News Ticker

With service pack Vista may finally be ready for prime-time

It’s been just over a year since Windows Vista was released to consumers and since then the response has been tepid. Microsoft trumpets it as “the fastest-selling operating system in history, with more than 100 million licenses sold.” But the vast majority of those copies were bundled with new PCs. Most PC makers stopped supplying Windows XP on consumer systems soon after Vista was released. But because of consumer complaints about software and hardware compatibility, slow performance and system unreliability, Dell and other manufacturers retreated and started offering customers a choice of XP or Vista. According to NPD Group analyst Chris Swenson, the vast majority of consumers are nevertheless buying machines with Vista, though enterprise customers still buy more machines with XP than with Vista.

If Microsoft is anywhere near accurate in its claim of 100 million copies out there, Vista is having a lot of impact that, for better or worse, makes it a very important piece of software.

Which leads me to the good news. Microsoft has finalized the code on SP1 – the long awaited first “service pack” for Vista. A service pack is a collection of fixes, many of which are already on millions of PCs because Microsoft pushes out fixes as they release them via its automated Windows Update service. (If you have Vista, type “Windows Update” in the search panel of the Start menu to configure updates.)

Thanks to SP1, Vista may finally be ready for prime time, causing me to wonder whether this past year was nothing but a giant “beta test” posing as released software. The service pack won’t be available to the public until mid-March at the earliest. Then, any Vista user whose machine is configured for automatic updates is supposed to get it automatically. The company sent me an early “RTM” (release to manufacturer) copy for testing. I’ve been running SP1 for only about 24 hours, and I’m not equipped to put it through exhaustive testing. But both my desktop and notebook machines do appear to be a bit more stable, less buggy and – in some situations – a little faster. I don’t notice any speed improvement when it comes to start up and shut down but that depends on the software you’re running. The more you have to load on start up and unload on shut down, the longer it will take. Performance also depends on your hardware setup.

I have noticed that Vista now goes to sleep and wakes up more reliably. Before, it was hit or miss whether the machine would go into a sleep mode as programmed. And, like a bad anesthesiologist, Vista would sometimes put the PC to sleep but fail to wake it up, requiring the user to turn the machine off and back on again, which defeats the purpose. Because of that a lot of people turn sleep mode off, which winds up wasting an enormous amount of electricity. If Microsoft did nothing but fix this one serious problem, it will have done a lot to combat global warming, considering the number of machines that will be running Vista over the next several years.

Microsoft has also made some performance improvements, including with file copy. If you copy a large number of files from, say, a thumb drive to your hard drive, you may notice an improvement. I didn’t get out a stop watch, but Microsoft claims a 25 percent boost in speed when copying 200 5-megabyte photos from one folder to another.

Regardless of when you upgrade to SP1, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have the latest device drivers for your printer, sound card, display adapter and other peripherals. Bad or out-of-date drivers can be major causes of system instability.