Microsoft issues new Vista SP1 'release candidate' -- but most users still have to wait

RC1 to be distributed in stages; full public availability not planned until next week

Microsoft Corp. today began distributing the first "release candidate" version of its Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) update that will be made available to a wide group of testers.

Initially, though, only about 15,000 invitation-only testers will be able to download Release Candidate 1 of the Vista update. Microsoft released the RC1 installation file to that group at 3 p.m. EST today. They also were the only testers who were able to download an earlier batch of release candidate code, called Vista SP1 RC Preview, that was made available to them last month.

Subscribers to Microsoft's MSDN and TechNet services, who number in the hundreds of thousands, will be able to download the RC1 software tomorrow, according to David Zipkin, a senior product manager at Microsoft. He said that the code will become "fully public" by next week. The RC1 code weighs in at 60MB for a single-language version, Zipkin added.

On Monday, Microsoft announced that in Vista SP1, it plans to do away  with its so-called antipiracy kill switch -- officially, a reduced-functionality-mode feature that was designed to take effect if users didn't activate the operating system with a valid software license key within 30 days of installation.

But Zipkin said today that the antipiracy mechanism couldn't be removed in time for the RC1 release. Microsoft plans to ship another release candidate that won't include the reduced functionality mode before Vista SP1's commercial release in next year's first quarter, he said.

Although Microsoft said in October that more than 88 million copies of Vista have been shipped on PCs or sold at retail, the operating system has yet to be taken up in a big way by enterprise users in the 12 months since it was made available to them.

Vista SP1 won't offer many new features to users, according to Microsoft officials. Instead, the update is focused on under-the-hood improvements designed to fix Vista's nagging performance problems.

For instance, some Vista users have complained about long start-up, shutdown and application load times compared with Windows XP, the operating system's predecessor. In addition, there have been complaints that Vista performs various computing tasks no faster, and in some cases slower, than Windows XP does. And users also have criticized the operating system's lack of support for third-party software and peripheral devices.

Zipkin said that some of the improvements coming in Vista SP1 include improvements of up to 45% in copying files, plus faster resume, standby and hibernate times and speedier unzipping of compressed files. "Beta testers do like the performance," he said, although he added that it's still "too early" to do specific benchmarks comparing Vista SP1 with the initial release of the operating system or with Windows XP.

In contrast, an outside testing company that got its hands on the RC Preview version of Vista SP1 said last month that the software didn't perform significantly faster than the original Vista release on a series of tests, and that it ran considerably slower than the upcoming Service Pack 3 update for Windows XP. A Microsoft official criticized the testing last week, saying in a blog posting that with the Vista SP1 code still under development, any benchmarks are "a moving target."

As part of Vista SP1, Microsoft is also trying to make it easier for IT managers, especially ones at multinational companies, to install the operating system. Zipkin said that the service-pack update will be available in stand-alone installer packages supporting either five or 36 languages, enabling systems administrators to use a single installer file to deploy Vista SP1 for end users in different countries.

He added that Microsoft has been able to slash the size of the stand-alone installers in the RC1 software, compared with earlier beta releases of Vista SP1. The five-language version is about one-third smaller than it was before, and the 36-language package has been reduced by more than one-half -- from 1.3GB down to 550MB.

However, the installers won't be ready for use when Vista SP1 is released commercially in next year's first quarter, Zipkin said. The five-language installer, which supports English, French, Spanish, German and Japanese, will become available a few weeks after SP1's release, while the 36-language version is due eight to 12 weeks later, according to Zipkin.

Microsoft hopes that Vista SP1 will spur more companies to upgrade their PCs from Windows XP, as the first service-pack updates traditionally have done for the company's products. The Vista update will be part of a busy first-quarter release schedule for Microsoft, which plans to simultaneously launch Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008 and Visual Studio 2008 on Feb. 27. The company also made an RC1 version of Windows Server 2008 available today.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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