi link.

Switching between Splashtop and Windows isn't anywhere as simple, smooth or quick as with HyperSpace Hybrid. You have to exit Splashtop and do a fresh Windows boot; to get back, you perform the action in reverse. Not fast.

Splashtop's main screen offers a row of medium-size application icons along the bottom, plus some smaller configuration and control icons on the right. I felt that some of the icons weren't as obvious as I'd like, particularly those for the browser and Skype, although they do display text labels when you mouse-over them.

Instant-on
In addition to its browser, Splashtop offers a number of apps, indicated by the icons below the window.

The browser, which is based on Firefox 2, was capable of most standard tasks. Like HyperSpace, you can't have more than one browser window open, but Splashtop does let you resize browser and other app windows. It had no trouble accessing Gmail and another Webmail sites and playing YouTube videos. And it could handle the Live365 streaming audio that HyperSpace Hybrid couldn't.

But Splashtop couldn't handle videos from the Onion News Network site (which needed a version of Flash not already installed). And when I tried to register for the Internet radio site Pandora.com, there was no way to unblock some of Pandora's information pop-ups that I wanted to see.

In addition to the browser, Splashtop includes a number of apps, including Skype; a multi-IM chat client; a basic audio player that could read from the hard drive, optical drive or USB drive; and a photo viewer (although I couldn't get the upload-to-my-Flickr-account feature to work). There are also links to dozens of Flash-enabled games that seemed to be aimed at the 4-to-10 crowd, and come with bunches of product advertisements.

Currently, Splashtop apps are added by DeviceVM; the company is planning to add an app storefront, but no schedule has been announced.

Conclusions

HyperSpace Dual, HyperSpace Hybrid and Splashtop do what they say they do: Get you from off to online within 15 to 30 seconds, with easy access to a limited set of consumer and productivity applications and sites, and limited access to data files on your system's hard drive. This makes them useful for quick answer sessions and other activities -- assuming they'll work with the sites and media/document types you want, and that you can install one of these programs on one of your machines or are willing to buy a new one.

Of course, many mobile users may not consider it necessary to have an instant-on operating system layered on top of Windows. For example, users of the iPhone and other smartphones may not need to access their laptops for quick tasks. And even if you are a notebook or netbook user, the question may soon be moot. According to Howard Locker, director of new technology at Lenovo, Microsoft Windows 7 combined with solid-state drives and next-generation notebook hardware will dramatically speed up the boot process and conserve on battery power.

Meanwhile, if you want to try instant-on, it's available. You can download HyperSpace for a free three-week try, or try Xandros Presto once it's available. For users who feel time is money -- or who frequently need to access their apps right now, it could be worth it.

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer in Newton Center, Mass. His work can be found at his technology blog TryingTechnology.com and his personal Web site.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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