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Windows Vista SP1 beta lacks 'wow'

Microsoft downplays the importance of first Windows Vista service pack, urging users to adopt the new operating system now, not later.

If you've been waiting for Windows Vista SP1 to come out before you make the leap to the new operating system, don't, says Microsoft.

Microsoft's Pete McKiernan, a senior product manager for Windows, told CNET that one of the purposes of a service pack is to include all the patches that have been released in one package. Windows Vista SP1 will have that, but little else for the home user.

Unlike the buzz surrounding Windows XP SP2, Windows Vista SP1 won't include a new version of Internet Explorer, and won't include any new features that are considered must haves. Most of the enhancements within Windows Vista SP1 are under the hood and for enterprise customers. In short, Windows Vista SP1 lacks "wow."

Currently, Microsoft is beta-testing the Windows Vista Service Pack 1 on about 12,000 machines worldwide. As the beta continues, more users will be invited, but the numbers will not match the estimated 5 million that tried the operating system prior to RTM (release to manufacturing) last summer. CNET obtained an official copy of the Windows Vista SP1 beta for review.

What surprised us is that Microsoft is really downplaying this service pack. Why? Because, unlike Windows XP, Windows Vista includes automatic updates, so for most users the Windows Vista SP1 release won't be dramatic. At CNET, we found it took about two hours to install SP1 on a newly installed Windows Vista machine, in part because we had to bring the operating system up to date with various patches and updates before we could install the upgrade. See our slide show for more on the installation process.

What is included in the "upgrade"? McKiernan called out two features expected to be within Windows Vista SP1, neither is likely to excite consumers already on the fence about Windows Vista. One is an improvement to the BitLocker drive encryption system, available only in the Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista. Under SP1, BitLocker will be able to encrypt multiple drive volumes; all drive volumes, that is, except for USB drives.

A second feature touted by Microsoft is support for emerging hardware and standards. Windows Vista SP1 will support Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI), Intel standard for the interface between software, the operating system and firmware, and Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT), a new Microsoft file system that may eliminate the need for defragmentation in the future.

McKiernan categorized other expected changes within Windows Vista SP1 as:

Security enhancements: There is nothing here that the desktop consumer will notice. Under the hood, Microsoft will provide more opportunities for third-party security vendors to communicate their product status with the Windows Security Center. In x64-bit editions, third-party security vendors can work with the kernel patch protection, a source of controversy last summer. Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) files will be signed. The Windows Pseudo-Random Number Generator will have Elliptical Curve Cryptography (ECC) added. And BitLocker will add multifactor authentication combining Trusted Platform Module (TPM) with a Startup key stored on a USB device, meaning that the startup key must match the hardware you are trying to use.

Reliability enhancements: Microsoft has been analyzing crashes of Windows Vista reported by users and will be making improvements. In particular, more compatibility with newer graphics cards and printers; greater reliability with extended displays on a laptop, various networking scenarios, in systems that were upgraded from Windows XP, and when Windows Vista enters sleep or resumes from sleep.

Performance enhancements: Microsoft says SP1 will offer performance boosts including the speed to copy and extract files, time to become active from Hibernate and Resume, CPU utilization within Internet Explorer 7 and CPU utilization in laptops, thereby reducing battery drain, and shortening the time when browsing network shares.

None of these is a compelling reason to wait for Windows Vista SP1. Users who have automatic updates turned on will have a significantly shorter time when upgrading to Windows Vista SP1 than users who don't have it turned on or are planning to upgrade or purchase Windows Vista when SP1 becomes available. That appears to be Microsoft's message with this release: The more you use Windows Vista, the better it gets. So why not get started today?

In short, judging by what we've seen, don't expect SP1 to be the impetus to get you or your corporation to upgrade to Windows Vista.