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Windows Vista Service Pack 1 Review

Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) is the first major update to Microsoft's latest operating system, and it is jam-packed with a huge number of changes. These changes include such things as security fixes, bug fixes, and other minor updates; an update to the Vista kernel that brings the system in line with Windows Server 2008; competitor-initiated changes to Kernel Patch Protection and Instant Search; a major reworking of the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) anti-piracy technologies; huge improvements to application and device compatibility; major enhancements to performance and reliability; much-needed changes to Vista's file copy functionality; and a few minor functional changes rounding things out.

That's quite a list, even in abbreviated form, but if you actually parse through it, you will realize that none of these changes are particularly momentous. And that's how it should be: Historically, Windows service packs were designed largely to collect previously-released fixes into a single, enterprise-friendly installable package. Windows Vista SP1 follows this path--unlike, say, Windows XP Service Pack 2 (see my review), which was so humongous it could have been sold as a standalone version of Windows--and takes it a step further. That's because many of Vista SP1's improvements have already shipped separately, quietly, to users via Windows Update and Automatic Updates. So if you've been keeping your copy of Vista up-to-date, you've already acquired a healthy chunk of SP1's benefits.

Still, SP1 is a necessary and even desirable upgrade, though virtually all of the competitor-induced changes, which Microsoft agreed to out of a fear of antitrust-related charges, are worthless or even potentially harmful to users. (That's the world we live in as Microsoft customers, I guess: In the end, we're the ones paying for Microsoft's past behavior and its current regulatory condition.) If you're running Windows Vista already, you will want to install SP1 as soon as possible. If you've been holding off on Vista because of compatibility, reliability or performance reasons, SP1 will likely be what you've been waiting for. (This is especially true of enterprise customers.) Because of SP1 and the many, many improvements that Microsoft has shipped to Vista users in the past year, the Vista of 2008 is a decidedly improved product over the one that first appeared on store shelves in January 2007.

Let's find out why that's so.

Installing Service Pack 1

To install Windows Vista Service Pack 1, you will need to first install two or three prerequisite software updates. Fortunately, these are being deployed to users via Windows Update and will most likely be installed previous to your actually getting SP1. (Check out the section Availability and timing for more information about this schedule.) Two of these updates upgrade the Vista servicing stack and component installer technologies. The third, which applies only to Vista Ultimate and Enterprise, updates BitLocker for SP1.

Once these prerequisites are installed, you're able to install SP1. Vista SP1 can be obtained through the usual channels. These include:

Windows Update. Most individuals already running Windows Vista will upgrade to SP1 automatically via Windows Update. The amount of disk space required for this type of install varies wildly, since the installer will only install those components that need to be updated to bring them up to SP1 level.

Integrated installation. Those not yet running Windows Vista will receive an integrated version of the OS if they purchase a new PC or a retail boxed copy of Vista starting sometime in the next several weeks. See the section Availability and timing for more information about the timing for these releases. Additionally, corporate customers who participate in Microsoft's volume licensing programs will be receiving integrated installs of Vista with SP1 in the coming days.

Standalone installer. Corporate administrators, IT pros, and power users can download the so-called standalone installer for SP1, which is available in two versions, a version with support for 5 languages, and a version with support for all of the 36 languages in which Vista ships. The standalone installers include SP1 and all of the prerequisite updates. It can be used to deploy SP1 via Microsoft's corporate updating tools such as Systems Management Server and WSUS.

Installing SP1 via Windows Update or the standalone installer is pretty seamless. The installation requires a few reboots, but these occur without any user intervention. The time required ranges from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the system. I've installed the final version of SP1 using the 5-language version of the standalone installer and with an integrated install DVD and have yet to experience any install issues.

Compatibility improvements

You've seen the absurd claims about Vista's supposed compatibility issues, trumpeted by Benedict Arnold tech pundits who should know better or were simply seeking cheap hits. The truth, as I demonstrated back in May 2007 in Hot or Not? Measuring the Success of Vista's First 100 Days, is that Vista is the most compatible version of Windows that Microsoft has ever shipped. Furthermore, Vista compatibility has only gotten better over time. Today, with SP1 in the can, few users will ever experience any major compatibility issues. There will always be exceptions, of course: Vista is a major new OS version and many companies are hard pressed to justify releasing free drivers for old products when they'd rather sell you a new device. But with SP1, Vista compatibility is even better than before.

Hardware compatibility

Vista's hardware compatibility has improved dramatically over the past year, and is, I feel, no longer an issue for mainstream users. Today, over 15,000 hardware devices have received the Certified for Windows Vista logo. Those looking for a seamless installation experience will be pleased to learn that the number of device drivers on Windows Update is up from about 13,000 at launch to over 54,000 today (in addition to the 20,000 that ship with Vista). In my own experience with Vista SP1 on a variety of machines, I've not had to manually seek out drivers even once: And while this was rare with the RTM version of Vista, it did happen occasionally.

Note that SP1 does not actually include any drivers per se: Instead, Microsoft augments the drivers that are included "in the box" with Vista by making new and improved drivers available via Windows Update. That said, Vista SP1 does include support for a number of new and up and coming hardware initiatives, including Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) firmware on x64 systems, x64 Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) network boot, Direct3D 10.1, the exFAT file system for flash-based devices, second-generation Windows Media Center Extenders (which I'll be reviewing soon), and so on.

Software compatibility

The other side of the compatibility story is, of course, software. Whereas the initial version of Windows Vista supported about 250 logoed applications--that is, applications that were certified to be 100 percent compatible with Vista--today, that number exceeds 2,500, over ten times the original number. Microsoft says that 98 of the top 100 selling applications are compatible with Vista, while 46 of the top 50 downloads on CNET's Web site are Vista compatible.

As with hardware compatibility, however, SP1 doesn't actually contain its own unique software compatibility fixes. Instead, these fixes are delivered automatically to customers on an ongoing basis. That said, Vista does include fixes for numerous incompatible enterprise applications that were deployment blockers over the past year. More specifically, Microsoft and its partners have remediated over 150 enterprise application blockers: These are applications that previously prevented one or more corporations from upgrading to Vista.

Reliability improvements

Microsoft's extensive use of opt-in customer data through its Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP), Microsoft Online Crash Analysis (MOCA), and Windows Error Reporting (WER) gives the company unparalleled and hugely advantageous access to the problems that are really ailing real customers in the real world. This lets Microsoft fix the most egregious problems whether they occur in its own code or, as is often the case, in code written by its partners. Hey, Windows is a complex system, and it shouldn't matter where the problem lies. What matters is that there's a problem.

Reliability is something that needs to improve over time, and to this end Microsoft has delivered a number of hot-fixes over the past 15 months that improve reliability in Vista. SP1 includes all of these fixes, of course, but it also includes a number of fixes that are unique to this update. These updates affect such things as data loss prevention when NTFS-formatted removable media is ejected, IPSec connections over IPv6 networks, network driver resiliency when the PC goes to sleep, improved ad-hoc wireless connections using peer-to-peer solutions like Meeting Space, and a major change to Windows Backup so that EFS-encrypted files are now included in backup sets.

While it's unclear if this particular change belongs under the reliability or performance heading, Microsoft also tells me that dramatic changes to various Vista-compatible drivers over the past year have significantly improved the battery life of many recent notebook computers, though I haven't seen any big improvements on my own systems. In their tests, the median battery life improvement was 7 percent, with 5 of 16 tested systems gaining 10 percent or more in the battery life department.

Performance improvements

Once Vista got into the hands of millions of actual users in early 2007, some undeniable trends emerged. People complained that Vista could get painfully slow--or at least seem painfully slow--in certain conditions. For example, if you fired up a large file transfer, either from disk to disk on the same PC or across the network, Vista would take its time calculating how much time the transfer would take. And then, more often than not, the actual transfer would take an astronomical amount of time.

Microsoft has fixed these problems, I'm told. Naturally, we'll want to wait and see how things work out in the real world, but my own unscientific tests suggests that file copies--especially disk to disk--are dramatically faster in Vista with SP1. Microsoft has also "fixed" the copy calculation issue, though to be fair, most of that was user perception: Even though Vista was slow to calculate the file copy time, the file copy was occurring in the background all along. Vista with SP1 now calculates the time more quickly, however.

Another common performance complaint with Vista involved network operations: Now, browsing network file shares consumes far fewer resources and the logic that determines which of the available networks to use has been refined to be more efficient.

Microsoft has also improved the ways in which Vista moves in and out of various power states, such as Standby and shutdown. In the original version of Vista, the company added features like Windows ReadyDrive (hybrid hard disk support), Windows ReadyBoost (memory improvements via USB and other storage media), and Windows SuperFetch (preloading frequently-used applications into RAM) to address these concerns. In Vista, these technologies have all been improved. ReadyDrive is 27 to 55 percent faster in SP1. Users utilizing ReadyBoost should see much quicker resume times from both Standby and Hibernate. And SuperFetch has also been improved to speed resume times from Standby or Hibernate, though other changes in SP1 apparently slightly slow the time it takes to enter these modes. Microsoft says that the changes it made to SuperFetch, speeding resume, essentially cancels out that deficit.

A number of other performance improvements are present in SP1. Compressed Folders are dramatically faster in SP1 than they were in the original Vista version, and on par with the performance in XP. Internet Explorer 7 has been subtly improved from a performance perspective with regards to large image files and Jscript. The Photos screensaver is quicker to exit. The Event Viewer snaps to life more quickly. That kind of thing. And of course this is an ongoing effort: Microsoft will no doubt continue tweaking the most-often complained about aspects of Vista's performance going forward.

While it's unclear why this is notable or even newsworthy, you shouldn't be surprised to discover that while Vista with SP1 outperforms or at least equals the original version of Vista from a performance perspective, neither version outperforms its predecessor, Windows XP. Obviously. This has been the case with every modern version of Windows since, I don't know, 1995. When Windows XP first debuted in 2001, for example, gamers stuck with Windows 98 and business users running less-than-modern hardware stuck with Windows 2000 for exactly the same reasons. Windows Vista is more resource-intensive than its predecessors. But then it's also more secure and far more functional. This is the price of progress. As always, Microsoft is relying on hardware advances to drive Vista performance going forward.

That said, Vista (and Vista with SP1) are hardly performance challenged in day to day use, assuming you're using reasonably modern hardware. And let's get serious, people: RAM and hard drives are dirt cheap, so there's precious little reason not to max out your system where appropriate.

One final note about performance and SP1: If you upgrade an existing version of Vista to SP1, user-specific data used by Windows SuperFetch is wiped out, leading to what may seem like a small performance penalty. This effect will reverse itself after a few days, however, as you use the system and SuperFetch refills it cache.

Security improvements

Unlike Windows XP Service Pack 2, Windows Vista Service Pack 1 does not include any major security improvements. But that makes sense: Both XP SP2 and the original version of Vista included major architectural changes to Windows, changes that tightened security while harming compatibility. (That's the tradeoff, of course.) Indeed, Vista's security is so much better than that of XP with SP2 that Microsoft reports that in the first half of 2007, Vista had 60 percent fewer malware and spyware instances than its predecessor. It's not a sexy change, but Vista's security prowess is indeed a major reason to upgrade to this system: Vista is just more secure than XP can ever be.

That said, there are a few small security enhancements in Vista SP1. The BitLocker full-drive encryption solution, available only in Vista Ultimate and Enterprise editions, has been brought up to speed with the changes also present in Windows Server 2008: It can now encrypt other non-boot drives in addition to the boot partition. Additionally, Microsoft has added a new multifactor authentication option to BitLocker that combines a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) key with a USB dongle-based startup key and a 4-character personal identification number (PIN).

In 64-bit (x64) versions of Vista, Microsoft has changed the Kernel Patch Protection feature so that it works as it does in 32-bit versions of the system: Now, security vendors can patch the kernel at runtime, similar to the way they did on earlier Windows versions, in order to more effectively combat electronic attacks. The problem with this approach, of course, is that malicious software can also patch the kernel at runtime now. This kernel protection was previously one of the advantages of running a 64-bit version of Vista. It's unclear what the real world implications of this change will be, of course, but I'm nervous that Microsoft has compromised Vista's security to appease its competitors. This change could undermine what was previously an important and unique feature of x64 Vista versions.

There are numerous other security changes, all minor from an end user perspective. Microsoft has created new Data Execution Protection (DEP) APIs for developers. It has improved the cryptographic random number generator. Smart card support has been enhanced, including adding the option of using biometric security. Microsoft has altered Windows Security Center so that only authenticated third party security solutions can communicate with it, preventing malicious spoofing. Windows Complete PC Backup can now be run by users with standard user credentials, assuming they know an administrator-level password.

Administration and management improvements

Windows Vista was supposed to usher in a golden era of drag-and-drop updating, where service packs and other updates could be added to live Vista install images and thus automatically installed during new OS installs. In case you haven't heard, this never happened. But it's even worse than that: In addition to not supporting drag-and-drop updating, Microsoft is also not officially supporting the traditional slipstreaming model of updating Vista, a feature of every NT-based version of Windows so far. Instead, Microsoft has changed Vista in SP1 so that, hopefully, future service packs can be slipstreamed in some fashion. It's unclear, right now, whether that will happen and, if so, how it will work.

In the meantime, SP1 does include a number of updating improvements, all of which are geared towards corporate users. For example, it enables support for hotpatching, so that Vista with SP1 systems can be updated even when the affected components are in use by a running process, without requiring a reboot.

Microsoft has made minor changes to Vista in SP1 related to the Network Access Protection (NAP) policy-based network quarantine feature in Windows Server 2008.

Other functional changes

There are other functional changes in Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1).

Most significantly, the Instant Search feature has been significantly detuned (again), though it is still available to power users. In the original shipping version of Vista, users could access Instant Search from the Start Menu. This Start Menu entry is missing after the SP1 install and, most egregiously, it cannot be manually re-added. Instead, users must resort to various keyboard shortcuts to bring up the Instant Search window: This can be done by opening the Start Menu (or selecting any other part of Windows Explorer, like the desktop) and tapping F3. Or, you can tap Windows Key + F. Instant Search is still available via Windows Explorer windows as before.

Why make such a change? In late 2007, Google complained that Vista's deeply integrated Instant Search feature was anti-competitive. (See my showcase, Instant Search Changes to Windows Vista Service Pack 1, for details.) Rather than fight this charge, Microsoft, amazingly, decided to simply cave in. That's right: It agreed to basically hide one of Vista's most heralded features (one that was such a big deal, in fact, that it inspired competitors like Apple to add similar functionality to their own systems). Now, when (or if) Google and other desktop search competitors ship updated Vista SP1-compatible versions of their products, they can be as integrated (or, as it turns out, unintegrated) into Vista as much as is Instant Search. I think this change is bogus.

The Disk Defragmenter has been significantly changed so that users can now select which disk volumes are automatically defragged. In the original version of Vista, all available disk volumes were automatically defragged.

Microsoft has altered Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) dramatically in SP1. In the original version of Vista, systems that entered a non-activated state, usually by allowing the product activation timeout period to expire, entered something called Reduced Functionality Mode (RFM), in which many system features ceased to work normally. (See my showcase, New WGA Behavior in Windows Vista Service Pack 1, for details.) Meanwhile, systems that failed a Web-based validation check would enter another reduced functionality mode called Non-Genuine State (NGS). Both of these modes are gone in SP1. Now, systems that would have previously triggered RFM or NGS will move into an XP-like WGA experience, with occasional balloon pop-up reminders but no actual loss of functionality. Additionally, the desktop wallpaper will be changed to a solid black color every hour. For more information about this change, see my article, Windows Vista Service Pack 1 Screenshot Gallery 3: Changes to WGA.

Availability and timing

Microsoft's schedule for delivering Service Pack 1 to users would be hilarious if it weren't so bizarre. The company announced on February 4, 2008 that SP1 was completed and then set out to ensure that none of its customers could get the code immediately. The rationale is that the company discovered some hardware compatibility issues with SP1 that it will clear up in the next several weeks. So most Microsoft customers will need to wait until mid-March or mid-April to get the code. Yes, seriously.

Here's the schedule:

MSDN and TechNet subscribers got Vista SP1 on Friday, February 15, 2008.

Upgraders. Those wishing to upgrade an existing Windows Vista-based PC to SP1 will be able to do so in mid-March 2008 or in mid-April 2008, depending on their hardware configuration. If you enable Windows Update to automatically download updates and do not have any of the affected hardware installed, you'll be getting SP1 in mid-March. Otherwise, it will be mid-April. And no, Microsoft is not announcing which hardware is the problem, sorry.

Standalone downloads. The standalone versions of the SP1 downloader will be made available in mid-March.

Preinstalled on new PCs. New PCs with Vista and Service Pack 1 will appear on store shelves "in the coming months." PC makers began receiving the SP1 code on February 4, 2008, but it will likely take a few months before new PCs based on that code hit the market.

Retail copies of Windows Vista with Service Pack 1. If you're hoping to buy a retail, boxed copy of Windows Vista with SP1 preinstalled, those versions of the system will also replace the initial Vista release on store shelves "in the coming months."

Enterprise customers. Corporate users who participate in Microsoft's volume licensing programs will receive DVDs with Vista and SP1 integrated in the coming weeks. Microsoft says they began manufacturing these disks immediately after SP1 was completed.

International users. On February 4, 2008, Microsoft RTM'd only the English, French, Spanish, German and Japanese language versions of the update. The remaining languages Microsoft supports will be released to manufacturing in April and ship worldwide after that.

Final thoughts

Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) is an important update for all Vista users and does much to deflect whatever real world criticisms there are of Microsoft's latest operating system. I'm not talking about the baloney you may have read in anti-Microsoft blogs or The Wall Street Journal. No, I'm talking about real problems: A dearth of drivers that made Vista untenable for certain users, especially businesses that standardized on unsupported hardware. Over 150 critical enterprise applications that wouldn't run on the original version of Vista, thus making it a non-starter for many corporations. File copy performance issues that made Vista frustrating on a day to day basis for certain users. SP1 fixes these and other problems. In this way, SP1 makes Vista much more valuable to the biggest and most important audience there is: Those who have not yet upgraded to the best desktop operating system Microsoft has ever made. Folks, it just got better.

For the 100+ million people who have already upgraded to Windows Vista or purchased a new PC with Windows Vista preinstalled, SP1 is a major improvement as well, though the differences won't be as vast if you've simply accepted the default Automatic Updates configuration and allowed Windows Update to keep Vista up-to-date over the past year. These users--and I count myself among this crowd--will benefit from some of SP1's many subtle improvements, a list of small changes a mile long.

Day to day, of course, SP1 does not change the Vista value equation in the slightest. That is by design, and is as Microsoft always said it would be. Whether this is a good thing is open to debate, but Vista will stand on its own regardless, because the addition of SP1 does not a new OS make. Vista with SP1 is better than bare bones Vista, of course it is, but the foundation is not changing here. The improvements are evolutionary, not revolutionary. This, again, is as it should be.

SP1 doesn't fix all of Vista's problems and, more egregiously, it even introduces a few problems of its own. Bowing to competitors like Symantec, McAfee, and Google, Microsoft has actually harmed Vista in some ways in SP1, by allowing developers to access the previously impervious kernel in x64 versions of the OS and gouging out the innovative Instant Search UI that was so ahead of its time that competitors like Apple, Google, and others spent the past several years duplicating it in their own products and then claiming they invented it. Also, Microsoft's deployment plan for Vista SP1 is absurd, but that won't matter as 2008 progresses. That's a short-term bit of silliness.

Overall, Windows Vista Service Pack 1 is an excellent upgrade and an important milestone. It should erase any serious complaints about the OS and eliminate most deployment blockers. If you're running Vista, install it as soon as you can. If you're not, you've run out of excuses. Highly recommended.

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