HyperSpace, Splashtop help users boot 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

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 (US$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.

How well does it work?

On systems equipped with Hybrid, HyperSpace comes up by default when you turn the power on or reboot. If you want to boot directly to Windows, you have to keep tapping until you see the beginning of Windows' wake-up sequence. (Holding down doesn't seem to do the trick.) According to the company, it is working on a release in which users will be able to choose Windows as the boot preference.

On the other hand, Dual now has a boot manager that lets you select between Windows and HyperSpace; if you don't make a selection, it continues automatically to HyperSpace.

Windows boots up in the background while you're working in HyperSpace; if Windows didn't finish booting up when I started the machine, I had to let it finish the first time I switched to Windows. After that, toggling between HyperSpace and Vista via the key was nearly instantaneous.

On the Gigabyte notebook, Hybrid took around 35 seconds to boot, find the Wi-Fi network, open the browser and display a Web site, versus nearly 2 minutes for Windows Vista. Resuming HyperSpace from its Sleep mode took 2 to 3 seconds, versus 12 to 15 seconds in Vista.

In HyperSpace Dual, to get to Windows requires shutting HyperSpace down and selecting Windows from the boot screen. To return HyperSpace from Windows, you do the same -- shut Windows down and select HyperSpace from that boot screen.

On the Lenovo S10 IdeaPad netbook, HyperSpace Dual booted to the HyperSpace desktop within about 30 seconds, found an already-known Wi-Fi network and was displaying a site within 40-45 seconds, versus about 1.75 minutes for Windows XP. Resuming HyperSpace from its Sleep mode took about 3 seconds, versus 8 seconds for Windows from Sleep mode or 30 seconds from Hibernation mode.

Using HyperSpace

The HyperSpace desktop consists of the main Application Display Area, plus an "info-strip" on the left side that displays a Status Panel, Application Panel and System Management Panel. The Status Panel lets you control date/time, network connections, power and volume. The Systems Management Panel helps you change system and network settings, and power down and/or reboot to Windows.

The Application Panel offers access to sites (via a browser based on the Gecko engine developed by Mozilla Corp.) such as Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, Meebo, FlickR, Amazon, The Weather Channel and Orbitz; your My Documents folder; and (a recent addition) Microsoft Office-compatible word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. Phoenix has announced partnerships with companies to include additional applications: Corel (for a DVD player), Yahoo/Zimbra (for messaging/calendaring), RealNetworks (for a media player), Opera (for a second browser) and ArcSoft (for photos and videos).

The browser window is non-resizable, and while you can't open additional windows, you can open tabs, create and save bookmarks, and set a new home page. During testing, I found a fair number of media sites/types that the HyperSpace browser couldn't handle, or handled inconsistently. For example, the Gigabyte notebook loaded with Hybrid wouldn't play Live365 streaming audio from WUMB-FM, my local public-radio station, although the Lenovo S10 netbook loaded with Dual would, even when it was in HyperSpace mode.

Unlike DeviceVM's Splashtop, HyperSpace has a Sleep mode that preserves your current open apps (such as your browser tabs). According to Phoenix, HyperSpace's resume time from Sleep mode depends on how recently you had been using it; if you'd only shut it down seconds ago, it resumes more quickly. In my tests, HyperSpace Hybrid resumed from near two days' of Sleep mode in less than 10 seconds.

A few problems

I did experience some problems with HyperSpace. For example, on the Lenovo netbook, the keyboard and touchpad would freeze every so often when I had multiple tabs open, or when coming out of HyperSpace Sleep mode. And a few times, the machine gave off a loud prolonged beep. (Powering down via the power button resolved the problems.)

HyperSpace is supposed to, upon detecting something that needs Windows (such as Microsoft Office files) offer to switch over, and open an appropriate application. The feature worked sometimes in Hybrid (occasionally, HyperSpace just hung). In Dual, it didn't work at all. For example, when I tried to open a .zip file contained on a Web site, Dual tried instead to download the file to an inaccessible location.

HyperSpace automatically connects to your Wi-Fi network (once the machine has found the network in a previous session). Phoenix says that HyperSpace will find the "best network available" and switch automatically, whenever possible.

However, I did experience network connection difficulties: While the HyperSpace Dual-equipped Lenovo netbook recognized unsecured Wi-Fi networks quickly and easily, I was unable to get it to work on a WPA2-enabled Wi-Fi network. Once I got the Gigabyte Hybrid-equipped notebook working (for several days, it refused to work with broadband at all and then suddenly began cooperating), I had no trouble connecting to any type of Wi-Fi network.

Despite these problems, it wasn't long before I found myself using HyperSpace for reading Web mail, keeping an eye on my Twitter and Facebook pages, and consuming streaming audio and video (subject to machine and site limits as noted).

Is this all worth $40 or $60 a year? If I traveled a lot and didn't own a BlackBerry or other handheld device for e-mail or Web access, maybe.

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.

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.

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