Hands On: Windows Vista Service Pack 1 Beta

It will come as no to surprise to those of you who’ve been at this computer technology thang for a while that — given that Vista sales haven’t been great over the nearly one year since Microsoft released it to manufacturing on November 8, 2006 — Microsoft has to do something. And that something appears to be Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), which the company intends to ship sometime in the first quarter of 2008.

On Friday I interviewed Microsoft Vista SP1 production manager David Zipkin. And while Zipkin insisted that SP1 isn’t just a roll-up of patches, updates, and security fixes that you’re already getting on Windows Update, he was hard pressed to tell just what exactly is new in the forthcoming service pack. The truth is there are new things, but very few that you or I really care about.

In the end, maybe it’s all a moot point anyway, since most people will get SP1 when they buy a new PC or download it as part of Windows Update, where it will be about a 55MB download. Microsoft will be distributing it on DVD, both to enterprises with license agreements and to consumers who are willing to sign up for it on a Web form, pay a modest fee for shipping, and wait several weeks. But my guess is that waiting won’t be a huge hardship.

For deeper detail about what’s in Vista SP1, check out Microsoft’s Windows Vista Service Pack 1 Beta White Paper. Also, some of these improvements are already available. Take a look at this Nick White entry in the Windows Vista Blog.

What’s New?
The promise includes improvements to performance, reliability, application compatibility, device driver support, and emerging hardware and standards. But the details I’m privy to so far either barely support the claim or are too vague to be more than marketing.

Everyday Vista users may be happy to learn that Microsoft is working on the performance of Windows Explorer file copies. Zipkin says the all-too-familiar delay while Vista figures out how long the operation will take will all but disappear, and the copy operation should be faster overall. Microsoft is also claiming some improvement to Vista shutdown times, and it expects to trim hibernate and resume from hibernation times in SP1.

Some of the better improvements relate to hardware support and reliability. More than 700,000 Vista device drivers have been created since Vista shipped, but many of these have been offered via Windows Update. Microsoft’s engineers have worked on problem areas, including support for some newer graphics card, external displays served from laptops, and networking configuration. There’s also claimed improvement to Vista installations upgraded from Windows XP, to printer compatibility, and to the reliability and performance of Vista entering and resuming from sleep mode.

Other performance benefits include some added speed and reduced CPU utilization for Internet Explorer 7, improvements for notebook battery life by cutting back on screen redrawing on certain computers, and faster and less bandwidth-intensive network browse operations.

Microsoft is adding several minor improvements to BitLocker drive encryption. For example, it will be able to encrypt all volumes on a machine, not just the C: drive. Enterprise customers may be pleased to find that GPEdit.msc will edit Group Policies by default, although SP1 will automatically uninstall the Group Policy Management Console.

Some of the new standards and technologies SP1 adds Vista support for include Direct3D 10.1, support for network boot by using x64 EFI, Secure Digital (SD) Advanced Direct Memory Access, and support for the exFAT file system, designed for us with flash memory storage. Vista SP1 also adds support for the Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP), which will help provide VPN remote access connections that are better able to navigate network address translation, Web proxies, and firewalls.

Setup and Initial Impressions
The Beta I received on DVD from Microsoft contains a 687MB installation file that is a superset of the Windows Update download that Vista users will eventually see. It comes with code that can update any version of Vista and as well as all language packs.

The installation process starts by unpacking the code, and then you’re presented with a start screen that gives you the option to put a check in the box to automatically restart Vista when the upgrade is finished. It permits unattended installation.

When my Vista Ultimate test machine (my main Vista production machine, with a fresh backup of the hard drive) came up after the SP1 installation, the first thing I was confronted with was a cryptic command-line log listing, which appeared to imply that something might have gone wrong. I attempted to copy the contents, but it ripped by before I had to chance to read it. As Vista entered its GUI, though, it flashed up an OK dialog telling me that SP1 had been installed successfully.

In my first half hour with SP1, it became clear to me that Vista was operating a bit faster in several regards. Vista’s network browse window is much better than before. It’s still slow to load the first time, but for the first time ever, it brought up my entire network without any balkiness. Other windows snapped open with more authority too. One oddity I noticed is that my wireless networking connection was taking priority over the 1GB wired LAN connection. Why does Windows do that? I tried resetting the LAN connection; Vista would see it but then eventually drop it off again, preferring its Wi-Fi latch on the Internet.

The biggest user-interface change in SP1 appears to be something that’s missing, not something that’s been added. To comply with a legal settlement in a complaint brought by Google, Microsoft has removed the Search menu item on the right side of the Start Menu. It has also made it possible to configure third-party desktop search tools, such as Google Desktop (not my first choice, by the way) as Vista’s whole-computer indexing tool. For more information about this, including before and after pictures, see Computerworld’s first-look review, Vista SP1 beta’s biggest mod is to the search function, by Preston Gralla.

My initial impressions of SP1 are mostly positive. Some time needs to go by, and later code tried, before I’ll draw conclusions.

The bottom line is this: There’s nothing about SP1 that should make enterprise customers suddenly feel safe in buying Vista. In a world where software updates via its Internet tether, all of that is a little ridiculous. SP1 is primarily a patch/security update roll-up. On the other hand, I’ve seen nothing so far that would keep me from grabbing it when it’s ready, either. It’s pretty much a nonevent.

2 Responses to “Hands On: Windows Vista Service Pack 1 Beta”

  1. tomr Says:

    In Windows XP, there were these Toolbar Icons (on Windows Explorer for one) for Delete, Refresh, Favorites etc. Am I alone in missing them, or have there been others raising the same complaint? Was anything done in SP1 about this?

  2. MichaelJ Says:

    To Tomr, after right clicking on the Vista start button and opening explorer, press the alt key, a familar toolbar will appear with many of the options you ask about.


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