How to make your PC start up faster

26th May 2010 | 14:30

How to make your PC start up faster

Simple tips to speed up Windows boot time

Software tweaks for faster boot times

What we all want is a PC that starts faster; one that is up and running as soon as we press the power button.

We're used to instant-on functionality from almost every other stratum of our entertainment lives: our stereos don't need a full minute before they can blow sounds out of their speakers; our televisions don't sit around twiddling their thumbs for an age before our eyes are assaulted with Hollyoaks, but our PCs still have to go through the same booting rigmarole every time and we've been putting up with it for years.

The problem is that our PCs are changing at such an incredible rate that every year we are demanding that they do more and more than did the previous year. Your stereo, for instance, isn't being asked to also deliver high definition video streams as well as music and your TV doesn't have to cope with having to be ready to drop in a brand new video adaptor every six months.

In the beginning of the Windows OS it took an age to get into your functional desktop, and things did indeed speed up with successive iterations. With Windows XP, system integrators were set a restriction on the length of time it took to boot by Microsoft; but that all changed moving on to the resource hog that was Vista though.

Restrictions were removed and we ended up with Vista installations that took a prohibitively long time to get into a functional operating system. Vista was trying to implement far too many changes without the necessary optimisation, which we are now seeing in the success of Windows 7.

Boot times in Microsoft's latest OS are, in general, quicker than the previous software, but you are still dangerously close to a full minute of waiting before you can use your machine. That said there are ways to pare that boot time down, some of them significant and some of them are, well, less tangible shall we say.

Whether it's a case of judicious software tweakery of packing in a little more up-to-date hardware there are ways to get your PC up and running quickly. It may not be instant on, but we'll get you as close as possible.

We've found that the biggest psychological hurdle when trying to cut your boot time is Microsoft's original claims that it could boot Windows 7 in only eleven seconds. Sitting here with a machine booting in over fifty seconds we could be forgiven for thinking that Microsoft had lied.

In reality, what the big M had done was to carefully select its components to tailor it to a significantly speedy boot time. Microsoft had also only measured the boot from the time the BIOS had handed over control of the PC to the operating system.

On our existing test rig the time from powering on to actually booting the OS took around thirteen seconds. Immediately that eleven second boast starts to look much more like twenty-four seconds in the real world.

But components are vital to a speedy boot and this is shown in Microsoft's initial demonstration. It used a reference design for Intel's Calpella mobile platform, a 1.7GHz Core i7 mobile chip and an 80GB Intel SSD. Mobile platforms are inherently quicker to boot than their desktop counterparts too, because of the more closed-down, optimised system there are less components to detect and power on.

Generally, your average modern laptop will skip past the POST stage in a little less than ten seconds. Still, first we wanted to see what we could do to an existing Windows 7 system without necessarily resorting to selecting brand new, and for the most part rather expensive, components.

Our current test rig is no slouch though, representing as it does the higher-end of the PC spectrum. The heart of the machine is a 2.93GHz Core i7 870 running on an MSI P55 Trinergy board. The Western Digital Caviar Black takes care of the storage, giving two terabytes of space and impressive performance results for a fixed platter drive.

PCI cards

So it's a decent, performance rig and our initial boot performance holds this up. From the outset, unoptimised, we had the machine blitzing through the POST screens in around 12.5 seconds hitting a functional desktop in around 46 seconds. That's not a bad boot time measured from the start of the POST until both an internet connection and Steam became available.

For us that's the time when we can categorically say that our machine is ready and running in the manner that we want – we can rock Cake Mania on Steam and have the entire R Kelly Hip-Hopera, Trapped in the Closet, streaming from the interweb tubes at the same time.

Set start-up processes

So now to start getting this boot lark optimised. The first port of call is the old favourite MSConfig. Type it into the search bar under the 'Start' button and you're away.

This handy little app is the simplest way to streamline the with. If you're sat staring at your desktop for an age before you actually get to use it then chances are you've got a whole host of unnecessary, and possibly unwholesome, applications set to launch on startup.

This is where MSConfig does its bit of magic; under the 'Startup' tab is a list of all the programs that are loaded when you get into Windows. It should be obvious what most of the apps are when you look through the list; if your machine has been up and running for a while then you'll probably have programs in the list referring to long-gone hardware or that link to programs you never even use.

MSConfig

There will be some, though, that you can't pin down simply by looking at the title and the command line and this is where good ol' Google is your best buddy. A quick search of the title online should tell you what it is, what it actually does (if anything) and whether you are going to need it on startup.

Essentially the best rule of thumb is to keep hold of any hardware specific software that you need, as without which some key peripherals may be rendered useless, and your chosen security software. By and large everything else is just window dressing.

Once you've chopped the startup list down to size 'okay' it and it will ask you whether you wish to restart now or later. You can safely carry on optimising without rebooting right now, unless you want to see immediately how much quicker you can get into your OS.

There are a couple of other parts to MSConfig that might make a slight difference depending on the power of your particular machine. Under the 'Boot' tab it will bring up some extra boot options. You can shave a few milliseconds off your boot time, depending on your CPU speed, by checking the 'No GUI boot' option, leaving you without the pretty pre-OS windows logo on startup.

If you've got a few PCI cards in your machine then hitting the 'Advanced' button on the 'Boot' tab will throw up the option to leave the BIOS to assign IO/IRQ resources to your cards, rather than Windows trying to dynamically assign them itself. Again, the improvement is quite intangible, but could give you a slight speed boost.

One thing to note here is you might have seen other speedy-boot type articles claiming that you can maximise the number of cores that are in operation at boot with MSConfig. It's lies. While you can specify the number of cores to enable at boot via the 'Advanced' boot options, that is purely for debugging your system if you think your CPU might be on the fritz. All CPU cores are enabled at boot as a default so this is all smoke and mirrors.

Hardware to boot your PC faster

Does ReadyBoost work?

After all this messing around, though, things weren't looking a whole lot different in terms of boot times. That will be fairly dependent on your particular machine though. We generally like to stay on top of the programs that load at startup so we already had a fairly pared-down list, but if you haven't been keeping so trim, this app cull alone should net you a fair boost.

For our rig though we only shaved around a second off the eventual boot time. So what's the next piece of tweakery to consider? Well, since Vista graced our hard drives, like the leaden-footed elephant it is, we've had the option to use simple flash memory as an aide-mémoire.

Essentially, ReadyBoost creates a cache file in your speedy flash memory, so long as it sports access times of less than 1ms, which the operating system can access to speed up general Windows use. Unfortunately there is little evidence that ReadyBoost actually offers any benefit in terms of boot times.

ReadyBoost

In fact, in my testing it actually ended up being a bit of a resource hog. Having an extra USB device discoverable at the outset added almost an extra second to the POST times of our test machine. Still, if you're not blessed with masses of system RAM then ReadyBoost is still an eminently useful beast once you get into the OS.

It is worth remembering that flash memory has a very finite life span and the use of it as a disk cache could severely shorten the life of a particular flash drive. So be warned…

There is another feature in the latest Microsoft operating systems, Windows 7 and Vista, that is worth bearing in mind and that's the basic self-tuning routine, which decreases boot times on machines, which have had no changes made to them. Ten times through the boot-up routine is enough to make a difference to the boot times, so we did the necessary and lo and behold there we were shaving a comparatively massive three whole seconds off our boot times.

Unfortunately if you're anything like us then you're not realistically going to be able to rely on keeping those seconds off for very long, we're like a fat man who loses a couple of pounds giving up cakes for Lent then falls off the wagon. You see, we can't remember the last time we managed to go for ten boots without making at least one little change to our machines. And hell, we like cake.

Hardware speed improvements

So, it's all down to the hardware now then. With a modern machine on a fairly fresh installation there is actually very little effect you can have simply by playing around with the software tools available to you. We have noticed changes with slower processors, or with jammed up boot applications halting your progress, but if you're looking at a top-end PC you're going to have to spend a bit more money to get that boot speed down.

Luckily, if you've spent out on a modern Gigabyte motherboard with the Smart 6 feature-set, then you'll already have a board capable of speeding up your boot times. The QuickBoot feature these boards offer comes in two flavours: one which shortens the POST time and another that enables you to drop your rig into a hybrid sleep state.

Boot options (bios)

This is a mixture between the traditional Sleep and Hibernate functions. This means that your session is stored in both RAM for a quick re-awakening and on the storage drive, if you lose power while the machine is in that hybrid state.

It's the BIOS QuickBoot that we're really interested in and it works in a similar way to Windows' self-tuning routine we've mentioned already. With this enabled you will notice no difference in the first boot as the POST process will go through its usual system checks. On subsequent boots however, so long as the hardware hasn't been changed in anyway in between, the POST process will only check critical components, which could shave up to another three seconds off your POST time alone.

Solid state drives

Three seconds isn't much of an improvement, especially if you've had to buy a new motherboard to achieve it. If you genuinely want to see a difference to operating system boot times, the place to spend your money is in solid state drives.

Unfortunately the SSD market is about as clear as Marmite in terms of where to spend that cash. We thought we had it licked with Kingston's impressive 40GB version of Intel's X-18 drive, then we discovered Intel had held back the TRIM command from Kingston's firmware, rendering it fairly useless in the long term.

Still, there are ways to get around this and if you can find one of its drives, you can re-enable the TRIM command and it was this hardware that really made the difference to Windows' ability to get going quickly.

Or you can bite the bullet and fork out the cash on an Intel-branded SSD, either way simply by dropping a speedy SSD in as a boot drive and installing Windows 7 on it, we had the whole system booting in a little over thirty seconds. It even shaved a little off the POST time too, dropping down from over twelve seconds to a little over eleven.

SSD

To put that into context once we had tried all the tweakery we could manage at a software/BIOS level we had the HDD version booting in 45.5 seconds, with the same levels of tweaking we had the SSD-based OS booting in 31.8 seconds.

No boot heaven

Take off the POST time and you're looking at an actual Windows 7 boot time of just 20.2 seconds. That's still almost twice Microsoft's original eleven second boot boast, and still a fair way away from the nirvana of the instant on operating system, but a fully functional Windows OS in just over thirty seconds is nothing to sniff at.

We've spent a lot of time with our rigs, and if you've dropped in a new SSD you've also spent a lot of cash in trying to get your machine out of the blocks a little bit faster. But there is one big elephant in the room which we've only mentioned in passing and that's the environmentally unfriendly (and not to mention fuel bill costly) idea of effectively leaving your machine on standby.

Now, in these more ecologically aware times of ours, the idea of leaving your machine in even the Hybrid Sleep mode can fill your head with images of melting ice caps and baby polar bears drowning in the briny depths. But that is actually what Microsoft recommends that you do.

On the MSDN Blog Microsoft engineer, Michael Fortin says that: "resume from sleep time is approximately two seconds, achieving a nearly instant on experience. We do encourage our users to choose sleep as an alternative to boot."

Unless you habitually switch your PC off at the plug then you're not going to be killing any more polar bears by using the Hybrid Sleep mode. As normal your PC will use around 3 to 4 watts when 'off' and about the same in sleep mode; so if you want an instant OS that's looking like your best bet.

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First published in PC Format Issue 236

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