The Death of Booting Up

Three cheers for computers that start instantly.

Remember “booting up”? It was the first thing you did every morning—you waited two minutes, three minutes, sometimes even longer while your computer ran through a series of self-tests, loading screens, and an error prompt or two before settling into any kind of useful state. Booting up was a bear, something to be avoided at all costs. In 2001, according to one study, half of all office computers were left on during nights and weekends, wasting enormous amounts of electricity. But hey, that’s better than booting up, right? You can also blame long boot-up sequences for the early-1990s screensaver fad. Monitors used to suffer “burn-in” when a static image remained on the screen for long periods of time. Screensavers were just a way to keep computers busy so you didn’t have to turn them off.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of the IBM 5150—the first IBM personal computer, whose architecture was so widely copied that it become the basis for the entire PC industry. As you can see in this YouTube video, which shows the 5150 alongside a Compaq machine from the mid-1990s, the 5150 took about a minute and a half to boot up. The much more advanced Compaq machine takes exactly the same time. As recently as 2009, the story was the same—a typical Windows machine was still spending about 80 seconds to boot up.

It’s time to rejoice, because all that’s in the past. Computers these days can go from completely off to working within 30 seconds, and in some cases much faster. Apple’s MacBook Air loads up in 16 seconds, and machines based on Google’s cloud-based Chrome OS boast boot times of under 10 seconds. Even Windows computers are fast—with the right set-up, your Windows 7 laptop can load just as quickly as a MacBook.

This process—starting a computer from its powered-off state—is known as a “cold boot.” We’ve seen an even more significant improvement in the speed of “resuming” a machine that’s hasn’t been powered off completely. When you close the lid of your laptop, it goes into a kind of cryonically preserved state that allows it to restart from where it left off. Not long ago, restarting a machine from this state took ages, and it was something of a gamble, too—sometimes a Windows computer would go into standby mode and never recover. But resuming, too, has become painless and instant. MacBooks, Chromebooks and even Windows computers now take very little time to revive from hibernation. And they keep getting faster: Google just announced that its latest version of the Chrome OS resumes 32 percent more quickly than the old version, which doesn’t even seem possible. What’s 32 percent faster than zero seconds?

You can thank several hardware improvements for the death of booting. Intel has made great advances in lowering the power consumption of its processors, and now provides several different low-power states that computers can park themselves in while they’re not being used. A more recent advance is the solid-state drive, which store information using transistors rather than the spinning magnetic disks found in traditional hard drives. (Both the MacBook Air and Chromebooks use solid-state drives.) Last year, I raved about how adding a solid-state drive made my computer screaming fast, but I didn’t note that it also dramatically reduced boot times. Lifehacker says that installing an SSD is the single best way you can make your machine boot faster: “The difference will be shocking.”

Of course, if your computer isn’t new—or if it uses a cheap hard drive, slow RAM, or other less-than-state-of-the-art components—you’re probably still suffering. Just know that you’re not alone, and that your next computer will be faster. It is, though, still possible to take a machine that boots up quickly and misuse it in a way that slows it down. You can gum up your Windows or Mac machine with unnecessary programs that load on start-up, for instance, and spyware and malware can also interfere with boot speed. Chrome OS machines, which can’t run any native programs, have a leg up here—they always remain in a pristine, fast-booting state, no matter how you use and abuse them.

Google and Apple have both paired better hardware with operating systems that have been optimized to load quickly. In part, this is a response to the rise of smartphones. Phones have conditioned us to expect computers to start working when we need them; the more you use an iPhone or iPad to answer email or browse the Web, the shabbier your slow-to-start laptop looks.

There are substantial technical differences that allow mobile devices to power up much faster than computers—phones and tablets have smaller, more streamlined operating systems, they run fewer programs in the background, and they don’t have magnetic hard drives. But the main reason phones start instantly is that they wouldn’t work otherwise; if your phone took any longer than a fraction of a second to respond, it would be useless.

Instant-on is a fundamental part of the experience of using a mobile device. In some ways, then, the triumph of instant-on laptops and desktops is one of the many signs that we’re entered the twilight of the PC era. Today’s best tech innovations—touch-screen gestures, app stores, and speech recognition—got big on mobile devices and are only now making their way to PCs. That’s the case with instant-on, too: The next time you open your laptop and see it come alive in no time, thank your phone.