Get your hands on Vista SP1

Windows Vista Service Pack 1 is out and about. Get a hands-on review on what it does, what it doesn't do, and what it's likely to do for you.

Long gone are the days where Microsoft service pack releases such as Windows XP SP2 would deliver shocks measurable on the Richter scale. Redmond has returned to its old habits of including mostly security repairs and crash fixes, but nothing in the way of new features. That doesn't mean that Vista users should skip out on Vista Service Pack 1.

Downloading anything from Microsoft is never easy, in my experience, and Vista SP1 is no different. Microsoft has announced that it won't begin to roll out the service pack through its automatic updates until April, so you must actively visit the Microsoft Web site and seek it out to download it.

This leaves users with two options: go with the recommended method for home users, the stand-alone update, or forcibly download the 435MB file. I was unable to get the stand-alone update to work, but if you've got Windows Update activated on your machine, you can try it yourself by clicking on the Start button, going to All Programs and hitting Windows Update. Alternatively, you can try through the Control Panel, then System and Maintenance, then Windows Update and Check for Updates.

If neither of those work, this link will take you to Microsoft's download page for the full installer. At nearly half a gigabyte, it will take users on slower connections a while to download. Once downloaded, the file is a self-extracting EXE that took my computer with 2GB of RAM about 40 minutes to install. Also important to note is that not all device drivers are simpatico with SP1, and Microsoft has programmed SP1 to postpone the update push if it detects incompatibilities.

There are no new features to try. I repeat, No. New. Features. So if you don't like the way that the existing Vista feature set looks or behaves, you shouldn't look at SP1 to assuage your concerns. However, since all of the changes that are included are "under the hood," many users should find Vista simply runs better.

Some of the tweaks pertain to bandwidth usage. Microsoft claims that SP1 uses less bandwidth when browsing networked drives, and it seemed a bit faster. Users who are in situations where they need to choose between wireless and wired Internet connections should find that Vista now automatically chooses between the two. However, users of ReadyDrive, ReadyBoost, and SuperFetch will probably see slowdowns until SP1 recollects old data.

BitLocker encryption has been enhanced for the Ultimate and Enterprise versions of the operating system, and you can now encrypt nonbootable drives. Driver response times to sleep and wake-up commands have been improved, and improvements address data loss while ejecting NTFS-formatted removable media. As CNET's Rob Vamosi points out, though, the average home user will see "little or no" changes.

Although I think Vista got off to a rocky start, the various security patches and improvements, culminating with SP1, have greatly improved the performance of the operating system. It's still a bit of an unwieldy and messy beast, and for that I can recommend nothing less than the limited edition Windows Vista toilet paper from the Japanese electronics store Akiba.