A while ago Xandros, the producer of a commercial Debian-based Linux distribution, announced Presto, a way to jump into Linux without the usual boot time to make Skype calls, browse the Web, and edit documents. Yesterday in my inbox was an e-mail announcing the availability of the public beta version of Presto. I was really wondering if it's possible to get the "instant-on" boot times advertised and if they really are that fast.
Downloading and installing Presto from the website is easy enough. The installer is 483MB, so it's smaller than most of the major Linux distributions, but larger than the little ones like DSL and Puppy Linux. It installs (and uninstalls) the same way that Ubuntu can be installed through Wubi and on my machine, everything installed without a hitch. There was one minor bug I had to deal with, but for my purposes here, I'm not going to bother with it here, being a beta version and all.
Boot times are impressive. From the time that I hit Enter at the boot menu to choose Presto, it was literally 10 seconds to the desktop. While I'm not so sure I would call that instant-on, the only OS I've ever seen to boot that fast is BeOS. By comparison, XP SP3 on the same machine takes over a minute. Ubuntu takes somewhere between 1 minute, 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Ouch. The test rig is neither a dinosaur nor a bleeding-edge gaming rig: an AMD64 3000+ with 2GB of RAM on a 320GB Western Digital EIDE hard drive. The major marketing point behind Presto seems to be pretty much valid in this case.
Once booted, you are greeted with a rather spartan desktop with a panel along the left side of the screen. The desktop environment is Xfce4 and immediately available are Firefox for web browsing, Pidgin for instant messaging, Skype for voice chat, the Thunar file manager, and a launcher for the Xandros Application Store and that's it -- sparse, but the Store makes installing other programs a cinch.
The Application Store is nothing new if you're familiar with Click and Run from the days of the Linspire distribution. For the uninitiated, Click and Run is a way to install a program with one click from the Firefox web browser. Many programs in the store are free, but there are also web services and commercial products, as well.
The only real downside to using Presto that I found was the lack of customizability. Having used Xfce and GNOME extensively and experimented with KDE 3 and 4, I'd say that Xfce is a good middle ground between GNOME and KDE for the amount of options offered to the user. Unfortunately, I found none of that available. In fact, the only way to open a terminal window is by right-clicking in a file manager window and choosing Open Terminal Here. It appears that the user is not permitted to add another launcher to the panel or to access the regular control panel that comes with Xfce.
This lack of customization makes me wonder what Presto's target market is. It seems too limited to bother with on a reasonably modern PC and worthwhile only in a semi-embedded role, such as the OS shipped on a netbook. Nontechnical users won't care what's on it as long as they can use Word (which they can't). Power users will probably find it fairly limiting like I did, and Free Software advocates will most likely look elsewhere, being this is a proprietary distro.
Personally, I find the boot and shutdown times amazing -- it boots as fast as BeOS and shuts down faster than Haiku, which is really saying something. Once booted, though, it feels like something's missing. There are some nice choices in the Application Store, but the ones which were unfamiliar to me were almost exclusively the non-free choices. Somehow, I just don't find Presto compelling. Here's to waiting for the Jaunty Jackalope release next month.