A little more than one year after its release, Windows Vista will receive its first service pack update in March. Microsoft says the pack will offer better compatibility with third-party hardware, increased reliability, tighter security, and better performance. But unlike the last Windows Service Pack release, Windows XP SP2--which offered users a new Windows Firewall, an improved Automatic Updates feature, and a pop-up ad blocker for Internet Explorer--Windows Vista SP1 is largely a code update, devoid of new eye candy, and very light on "must-have" features for home users. Most of the features touted by Microsoft are for the Business, Enterprise, or Ultimate editions of the operating system. Our advice: Be patient, and don't download it once it becomes available. Wait until Windows Vista SP1 is offered to your PC via Microsoft's Automatic Updates service.
Windows Vista SP1 will arrive one of three ways. Most users will automatically receive the update via Windows Update. Microsoft says that users will only receive the changes specific for their computer to cut down on network traffic and download times. Users with limited or no Internet connectivity, or who need to update more than one PC, will be able to download a complete image of Windows Vista SP1 via DVD. Volume license customers (enterprises) will receive an integrated DVD media package for installation on new PCs.
Before installing SP1, all users running Windows Vista RTM (that is, if you bought your computer with Vista preinstalled) will need to install three updates from Microsoft. Microsoft's Windows Update will automatically detect and install these updates prior to the release of Windows Vista SP1. Two of these updates increase the success rate for installing Windows Vista SP1; one is necessary only if you have Windows Vista Enterprise or Windows Vista Ultimate installed.
While all this sounds complicated, Microsoft says it has learned from Windows XP SP2, an upgrade that sometimes stranded users with long, overnight downloads. Windows Vista is modular, thus the upgrade will download only the bites of code necessary for your specific system. If you have enabled Automatic Updates, in theory, you should have a much shorter download and installation of the upgrade than someone who hasn't kept up with the numerous updates since Windows Vista's release. Despite the many changes within the code, Windows Vista SP1 does not change the basic hardware requirements for running the different editions of Windows Vista.
Using a disc provided by Microsoft, we found the upgrade of Windows Vista to SP1 on a typical Acer Travelmate required about 1 hour. During that time, the computer was unusable and automatically rebooted several times. A display informed us exactly where the install was in terms of overall progress (for example, "Configuring update, stage 1 of 3, 34 percent complete").
Should you, for any reason, want to uninstall this upgrade, Microsoft allows you to do so, although the three preinstallation updates cannot be removed.
Where Windows XP SP2 introduced the Windows Security Center, and changed the existing Windows Firewall, Windows Vista SP1 introduces almost no visible change to your desktop. There are no new features to view, with almost all of the nearly 300 changes occurring under the hood, and mostly intended for Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions.
Specific reliability improvements include the prevention of data loss while ejecting NT file system file-system-formatted removable media; enhancements to TCP/IP Version 6; improved driver sleep and wake-up times; improved Meeting Space connections; improved Remote Assistance applications; and it includes Encrypting File System in the Windows Vista file-backup set.
For performance, Microsoft says SP1 uses less bandwidth when browsing network shares, and automatically selects between wireless and wired when more than one is offered. There are also many tweaks and improvements in ReadyDrive (requires the use of special hybrid drives) and ReadyBoost (requires special USB drives), and SuperFetch (requires a specific amount of RAM). As a result, users currently running Windows SuperFetch will notice, after installing Windows Vista SP1, their system is slower. Microsoft says that's because SP1 erases the existing SuperFetch data. As new data is collected, the system will respond "within a few days," Microsoft says.