Vista SP1 beta weeks away; final due in Q1 '08

Microsoft also will release XP SP3 -- the final service pack -- at same time

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Others may have been reluctant to start their Vista upgrades because of the dearth of information until now on SP1, which some say is a new, deliberate strategy under new Windows chief, Steven Sinofsky.

"If you're a large IT buyer, you crave info," Kleynhans said. "At the same time, nothing good comes from telling the entire world what you're going to do. So it will be interesting to see if Microsoft can strike the right balance."

What to expect from Vista SP1 and XP SP3

One change SP1 will make to Vista involves making the much-criticized User Account Control (UAC) security feature less intrusive and annoying to users, Zipkin said.

"We are working to remove a few prompts, but at heart, it's still the same UAC, because to do its job, it still has to pop up and quiz you," he said.

Copying and unzipping files in Vista should also be much faster with SP1, Zipkin said, as should the ability of Vista PCs to wake up from standby or hibernate modes.

For laptops, Microsoft has fixed problems in the way Vista communicates with certain video cards and chips. Fixes should improve battery life, Zipkin said, as well as make them work better with external displays.

The Bitlocker drive encryption, which formerly could only encrypt the C: drive, can now be used to encrypt other partitions and hard drives.

One key change that users might not notice, Zipkin said, is that 64-bit versions of Vista will have application programming interfaces (API) that allow security software to access the Vista core kernel. Vendors such as Symantec Corp. and McAfee Inc. had complained bitterly last fall that Microsoft's kernel patch protection feature, which was designed to make Vista more secure, also effectively disabled their security software.

Other changes are designed to, among other things, improve the performance of domain-joined PCs when the PCs operate off the domain, improve the overall performance of Internet Explorer 7 by reducing CPU utilization, and fix a problem in which there is a 10-second delay between the time when Ctrl-Alt-Del is pressed and the password prompt is displayed. SP1 also supports new hardware and hardware standards. For example, the service pack adds support for the exFAT file system, which will be used by flash memory storage and noncomputer consumer devices. It will also add support for Direct3D 10.1 and add APIs for 3-D applications -- a change aimed at games developers.

SP1 is also aimed at improving Vista deployment, management and support, and it includes changes in the way Group Policy is managed. The service pack will uninstall the Group Policy Management Console and by default, GPEdit.msc will be used to edit local Group Policy. Administrators will have the option of downloading a separate module that will let them add comments to Group Policy Objects and search for specific settings.

Finally, SP1 lets users disable Vista's built-in search engine and use an alternate, such as Google Desktop. This was a change mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice after Google Inc. complained.

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