In-Depth

Windows Vista SP1

It's no secret that Microsoft's latest operating system hasn't taken the enterprise by storm. Service Pack 1 was supposed to convert some Vista skeptics -- but did it? We asked readers to weigh in on the first big update to the OS.

Service Pack 1 (SP1) might have been Windows Vista's last stand. The forlorn operating system, intended successor to the stubbornly popular Windows XP, seems to have had about as much success lately as the Detroit Lions. Consumers have famously downgraded to XP for new PC purchases since Vista's introduction, and the enterprise has been very slow to embrace an OS that's been available for more than two years now.

At least that's what conventional wisdom says -- and it's not totally wrong. While Vista's market share has been rising in recent months, XP still has a massive market share advantage over its successor. And on top of that, Microsoft is already making considerable noise about Windows 7, the OS that will follow Vista, which could debut as early as the end of this year. Microsoft began offering demos of Windows 7 in May 2008 -- at least 18 months before the operating systems' probable release date. There's more than a little speculation among pundits and observers that Microsoft would like to move on with Windows 7 and put Vista behind it, although the company officially continues to tout its controversial OS.

SP1 was supposed to be Vista's savior, or at least help it gain a foothold in the enterprise. It was the long-awaited update that would, potentially, untangle some of Vista's more frustrating problems and win over users who weren't confident in the first draft of Microsoft's latest Windows opus. Microsoft released SP1 in February 2008, and now, almost a year later, users have had plenty of time to deploy and evaluate the update.

A handful of those users wrote to us about their experiences. We asked a few basic questions about SP1 and received a range of responses. Some users didn't mind being identified in print and online, while others were shyer about having their identities made public. No matter -- what they collectively gave us for this Reader Review shows that reactions to Vista SP1 range from satisfaction to outright rage. But, given the track record Vista itself has had thus far, maybe that shouldn't come as a surprise.

SP1: Simple or Stupefying?
We started simply enough by asking about simplicity: How easy or difficult was SP1 to deploy?

On an individual basis, it seems, most of the deployments went just fine.

"The Vista Ultimate 64 SP1 RTM version installed directly with no problems," says Charles Wilde, CTO and chief software architect for Aton International Inc., based in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Aton is a developer of software for mobile and embedded systems and is, to be fair, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner.

Info

Other users echo Wilde's sentiments. "Very easy, just installed on one machine," reports S. Shawn Mehaffie, owner of PC Resources LLC, based in Kansas City.

"On our home laptop, the deployment of SP1 happened without incident, probably related to HP doing a good job of choosing and matching hardware components originally," says John D., a system administrator for Oneonta, N.Y.

"SP1 is easy to deploy on most 32-bit platforms," notes Dan Matloff of Dan Matloff Enterprises, based in Banning, Calif. However, Matloff does add that "SP1 is a little more challenging with 64-bit platforms, due to a couple of compatibility issues with programs or applications that are already installed on the PC."

Not everybody, though, had such luck installing SP1. One reader who tried to install the Service Pack on multiple machines ran into trouble: "Very difficult ... all three attempts on Vista Ultimate on three different types of P4 Machines failed," says Ken McAvoy, an IT director in Melbourne, Australia.

McAvoy also provides the most intriguing answer to our next question: What were some of the challenges you faced in deployment?

"I had read a great deal about possible issues and was installing it on what I considered to be vanilla-based hardware, and yet SP1 always froze when it tried to reboot and pick up the video card," McAvoy says. "I had no problems on any of these PCs with the initial Vista release and was staggered to find that on demand I could produce the black hanging screen of death when I ran the first pass of SP1."

McAvoy wasn't the only user to run into problems with deployment. Even some users who were relatively satisfied with SP1 reported issues: "Identifying and installing the additional hardware drives was a bit tedious," Wilde offers.

And John D., who deployed SP1 in an office setting, has this to report: "UAC [User Account Control] ended up being turned off as a compromise for users having to adapt to the other parts of Vista that I couldn't adjust for them. It was clear very soon after the switch from their old machines that they'd be clicking through the UAC warnings anyway, which negated most of the possible security benefits."

Problems Solved ... And Unsolved
After sorting out how easy it was to deploy SP1, we asked readers about the guts of the update. Did it do what it needed to do? And where did it come up short? We started with a positive note by asking: Which Vista problems did SP1 solve?

"Slow file copies and zipping files, and having such a large footprint," Mehaffie says.

One user had better luck with Vista drivers than those of XP. "Because of missing disk drivers, Windows XP SP3 failed at the beginning of installation. Vista SP1 had the correct disk drivers built in. Vista SP1 appears to have solved many, but not all, of the compatibility issues we had with older application software," says Wilde.

Not everybody needed Vista to solve problems, though. Reports John D.: "I did not find any functional differences in the one machine I had that had been running pre-SP1, so if any problems were solved, I'm not aware of them."

Yet SP1 left some users wanting more. We found out what when we asked: Which problems did SP1 not solve?

Apparently, even with SP1, Vista is still a bit of a resource hog for some users. "Still slow start-up and boot time," Mehaffie reports, and he wasn't alone in this opinion.

John D. expands on the thought: "Vista is still slow to boot, slow to respond and maddening when it sits at a screen doing something in the background with no feedback, dialog or progress given. For the speed issue, a dual-core processor with 2GB-plus RAM should be very responsive. In XP, it would be; there's no valid reason why Microsoft couldn't give a comparable user experience in Vista by the time SP1 came out."

Vista by the Numbers

Did February's release of Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) help drive adoption of the operating system? Maybe, but it's hard to say.

Vista is making gains in market share. Janco Associates Inc. and the IT Productivity Center pegged Vista's share at about 17 percent as of November 2008 -- up from about 16 percent in October, and well up from about 8.5 percent in November 2007. Similarly, market share watcher Net Applications showed Vista as having 20 percent market share in November, a nearly 9 percent increase from January 2008 and about a 6 percent increase from March, when SP1 had been out for a month and was in the hands of most users.

Still, Janco and Net Applications showed Windows XP racking up market share of 70 percent and 66 percent, respectively, in November 2008. Given that Vista had been available to enterprises for two years when those numbers came out -- and given that SP1 had launched in February 2008 -- the newer OS is showing signs of struggling to catch XP. And with Microsoft already promoting Windows 7, Vista's reign as Microsoft's premier OS, at least in terms of marketing, might be a short one.

Furthermore, Microsoft showed some softness in its operating system numbers for its first fiscal quarter of 2009, ending Sept. 30. Windows racked up only a 2 percent rise in revenue and yielded a 4 percent decline in operating income, year over year.

John M. Jordan, executive director for the Center for Digital Transformation at Pennsylvania State University, argued in a Nov. 24 blog entry that Microsoft itself seems to be looking past Vista. "While enterprise purchases drive Microsoft's biggest numbers, even there XP is still controlling disproportionate market share," he said. "In addition, Microsoft's own early previews of Windows 7 implicitly acknowledge Vista ranks as less than a world-beater."

-L.P.

There were other snafus left unaddressed as well, specifically regarding 64-bit platforms. Matloff complains: "In 64-bit platforms, there are no specific drivers added to resolve CD/DVD ROM issues such as using iTunes and other similar programs that have their own burning software."

Mehaffie agrees that 64-bit support is not a strong point right now for Vista: "I really wish Microsoft would have had better driver support out of the box for the 64-bit version," he says. "They also need to do something to [give] software developers and commercial software makers incentive to write programs that are truly 64-bit applications and not 32-bit that run on 64-bit. That's one area where Linux does have Windows beat."

McAvoy reports that SP1 still didn't take care of perhaps the most frustrating problem of all: "The black hanging screen of death!" he laments. "Also no ability to run a repair-restore process as is found in XP CD/DVD," he adds.

Critical Fixes
SP1 did take care of some issues for most readers. Which of the SP1 fixes, then, was most important? We asked: Which fix in SP1 has been most critical for you?

"Compatibility with Microsoft's own applications, such as Office and Visual Studio," Wilde responds. "Compared with early experience, pre-SP1, we see much improved reliability and reduction in lockups and program crashes."

Matloff singles out "drivers that address hardware access and permissions," while Mehaffie specifies improvement in "how long it takes to find files, copy files and move files," adding that "the slow zipping of files was also a pain."

SP1: Enough to Save Vista?
So, with SP1 having helped most of the users in our sample run Vista a little more easily, we wondered whether SP1 might be enough to sway the opinions of a few Vista skeptics. The verdict? The jury is still out. And, as is so often the case, the answer depends on the reader who is responding.

We asked, specifically: If you were waiting for SP1 before deploying Vista, did SP1 give you what you needed to go ahead with a deployment or fall short?

John D. waited for SP1 before deploying Vista in his office. So, in that sense, maybe SP1 is helping Vista's cause if there are more admins out there like John D. "I waited until SP1 before getting any business machines with SP1 so I didn't have any issues, which was the point in waiting to begin with," he says. "I would not deploy Vista at work until SP1; being a beta tester is not appropriate for a rollout in a business setting. Past history shows that Microsoft 'anything' pre-SP1 is essentially beta software."

For others, the responses were mixed ... or outright negative. Wilde argues that Vista is still too much of a resource hog for some of his machines: "On modern hardware, Vista SP1 is now our preferred choice," he offers. "Older hardware is not well supported by Vista, so on those machines we stay with XP."

McAvoy's SP1 experience was roundly negative. Even with the Service Pack, he found Vista to be sorely lacking. McAvoy, who points out that he is "definitely not anti-Microsoft," says: "How any decent IT person can accept an operating system that is not able to be repaired and restored astounds me. It's not hard. The DVD does a simple file compare and restores the original files by copying or overwriting bogus or damaged files, and lets the system self-boot at least to VGA mode. Vista does not do this. With Vista, one black screen of death results in lost data -- simply and most obviously not good enough. At least XP provides that feature and I've salvaged tons of PC builds. It may not be desirable at the highest level, but Microsoft does not understand that end users do not want to rebuild systems that they've had working and configured for two to three years with a new build."

What's Next?
With such a diverse range of responses, we wondered what advice our users had for Microsoft. We posed the question: What would your feedback to Microsoft be for Vista SP1?

McAvoy suggests that the software giant is out of touch with users. "You just do not get it, Microsoft," he says. "You are not listening because if you were I'd be hearing you say you had fixed [repair-restore] in SP1 and would be re-designing Windows 7 to bring these necessary features back into the fold. What you're actually asking me to do is buy a car and then telling me it's not capable of being fixed if it breaks down -- that's appalling."

Mehaffie wishes for a smaller, simpler OS from Microsoft in the future: "I wish that Microsoft made Vista more modular so it has as small a footprint as possible -- on the disk and in memory. From what I hear, the next version of Windows looks like it will reach this goal, but in my opinion it's long overdue."

John D. pleads for better feedback to users. "[A] problem that has not been addressed is feedback to users during system processes," he explains. "If I'm running a defrag or copying files, I expect to see a reasonable estimate of the time needed and a progress indicator. This has been available going back to the days of DOS. Why take it out? Would you want a car where they omitted the gas gauge?"

For his part, Wilde points to a common Vista complaint. "The biggest challenge for Vista is manufacturer-installed third-party programs," he says. "These programs kill startup performance and can introduce stability and security problems into the Vista experience. To the degree possible, rework Microsoft licensing with computer vendors to allow the consumer to install Vista without add-on programs. Requiring a Vista installation menu that allows the consumer the choice to install none, some or all of the available add-on programs would be very helpful."

So, while it's hard to determine from our spectrum of responses whether SP1 did all it needed to do to save Vista, it does seem to have done most users at least some good. SP2 could be on the way as early as April, according to a report on TechARP.com, a Web site that has offered oddly accurate dates for Microsoft releases in the past. Will it pick up where SP1 left off? Will it help drive acceptance of Vista? Or will most users be waiting to make the jump from XP to Windows 7? Stay tuned.

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