Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system has taken some serious flack but will the upcoming service pack be able to right Microsoft's wrongs?

The beta version of Microsoft's Vista SP1 was made available to the public earlier this month and, after informally testing it for a couple of days, I find my PC is working more reliably. In fact, some tasks especially file copying, take less time. But I was hoping for more out of SP1, such as bigger system performance gains and fixes for Vista annoyances including the often criticised User Account Control feature.

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And if you are waiting for major improvements to switch to Vista, you'd better hope that Microsoft's SP1 development team goes into overdrive before the service pack's official release and gives you more compelling reasons to make the jump to the OS. It was quite clear in the SP1 release I looked at, that Vista has undergone no major overhauls. By the way, Microsoft said SP1 will ship sometime in the first quarter although sources recently said SP1 would appear in the next few weeks.

Key features in Vista Service Pack 1 Release Candidate Refresh (the downloadable beta's official name) include improved reliability, security, and performance. In its description of SP1, Microsoft notes many tweaks are buried deep in the shell of the OS and include hard-to-quantify improvements. For example, support for a couple of emerging standards - Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) and Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT) - and better compatibility with third-party software and PC peripherals.

SP1 Boosts Reliability, Security, and Performance

On the reliability front, Microsoft says SP1 reduces the time it takes to boot and power down a Vista PC as well as the time it takes a PC to wake from hibernation mode, or to snap back after a photo screensaver has been running. Also fixed is the occasional 10 second delay between pressing Ctrl, Alt, Del at bootup and the appearance of the password prompt.

Other fixes address the mysterious problem of how browsing network files eat up more network bandwidth than expected, compared to earlier version of Windows. And lastly, Microsoft says it has devoted considerable effort to improving file and folder management. SP1 claims to cut the time it takes to extract files to and from a compressed (zipped) folder - but won't say by how much.

However Microsoft does make some specific claims about performance gains. It says the service pack reduces the time it takes to copy files from a remote non-Windows Vista system to a SP1 system by 45 percent. According to Microsoft, a 50 percent gain is also seen when copying files from a remote SP1 system over a LAN to a local SP1 system.

Microsoft's TechNet has a full list of notable changes in Windows Vista SP1.

Next Page: How does the Vista SP1 beta perform in an informal evaluation?

Microsoft's Vista operating system seen for some serious flack but will the upcoming service pack be able to right Microsoft’s wrongs?

My Informal Tests: In my informal evaluation of the Vista SP1 beta, installation on my system was time-consuming, taking nearly three hours for downloading and installing a couple of new (and required) pre-SP1 updates; and downloading and installing SP1 itself (which involves several reboots). Microsoft doesn't recommend installing the beta SP1 on your mission-critical PC, and I couldn't agree more.

Many of Microsoft's promised performance gains were negligible on my machine. I ran a number of tests before I installed SP1 and after. The only tasks that were noticeably speedier were those that involved transferring files.

Transferring a 585MB folder (116 files) over a wired (ethernet) network from a Linux-based network-attached storage device to my Vista desktop was 30 percent faster post-SP1. Moving a 4.6GB folder (972 files) from my PC's C to D drives went 11 percent faster. Extracting a compressed zipped archive took only slightly less time.

I wasn't able to test Microsoft's SP1 improvements that pertained to improved compatibility. The closest I came suggested SP1 could have an adverse impact on select software programs. When I installed SP1 on my test machine I found that at least one program stopped working and produced a software driver error message. I asked Microsoft for comment on this problem, but no one has gotten back to me.

Microsoft did deliver on a promise to fix a PC hibernation problem that wouldn't allow some PCs to stay asleep. SP1 seems to have cleared up that issue for me.

Ho-Hum Release Candidate

Perhaps what is most notable about this SP1 release is what it doesn't include. Vista SP1 delivers no new features comparable to those in XP's first service pack.

And there's so much to fix. Where is a much-needed update to Windows Genuine Advantage? How about an update to Vista search? (By default the OS indexes only the folders found in your username folder, including Documents, Pictures, and Music.) An interface update to Vista's Sidebar and its RSS reader and other widgets would also be nice.

To Microsoft's credit, it is addressing some Vista complaints outside of the SP1 release process. For example Microsoft now offers greater support for virtualisation with Vista Home Basic and Home Premium. But improving Vista performance on low-end PCs remains the elephant in the SP1 room. Throw enough hardware at Vista and it runs almost like a champ. SP1 would have been more meaningful if it had addressed performance on low-end PCs.

Given the time it takes to install, Microsoft's warning about SP1 not being ready yet for prime time (regular use), and its current underwhelming list of improvements, I don't recommend this beta of SP1 for general PC users. Wait for the final version.