15 second boot times in Windows 7: Microsoft

Postings on Microsoft’s Engineering Windows 7 blog have so far been notable largely for their ability to say almost “it depends” in response to almost any Windows-related issue but a new post by engineer Michael Fortin does come close to making some promises about how boot performance — long a thorn in the side of Vista and its predecessors — might be improved.

“For Windows 7 a top goal is to significantly increase the number of systems that experience very good boot times” Fortin wrote. “In the lab a very good system is one that boots in under 15 seconds.”

Microsoft’s own internal performance assessment shows that virtually no Vista systems are meeting that goal. Data collected from users via the Customer Experience Improvement Program suggests that only 35% of systems boot within 30 seconds or less. According to Microsoft 75% of systems boot within 50 seconds.

In practice you’re unlikely to be able to use your machine at that point — this is a measure of ‘System Responsive’ time so any applications that load during your startup process will probably hog the system for a while longer. Indeed Fortin acknowledges that Microsoft’s measure doesn’t have much to do with actually using your computer: “We realize there are other perceptions that users deem as reflecting boot time such as when the disk stops when their apps are fully responsive or when the start menu and desktop can be used.”

Even with that huge caveat some systems in the data Fortin published display boot times of several minutes a factor Microsoft partly attributes to system updates which load after booting. As any Vista user knows when patching is taking place you might as well take a walk to the nearest cafe.

Fortin admits this represents a problem: “From our perspective too few systems consistently boot fast enough and we have to do much better.”

One solution Fortin proposes is not switching off your PC at all. “We do encourage users to choose sleep as an alternative to boot” he writes. There’s a certain irony in this approach given that virtually everyone is forced to reboot at least once a month to accommodate Microsoft’s own updates and patches. Beyond passing the buck back to users Windows 7 aims to improve boot times through a mixture of tactics including parallel initialisation of device drivers and customising prefetching of data from the hard drive for individual systems.

For Microsoft getting improved boot times is becoming a major competitive issue. Super-cheap systems such as the Xandros-based Eee PC consistently boot in less than 30 seconds and Dell’s ‘Blacktop’ project is essentially a way of booting a Windows PC quickly by not using Windows at all. With Windows 7 not expected until 2010 such alternative solutions will have plenty of time to gain market share.