Performance results mixed with Vista Service Pack 1

Microsoft's newly released Service Pack 1 may solve some of the performance glitches that have annoyed Windows Vista users.

Microsoft's newly released Service Pack 1 may solve some of the performance glitches that have annoyed Windows Vista users and discouraged others from adopting the OS, but it doesn't appear from our initial tests to be a panacea.

In our first tests of the service pack, file copying, one of the main performance-related complaints from Vista users, was significantly faster. But other tests showed little improvement and in two tests, our experience was actually a little better without the service pack installed than with it.

Service Pack 1 was released to manufacturing yesterday, and officially sent out to reviewers today ( Service Pack 1 was also unofficially unleashed today on BitTorrent. Service Pack 1 will be available to users in March, as a download; Microsoft plans to have SP1 integrated into Windows Vista at retail as well, but could not give a timeline on how quickly the update will be included in the retail version of Vista.

We've already covered many aspects of SP1 in previous looks at the initial SP1 beta last autumn, and the more recent SP1 Release Candidate that became available in January. A quick recap: Though many of SP1's benefits lie hidden within the bowels of the OS (such as support for standards like Extensible Firmware Interface and Extended File Allocation Table), SP1 is packed with performance enhancements as well. According to Microsoft, more tangible improvements include improved performance when copying, compressing, and extracting files, improved boot and power down times, improved network performance, and other performance-related fixes.

I took the RTM of Vista Service Pack SP1 down to the PC World Test Center this afternoon and unleashed it across a variety of systems to see how it performed. These tests are preliminary and informal ones; the PC World Test Center is working on additional testing, and we'll post additional information--and update this story--as it comes available.

Service Pack 1: Installation

For my installation and file copy tests, I installed Service Pack 1 on a fairly high-end system: Polywell's US$4000 Poly P3503-3DT, a model packed with a 3GHz Core 2 Extreme QX6850 CPU, 4GB of memory, and Windows Vista Ultimate Edition.

The first thing I noticed during the installation process was Windows Vista's friendly warning that the installation might take an hour or more. My experience was, pleasantly, far from that: The installation process required just 27 minutes, less than half of what I experienced with the first beta of SP1 back in September 2007. Your experience may vary greatly, depending upon your system's configuration, though: A Dell Inspiron 1420 notebook (with 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo T7500 CPU and 2GB of memory) required just 30 minutes to complete; but two other, less powerful systems took far longer to complete the installation.

SP1 required three reboots in all. During a good portion of the installation time, about 18 minutes, Vista reported it was just preparing the configuration, before actually proceeding with the installation.

File Copy: Performance Notably Improved

I performed a series of tests before and after installing SP1. The first test was a file copy test, identical to the one I performed on the beta. I did three passes, copying 1.9GB of files (562 JPEG images) from a 2GB Kingston SD Card to the PC.

Pre-SP1, the file copy averaged 384 seconds; post-SP1, the copy process showed a noticeable improvement, averaging just 348 seconds to complete the same task. That's a 9 percent improvement, a difference you're likely to notice.

I'm encouraged by that improvement. It's not life-altering when you're talking about just 2GB of data, but if the performance improvement holds across larger data sets, that will be a big boon to anyone copying data in the Vista environment.

Some Results Slower

In addition to the file copy test, I timed several passes of system startup and shutdown, with a waiting period of at least five minutes prior to shutdown. Here, I saw virtually no change in the system's pre-SP1 and post-SP1 performance. Pre-SP1, startup time averaged 58 seconds, and shutdown time averaged 8 seconds. Post-SP1, those times were virtually unchanged: Startup time averaged 55 seconds, while shutdown time averaged 7 seconds.

Finally, on two additional systems, I tried some extra informal tests, to get a feel for whether the performance boosts were pervasive. Both tests--neither of which are conclusive--actually showed the opposite, unfortunately.

The first test was on an Acer VM460-UD2180C system running a 2GHz Pentium Dual-Core E2180 CPU, 1GB of memory, and Windows Vista Business: In two passes of copying five 500MB files into a .Zip archive using WinZip 10 (a third-party compression app), the pre-Vista SP1 result was actually slightly faster than the post-SP1 result: 372 seconds to 386 seconds.

The second informal test--copying multiple files into a disk image file using Nero 7 Ultra--was on a Gateway GM5632E running a 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600 CPU, 3GB of memory, and Windows Vista Home Premium. This time around, too, the machine took about 3 percent longer after I installed SP1 than before.

More Testing to Come

Based on my informal tests conducted in the first hours of having Vista Service Pack 1 in hand, it's hard to draw any hard and fast conclusions. However, these mixed results do show some promise--and also show that your experience with SP1 may vary depending upon the system configuration. Our Test Center will perform further, and more in-depth, testing of Vista Service Pack 1 to determine to what degree Microsoft has succeeded in fixing some of the flaws and frustrations in its operating system.

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