Embedded Operating Systems on PCs

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Embedded operating systems are not anything new to the world of electronics. They have been installed on a wide variety of consumer electronics to allow them to function in a variety of different tasks. Embedded operating systems aren't even new to the work of computers.

Handheld computers such as the Palm and Windows Mobile all use versions of embedded operating systems that are stored on an internal memory chip rather than a boot from a disk.

What is an Embedded OS?

Essentially, an embedded operating system is essentially a stripped-down operating system with a limited number of features. It is typically designed for very specific functions for controlling an electronic device. For example, all cell phones use an operating system that boots up when the phone is turned on. It handles all the basic interface and features of the phone. Additional programs can be loaded onto the phones, but they are typically JAVA applications that run on top of the operating system.

Embedded operating systems can either be custom written operating systems specific to the device or one of the myriads of general-purpose operating systems that ​have been modified to run on top of the device. Common embedded operating systems include Symbian (cell phones), Windows Mobile/CE (handheld PDAs) and Linux. In the case of an embedded OS on a personal computer, this is an additional flash memory chip installed on a motherboard that is accessible on boot from the PC.

Why Put an Embedded OS on a PC?

Since the PC doesn't require a separate operating system to use all of the features, what reason is there to put a separate hardware operating system? The main reason is to expand the capabilities of the system without the need to be running all of the hardware. After all, even in power save modes, running the full operating systems will use up more power than half of the components inside of the computer. If you are browsing the web but not saving data, do you need to use the optical drive or hard drive?

The other major benefit of an embedded operating system on a PC is to speed up the ability to use the system for specific functions. The average system takes anywhere from one to five minutes to fully boot up the Vista operating system from a cold start. An embedded operating system could be loaded up from a cold start in a matter of seconds. Sure, you will not be able to use all of the features of the PC, but do you really need to boot up the entire system if you are looking at flashing the BIOS or checking on a website?

How is an Embedded OS Different From Media Features Without the OS?

One feature that has been prevalent on multimedia notebooks is the ability to launch either playback of an audio CD or a DVD movie on the PC without the need for booting up all of the system's functions and operating system from the OS. This actually is one example of an embedded operating system within a PC. The embedded operating system has been customized specifically to use the hardware features on the system for the playback of audio and video. This gives users media features in a faster time and without the need of using all the power required for the additional unused features when running the full OS.

Is a PC with Embedded OS Worth It?

Having an embedded OS on a PC can be useful, but it really depends upon what applications and features are possible. It also depends upon the type of PC system that it is installed in. An embedded OS that is there solely for the purpose of being able to flash or restore a BIOS for a PC is useful on just about any PC. An embedded OS that will boot up into a web browser might be useful for a laptop PC but not for a desktop PC. One example of such a feature might be for a traveling business person to quickly check the status of a flight or rental car before departing for the airport. The same feature isn't as useful for a system that isn't mobile. You might as well take the time to boot up.

With this in mind, be sure you know what features an embedded OS allows with a PC before you buy into the marketing hype from the manufacturers. It may turn out to be an incredibly useful feature or something that is never touched.