How fast will PCs boot up in the future? I asked industry experts to explain what's involved and what could lead to PCs that boot up in seconds.
One of the key components in getting a PC to start quickly is the BIOS, or basic input/output system. The BIOS, which is present in every Windows PC and Apple computer, is the first piece of code run when the computer starts up, also referred to as firmware. The BIOS serves to initialize and identify system devices such as the hard-disk drive, DVD/CD drive, networking components, USB ports, the video card, keyboard, and mouse.
I chatted with Surendra Arora, vice president of business development at BIOS supplier Phoenix Technologies, and Stephen Jones, the company's chief technical officer, as well as Mark Doran, a senior principal engineer at Intel's Software and Services Group.
And I exchanged e-mail with Fadi Zuhayri, senior manager at the Intel Software & Services Group. Zuhayri said that UEFI, the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, provides the foundation for reaching instant-on one day. But a number of factors, including the operating system, need to come together to achieve fast boot times in under 10 seconds. "So we are getting at near-parity to instant on. The technology foundation is there to make it happen," Zuhayri said. (Note that UEFI is already being used in Windows PCs from a number of PC makers.)
Q: What is UEFI and why is this replacing the traditional BIOS and why is it instrumental in achieving faster boot times?
Surendra Arora (Phoenix): The reality is UEFI was started for various reasons. I'm not sure boot speed was one of the reasons that UEFI was started. The real reason was to move away from assembly code. That was what the bring-up process used to be. Hard-coded or machine-level coding. Now C [language] is being used. You can do it at an abstracted layer that's built on APIs [application programming interfaces]. This [UEFI] allows you to standardize things, use multi-threading. We've parallelized initialization so you can boot extremely fast.
Q: So how fast can boot times be now? For example, my Dell Adamo [laptop] that has a solid-state drive can boot to the Windows log-in in roughly 20 seconds.
Arora: The OS and the components that you use lead to the complete experience. What we at Phoenix can do is hand off what we do to the OS extremely fast. It used to be 10 to 15 seconds and now we're trying to get it to three to five seconds. That's the Phoenix component.
Stephen Jones (Phoenix): UEFI solves a problem that our industry has internally. The old styles of doing BIOS, which were invented by IBM in 1981 for the IBM PC--that architecture doesn't hold up anymore. It wasn't designed to handle [today's] complexity. So as PCs get more complex, you try to keep that complexity from causing boot times to run away. I've actually demonstrated a PC booting in 75 milliseconds. Which is less than the time it takes to snap your fingers. So the question is why does it take three to five seconds for the BIOS to boot? The answer is that people want laptops that can boot from the DVD drive or a USB key and so forth. When you have all of that functionality, it does take three to five seconds.
Q: And how much do other components like solid-state drives--which may have nothing to with the BIOS--affect boot times?
Jones: Solid-state disks make a huge difference. But even the Apple iPhone [which uses flash memory, the same basic technology used in solid-state drives] is not instant-on. When you hold the button down and turn the iPhone "off," then you push the button and turn it on, you will see the Apple logo one-and-a-half seconds later and some eight seconds later it will actually give you the desktop. That's booting. That's not instant-on. That's the same problem the PC has.
Q: What other advantages does UEFI have?
Mark Doran (Intel): It means we can introduce new components without having to wait for a brand new operating system release. So the pace of innovation of innovation--the OS and the platform--is decoupled in a sense. Decoupling means that if I want to go build a machine that is put together in a pretty different way today than the way it was put together two years go but I still want run the OS that was shipped a while ago...Can I do that? We want to make sure the answer is yes more often.
Q: What about boot times from Intel's perspective?
Doran: The assumption used to be that you had to completely initialize the machine. Most conventional BIOS code is built with that set of assumptions. But [now we try] to only execute the code that we absolutely have to and hand off to the OS as fast as possible. On the desktop it's not unusual that it's 25 to 30 seconds between flipping on the power and the first piece of the operating system code begins to load. We've been able to get that down to under five seconds.
Q: And hard drives versus solid-state drives?
Doran: The faster your hard drive, the longer it takes to spin it up from a standing start. 7200 [rpm] takes longer than 5400. Changing that hardware can make a significant difference. It's around five seconds for a 7200-rpm drive to come up to speed. Obviously, an SSD can be a big contributor there. It takes virtually no time.
Q: What are the fastest system boot times that you're seeing now in tests at Intel?
Doran: I can say we have systems [brands] that you would recognize that are booting in single-digit seconds, start to finish. The UI is up and you're able to log in.