It may take only a minute or two, but waiting for a PC to boot up can seem to take forever when you're desperate to check on some information contained on its hard drive or access the Web.
Recognizing the impatience, companies such as HP and Dell have long equipped their PCs with "quick start" modes that let you watch photos or DVDs or listen to music without having to wait for Windows to finish its opening act.
Several new products have entered the market to enhance these "quick start" modes, but some must be installed in advance by the manufacturer or are only compatible with certain PCs.
However, one entrant in the "quick start" software race that works with practically any Windows PC is Presto. It has been developed by Xandros, which developed the basic software used to start up the Asus Eee mini PC quickly. But Xandros hasn't conjured up something completely new with Presto.
Linux can be heavily customized, which has allowed Xandros to optimize it for fast startup times.
After installing Presto, you get a choice when you start your PC between Windows and Presto. Selecting Presto quickly takes you to a limited but useful desktop screen that offers a few applications on a dock to the right of the screen.
First is the popular Firefox browser which, while popular, is facing competition from faster rivals such as Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari. Next is an instant messaging program for chatting with friends who use AOL, Yahoo, or Windows Live instant messaging systems (as well as others). Third is Skype, which lets you make free video calls to other Skype users or cheap international long-distance calls.
One icon even opens an iPhone-style app store that you can use to obtain new applications to use within the Presto environment. And as with Apple's app store, many of the programs are free. The selection is quite limited, but there are a few must-haves.
One of the most useful is OpenOffice, the free alternative to Microsoft Office for word processing, creating spreadsheets and databases, and other productivity tasks. There are also Linux versions of other Windows staples as Adobe Reader for reading PDF documents, as well as a playback program for last.fm that streams Internet radio, and the very handy Picassa photo management program from Google.
A few casual games are also available, but don't expect anything competitive with the state of the art on Windows. And when you're done surfing the Web or writing that report, shutting down a PC from Presto only takes a second or two as opposed to the extended periods that even going into standby mode can take with Windows.
Presto is engineered to be lean and mean, but its interface could use some visual sprucing up. It would also be helpful to have some more flexibility in putting more icons on the dock or the desktop itself.
A Presto competitor called HyperSpace can run concurrently with Windows, and it would be great to see Presto support that on PCs that support it so that you don't have to always choose between Presto and Windows at startup.
Presto, available at www.prestomypc.com, can be used for free for a 15-day trial, after which it costs $19.95.