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Review: Windows Vista SP1

Microsoft's Vista SP1 makes some strides over the initial version of the OS, but CMP Channel Test Center determines whether it's enough.

The CMP Channel Test Center can't recommend the product yet, as some technical issues have impeded Microsoft's delivery of Vista SP1 to market. As of now, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is still working out kinks in the distribution of Vista SP1 even though the final code began shipping to manufacturers earlier this month.

(One of the biggest problems is with a prerequisite update that must be downloaded and installed before a PC can upgrade from Vista to Vista SP1. Test Center reviewed a version of the software that did not require any prerequisite updates before installation could complete.)

The bottom line: after all the smoke clears, Microsoft has made significant improvements to Vista in key areas -- but has left enough room for improvement so that VARs will still have to question whether upgrading a customer from XP is the right way to go.

The SP1 software the Test Center reviewed is cumulative, and includes all previous updates. The update's changes are more subsurface rather than anything apparent in the interface. One of the more touted features by Microsoft is improved performance. Microsoft asserts SP1 provides better desktop shell performance than old-school Vista. Some enhancements include: speedier file copy and extraction, less time for the PC to activate from Hibernate/Sleep modes and removal of an irksome occasional 10-second delay between pressing CNTRL-ALT-DEL and the pop-up of the password prompt. In addition: increased compatibility with more printer drivers, more options for disk defrag and reduced CPU utilization (especially with IE7) are all improvements cited by the company.

So how did SP1 fare?

Testing was carried out on an HP rp5700 PC with dual core Pentium 1.8 GHz CPUs, 1 GB memory and a 75 GB hard drive. Comparison was done on this same box first with Windows Vista Ultimate and then with SP1 installed. The benchmark software used was PrimateLabs' GeekBench.

SP1 came bundled with a fresh install of the Vista OS. Installation took 30 minutes and required four reboots. The longest part of the install was the searching done online for any needed updates. Note: this was not a required step, but the dire warning Windows gave that failure to do so may result in a botched install made this a step more of a "do this next" rather than a recommendation.

One of the more immediate changes was reduction in time to open programs, even native ones like Windows Media Center. With original Vista, the average time to open applications was about 5 seconds, reduced when the Aero desktop settings were disabled (the animated busy icon seemed to add some lethargy.) After SP1 was installed and even with Aero enabled, response time navigating throughout the desktop and programs was improved.

File copying sped up significantly. A 1GB file was copied from a shared folder on an XP client and another Vista client to the non-service packed Vista test drive. The time to copy averaged four minutes. With SP1, the same copy operation averaged 1 minute.

Network browsing also improved. Vista, XP and Server 2008 machines were all easily discovered. Accessing shared folders was done quickly between the clients, with very little wait time.

Benchmark results appeared to be consistent with findings in performance improvement. Before the service pack was applied, Geekbench's processor and memory usage overall score totaled 1425. This score upped to 2010 after SP1 was applied. CPU utilization while using IE7 and Office programs averaged 47 percent pre-SP1 and 25 percent after install.

Power management and restart times were also tested. The time it took for Vista SP1 to resume from sleep was seconds yet comparable to the time it took before the Service Pack. There was no delay in the time between pressing CNTRL-ALT-DEL and the password prompt appearing. However, the time for the PC to come back from several forced restarts took an average 30 seconds more than before SP1 was installed. Also, after service pack, the password input field curiously flashed onto the screen before the rest of the login screen appeared.

Greater control has been issued to the user when it comes to disk defrag. Vista SP1 gives the option to defrag individual volumes.

It seems that the driver issues are still not completely worked out. SP1 did not recognize the display adapter on the test machine, a pretty basic integrated adapter at that. Standard VGA adapters were installed with pre-SP1 Vista, and the service pack did not upgrade them either. The appropriate drivers were installed once an online search for them was initiated. A networked printer was automatically discovered and identified, but Vista did not have the driver for it.

ChannelWeb reported last week that Microsoft had confirmed the issue of Vista SP1 blocking some third-party applications including products from Trend Micro, Zonelabs, BitDefender, and Novell. The Test Center downloaded an evaluation copy of Trend Micro's Internet Security 2008, to see if this was the case with the SP1 release being tested. The installation process froze about 1/3 of the way downloading. Download was restarted and the install was underway. An immediate warning message popped up stating that there were known compatibility issues with the product. The window gave the options: check for solutions online, run the program or cancel. Checking for the solution online gave a link to Trend Micro's diagnostic tool to download, except there was no apparent link to the download.

The "Run Program" option was chosen instead. After install, the software would not load nor could the management console be opened. The product update that Trend Micro claims fixes the compatibility issue was then downloaded. The install of the update removed the previous eval version to Internet Security 2008 and forced a reboot. When the test machine restarted, the new updated version's installation wizard commenced. However, a serial number was required to complete the install (no number was given with initial eval download). It appears that the update version is not available to download for evaluation. Attempting to test this fix was an exercise in futility, and this is with a known compatibility issue.

Overall, improvements in performance were noted with SP1. Perhaps the more significant changes are the ones in security and administration. RDP files are signed in SP1, which improves security using remote access. BitLocker can encrypt additional local volumes not just the system volume. There is also an inclusion of APIs designed to work with third-party security software and malware detection programs that can run on x64 version of Vista and not compromise the security of the 64-bit kernel.

The general conclusion is that SP1 did improve performance, arguably to a level pretty much achieved with XP SP2. The enhanced security features make the upgrade to SP1 desirable perhaps from an Enterprise-level viewpoint, but the decision to upgrade at an SMB level may require more analysis case-by-case. SMBs will have to weigh the cost of install, training and possible incompatibility issues with third-party applications and devices against the performance improvements with SP1 and analyze if Vista SP1 is right for their client base.

At least with an ambiguous mid-March release date, there is time to decide.

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