What you can expect in Vista SP1

Microsoft has finally removed the wraps from its plans for Windows Vista Service Pack 1. What's in it? When will you be able to get your hand on it? Will it include a new search interface to address antitrust complaints? I've got answers to those questions and more.

After maintaining tight-lipped secrecy around the details of Windows Vista Service Pack 1, Microsoft has finally begun to release information about the long-awaited update. This morning, as my colleague Mary Jo Foley reported, Redmond made it official: Yes, SP1 does exist. Yes, it's currently being beta-tested by a small group of corporate partners and insiders. No, unless you're an invited beta tester (or willing to install bootleg bits from dodgy websites) you probably won't see it until after the new year.

I haven't been part of the insider beta program, so I can't provide any hands-on details about the service pack itself. But I have uncovered enough information to answer the questions you're likely to have about SP1:

What's in Service Pack 1?

Like every Microsoft-issued service pack, this one will be cumulative, rolling up every previous update and patch. The new stuff includes bug fixes, bug fixes, and more bug fixes, plus new drivers. SP1 is slated to include some updated administration tools (including improvements to the BitLocker Drive Encryption interface and to Remote Desktop capabilities). It also will add support for some new hardware standards, including boot capability on Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) machines and a new file system (exFAT) for flash drives and other removable media.

What's not in Service Pack 1?

There will be no obvious changes to the user interface, and the development effort has been targeted at minimizing regressions in application compatibility. In short, you most likely will need to look very closely to determine whether a Vista system has been upgraded to SP1.

Over the past few months, two features have been widely rumored to be due for release with SP1: One is a possible change to Vista's desktop search interface, driven by Google's antitrust complaint. The other is a set of changes to Windows Media Center code-named "Fiji." A sentence buried deep in the whitepaper detailing the collected changes in SP1 appears to spike rumors about both of those features:

Windows Vista SP1 will deliver improvements and enhancements to existing features that significantly impact customers, but it does not deliver substantial new operating system features. For example, the service pack improves the performance of the desktop shell, but it does not provide a new search user interface or a new version of Windows Media Center. [emphasis added]

Update 9:30AM PDT: A Microsoft spokesperson confirms that the basic search interface will remain unchanged in SP1 but that other search-related changes will indeed appear in SP1. Specifically:

  • Computer manufacturers and consumers will be able to select a default desktop search program similar to the way they currently select defaults for third-party web browsers and media players in Windows Vista.
  • Links to the default desktop search program will be provided on the Start menu and in Windows Explorer windows.
  • Microsoft will provide information to developers of third-party desktop search programs about how they can optimize their programs to minimize any performance problems.

When will the official SP1 beta be available?

"In a few weeks."

Who gets the beta?

Microsoft says the next SP1 beta will be released to "a moderate sized audience." Invitations have already gone out, and testers who've been accepted to the beta program have received confirmation via e-mail and online at Microsoft's Connect portal for beta programs. There's unlikely to be a public beta until a release candidate is available, although it's virtually certain that the code from the upcoming beta will leak onto public websites and spread via torrents within hours of its official release.

When will SP1 be released to the public?

According to the press release, "Microsoft is targeting first quarter of 2008 for Windows Vista SP1 but will collect customer feedback from our upcoming beta process before setting a final date." Knowledgeable observers don't expect that date to slip much. The code base for Vista SP1 is the same as Windows Server 2008. In a separate announcement today, Microsoft announced that Windows Server 2008 would release to manufacturing in the first quarter of 2008 and that the launch event scheduled for February 27, 2008, in Los Angeles is still on.

How big is the service pack going to be?

Big. Very big. For the beta release, you'll need 7GB of free disk space to install the x86 version and 12GB of free disk space for the x64 package. (Most of this space is for temporary files and for the Vista image-based installer.) For home users with a reliable Internet connection, Microsoft plans to offer an Express update option that should require only a 50MB download; the stand-alone installer, which includes support for all languages and all Vista editions, checks in at a hefty 1GB. The final release might be smaller, but not much, if history is any guide. As Microsoft acknowledges, "SP1 will change a significant number of files," with fixes incorporating feedback from Windows Error Reporting tools and from the Windows Server 2008 development cycle.

You mentioned bug fixes. What kind of bugs?

The official list of "reliability and performance enhancements" includes the following:

  • Improved reliability and compatibility of Windows Vista when used with newer graphics cards in several specific scenarios and configurations.
  • Improved reliability when working with external displays on a laptop.
  • Improved Windows Vista reliability in networking configuration scenarios.
  • Improved reliability of systems that were upgraded from Windows XP to Windows Vista.
  • Increased compatibility with many printer drivers.
  • Increased reliability and performance of Windows Vista when entering sleep and resuming from sleep.
  • Improves the speed of copying and extracting files.
  • Improves the time to become active from Hibernate and Resume modes.
  • Improves the performance of domain-joined PCs when operating off the domain; in the current release version of Windows Vista, users would experience long delays when opening the File dialog box.
  • Improves performance of Windows® Internet Explorer® 7 in Windows Vista, reducing CPU utilization and speeding JavaScript parsing.
  • Improves battery life by reducing CPU utilization by not redrawing the screen as frequently, on certain computers.
  • Improves the logon experience by removing the occasional 10-second delay between pressing CTRL-ALT-DEL and the password prompt displaying.
  • Addresses an issue in the current version of Windows Vista that makes browsing network file shares consume significant bandwidth and not perform as fast as expected.