Vista Service Pack 1: We've Got the Beta

Vista Service Pack beta hints at below the surface improvements.

Our copy of the new Windows Vista Service Pack 1 beta - the x86 version - arrived today, and I've just started to put the long-anticipated update through its paces. The beta is version 0.275.

Installation

I tried the beta on four notebooks so far, and experienced varying installation times. According to Microsoft, typical load times for the final version should range from 30 to 60 minutes. Microsoft also says that certain hardware configurations could increase the install time, and that the company is aware of and working on some bugs that could extend the install time to between 90 minutes and two hours.

In one timed test, I found it took one hour and seven minutes (including three reboots) to upgrade an HP Compaq 8710p loaded with Windows Vista Business. The HP system was running a 2.2-GHz Core 2 Duo T7500 CPU, 2GB of RAM, and NVidia Quadro NVS 320M graphics.

In more informal tests, I observed that the shortest install time happened with a system that lacked the vendor-installed anti-virus software. However, we have not been able to confirm whether the lack of anti-virus software was responsible for the faster SP1 load time.

That it takes a while for SP1 to load shouldn't be surprising. Microsoft says you should have 7GB of free space before starting the installation (some of which will be reclaimed after the installation). The install file itself is expected to be a 50MB download via Windows Update when it is finalized.

For the first 22 minutes of the HP Compaq 8710p's SP1 beta install, the system was prepping for the actual installation, and I could have accessed other system functions if I chose to do so. However, after that finished the install took over the PC. All I could do then was wait and watch the message saying that the service pack installation was under way.

I was frustrated by the beta's install screens. I didn't like that I had no timeline indicator, to show either the progress of the install or how much longer it would take to complete the install. Of course, I've seen such indicators that were so far off course that they were useless, but having nothing to go by was just as annoying.

What's Improved

As discussed earlier, many of the changes in this service pack are not going to be obvious to a casual user. For instance, when you first boot up, it's not likely that you'll see any notable interface changes.

Instead, Microsoft says the service pack beta has improved stability, performance, and reliability when reactivating from Hibernate and Resume modes, greater device driver support, increased security, and added support for new standards like Extended File Allocation Table (intended to enhance mobile flash storage, not desktop PCs).

In the information that arrived with today's beta, Microsoft says: SP1 "will improve the speed of copying and extracting files." The software giant is vague about exactly what kind of copying and extracting might benefit from SP1.

So, I tried several tests to see what I could find involving those functions.

One type of file copy that (so far, at least) didn't seem to derive any benefit from the service pack updates: Copying image files from a Secure Digital card to the PC.

I copied 562 JPEG images (1.90GB total) from a Kingston 2GB SD Card to the HP Compaq 8710p's hard drive. In informal tests I did before I installed the SP1 beta, the time to perform this task averaged 8 minutes, 14 seconds (I rebooted the system between time trials).

After installing SP1, this task averaged 8 minutes, 49 seconds - more than 30 seconds longer.

Another informal test I tried was copying multiple files into a disk image file using Nero 7 Ultra. I did this on an Acer Aspire 5630 notebook (with a 1.6-Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo T5200 and 1GB of RAM). Here, I saw an improvement of about 7 percent over the pre-Service Pack 1 beta results - a statistically significant number. Based on this result, I look forward to seeing what other performance enhancements we might see with further testing.

In my informal boot time tests on the HP Compaq notebook, I saw a slight improvement - about 20 seconds: 1 minute, 51 seconds pre-update, 1 minute, 33 seconds post-update. I did not try this test repeatedly to see if the results were consistent over time.

Stay Tuned

As more early testers - myself included - get experience with Windows Vista Service Pack 1 beta, I expect we'll have a better handle on what this service pack offers.

We'll continue to post updates on the Vista Service Pack 1 beta as the beta period progresses. In the meantime, those of you waiting for Service Pack 1 to become final before you make the jump to using Vista, sit tight: Service Pack 1 isn't slated to ship until the first quarter of 2008.

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Yardena Arar

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