Review: Phoenix HyperSpace

Monday Feb 23rd 2009 by Joseph Moran
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This instant-on operating system can get you onto the Web quickly and easily, but it works a lot better in principle than in practice.

When you're on the run, opportunities to hop online to check e-mail, flight status, or a favorite Web site tend to be infrequent and of limited duration. That's why, when you do get a chance to fire up your notebook, the time it takes to boot and load Windows can seem like an eternity.

Vital Stats
Price: $39.95/year (Dual); $59.95/year (Hybrid)

Pros: Simple, easy to use OS for Web connectivity that starts and shuts down very quickly.

Cons: Sparse hardware compatibility makes install problems likely; doesn't offer capabilities beyond Web browsing and Web applications; requires annual license fee.

Phoenix Technologies' answer to this problem is HyperSpace, a mini-operating system — basically just a Web browser — that promises to start up and shut down in seconds instead of minutes, thus giving you quicker and more convenient Web access while trimming your laptop's battery consumption in the bargain. But although HyperSpace has a lot of potential, it's far from ready for prime time due to some significant limitations and compatibility problems.

The software comes in two versions. HyperSpace Hybrid can run concurrently with Windows, allowing you to switch back and forth between the two environments. HyperSpace Dual runs only one at a time — switching requires a reboot. The first requires a system with an Intel CPU with Intel VT virtualization technology, such as the Core 2 Duo; HyperSpace Dual is for less fully equipped PCs such as Atom- or Pentium-powered models. Unfortunately, HyperSpace doesn't support AMD processors.

The official system requirements for both editions can be found here. Phoenix also posts a list of specific notebook makes and models that have been officially certified for HyperSpace, but you can count them without using all your fingers.

Achy Breaky Installation

In Star Wars, Han Solo and Chewbacca famously had problems when they tried to take the Millennium Falcon into hyperspace. Our experience getting into Phoenix HyperSpace was a lot like that: Only on the third laptop we tried were we actually able to get HyperSpace up and running, and even then it was with a pretty large snag.

Phoenix HyperSpace
Assuming you can get it installed and fully functional, HyperSpace gives you a simple environment from which to browse the Web.
(Click for larger image)
None of our test systems had the requisite CPU for Hybrid, so we tried installing HyperSpace Dual on three systems that met that version's system requirements: a new MSI Wind U100 netbook (1.6GHz Atom and 1GB of RAM) and a couple of old Dell notebooks -- an Inspiron 300M (1.2GHz Pentium M, 640MB) and a Latitude D600 (1.8GHz Pentium M, 512 MB), all running Windows XP SP3.

When you run the HyperSpace setup wizard, it assesses your system for compatibility with either version of HyperSpace and proceeds to install the appropriate version. Phoenix recommends you back up your PC before installing HyperSpace, and makes you acknowledge the recommendation by clicking a check box before the installation can proceed. Backing up is good advice in this case, because unlike a garden-variety app, HyperSpace repartitions your hard disk to carve out a 3GB partition for itself, which is an inherently risky activity.

When we completed the install routine on the Wind U100 and rebooted, we were greeted with a new HyperSpace boot menu option, but when we chose it the system hung with an empty black screen. We didn't even get that far with the 300M; after our post-installation reboot, the system failed to display a boot menu and hung, leaving us unable to run either HyperSpace or Windows XP. (On the MSI, at least, XP remained undisturbed so we were able to uninstall HyperSpace.)

On the D600 we finally met with a modicum of success, though toward the end of the installation process a message appeared stating that HyperSpace didn't natively support the D600's WiFi hardware and giving us the option to instead use Windows drivers in "compatibility mode." We received this same warning on the previous two systems as well, even though all three used different wireless chipsets. It turns out that HyperSpace currently supports only certain Intel WiFi silicon, and while Intel WiFi hardware is common, it's far from universal. (Phoenix representatives did not respond to several attempts to contact them to clarify which specific WiFi chipsets are currently supported by HyperSpace -- the company doesn't list them with the software's system requirements.)

Upon rebooting the D600 and selecting HyperSpace from the boot menu, we found ourselves in HyperSpace at long last, albeit without WiFi capability (even though we had said yes to compatibility mode wireless drivers). Therefore, we went online using a wired Ethernet connection instead.

(Continue to Page 2 for more Details on HyperSpace Features)

Easy and Speedy But Limited

HyperSpace presents you with an extremely simple and easy-to-use environment that imposes no learning curve. When the OS starts up it immediately launches a Web browser that looks a lot like Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 but is actually based on Mozilla Firefox 3.0. The browser loads quickly, is very responsive when switching between Web sites, and does everything a standard PC browser does these days such as tabbed browsing, bookmarks and history, and plug-in support. We had no problems accessing an Exchange e-mail server via Outlook Web Access.

Along the left edge of the HyperSpace desktop is a strip of buttons that gives you quick access to a handful of popular Net-based services: Google's Gmail, Meebo instant messaging, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Amazon.com, The Weather Channel, and Orbitz. Selecting any of these items automatically opens the appropriate site in a new browser tab, so it doesn't disturb what you're already doing.

HyperSpace's simplicity limits customization options, though. You can't delete any of the preconfigured buttons, nor can you substitute or add any of your own. Also, since HyperSpace's button strip is locked in place and can't be hidden, the browser window is also of fixed size and can't be maximized to utilize the entire screen.

Other controls within HyperSpace's button strip let you reboot the system into Windows (on Hybrid machines you can switch to Windows by pressing F4) and access rudimentary system functions such as networking and battery settings, speaker volume, and mouse cursor speed. Speaking of mouse performance, we found that HyperSpace made the D600's trackpad response very jittery, which frequently caused us to click on links unintentionally. Fortunately the D600 also has a pointing stick, which worked fine.

HyperSpace is a browsing-only environment that can only run Web-based applications such as Zoho, Google Docs, or Force.com. To view a document or photo, play an MP3 or DVD, or otherwise access a file on the Windows partition, you need to switch to Windows (in HyperSpace Hybrid) or reboot (in HyperSpace Dual). Phoenix plans to add some native multimedia and communication apps in future.

One thing's for certain-- HyperSpace can get a notebook up and running a lot quicker than Windows can. We found that HyperSpace consistently loaded in about 10 seconds from the boot menu, just a fraction of the time it took to get into Win XP, even from hibernation mode (and this was on a system relatively unburdened with Windows startup applications).

Shutting down HyperSpace was also quite speedy -- it took an average of 5 seconds or less, again much faster than Windows was able to wrap things up. Of course, using Windows' standby mode will get you in and out of that OS relatively quickly -- maybe as fast as HyperSpace -- but using it will drain your battery even when the notebook is sitting unused in your bag.

The Bottom Line

Although HyperSpace is extremely easy to use and can get you online and off again more efficiently than Windows, we can't recommend it due to its extremely limited hardware support and capabilities.

Also, even if it works fine for you, there's the matter of cost: Phoenix charges $39.95 for HyperSpace Dual or $59.95 for Hybrid, and those are annual license fees rather than one-time purchase prices. Though you can get a relative discount by opting for a three-year license ($99 for Dual, $149.95 for Hybrid), we still think it's far too pricey given HyperSpace's severe limitations.

While HyperSpace has the potential to be a compelling product once it's had more time in the oven (a one-time license fee wouldn't hurt either), for now notebook users are better off steering clear.

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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