Hands-on Vista SP1: Better but slower?

We've tested the final version of SP1, and we found some improvements and a potential holdup

The final version of Vista SP1 focuses on under-the-hood improvements to reliability, security and performance, with very few changes made to the interface or Vista's features. Think of it as a giant, glorified set of patches and fixes rather than a clear and visible change to the operating system.

Although Vista Service Pack 1 won't be available to the general public until sometime in March, I received a copy of the final code and put it through its paces. My verdict? Don't expect many surprises from SP1 -- think of it as a big, glorified set of fixes and patches rolled into one.

As I've written about in a review of a beta version of SP1, the service pack leaves just about all of the operating system's features intact and targets performance, reliability and security. One fix -- the death of the so-called Kill Switch -- will be welcomed by many, as I'll explain later.

One of the biggest benefits Microsoft touts for Vista SP1 is faster performance, notably the speed with which it copies files to local disks and across networks. But on my test machine, copying to local disks and across networks with Vista SP1 is generally slightly slower than pre-SP1 and lags far behind Windows XP.

It's not clear whether my results will bear out when compared to many machines. Microsoft says, in fact, that its internal testing shows speed improvements of up to 50 per cent when copying files. So be aware that what you get on your machine may be dramatically different from what I found on mine, or what Microsoft found on its machine.

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Installation of SP1 was straightforward and took a little over an hour. My PC rebooted multiple times and required no action on my part. At various points during installation, you'll be told that you're at Stage 1, Stage 2 or Stage 3 of a three-stage process, and you'll be told the percentage of that stage that still remains. In my installation, however, I found that I was given misleading information. For example, after I was told Stage 3 was complete, I got a message telling me that Stage 3 was 0 per cent complete. Still, given that you don't need to take any action on them, these misleading messages are no more than minor irritants.

One more minor irritant may happen when the installation is complete and you log in. You may be greeted, as I was, by a warning that there are "Multiple Security Problems with your Computer," even though I had no such problems before the SP1 install. Click the Security Center icon, and you'll be able to find out the source of the security problems. In my case, SP1 had shut off Windows Defender and User Account Control (no great loss, of course). From the Security Center, you can turn Windows Defender and User Account Control back on, if you'd like.

Right after installation, you may notice that your PC appears more sluggish than it had previously. That's because when you install SP1, all your SuperFetch data, which is used to speed up your PC, is cleared from your system. Over time, though, as you use SP1, your system will speed up as it begins to regather SuperFetch data.

Slower copying?

A persistent complaint many people have had about Vista has been the speed with which it copies files, both to a local machine and across a network. One of Microsoft's goals for SP1 was to speed up that copying. Tests on my PC, though, shows that (for one machine at least) copying appears to have slowed down compared to pre-SP1 and remains significantly slower than XP.

I created four test benchmarks using a dual-boot XP-Vista laptop with a 1.83-GHz Duo Core processor and 1GB of RAM. First, in XP, I copied one 256MB folder filled with 63 files and subfolders to a local disk and then to a network disk on another machine. Then, still in XP, I copied one 2.49GB file to a local disk and to a network disk on another machine. After that, I did the same tests for pre-SP1.

I then upgraded Vista to SP1 on the dual-boot machine, and performed the same tests. In all instances, I did the test several times before recording results, in case any caching was going on, or in case Vista's SuperFetch technology came into play. And I did each test at least three times to make sure the results were accurate.

I found that copying a large file -- 2.49GB -- to a local folder under SP1 was 20 per cent slower than performing the same operation in pre-SP1. Copying that same file to a network folder took essentially the same amount of time in pre-SP1 and Vista SP1. And copying a 256MB folder full of files to a local disk and to a network folder took essentially the same amount of time in each as well.

XP was three times as fast as both versions of Vista copying a folder of files to a local disk, and more than twice as fast as both versions of Vista when copying a folder of files to a network folder. XP was slightly slower than pre-SP1 when it came to copying a single 2.49GB file to a local folder, and slightly faster than Vista SP1. And XP was slower than both versions of Vista when it came to copying a single 2.49GB file to a network folder.

What numbers are we talking about here? Vista SP1 took 193 seconds to copy a 2.49GB file from one folder to another on a local machine; pre-SP1 took 161 seconds; and XP took 178 seconds. The following graph shows details.

Copying the single 2.49GB file to a network folder took essentially the same amount of time in SP1 and pre-SP1: 233 seconds in SP1 versus 237 seconds in pre-SP1. Both versions of Vista beat XP, which came in at 296 seconds -- the only test in which XP was slower than both SP1 and pre-SP1. The following graph shows details.

When it came to copying the 256MB folder (which was full of lots of smaller files, including multiple subfolders) Vista SP1 and pre-SP1 performed just about identically and dramatically slower than XP. Copying the folder to a local disk took 36 seconds in both versions of Vista, and only 12 seconds in XP. The following graph shows details.

Copying the folder to another machine on the network took 101 seconds in Vista SP1, 98 seconds in pre-SP1 and only 39 seconds in XP, as you can see in the following graph.

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Death of the Kill Switch

The change in Vista SP1 that has garnered the most publicity is the death of so-called Kill Switch (which Microsoft prefers to call "reduced functionality mode"). Currently (pre-SP1), if you don't activate a retail version of Vista after 30 days, or if you ignore a three-day grace period you're given after making so many hardware changes that Windows is no longer considered valid, your desktop turns black, the Start menu and desktop icons disappear, and you can only copy your data files, but you can't open them. In addition, after you use Internet Explorer for an hour, you're logged off.

In SP1, the Kill Switch in essence becomes a Nudge Switch. You'll be frequently reminded that you need to activate Windows and the desktop background will turn black. Try to change it to another background, and an hour later Windows will turn it black again. In addition, you won't be able to download signed drivers and optional updates via Windows Updates, although you'll still be able to get critical security updates. And you'll still be able to use Vista.

Why should you care about this if you've already validated your copy of Vista? The Kill Switch is part of Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) validation system, and that system has caused nightmares for people and corporations because of Microsoft glitches. In August 2007, many Vista and XP users found their Windows systems disabled by Microsoft because of a Microsoft WGA server glitch. The Kill Switch went into effect on many machines that had validated their version of Windows, and countless people no longer had access to their PCs. With SP1 and the death of the Kill Switch, that should no longer happen. That alone is reason enough to upgrade.

Tweaking the search

The only other notable visible change in Vista SP1 is the way it allows users to substitute an alternate search tool for the one built into Vista, and removes the Search link from the Start menu.

With SP1, you can use non-Vista party search technology, such as Google Desktop Search, as your default search, by choosing Start --> Default Programs --> Set your default programs.

Also, if you choose Start --> Default Programs --> Associate a file type or protocol with a specific program, you'll see a new entry in the protocol section, called Search. Use it to configure which program opens when you click on a file that uses the Windows Search protocol.

In addition, when you type a search term into the Start menu search box and results appear, the name of the category for the links to additional searches have changed from "See all results" pre-SP1, to "Search Everywhere" in SP1. The "Search the Internet" link, however, remains unchanged.

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An odd network bug

I did encounter one odd network bug in SP1, but as far as I know, it affects only my setup; I haven't heard about it anywhere else. On my home network, which uses a Linksys WRT54GX4 router, I can't connect to other Vista PCs from my SP1 system when I use wireless networking. I can, however, connect wirelessly to other XP PCs. And if I connect via Ethernet, I can connect to both Vista and XP PCs.

Equally odd is that I can ping other Vista machines from the SP1 machine without any problems. And I can also take remote control of another Vista PC, using Remote Desktop Connection. However, I can only take remote control of it if I establish a Remote Desktop Connection using the machine's IP address rather than its name.

Other changes

You'll find occasional cosmetic changes here and there in SP1. For example, BitLocker encryption lets you choose which drives to encrypt. In addition, the Disk Defragmenter (Control Panel --> System & Maintenance --> Defragment your hard drive) now lets you choose which volumes to defragment.

Aside from these, though, most changes are under the hood. Microsoft touts a variety of performance, security and stability improvements, as well as other plumbing changes. For example, SP1 supports the ExFAT format, a new format for flash-based devices that supports larger files and more files per directory than is currently possible. Microsoft also claims that SP1 is more stable than non-SP1 Vista and reduces system crashes. It also says that SP1 is more secure.

For a more complete list, see Microsoft's document Overview of Windows Vista SP1.

The bottom line

Sometime in March, you'll be faced with the decision of whether to upgrade to SP1 when it becomes available to the general public. Should you do it?

I'd say yes. The elimination of the Kill Switch alone is reason, by itself, to upgrade. If it's true that Vista will be more reliable and more secure under SP1, that's another good reason as well. If Microsoft is to be believed, most people will get performance benefits as well, although on my system, I found copying to be slower, rather than faster. Still, I'm keeping SP1 on my PC. The slowdown in file copying is a minor annoyance, and it's a small price to pay for ensuring that the Kill Switch will never go into effect.