Since the early 1990s, Bill Gates has had a consistent lament: the standard PC or notebook takes far too long to boot up. Of course, Gates’ company, Microsoft, is one of the main culprits: Windows grows bigger and more complex with every release, meaning there’s more operating-system code for computers to load into main memory before they’re ready for other tasks.
Gates wants engineers to help ease this software-related problem by designing faster hardware. And he’s not alone – anyone with a computer that’s more than a year old knows that they might as well write a postcard, take a shower, or walk the dog once they’ve pushed the power button.
And that delay time is more than just a minor annoyance for PC users. Gates and his colleagues would like to push computers into the living room, as hubs for video, audio, and other entertainment. But, say analysts, the current startup lag time will be an impediment to consumer adoption. Who’s willing to wait several minutes for the sound system or TV to turn on?
In the world of technology, of course, a general lament is also a golden opportunity. For years, engineers have been trying to reduce the time it takes to turn on a PC. The most recent advance came on October 17, when Intel engineers at the Intel Developer Forum in Taipei, Taiwan, unveiled a prototype technology, codenamed “Robson,” that reduces startup time in notebooks from “several seconds” to “almost immediate,” according to a report on the demonstration at PCWorld.com.
A notebook using Robson was also able to launch individual software programs much faster. For instance, Quicken started in 2.9 seconds, compared with 8 seconds on a standard notebook. (An Intel spokeswoman declined to offer speed enhancement specifications, but confirmed that “it’s a noticeable difference.”)
Intel hasn’t released details about Robson’s inner workings. But the key to the company’s research efforts – as well as those by competitors such as Samsung and MSI – is a type of Flash memory called NAND (for the Boolean “not and,” a way of arranging transistors on a memory chip to perform certain logic functions).
In a typical computer, the startup software and operating system are stored on the hard drive; when the computer is turned on, the hard drive starts spinning and the instructions are transferred into the computer’s random-access memory (RAM), where the central processing unit can access them. That hard drive, with its mechanized, moving parts, has long been a roadblock to faster start times. If Flash memory chips had enough capacity to store an entire operating system (or the parts essential to startup), the need to wait for the hard drive to cycle through its startup tasks would be eliminated.