By Joe Moran

You just sat down in a coffee shop with a few minutes to spare before your next appointment, which makes it a good opportunity to jump online and check e-mail or take care of other business. So you turn on your laptop and wait for Windows to start up …

… and wait, and wait, and wait.

From a cold start, it can easily be five minutes or more before Windows loads, you’ve logged in and have network connectivity, and the system has settled down enough for you to start using it. That’s a long time to wait in any scenario, but when you have a limited window of opportunity to get online, the delay can seem excruciating.

Of course, you can knock down Windows start up time considerably by using either hibernate or standby mode, but the former can still take a minute or more to produce a connected, usable system, and the latter, while quicker, will drain your battery (albeit slowly) even when your notebook’s not in use.

An alternate way to minimize the time it takes to get your system online is to use a lightweight operating system that emphasizes connectivity and is designed for quick start up (and shut down). Commonly based on some version of Linux and referred to as “instant-on” operating systems, they can be used alongside Windows rather than in lieu of it, so you don’t have to give up familiarity or application compatibility. (The “instant-on” label is actually a bit of a misnomer since they don’t usually fire up quite instantly, but the time they take is typically measured in seconds rather than minutes.

If you’d like to put an instant-on OS on an existing notebook, you have a couple of options.

Presto Chango

One option is Presto, a version of Xandros Linux. Presto should work with most systems (we got it working easily both on a newly purchased new MSI Wind netbook and a five-year-old Dell Inspiron notebook). As important, it includes drivers for a number of common Wi-Fi chipsets from Atheros, Broadcom, Intel, and Ralink.

When installed, Presto sets up your system to dual-boot with Windows, but it doesn’t require partitioning the hard drive to do so. When you run it you’ll find a simple desktop interface with connectivity utilities like Firefox for Web browsing, Pidgin for instant messaging, and Skype for VoIP, and you can download a wide range of other applications as well. Presto will import Firefox bookmarks from your Windows profile, as well as let you open and edit Microsoft Office files stored on the system. (The suite is included.)

You can download Presto and put it through its paces for a 7 day trial period, and purchase it for $19.95. (Caveat: the shopping cart automatically tacks on the $3.95 extended download option, which you’ll probably want to remove if like most, you’re capable of backing up the downloaded file yourself.)

Going Hyper

Another instant-on option is HyperSpace (also Linux-based) from Phoenix Technologies, the BIOS people. HyperSpace– which offers a 21-day trial and does require its own partition on your hard drive– offers a UI very similar to Presto, includes Firefox and uses Meebo for IM (but no Skype) and bundles ThinkFree’s Java-based productivity suite. There are actually two versions of HyperSpace: HyperSpace Dual works in a dual-boot scenario, while HyperSpace Hybrid can run concurrently with Windows, letting you switch back and forth between the two operating systems via a hotkey. (To use the Hybrid version, you need a processor with Intel’s Virtualization extensions—i.e., a Core Duo or better.)

The two caveats of HyperSpace are compatibility and price. Although HyperSpace’s hardware compatibility seems to have improved somewhat from when we tested it at Small Business Computing back in February (shortly after its launch), the software has only been “validated” on a small handful of systems. That said, you may still be able to get it running on a system with an Intel CPU and an Intel or Broadcom wireless chipset (it also supports several AT&T and Verizon 3G WWAN adapters). Because HyperSpace is sold on an annual subscription basis, the $39.95 for Dual, $59.95 for Hybrid price tag is a recurring rather than one-time cost.

The startup and shutdown times of instant-on OSes will vary somewhat by system, but you can generally expect either Presto or HyperSpace to start up and connect to the Internet within 30-40 seconds of selecting it from the boot menu, and to shut down in 5 seconds or less.

There are a handful of systems that even come with instant-on environments pre-installed, which not only eliminates driver compatibility issues, but improves the OS start up and shut down times since they run from firmware rather than a hard drive. DeviceVM’s Splashtop, for example ships with a number of ASUS notebooks, Lenovo netbooks, and a smattering of systems from other vendors. On its Latitude E4200 and E4300 notebooks, Dell includes an instant-on OS called Latitude ON, which uses a dedicated processor and flash storage.