Does the average PC or laptop really need to spend two minutes or more booting up and then perhaps half that powering down? According to the makers of the cut-down Linux OS, Presto, if all a user wants to do is browse the web and use a handful of basic applications, it can be done in seconds either way.

Xandros Presto is - for want of a better term - a ‘lightweight' version of the company's Debian-derived Linux distribution, and no prizes for guessing the thinking behind its name. Chopped down to a basic stub that boots in the presence of Windows, it fires up in seconds, and shuts down equally rapidly. Loading it from a laptop also running XP, it becomes obvious how bloated Windows has become over the years by comparison, even in its supposedly clean XP form.

On our test laptop, Presto booted into a usable form in around 12 seconds, and closed down in seven. Some TV appliances take almost as long to turn on and off.

The Presto concept is in much the same mould as the ExpressGate Linux (actually from a company called SplashTop) that ships on some Asus netbooks and notebooks, which we covered last year.

The point about this rapid booting is supposed to be that it is convenient. If all that is needed is use a web browser, Skype access, and perhaps some quick photo editing using Picassa, then Presto looks ideal. But look a little deeper and another thought occurs. The basic Presto download is a hefty 462MB download, but within that you get the OpenOffice suite too. You can then download a wide range of other apps (see below) and it occurs that perhaps Presto can not only compliment Windows, but, in the majority of everyday situations, possibly replace it.

It ran a little slower on our test laptop than did the native Windows XP, but not by much. As long as you can find an app for every need, then what are its limitations?

The only technical requirements to install Presto are that the PC has either XP or Vista installed, with 512Mb or RAM, and 3.5GB of hard disk space, and for the latter to be formatted with NTFS. That will apply to all copies to Vista and all but a few early copies of XP; FAT32 partitions can be turned into NTFS using the ‘convert' utility but once this is done there is, of course, no going back short of an XP re-install. SCSI drives and RAID are not supported.

Beyond that, there are a few issues to watch out for. Machines using native Nvidia graphics drivers are said to boot more slowly (a driver issue out of Xandros's control) and anyone using a wireless keyboard will - the driver not having loaded yet - have problems selecting it from the command line in place of XP. In fairness, this is an issue for all dual-boot setups using wireless keyboards, not just Presto.

Loading it on two separate systems was completed without incident in minutes, with the Wi-Fi Internet connection up and running in only seconds once the encryption key had been entered. No faffing about wondering what to do next, Presto just asked for what it needed with preternatural diligence. Because it is so basic, there is simply no learning curve to speak of.

The software comes with its own very simple file manager (with access to Windows files), and Skype, access to any one of a host of IM systems, the Firefox browser, OpenOffice 3.0, and RealPlayer media player. There are also tools to import browser bookmarks, add extra keyboard and configure video settings.

Additional downloadable apps include the Acrobat reader, AVG's anti-virus, GIMP (photo editing), and Java, should that be needed. Anyone familiar with the Linux world will find a utility to fill any nook and cranny which is another way of saying that the user won't be short of add-on software, some of which easily match the supposed depth and diversity of the Windows world.

Perhaps this is Xandros's motivation in releasing Presto - it's a way for a Windows user to dip their toes in the Linux world without having to abandon the safety blanket of Windows and its guarantee of being able to run every app going. The slight ‘gotcha' of Presto is that it costs $19.95 (around £14), a fee which does allow the software to be installed on five PCs concurrently.

Conclusion
Xandros seems to have set out to be pragmatic about Windows, seeing not to replace it, but to work within the fact of its dominance. Not every Linuxite has taken to that strategy in recent times. But what does a Linux distro change if it's never actually used by anyone other than a techie or software acitivist?

Presto's strength is that it could be used by the everyday user to pep up an aging Windows XP system past its best, or just to get faster booting with a sclerotic Vista machine. It's not really a business-oriented system, but at $20 for a five-system license this looks to us like a bargain for anyone else.

OUR VERDICT

Windows - even a new install of XP - can still be slow to boot, which is a shame if all you want to do is fire up a web browser. Presto answers that call, turning the system into a dual-boot machine that can fire up basic apps in seconds. It works. Is especially suited to use on laptops.