As Windows watchdog sites worldwide are displaying screenshots of leaked early builds of Windows Vista's first service pack, Microsoft today announced that a true beta of Vista SP1 will go to a limited audience of testers "in a few weeks," with full deployment planned for the first quarter of 2008.
Microsoft also announced a similar release timetable for Windows XP SP3, the only difference being that XP SP3's ship date is listed as the first half of 2008 (suggesting it might appear later than Vista SP1).
A Microsoft spokesman noted that new Windows Updates for Vista released yesterday were unrelated to SP1. You can read more about the new updates on Microsoft's Windows Update site.
A major milestone
The arrival of an initial service pack is generally an important milestone for a Windows release. Many companies won't deploy a new version of Windows until SP1 addresses problems that early adopters experience.
Like all service packs, Vista SP1 will include a number of security, reliability, performance, and compatibility improvements, including all that have already been released via Windows Update. Additionally, Microsoft says, the service pack will improve some administrative features and add support for new hardware and emerging standards.
Installing SP1 will require 7GB of free space when it finally ships early next year, though you'll reclaim most of that space after installation. Most individual users will receive the service pack as a 50MB download via Windows Update.
Corporate users who want support for all editions of Vista, in all languages and with all previous updates, can opt for a stand-alone version, which will be a 1GB package for x86 versions and 1.5GB for x64 versions. Microsoft noted that because SP1 makes significant changes to the OS, it cannot be applied to offline images of the OS that corporate IT pros typically create to deploy the OS.
Although the initial beta program is closed, Microsoft says it may expand it later. Those interested in participating in the SP1 beta program, should it expand, can apply at Microsoft's Windows beta site.
Improving the basics
Vista's first service pack includes fixes for common issues related to newer graphics boards, laptops using external displays, certain networking configurations, systems that were upgraded from Windows XP, some printer drivers, and coming in and out of sleep mode.
Another group of improvements are designed to make it easier for developers of third-party security and anti-virus applications to work with 64-bit versions of Windows Vista. Another security-related change will allow Remote Desktop Protocol files to be signed.
BitLocker Drive Encryption, a security feature primarily intended for corporate machines with a Trusted Platform Module (security hardware), has been enhanced to support authentication via a combination of hardware (a USB storage device that holds a startup key) and a user-generated PIN.
Under the broad heading of administration, Microsoft says SP1 will allow BitLocker Drive Encryption to work with additional local volumes (right now it can only encrypt one drive) and address problems with local printing from a Windows Terminal Services session. SP1 will also improve the Network Diagnostics tool to help solve common file sharing problems, and will allow administrators to selectively run Disk Defragmenter on specified volumes.
SP1 will also modify the tools with which network administrators can manage group policy, a change that will likely only concern IT pros at large companies.
New technology support
SP1 will add support for the exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) file system that is coming for flash memory storage and consumer devices, and for SD Advanced Direct Memory Access, a technology that will speed up file transfers from compliant SD Card host devices (anything with an SD card slot, such as a camera, phone, or MP3 player).
Vista SP1 will add support for Direct3D 10.1 with APIs that should help PC game developers better utilize the latest Direct3D graphics hardware. Also new: Support for network bootups using the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI), a standard that facilitates the development of pre-boot applications for PCs running the 64-bit version of Vista.
Finally, SP1 will add support for SSTP, a technology that will be part of the Routing and Remote Access Service (RRAS) platform for VPN connections.
The last XP service pack
Microsoft described XP SP3 as an "end-of-life" update consisting of "previously released updates for Windows XP including security updates, out-of-band releases, and hotfixes" plus a small number of new updates. (Read more about both Vista SP1 and XP SP3 on the Vista team blog.)
Finally, Microsoft announced that Windows Server 2008 will be released to manufacturing in the first quarter of 2008. Microsoft added it was still going ahead with a previously announced February 27 launch event for Windows Server 2008, Visual Studio 2008, and Microsoft SQL Server 2008.