FAQ: How to get Vista SP1

The long-awaited OS update from Microsoft arrives, but can you get it?

After refusing to let most users have Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) for weeks, Microsoft on Tuesday finally said everyone could have it.

Well, almost everyone.

The details of who gets SP1 now and how — and who doesn't and why — were pretty Byzantine, even for Windows. Microsoft recognized that, and dedicated one of its longer Vista blog posts to the topic.

So where will SP1 show up and when, and for whom? Good questions.

We have the answers. Or at least we think so, based on the info from Microsoft.

What's the (Microsoft) plan, Stan? Simply put — which nothing is, naturally — Microsoft has said that Vista users can update to SP1 via Windows Update (WU) now by manually selecting the service pack from the WU list. Next month, the company will toggle the automatic bit, so to speak, and begin pushing SP1 to all Vista users who have Automatic Updates set to both download and install fixes automatically. Other users who have Automatic Updates set to download patches but notify them before installing — or to simply notify them that something is available — will get the notices regarding SP1 from Automatic Updates in "mid-April," as Microsoft has said. David Zipkin, a Vista senior product manager, said on Tuesday that Microsoft might flip that bit early if things go well this month.

That's SP1 delivery in a nutshell. Except — there's almost always an "except" — some people who want SP1 now and don't want to wait until April won't see the service pack pop up on WU. In fact, Microsoft has posted a support document that lists eight, as in count 'em, eight, reasons why there's no Vista SP1 for you.

I stay away from Windows Update and let the OS do its own thing. I have no idea what you're talking about. So where do I start? Click the Start menu and navigate to All Programs. In the ensuing list, look for Windows Update. Click that. You're in WU. You should refresh the list by clicking on Check for Updates.

This is the list of updates offered to your PC. If you're lucky, SP1 is there. It should read, "Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (KB936330)."

OK, I'm staring at the Windows Update's list and don't see Service Pack 1. What do I do? First things first. If you're so eager for SP1's final bits, it's likely that you tried one of the preliminary versions that Microsoft released to all comers starting last December. That has to come off. Uninstall it. Head to Control Panels, pull up Uninstall Programs, click on View Installed Updates, find the now-obsolete Release Candidate (RC) of SP1 and make it go away.

I didn't try an early version of SP1, but Microsoft still won't give me the service pack. What's my next move? Microsoft's releasing SP1 in two waves. The first, which is the one that broke ashore Tuesday, is suitable only for the English, French, German, Japanese and Spanish versions of the OS. So if you're using one of the other 31 languages that Microsoft supports — Arabic anyone? — WU won't show you the update.

To find out which languages are installed, go to Control Panels and select Regional and Language Options.

If you're really eager, you could uninstall the blocking language pack and fire up WU again. Head to the Regional and Language Options control panel, then select the Keyboards and Languages tab, then click on Install/Uninstall Languages.

Or you could wait. Microsoft's been a little hazy of late in spelling out when it will release SP1 for the other languages. In the online support document, it says "later in 2008," which doesn't sound good. Elsewhere, however, Microsoft managers have said it would probably happen "next month."

And don't think you can do an end run by downloading the stand-alone SP1 installer (more on that later). If you run that installer on a system where Vista's armed with one of the 31 "second-wave" languages, you'll get an error and SP1 will refuse to install.

I speak English/German/French/Japanese/or Spanish, but still no SP1. Am I out of luck? Not yet. Your copy of Vista must also be prepped with two or three different fixes that Microsoft's pegged as "prerequisites," which it began delivering back in January. If you're running Vista Ultimate or Vista Enterprise, you get three of them; all others need to download and install just two.

The Ultimate- and Enterprise-only prerequisite was an update to BitLocker, the full-drive encryption technology included in those versions of the OS. You probably have it installed already, but double-check by looking for "KB935509" in the list when you click Update History in WU's interface.

The others are more problematic. Although Microsoft shoved the pair to most users automatically around Feb. 12, it yanked one from the auto list shortly afterward when users reported their Vista-powered PCs choked on the update and went into an endless round of reboots. The two updates are tagged as "KB937287" and "KB938371" on WU's View Update History list. The former was the one Microsoft stopped shoving to people.

On Tuesday, when Microsoft released SP1, it swore it had fixed KB937287. David Zipkin, the Vista senior product manager, said the trouble had been at least "partially related to Automatic Updates" and by forcing users to download and install the flaky one separately, Microsoft did an end run around the problem. (Microsoft also called endless reboot "rare," a description that runs counter to the volume of traffic and complaints seen on the company's support newsgroups last month; the company has not detailed the number of users affected by the fubar.)

Make sure that all three prerequisites have been installed — KB935509, KB937287 and KB938371 — and if one or more has not, click Check for Updates in WU, locate and select them and click Install. The most likely Johnny-come-lately of the three, of course, will be KB937287, the one Microsoft pulled from automatic distribution.

Prerequisites are in place, but WU's still jerking my chain. What now? More than six weeks ago, when Microsoft first announced SP1 had reached RTM (release to manufacturing) and was being shipped to computer makers, it told most users they'd have to wait because some hardware device drivers wouldn't reinstall properly during the update. At the time, Mike Nash, vice president of Windows product management, said the company needed the extra time to figure out which drivers balked, and then come up with a way to block PCs with them from getting SP1.

If you've done everything else, and you still don't see SP1 in the WU list, then it's likely that your PC has one of the offending drivers. Fortunately, Microsoft has at long last published a list of what we'll call "Bad Drivers."

But how do I know if my machine harbors a driver that's blocking me from getting SP1? Although there are too many drivers on the Bad Driver list to give specific instructions for each, in general, we suggest you turn to the System Control panel, then click on Device Manager. From here, however, you're more or less on your own, since you have to hunt through several categories in the Device Manager.

Here's what we did on one machine: Guessing — don't you love it when you have to take a wild guess to solve a Windows problem? — that it might be an audio driver, if only because the Bad Driver list has more of them than any other type, we clicked on Sound, Video and Game Controllers and found our Dell Dimension 9200 was using a SigmaTel driver. But was the driver one of the four from SigmaTel that Microsoft said were nasty?

We clicked the SigmaTel item in Device Manager, then the Driver tab and finally the Driver Details button. Then we scanned the list, found a match — Stwrt.sys — clicked that and found out the Dell was equipped with Version 6.10.5290, which fit the description on the Bad Driver list.

No SP1 for that Dell, at least for now.

But isn't there a way to update drivers? Yes. You might get lucky and find that a replacement driver has been pushed to WU's list. Check there first, and if you find one that matches the Bad Driver list, install it.

More likely, however, is that you won't see a new driver. In that case, you'll have to hunt it down by going to the vendor's Web site, then looking for the support section. Search for the driver downloads. You might get lucky.

Or maybe you won't. From our test Dell — a machine purchased in March 2007 and preloaded with Vista Ultimate — we first went to SigmaTel's Web site, then to another site run by a company called Innovative Device Technology because the former had sold its PC audio product line to the latter in July 2006. Turns out IDT doesn't handle support for its audio line, but instead fobs it off on the OEM. In our case, that was Dell, so we dutifully went to the Dell support site, searched for "Dimension 9200" to see if there were audio driver updates.

Nope. None.

A quick search of Dell's support forums yesterday found other users in the same boat, including some who referenced a different thread where another user said he'd been told by Dell that they were working on a new driver, but had not specified a time line.

Great.

Another couple of messages into the Dell thread, however, we found some advice that did the trick for us. "The temporary answer is to uninstall the SigmaTel driver and restart," said a user pegged with the "mulnhd" alias. "Windows will then install its own High Def audio driver. You can then use Microsoft Update to download Vista SP1. It worked for me."

Ah, sweet success.

I'm exhausted..., and I still don't see SP1! Any suggestions, or do I just downgrade to Windows XP? That's up to you. If you do choose to downgrade, check out our "FAQ: Giving up on Vista? Here's how to downgrade to XP."

But there's another option for most users.

Head to Microsoft's Download Center and search for the Vista SP1 stand-alone installer, or just go here for the 32-bit version of the service pack, or here for the 64-bit edition. These downloads — 434MB and 726MB, respectively — can be used to upgrade a PC to SP1, with the exception of a machine containing one or more of the 31 not-yet-ready language packs.

I don't want to download some behemoth stand-alone installer. What do I do? Wait. Wait for next month, when Microsoft starts automatically pushing SP1, wait for the language packs to get SP1 approval, wait for a driver refresh.

What, you thought this would be quick? Keep dreamin' pal.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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