Fast Forward: The Boot Race

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Every new version of Windows promises faster booting, but PCs still take too long to boot. Despite faster processors, hard drives, memory, graphics, etc., we still waste a few minutes watching the machine come to life.

Indeed, many PCs seem to never stop booting. Years ago, we measured boot times by clicking a stopwatch while pressing the power button and waiting until the disk activity light stopped flickering. Nowadays, background tasks (antivirus scanners, software updaters, incremental defraggers, application preloaders, and various other daemons) awaken at startup and can stay busy for hours.

We might say the system has finished booting when the Windows desktop appears and we can launch apps and start working. But performance can be sluggish as the machine struggles to finish its startup chores.

Windows PCs are handicapped by a system architecture dating back to the IBM PC of 1981. First, the BIOS must boot and initialize low-level system functions. Then, Windows must boot, figure out what the BIOS has done, load the operating system into memory, and load the drivers needed by hardware devices. Macs boot faster, partly because their proprietary system architecture integrates the BIOS more tightly with the OS.

Phoenix Technologies, a leading BIOS maker since the 1980s, is tackling the challenge (again) with new BIOS firmware. The Phoenix SecureCore Tiano BIOS can bring Windows 7 on screen a mere one second after powerup. (Windows still takes its usual time to boot, though.)

How does the new BIOS work? One trick is to run the firmware as parallel threads on multiple processor cores. That idea might seem obvious. But remember, before Windows boots, there’s no OS to manage the multiprocessing. The BIOS must do it.

Another trick is to leave some devices uninitialized at boot. This shortcut is really a form of time shifting, because the BIOS postpones initialization until a program actually needs the device. Save now, pay later! Still, it’s useful. In off-the-shelf PCs, manufacturers will decide which devices to bypass. Power users can tweak the settings.

Phoenix claims these efficiencies won’t compromise BIOS security or reliability. Let’s hope it’s true.

Tom Halfhill was formerly a senior editor for Byte magazine and is now an analyst for Microprocessor Report .

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