Public Release: 

Instant start-up for PCs

New Scientist

"WHY can't a PC simply turn on like a TV?" It's the question that has been bugging people who use multimedia PCs as the heart of their home entertainment systems.

When they want to watch TV, play a DVD, listen to internet radio or play CDs and MP3s, they have to spend fruitless minutes watching the Windows egg timer while the PC boots up. Not any more.

In a direct challenge to PCs running Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center, InterVideo of California last week launched the InstantOn PC. Instead of having to wait for Windows to boot, the technology allows all a PC's entertainment functions- TV, DVD, CD, MP3, radio- to be run on a pared-down version of the open-source Linux operating system, called LinDVD.

Rather than sitting on a hard drive, LinDVD is small enough to be held in a read-only memory chip and boots in 10 seconds flat. "For consumer electronics activities, the InstantOn PC is strictly Linux. It simply uses Windows for the slower drudge work like word processing," said InterVideo spokesman Andy Marken, speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.

InterVideo is best known for a piece of software called WinDVD that lets Windows PCs play DVD movie discs. But its Linux-based LinDVD operating system also plays MP3 music and streams video onto TV screens or hard disc. As it's small enough to be stored in a memory chip, LinDVD can be switched on and off quickly, as there is no need to retrieve any of it from a hard drive.

InterVideo developed the InstantOn technology in collaboration with Intel, IBM and Sony. Its system lets LinDVD and Windows coexist in the same computer, running on a Pentium 4 processor and a minimum of 128 megabytes of RAM.

When the "on" button is pressed, the software loads in less than10 seconds, giving all but instant access to TV, CDs or DVD movies. MP3s, photos and videos filed by Windows will also be accessible in this mode. But if the user wants to do some work, they use a remote control to switch off the LinDVD software and the PC re-boots to run Windows.

InterVideo is planning to take InstantOn technology beyond the domestic computing arena.

For instance, it has also worked with Sharp of Japan to produce the soon-to-be-launched InstantOn Notebook PC, which in LinDVD mode also boots in 10 seconds. "By PC standards that's instant," says Barbara Finn of InterVideo. "With Windows XP the same box takes minutes."

The InstantOn PC represents a direct challenge to Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center, a version of XP that lets a PC run entertainment and office programs at the same time.

The software makes boot-up faster by "pre-fetching" chunks of software from the hard disc while the PC is booting drivers for peripherals such as scanners and printers. Boot-up should take less than 30 seconds, says Microsoft, but most PC owners with multiple add-ons, such as cameras, TV tuners, broadband modems and various USB storage devices, have to wait some minutes.

Microsoft doesn't see boot times as a problem. "We find that most people never turn their Media Center PCs off," says Paul Randle, Windows XP product manager. "I don't even turn mine off when I go away for the weekend. So boot time is not an issue."

This attitude will not please greener consumers. In 2002, a Cornell University study calculated that the US could switch off seven power stations if TVs, videos and computers were not left on standby.


New Scientist issue: 17th January 2004


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Written by Barry Fox

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