FAQ: Vista SP1 is ready -- or is it?

Crucial service-pack code wraps, but when do users get it? That's the question

Just a little more than a year after its first crack at Vista, Microsoft Corp. today announced that Vista 2.0 -- officially Service Pack 1, or SP1 -- has gone final -- just as had been rumored over the weekend. Officially it's gone RTM, which is Microsoft-speak for "release to manufacturing." That's code for done, as in signed off, as in shipped out for duplication and distribution.

So, after seven months of speculation about whether there would even be a service pack for Vista, then five-and-change more months in testing of one sort or another, SP1 is here.

Or is it?

That's the biggest SP1 question on users' minds, but not the only one, not by a long shot. We'll try to answer the most immediate questions here, but we're sure there will be much more to cover soon.

For now, though, what with the odd release schedule, this will have to do.

Can I get it today?

Nope. Next question.

Super. So when?

Next month. Maybe.

According to Mike Nash, a vice president in Microsoft's Windows product management group, SP1 won't hit the company's download center until mid-March, the same time that it's offered -- but not automatically downloaded -- to users through Windows Update.

There's a kicker, however. In his post to the company's Vista blog, Nash essentially said that while SP1 has gone RTM, it's not really finished. "Our beta testing identified an issue with a small set of device drivers. These drivers do not follow our guidelines for driver installation, and as a result, some beta participants who were using Windows Vista and updated to Service Pack 1 reported issues with these devices."

Microsoft's solution, apparently, is to a) hold off delivering SP1 for another six weeks to, as Nash put it, "[give] us time to work with some of our hardware partners to make adjustments to the installation process for the affected drivers," and b) hand over SP1 only to users whose PCs don't have any of the aforementioned -- but not yet specified -- drivers.

The following month -- that's April for anyone counting -- Microsoft will begin pushing SP1 to users automatically via Windows Update.

OK, we lied. Maybe you'll get it in April. Nash again: "That said, any system that Windows Update determines has a driver known to not update successfully will not get SP1 automatically. As updates for these drivers become available, they will be installed automatically by Windows Update, which will unblock these systems from getting Service Pack 1."

Download Center mid-March Five-language pack
Windows Update mid-March* Five-language pack
Windows Update mid-April** Five-language pack
Unknown April 36-language pack

* Offered as an optional download, not downloaded and installed automatically; only offered to users without blocking drivers

** Downloaded and installed automatically, but only to users without blocking drivers
Why can't I have SP1 today?

Microsoft is blaming hardware makers and their drivers, which is, as far as we know, a first.

"We're taking the next month or so to continue our work of identifying as many of these devices as possible," Nash said after explaining the unusual rollout of SP1 that will give the update to some, but not all, users, depending on what drivers are installed on the PC.

Which drivers block SP1?

Microsoft isn't saying.

How do I get it, assuming I can?

Consumers and businesses that don't manage updates from the server will receive SP1 via Windows Update (or Microsoft Update, the alternate that adds in Office updates), just as with any monthly security update or one of the end-of-the-month nonsecurity fixes that Microsoft has taken to releasing.

Systems managed with Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) will receive the SP1 update, assuming the IT staff approves the upgrade. But note that WSUS has trouble with extra-large files and apparently must be updated with a hot fix, according to this recent blog from Microsoft.

Other IT managers, however, will probably use the stand-alone installers -- Microsoft is offering two, one with just five language packs, the other with 36 -- to push the update to their users. Those will be available from Microsoft's Download Center.

How big is Vista SP1?

The short answer: bigger than it was six months ago. Then, Microsoft pegged the package at 50MB that would be delivered via Windows Update and Windows Server Update Services. That has grown to approximately 65MB. (In comparison, Windows XP SP2 weighed in at a hefty 266MB.)

The stand-alone service pack installers designed for businesses are considerably larger: about 550MB for the version that comes with all 36 language packs, approximately 450MB for the edition with just five packs (English, German, Japanese, French and Spanish).

New PC installations, of course, will be accompanied by a slipstreamed DVD with the new bits integrated into Vista RTM, so size, ironically, doesn't matter there.

What if I don't want SP1?

Consumers and businesses using Windows Update who have Automatic Updates set to "Install updates automatically (recommended)" will automatically receive SP1 -- it will both download and install without any user action -- starting in April. (That's assuming the destination PC doesn't have any of the blocking drivers on it.) So that setting must be changed to block SP1.

Either the "Download updates, but let me choose whether to install them" or "Check for updates, but let me choose whether to download and install them" settings will work. The latter, however, will prevent the 65MB or so download from tying up bandwidth. To decline SP1 and remove it from future update lists, right-click it and select "Hide update."

Bigger businesses, however, can deploy the blocking tool Microsoft posted in early December to keep SP1 from reaching their PCs. The blocker, which comes in three flavors -- an executable, a script and a group-policy template -- will prevent SP1 from installing for only 12 months from what the company has termed "general availability." However, when that clock starts is unknown, since the actual rollout date of SP1 is confusing at best and, at worst, incredibly murky.

(The same tool can be used to block both Windows XP SP3 -- which is slated for release sometime in the first half of 2008 -- and Windows Server 2003 SP2. The former will be blocked for 12 months from the date of general availability, but the latter is barred only through next month.)

Windows Service Pack Blocker Tool kit can be downloaded from here.

I want SP1. But what's in it?

Microsoft spells it all out in a change log-style document posted on its TechNet site. It's a must read.

Six months ago, the company broke down the contents of SP1 into three categories -- reliability and performance updates, administrative improvements, and new support for some newer standards -- but the company has expanded that list to include application compatibility and interoperability improvements, as well as several items that should come into play once Windows Server 2008 rolls out.

Among the bits that Microsoft has trumpeted loudest are performance improvements in copying files and browsing network shares, minor speed increases in resuming from sleep or hibernation, better luck connecting computers via ad hoc wireless links, and a reduction in the number of crashes.

Here's one interesting claim: "Early SP1 tests show Microsoft more than doubled the mean number of hours between 'disruptions' as compared to RTM." Microsoft didn't define "disruptions," but we assume they mean work-stopping crashes and lockups, maybe even slowdowns so dramatic that a reboot is the best bet.

By definition, SP1 also includes all the updates, patches and nonpatches that have been released between Vista going RTM late last year and January 2008. All the security patches relevant to Vista through the Jan. 8 update batch are tucked in here, for instance.

For more information on the specific changes in SP1, watch for our next FAQ, which will detail some of the more interesting update angles.

Is there anything I have to do before installing SP1?

There are three prerequisite updates that must be in place before SP1 can be downloaded and installed. The three files were pushed through Windows Update during last month's regular security session on Jan. 8, so users who had Automatic Updates set to automatically download and install should already have them. If they're not installed, SP1's process takes care of them for users, but it adds time and multiple reboots to the deal.

Some Vista users were incorrectly fed one of the three updates in January. Then, Microsoft sent a fix for BitLocker, the full-drive encryption technology bundled with the premium versions, to everyone, including PCs running Vista Home Basic and Home Premium. But Microsoft said there was no harm and thus no foul.

Oh, and yeah, about those blocking drivers -- there's not much users can do there, at least according to Microsoft's Nash, who essentially told everyone to just sit tight and wait it out. "As updates for these drivers become available, they will be installed automatically by Windows Update, which will unblock these systems from getting Service Pack 1. The result is that more and more systems will automatically get SP1, but only when we are confident they will have a good experience."

Why all the fuss about a service pack?

Although Microsoft claims that Vista has done a 100 million-copy business in its first year, the buzz -- especially in the past six months -- has been more about what's wrong with the operating system than what's right. SP1 is an opportunity to bring back the buzz, or at least stem some of the complaints, a fact that Microsoft tacitly acknowledged in both the early-rather-than-later release and in a presentation it recently used to tout the update.

In that presentation, titled "It's A Great Time To Take a Look at Windows Vista," Microsoft ticked off the improvements in SP1 and argued that the service pack "addresses key feedback received from our customers" and "benefits from a year's worth of improvements made by our hardware and software partners." That sounds like a pitch to come back for a second look.

And if talk of the next version of Windows -- dubbed Windows 7 for now -- is on target, and the follow-on to Vista appears next year or even 2010, the Vista clock is ticking. That makes getting SP1 out the door even more important, since like it or not, a lot of customers -- corporate ones in particular -- have put off Vista until at least the appearance of the first service pack.

Sure, those customers have already paid, or most of them have, for Vista with licensing agreements such as Software Assurance. But unless they move to Vista and use what they paid for, the chance is that the next time the agreement comes around, they'll take a pass.

Vista, who cares? What I want to know is what's up with the next service pack for Windows XP.

Microsoft has continued to keep XP SP3 so low on the radar it's positively flying in the grass. It has released several builds to testers, one to the general public in December 2007, but the slated ship date remains evasive -- sometime before the end of June, Microsoft continues to say.

The latest from the company on XP SP3 is this: "We are targeting 1H [first half] 2008 for the release of XP SP3 RTM, though our timing will always be based on customer feedback as a first priority."

Truth be told, we figure that Microsoft wishes that XP would just go away already, and make way for Vista. But customers, we suspect, won't let that happen. Since we last FAQed Vista, Microsoft gave XP a five-month reprieve by extending its availability to resellers and at retail through June 30, 2008, rather than the original cutoff date of Jan. 31.

Stay tuned. We'll FAQ Windows XP SP3 when the time is right. Or ripe.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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