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In the late 2000s, there was a problem: Computers were booting very slowly, for a myriad of reasons. Some of them:
The actual boot times of even low-end PCs were, frankly, not that bad... until you loaded them up with hot garbage like McAfee Antivirus and the deluge of poorly-written hypersludge apps included by vendors as "value adds." Circa 2008, if you had a low end laptop, you could be waiting over a minute for it to boot, and if you put it to sleep, it might not wake up again.
PC manufacturers became aware of this problem, but not having the ability to improve Windows, and being unwilling or unable to ship better hardware, they set out to discover an alternative to loading a full-fat operating system. A lot of these got shipped, and almost all of them were based on heavily stripped down Linux distros made by third parties.
Dual-booting Linux makes sense for a few reasons. One of the enduring rallying cries of the Linux On Desktop crowd over the years has been that it runs better on older or lower end hardware. I dispute this on semantics but will not get into it. It is true however that linux can be made to run well on crappy machines.
They couldn't just ship a complete install of a typical mainline distro though, partly because that wouldn't be much smaller than Windows, if at all; it would eat up a chunk of the already-pathetic HDDs in many machines of this era. Linux UI is also deeply unfamiliar to the layperson, thus would be intimidating to the general consumer. And if you're a nerd, you'll just set up dual-boot on your own anyway and would never use anything the vendor shipped, so this would be pointless.
So, in short, laptop manufacturers partnered with a handful of third party suppliers who developed Linux distros on the following requirements:
This is a subject that is completely ignored, for one simple reason: no nerd would ever have touched this stuff with a ten-foot pole. People like me, who write about stuff on the internet, have never used the OS that shipped with a PC without wiping and reloading it from scratch, assuming we've ever even bought an assembled PC (I have not) so we've never glanced at any vendor-included software except on a laptop, where we recoiled in horror, then got rid of it as quickly as possible.
So, while instant-on Linuces came on many computers, sold for five or six years (maybe; at the outside) and the features were often advertised on the machine or even directly in the BIOS boot splash, we all detected, correctly, that this was something for Someone Else and didn't even bother looking at it. Indeed, many people I've spoken to on this subject said "oh wow, I always saw that boot option and never bothered to press it."
And, of course, given that this stuff almost always lives in hidden partitions, even if it did ship with a machine, it breaks the moment you erase the disk or touch the partition table in any way (in some cases: even reinstall the OS as the vendor intended.) So, in short, not a single nerd anywhere has a machine where these functions work; you pretty much have to obtain a used system that was owned by a Normal Person and put in the closet over a decade ago, before the HDD had a chance to die.
I have done this for you. Beginning a few months ago, I started collecting laptops (and in one case, a motherboard) with these instant-on features - not to use, not to appreciate, but solely to document their existence, and for the most part, mock them.
Because, as one would expect, these products are not well made. In my experience so far, it has been a grave understatement to say that they "could have been better." The idea of a fast-booting, low-overhead Linux install in a read-only partition is a clever one, but the companies that actually executed on it did not put enough work into the user experience or optimization, so the software is slow and far more limited than it needed to be. I suspect that almost nobody - even the "normies" - ever used this stuff in good faith.
I've been habitually using the term "Instant-On Linux" since I started investigating this, but that's actually, specifically wrong: I have one specimen where the instant-on OS is... just Windows, again. And I have another machine that does have an instant-on Linux, but also has an even faster-loading interface that is a raw EFI application. Still, Linux is by far the front-runner.
I will go on to summarize what machines exist with instant-on OSes, and what I know about them. There are several larger articles about specific variants which can be found from the index, or linked throughout this page.
None of the instant-on OSes that I'm aware of were made by the companies that made the machines they sold on. Here are names you'll see repeatedly if you investigate this:
|The biggest player. Splashtop was installed on a whole bunch of machines from different companies. DeviceVM later renamed themselves to Splashtop Inc. and now sell a remote desktop product that's pretty decent, all things considered. Vendors include:
Most Splashtops look basically identical, and are limited to a web browser, two awful Flash-based apps for playing media and viewing photos, and an instant messaging client. They also usually include a bunch of shortcuts to websites that are now dead.
Each vendor's version is skinned differently, but one particular variant Lenovo shipped looked substantially different from all the others I've seen; I'm not sure if it was unique to Lenovo, or just a later version nobody else shipped. Or maybe someone else did and I haven't seen it yet!
A number of "silver paint era" Dells shipped with a Media Direct button that launches a hidden copy of Windows XP Embedded, which launches a CyberLink clone of Windows Media Center, rebranded as Dell MediaDirect. This software can also be run from inside normal Windows.
This is genuinely just a normal copy of Windows; you can hit ctrl+alt+del to break out of the media player, since it's literally just a normal program set as the Shell in the registry.
MontaVista was mostly sold for crap like set top boxes, but was also used as the basis for Dell's Latitude-On. That product came in a few flavors, which I wrote about at length due to the strangeness of the particular variant that I have, which actually runs from a completely distinct ARM SoC sharing the same motherboard as the primary PC.
While MontaVista is the basis for Latitude-On, I suspect as-delivered to Dell it provided little more than a small-footprint distribution, and that the entirety of the user experience was actually built by Dell. That UX amounts to nothing more than a web browser and email client. The underpinnings of it however depend on a lot of hardware engineering that Dell definitely did themselves, based on analysis of the scripts and drivers loaded by the OS.
Yes, the BIOS company. Their extremely unique distribution is so wild that it deserved its own complete article to even begin to encapsulate its strangeness.
Hyperspace would later get bought by HP and renamed QuickWeb, where it shipped on many of their machines (although some versions of QuickWeb were actually Splashtop.)
Sony shipped a number of machines with a "Instant On" mode that is unable to do anything more than play CDs and DVDs and display media from memory cards (not even USB.) It is a simple busybox-based Linux environment running a custom app developed by InterVideo as far as I can tell.
After Corel bought Intervideo, InstantON was updated to become the basis of the Vaio P's "Instant Media Mode", which aped the XrossMediaBar of the PS3, PSP, etc. albeit naturally with much poorer performance and visuals. I do not yet have a Vaio P, unfortunately, but videos and reviews state that this interface sucks.
VideACE InstantVidget™ Sponsored By Boingo Wi-Fi
As far as I know, InstantVidget only got used on a handful of Asus machines, where it was branded Express Gate Cloud and was, inexplicably, sponsored by a wifi company.
I have no idea what these people were smoking. The interface is staggeringly slow on the one Atom specimen I have, and I'm pretty sure that's because it's either web-based or flash-based. It looks like crap and runs like crap.
I'd like to try to list specific device models that shipped with an instant-on OS, for anyone interested in getting one of their own.
Tons of laptops
Many motherboards, including:
Express Gate is Splashtop-based. I think Asus shipped it on hundreds of machines, including laptops, netbooks, and desktop motherboards. I'm not sure they sold anything between '09-'11, at least, that didn't have it; just check before you make a purchase.
On the laptops, there is often, but not always, a dedicated Express Gate button. Note that this is not the same as Express Gate Cloud. On some machines (and motherboards) you have to press a key during boot; the splash should show you which key.
The really cool thing is that, so far, every single model I've looked up on their website has Express Gate available for download, and you can simply install Windows from normal media and then run the installer after the fact. Check this before making a purchase!
Some of the motherboards have an Express Gate flash module onboard; it's a little PCB sticking up between the PCI(e) slots. As far as I know these should always work and cannot be wiped, but YMMV.
|Dedicated "Express Gate" button below monitor launches Express Gate Cloud, the rebranded VideACE InstantVidget.
|"A/V mode" button launches an extremely limited environment with CD/DVD player and memory card media viewer, based on InterVideo InstantON.
|Vaio P series
|Offers a "Instant-on mode", based on Corel InstantON (post-acquisition) which offers similarly basic media playback capabilities, but accessed through a crappy clone of the XrossMediaBar UI.
|Media Direct button launches a hidden copy of Windows XP Embedded which automatically starts a CyberLink clone of Windows Media Center, which can play CDs, DVDs, or various media (video, images, MP3s) from inserted storage devices. Can also display contacts and calendar from Outlook if you install the plugin under normal Windows.
These machines shipped (optionally!) with a Latitude-ON module, a Texas Instruments OMAP ARM SoC either built into the motherboard (Z600) or as a plug-in module that can be powered on with a dedicated button (looks like a weird mobius loop kinda thing.) As far as I know, if you don't have the module, that button does nothing.
You can download a program from Dell's driver site to restore Latitude-ON if it's been damaged or has a password set.
|The only machine I currently know to ship with original Phoenix Hyperspace. Can be selected on boot with an F-key, or you can jump into it from a shortcut within Windows, using Phoenix's bizarre suspend-based "hypervisor" technique.
|If Quick Start (Splashtop) is installed on the HDD, it installs a boot loader that appears before Windows starts. You can configure it to launch QS or Windows by default, or you can press F6 at the splash to select QS. The "Novo" button on the chassis powers on and skips straight to Windows with no menu.
Tons of laptops, including:Mini 5103
|The list is nowhere near complete; HP shipped QuickWeb on tons of stuff. Note that there are two versions of QuickWeb: one is based on Phoenix Hyperspace (such as on the Elitebook 2560p) and the other is based on Splashtop (such as on the EliteBook 8440p.) You can tell the difference because the Hyperspace version uses a customizable "widget" interface, while the Splashtop version has a completely fixed layout.
There are a few devices I think bear mentioning because, while they're pretty radically different in implementation, and mostly came out a few years later (early 2010s instead of late 2000s,) the principle is the same: providing a lightweight OS as a Windows alternative.
The Asus Transformer Trio is a laptop that can switch between Windows and Android. I have not yet written this up, but I need to, because it's a truly strange little beast.
The keyboard and mouse can be used in either Android or Windows, but the screen also separates from the keyboard, and in that configuration, it is still able to run as a tablet device - but only within Android, since that OS actually runs on a second motherboard, separate from the main one in the keyboard half that runs Windows. The Android board is a complete Atom system running Android x86.
The HTC Shift X9500 is a UMPC with a sliding keyboard and a terrible 800mhz pre-Atom mobile processor. It shipped with Windows Vista, but at the press of a button, you can switch to something they call SnapVUE, which is a heavily modified version of Windows Mobile that runs on a separate ARM SoC inside the machine. The button is, essentially, a KVM switch that flips the display and inputs over to the ARM system.
Note, if you're interested in getting one: For some reason these seem to have been sold almost exclusively in Russian-speaking countries. While you can install an English Windows, or (if you don't want to lose the awful pack-in apps) change the language of the stock install with some effort, SnapVUE has the language baked in, and there does not appear to be any way to change it. Nobody archived the original English firmware, so your only option is to install one of the weird hacked ROMs you can find on XDAdevelopers, which has a high chance of bricking your device and also makes it completely different. GLHF
I don't have one of these but if I don't mention it I will get 100 emails. It's a phone that can switch between Windows 7 and Symbian.
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