Windows Vista SP2: Second time's the charm

Test Center benchmarks show that Service Pack 2, along with addressing long-standing issues, provides a minor performance boost

Good news, Vista users: Microsoft finally seems to be getting a handle on the Windows code base. First we learned that Windows 7 would not introduce any new performance hits (see "Windows 7 unmasked" and "Flame war: The great Windows 7 debate"), which was a major achievement, given Microsoft's abysmal track record in this department. Now, preliminary testing shows that Vista is actually getting faster, courtesy of the upcoming Service Pack 2.

During OfficeBench testing of the SP2 Beta released last week, I noted a slight improvement in the linear script's execution time. Though far from earth shattering -- the delta vs. Vista SP1 amounted to less than 3 percent on the same hardware -- it was still the first time I'd witnessed a measurable performance increase on the Vista code base. Factor in Moore's Law and the aforementioned Windows 7 results, and you have the makings of the first true détente in the software/hardware cold war.

[ Détente? Typically, what Intel giveth Microsoft taketh away. See "Death match: Windows Vista versus XP" and "Fat, fatter, fattest: Microsoft's kings of bloat." ]

Of course, performance isn't the only angle to the Service Pack 2 story. There are also some welcome updates, including a revised Bluetooth stack with support for the new 2.1 standard and tweaks to the Wi-Fi stack that should result in better resume response times for mobile users. Also in SP2 is support for recording to Blu-ray media, as well as some reliability and performance enhancements for DirectX and high-definition video playback.

One overdue arrival is the inclusion of Windows Search 4.0 with SP2. Long available as an optional download from Windows Update, Search 4.0 improves background indexing while providing additional configuration options that improve end-user control over the search engine. Windows Search 4.0 is also a better enterprise citizen, with extensive manageability features and tighter integration with Active Directory Group Policies. (See "Product review: Windows Search 4.0 found slim and trim.")

Naturally, SP2 also includes a roll-up of all existing patches and hot fixes, giving IT shops a cleaner, more integrated starting point from which to build their installation images. But more important, it establishes a bar, along with Windows 7, against which all future applications and drivers will be measured. With SP2, Microsoft is declaring that if it works here, it'll work everywhere, including on Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 (with SP2), and Windows Server 2008 R2.

Obviously, this says a lot about the differences -- or lack thereof -- between the Vista SP2 and Windows 7 code bases. In fact, those closest to the Windows 7 project are saying quietly that the two are more similar than people realize. Witness the new Bluetooth configuration UI, which looks suspiciously like a stripped-down Device Stage from Windows 7. I have it on good authority that the SP2-to-Windows-7 development path has been more of a two-way street, with new ideas and architectural tweaks being ported back to Vista -- all of which should translate into a better experience for users of both platforms.

So, there you have it. Vista SP2 is chock-full of useful updates, and it squeezes a few extra cycles out of those overburdened dual-core and quad-core CPUs. It's a strong comeback after the disappointing SP1, and hopefully the bellwether of a better OS to come.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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