How to get the instant-on PC you've dreamed of

Why does nearly every modern computer – whether it runs OS X, Vista or Linux – take considerably longer to boot than an ancient Amiga?

With a hard drive, an Amiga could go from power socket to Workbench in around five seconds.

With a modern multicore processor and a 12-month-old installation of Windows, you're lucky if your desktop is responsive before the kettle boils.

Even a modern distribution of Linux can take a while. It seems like boot speed is the inverse of Moore's Law.

But there are exceptions. You could install Haiku, for instance, which is an open-source operating system that recreates BeOS, the defunct operating system from the mid-1990s. It won't run the applications you need and it's a little unstable at the moment, but it will present a usable desktop environment in less than 15 seconds.

Or you could invest in a new motherboard from the likes of Asus. Many of these now include an embedded version of Linux called SplashTop that boots directly off the system ROM in around 5-10 seconds.

It manages this amazing feat because SplashTop's precise hardware requirements are completely dictated by Asus' motherboard design, a luxury that the vast number of Linux distributions don't have. But even though SplashTop isn't a fully fledged desktop solution (it's a tool that was designed primarily for troubleshooting), you do get a web browser and other Linux command-line tools thrown in.

Linux lends itself well to tuning and trimming because you have complete control over what is loaded and when. If you need a machine that's usable in seconds rather than minutes, you can create a cut-down and tailored Linux installation that won't waste time loading tools and services you don't need.

And if all you need is a web browser to play with while the kettle is boiling then someone has already done the job for you. There are cut-down versions of Linux that will boot quickly without any further hacking; you won't need to resort to a new motherboard or a BeOS clone, either.

Damn small distro

If you're installing from scratch rather than fixing a current Linux installation, your best option for rapid booting is Damn Small Linux (DSL). As its name implies, DSL is quite small. The whole distribution squeezes into a 50MB disk image.

Originally developed for those running Linux on older hardware, DSL is frugal with system resources and can bring an aged 486DX with 16MB of RAM back to life. It includes a very basic desktop environment called JWM and cut-down and resource-light versions of all the main desktop applications such as a file manager, email client and media player; there's even a tiny web server.

It also includes the Firefox web browser, making it the perfect option for quick-fix browsing. What you won't find are apps like or The Gimp. Both are resource hogs, and while they won't slow down boot times, they do take up space. The DSL kernel is also ancient, using a smaller and lighter version of the 2.4 branch. But most importantly, the boot process isn't littered with modern drivers and auto-configuration.

DSL is designed to be used as a Live CD, booting your computer into Linux using an optical drive. Thanks to the diminutive size of the distribution, you get from BIOS to desktop in around 30- 40 seconds.

But it's the optical drive that's the bottleneck here. If you want the fastest boot sequence possible, you should install DSL onto your hard drive. A warning: DSL takes the same frugal approach to installation as it does with applications, so there's no nice graphical partition editor. If you want to install DSL onto one of your hard drive partitions, we highly recommend that you use a tool like the Partition Editor or GParted, which can be found in the Administration menu on a Live Ubuntu desktop. Use one of these tools to configure your hard drive first and make sure that you know the partition name of the device that you want to install DSL onto. For example, the first partition on the first drive is always called '/dev/sda1'. You can find this information in the Partition Editor, and you'll need it for the DSL install.