Observations and Closing Thoughts
As far as the Vista user experience is concerned, users shouldn’t expect any significant changes with SP1. In this respect Vista SP1 is much like any other Windows service pack, rather than being another XP SP2. To that extent if you threw a pre-SP1 system and a post-SP1 system in front of us, we’d need to do some low-level benchmarking to identify which one was using SP1. In day-to-day use, the difference is not obvious outside of the specific improvements we’ve talked about.
For those curious about how long the SP1 installation process takes, Microsoft has said it will take anywhere between 20 minutes to over an hour. Some of this boils down to simple hard drive performance, with slower drives taking longer to update all of the files SP1 patches. Given our own installation efforts, we suspect that there are other factors that are non-obvious - in other words, your mileage may vary. In general Vista x64 will take longer to patch than Vista x32 due to the additional files that need to be patched under Vista x64 (e.g. there are a number of files and libraries that come in 32-bit and 64-bit versions). On our official test system we clocked Vista x64 at 33.5 minutes to install from start to finish, while a laptop took just shy of an hour. You’ll definitely want to go find something else to do for a bit while Vista is patching, and if you're running an ultraportable laptop with a 1.8" hard drive you will very likely break the one hour threshold.
One thing that is unfortunate for Microsoft with SP1 is that there is a good chance that system performance immediately following the patching process will be lower than it was prior to patching. As part of the installation process the SuperFetch and ReadyBoost subsystems are purged of all caches and learned behaviors, effectively reverting a patched system to that of a brand-new untrained system. Vista does not take long to retrain itself, and Microsoft notes the process can take a couple of days (we were back to perceived normal within a day), but nevertheless a lot of people are going to be thrown off by things such as longer application load times immediately following the patch.
Finally, coming into SP1 we heard some concerns about application and driver compatibility. While we cannot test everything, we have not run into any new issues with SP1. We have heard within the last day that a small number of systems are having an issue with one of the SP1 pre-patches (patches that are required prior to installing SP1) causing an infinite reboot sequence, but we have not experienced this first hand, nor do we have an accurate idea of how large the affected “small” group of users is, given the echo chamber effect on the Internet. We cannot recall a Windows service pack that didn’t break at least a handful of Windows installations, so this could simply be par for the course; it’s hard to say at this point.
At the end of the day, we don’t have much of anything bad to say about SP1 outside of the “fix” for displaying the amount of installed memory on 32-bit systems, so our recommendation is that all Vista users to install SP1 once it becomes available to the public at large. It won’t knock most people’s socks off, but the file and network performance improvements are long overdue and will be noticeable for most users. Ultimately, any user who has felt slighted by the poor copy performance of Vista will find relief in SP1, as will anyone whose pet-issue has specifically been fixed in Vista SP1. Anyone else who didn’t like Vista for other reasons will be no more impressed by SP1 than they were by the original version; there are a few quirks that should have been resolved in SP1 that were not.
Compared to where we were a year ago, our general recommendation for Vista is unchanged. We are however impressed with the progress of the x64 versions of Vista over the past year, after feeling like it was lagging behind Vista x86 from beta up through the release version of Vista. Vista x64 is now clearly on par with Vista x86 and we have no concerns about its compatibility or performance. There are still good reasons to stick with Vista x86, such as compatibility with specific applications and Vista x64’s higher memory usage due to WoW64, but these are the only reasons. A year ago we recommended using Vista x86 unless you specifically needed Vista x64; now we’re comfortable making the opposite recommendation of running Vista x64 unless you have a specific reason to stick with Vista x86.
Finally, for those Windows users still sticking with XP, they too will be getting Microsoft's long-overdue XP SP3 in the very near future. We’ll be bringing a review of that to you as soon as it goes gold later this quarter, along with a fully up to date performance comparison between Vista and XP to better illustrate what little gap remains between the two operating systems. The list of changes isn’t nearly as far-reaching as Vista SP1, but there are a couple of interesting items on the list. (Ed: It will also be nice to not install over 100 patches/updates/etc. after a clean XP SP2 install.) Stay tuned for that in the coming weeks.