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Windows Vista Service Pack 1: A performance check

What difference does a service pack make?

The story of Windows Vista is one fraught with tragedy (at least, as tragic as software can get). The operating system had a difficult birth, with Microsoft scrapping its work and starting over again about half-way through the development cycle, shedding many promised features in the process. Once out in the market, Vista had an even rougher childhood. Drivers weren't ready in time, users perceived Vista as nothing more than a more resource-hungry version of XP with a prettier user interface, and many reviewers gave it a thumbs down.

However, as far back as January 30, 2007—Vista's retail launch date—users disappointed with the new OS looked to a future first service pack to make everything right. Back then, nobody even knew what SP1 would bring to the table or when it would come out, but folks' experience with Windows release cycles suggested that SP1 would fix most of Vista's little imperfections. Some couldn't be bothered waiting and switched anyway, finding out in the process that Vista wasn't anywhere near as bad as everyone was saying. Others stuck with Windows XP and kept waiting.

Over a year and more than a hundred million Vista sales later, SP1 is finally out. It, too, had somewhat of a rough start, since Microsoft was forced to postpone it by about a month due to driver compatibility problems. Then, on March 18, SP1 finally appeared on Windows Update. Would it really fix everything disillusioned Vista users expected?

What's new in SP1
A quick glance through the service pack's quite considerable list of fixes, changes, and new features suggests that SP1 is indeed meant to improve Vista substantially—and not just by rolling all previously released updates into a single, neat package. High on the list are a handful of storage-related performance enhancements that cover copying files, extracting archives, or doing many kinds of file operations at once. According to Microsoft, SP1 is 25% faster when copying files within a single disk, and the "calculating time remaining" phase of file operations has been reduced to around two seconds.

Along with these welcome speed boosts, the new service pack brings a very long list of reliability, security, and power-saving improvements. That list is a little too long to sum up here, but users can look forward to everything from more consistent hard drive spin-downs, which should improve battery life on notebooks, to better driver stability in default drivers, and new application programming interfaces to help developers write more secure apps and better anti-malware tools.

Last, but certainly not least, SP1 introduces support for a number of new technologies and standards. There's the new Direct3D 10.1 application programming interface, support for Intel's Extensible Firmware Interface on 64-bit systems, and support for the exFAT file system for flash devices, just to name a few. Direct3D 10.1 should allow developers to tap into the features of AMD's new Radeon HD 3000-series graphics processors, while EFI support should theoretically pave the way for BIOS-free PCs—at least as long as hardware manufacturers follow suit. Meanwhile, exFAT brings support for file sizes of up to 16 exabytes and more than 1,000 files per directory, where FAT is limited to 1,000-file directories and 4GB files.

We won't devote an entire page to detailing each and every one of SP1's improvements, since Microsoft itself takes cares of that in the official SP1 changes list. What we will do, however, is probe how SP1's plethora of under-the-hood changes translate into performance.