The final word on Vista startup times

As I’ve pointed out in the previous two installments of this series, a properly configured, well-maintained Windows Vista installation should start up in a reasonable amount of time. I've condensed the lessons I learned from several days of concentrated testing into four basic principles.

As I’ve pointed out in the previous two installments of this series, a properly configured, well-maintained Windows Vista installation should start up in a reasonable amount of time, in most cases taking roughly 10–15 seconds more than it takes to start Windows XP on the same hardware, and in some cases starting significantly faster.

But not all Windows PCs are properly configured, and not all are well maintained. It’s possible – indeed, some would say too easy – to turn even a fast machine into one that takes three minutes or more to go from power on to desktop. (And as I noted in the last post, this phenomenon isn’t unique to Windows Vista. Even the “it just works” Mac can get a bad case of the slows, as I found in five minutes of searching on Mac support forums. But I digress.)

I can boil down the lessons I learned from months of experience and some very concentrated testing into four basic principles:

It should take no more than about 90 seconds for a Windows Vista PC to start up. That means fully awake, alert, and ready to do usable work for you and includes the time it takes for the BIOS to enumerate hardware and hand off control to the boot loader code on the active hard drive. On newer hardware, this number should be much less.

Windows Vista’s self-tuning performance mechanisms work. In my tests, for example, I found that one machine started out with boot times of roughly two minutes initially. After a dozen or so restarts gave the SuperFetch boot optimization routines some data to work with, this number had settled at 1:14. I’ve seen similar results on every system I’ve used.

Avoid crapware. In Walt Mossberg’s recent article on the subject, he recounted the two-minute-plus start times of his new Sony Vaio and quoted a Sony spokesperson who said those times were typical. (No, they’re not.) Walt noted that there were “two dozen trial programs and free offers” on this PC and he had signed up for a trial version of Symantec’s security software before getting out his stopwatch. Walt added, “I am not singling out Sony here. I would have had a similar experience if I had chosen, say, a Hewlett-Packard laptop.” That’s not true. I included a new HP notebook in my testing and recorded startup times of just over a minute. For the record, I removed the annoying Symantec security software before performing my tests.

Use Vista’s sleep mode. The default action for the Off button on a Vista installation is to put the system into a reduced power mode. After a few hours, it saves the contents of memory to the hard drive and shuts down completely. The result is fast shutdowns and fast startups, typically less than 10 seconds on either end. A few commentators look at this as some sort of conspiracy on Microsoft’s part to cover up for failings in its startup time. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Vista’s power management features work better than any previous version and in my experience are much more reliable and robust than the equivalent features in XP. Why not use them?