|A peek at Phoenix's HyperSpace fast-boot Linux add-on
by Henry Kingman (Jan. 5, 2009)
PC BIOS giant Phoenix Technologies today launched a fast-booting Linux add-on for Windows PCs. This hands-on review finds "HyperSpace" works to redress slow boot times, WiFi connection hassles, and short battery lives typical of Windows PCs, but sacrifices a lot of flexibility in order to achieve these goals.
Increasingly, notebook and even netbook vendors are grafting fast-booting Linux environments onto Windows PCs. In fact, Linux Foundation Director Jim Zemlin recently theorized that the trend could result in Linux out-shipping Windows by year's end.
Fast-boot environments such as HyperSpace, DeviceVM Splashtop, Asus ExpressGate, Dell Latitude On, Toshiba Qosmio, and InterVideo's original InstantON are typically rebranded by OEMs, so few will realize they are using Linux. That could actually be a good thing for Linux's reputation on the desktop, given that many of these environments are pretty limited.
HyperSpace flavors and experiences
Phoenix offers a "Hybrid" version of HyperSpace that leverages virtualization hardware built into most laptop chips. This version lets the user cold-boot into Linux, launch a Firefox 3.0-based browser, acquire a WiFi connection, and begin working in about 40 seconds, we found in testing on a Lenovo T400. After that, suspend and resume is basically instant, and can be controlled by opening or closing the lid.
Thanks to virtualization support, the Hybrid flavor of HyperSpace lets you browse in Linux while booting Windows in the background -- about a four minute orde... er, process, for Vista Business with the T400's T9600 processor clocked at 2.8GHz. Once both OSes are up, the F4 function key or a sidebar widget can be used to toggle between them. Additionally, a rudimentary filemanager affords a view of "My Documents" from within Linux, though all documents -- even simple JPEG images -- must be opened only from within Windows.
Phoenix also offers a "Dual" version of HyperSpace for chips lacking virtualization hardware, such as Intel's Atom processor for netbooks. Without virtualization support, the Linux environment must be shut down in order to boot Windows. But, a nifty hand-off mechanism allows some communication between the OSes: clicking on an unsupported file type in the Linux environment's browser brings up the option to "open the file with Windows." Additionally, both versions of HyperSpace we tested were able to hand network connection information over to Windows, to avoid reconfiguration delays.
Phoenix says HyperSpace's Linux environment uses "up to 50 percent less" power than Windows, on some systems. While the wording is odd, we believe the power savings are significant, albeit with a price. The implementations of HyperSpace on our two test systems appeared to keep most peripheral circuits powered off when running in Linux-only mode. This affected our ability to connect USB mice and, in the case of the S10 netbook, an external amp and speakers. Additionally, the implementation in our test systems may have curtailed the Linux system's access to memory a little too aggressively as a power saving measure, because we experienced a few OOMs (out-of-memory errors) when using Firefox with Gmail.
Easy WiFi connectivity is another feature touted by Phoenix, and here, we could not dither. The interface is very friendly, and it even supports half a dozen cellular data cards (which we did not have to test, though).
Phoenix says its focus on network automation, fast boot, and battery life resulted from a forum that identified these as the top priorities among notebook consumers.
Other features and quibbles
HyperSpace appeared to work mostly as described by Phoenix on our two test systems. However, the technology is very new, and the tested systems were pre-production models. Thus, in addition to about a dozen bugs Phoenix admitted it is rushing to fix, we encountered these:
- Hitting Ctrl-Alt-Backspace in the Linux environment "zaps" the Xorg server, causing an unrecoverable crash. Other implementers will hopefully build their Xorg binaries without this unfortunate Xorg "feature," a vestige of the antediluvian days when Linux window manager crashes were actually quite common (though even back then, it was usually better to ssh in from another system and respawn the wm)
- The Linux environment really only offers a browser, Adobe PDF reader, Flash, and Java plugins at this point. Other fast-boot Linux environments offer media players, photo browsers, and so on. Presumably, some OEMs may choose to include other applications, such as Skype.
- Users can't add browser plug-ins themselves, though Phoenix promises regular updates to paid subscribers. On the plus side, users can add Firefox extensions.
- The systems' HyperSpace partitions appear to use non-standard partition types and/or filesystems unrecognized by standard Linux utilities such as grub and mount. The Windows partitions could not be resized with ntfs-resize, though I'm mystified as to why. The S10 netbook's disk actually had 14GB of unused space, which I used to install Debian Lenny (which ran perfectly, in limited testing). However, grub could not recognize the HyperSpace partition, so installing Lenny meant I lost access to HyperSpace. Things might have worked had I installed grub to a partition, instead of the MBR. Or, failing that, on a USB key.
- The "HyperSpace" browser is actually Firefox 3.0, a glance at about:config confirms (Opera also says its browser can be used in the environment). Yet, its activity icon (similar to spinning globe in Firefox, or the spinning 'e' in IE) is actually the rippling Jolly Roger flag logo introduced with Windows 95. That's just weird.
- A widget sidebar provides a kind of fancy graphical bookmarks list, but does not appear to be user-configurable
The test systems were pleasant to use. It's great to have something around that can hibernate for several days, quickly resuming to check email or look up things from time to time. There is a lot of promise here. I found myself reaching for the S10 several times to answer dinner table questions, instead of the usual Nokia N810.
However, it appears to be early days for the technology. More work needs to be done to make HyperSpace's Linux environment feel "complete." It seems silly to have to launch Windows just to stream an MP3 over the web, for instance.
Ultimately, it's really a shame that any PC should need two OSes. It's a Frankensteinian kind of thing. A friend of mine likened it aptly to a car requiring a second steering wheel for parking only.
It's truly a pity that Windows Vista takes so long to boot, shutdown, resume, hibernate, suspend, and so on. My own theory is that Vista, codenamed Longhorn and delayed five years, was actually intended to run on much faster processors than Intel and AMD proved capable of producing. Who knew that Moore's law would finally be broken, and everything would have to go multi-core?
And, it's a pity that Linux, despite getting better all the time, can't run the commercial software applications that users need. It's enough to make you think we're still in the "Model-T" era of computing, and that maybe Linux and free software won't be able to save the world, afterall.
Additionally, it's troubling that HyperSpace currently does not better support the installation of alternative operating systems. That just seems like a basic right of PC ownership. Hopefully, this is just a by-product of pre-production nature of the systems we tested, or possibly reviewer error (though I tried three distros, and ran chkdsk /f on the Vista partition dozens of times).
Phoenix's HyperSpace appears to be aimed at PC OEMs such as Acer, said to be an early customer. However, the technology will also be available direct to consumers, priced at $60/year for the Hybrid version or $40 for the Dual version (three year discounts are also available). Further details may be found at a new website, here.
-- Henry Kingman
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