I've gotten a number of emails about Microsoft's next major update to Windows Vista (and Windows Server 2008), Service Pack 2 (SP2). And while I did in fact publish a short description of this release before Microsoft announced SP2 last October, I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't really provided any substantial updates since then. This is particularly odd because I've been using various builds of SP2 with Windows Vista on a Lenovo ThinkPad SL500 since last fall. So let's take a look.

Timing

First, Microsoft will almost certainly ship SP2 to the public in April. This final release will follow three major pre-release milestones, including a Beta 1 release in late October 2008, a Beta 2 release in December 2008, and, most recently, a Release Candidate 1 (RC1) version that shipped late last week. I've installed each of these releases, in turn, on that Lenovo laptop, on which I also test the Internet Explorer 8 RC build and other Vista-related software.

Vista + Windows Server 2008 = Better together

Before getting into the functional changes in this release, I should also point out that SP2 will be a shared, common update between both Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008. This is possible because Microsoft has now aligned its client and server OS releases, so that when Server 2008 shipped last year, it did so with the code for SP1 included. Moving forward, customers will now have a simpler task of testing and deploying service packs, since the exact same service pack(s, one each for x86 and x64) will apply to both Windows Vista and Server 2008. (It also creates the weird situation where SP2 is the second service pack for Vista, but the first for Server 08. I'll try not to dwell on that.)

What's new in Windows Vista SP2

From a functional standpoint, SP2 is nothing like Windows Vista SP1 (see my review). That is, it does not include major functional, reliability, and performance improvements. Instead, SP2 is largely a traditional service pack, aggregating all of the hot-fixes and other updates that Microsoft has released since SP1. (And yes, as a result, SP1 is a prerequisite for installing SP2.) That means that Vista/Server 2008 SP2 systems should be almost completely compatible with software and drivers written for Vista, Vista SP1, and Server 2008.

Windows Vista SP2 does include some minor functional updates. After all, time moves on, and Microsoft does need to address emerging trends when it can. Functional updates in SP2 are highlighted in the next two sections.

Updates that apply to both Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008

Hot-fixes and security updates. As with all Windows service packs, SP2 includes all the previously released updates for Windows Vista and Server 2008. This includes several hundred updates, which are comprised of both publicly available updates and others that were previously only made available to specific customers or partners. (Microsoft notes that this is common practice with service packs.)

General improvements to compatibility, reliability, and performance. The inclusion of previously-released updates and the minor functional changes noted below will provide users with moderately improved compatibility, reliability, and performance, Microsoft says. Some of these updates come from Microsoft's partners as well.

Servicing stack update. Though it's technically not part of SP2, it's worth pointing out that a servicing stack update (KB955430) must be applied to Windows Vista before SP2 is installed. (This happens automatically via Windows Update and is included in the SP2 standalone installer.) this update improves the performance and reliability of future service pack installations, including that of SP2.

Windows Search 4.0. Available now as a separate update for Windows Vista, Windows Search 4.0 offers better performance, enhanced Group Policy support, and the ability to index encrypted files.

Bluetooth 2.1 support. Also available now as a separate update called the Windows Vista Feature Pack for Wireless, this update supports the latest version of the Bluetooth wireless standard.

Blu-Ray data disc writing. With SP2, you can natively write to Blu-Ray data discs from the Vista shell. (This functionality does not include creating Blu-Ray movies.)

exFAT file system support improvements. Microsoft developed the Extended FAT, or exFAT, file system as a more modern file system for flash devices such as USB storage. (That is, it overcomes the 4 GB file size limit from FAT/FAT32 and can handle over 1000 files in a single folder.) Microsoft added exFAT support to Vista with SP1, but with SP2 that support is extended to include UTC timestamps, facilitating file synchronization across time zones.

Wi-Fi improvements. SP2 utilizes Windows Connect Now (WCN) technologies to simplify Wi-Fi configurations (this functionality is also available now as part of the Windows Vista Feature Pack for Wireless). Wi-Fi connection performance is also improved when resuming from Sleep mode.

VIA 64-bit support. With SP2, Windows Vista now supports 64-bit VIA microprocessors.

Power management improvements. The default power management policies are approximately 10 percent more efficient than before, according to Microsoft.

RSS Feed gadget improvements. The Feed Headlines gadget for Windows Sidebar has been updated for better responsiveness and performance.

Windows Media Center. Microsoft has improved the performance of protected TV content in Windows Media Center.

Service Pack clean-up. Finally, SP2 will come with a Service Pack Clean-up tool (compcln.exe) that will permanently delete older versions of the RTM- and SP1-based files that have been replaced by SP2. This can save disk space, of course, but can also be used to reduce the size of future install images.

Updates that apply to Windows Server 2008 only

In addition to the changes noted above, some SP2 changes are Server-specific. For example, while the original shipping version of Windows Server 2008 included a pre-release version of the Hyper-V virtualization solution, with SP2, the final shipping version of Hyper-V 1.0 is now included. (Customers could previously download this version for free.) And Hyper-V brings with it one free guest OS install with Server 2008 Standard Edition, four free licenses with Server 2008 Enterprise Edition, and an unlimited number of free licenses with Server 2008 Datacenter Edition. SP2 also cleans up some Terminal Server license keys issues.

How SP2 will be delivered

As with other recent Windows service packs, SP2 will ship in three main versions, one that is downloaded to individual machines via Windows Update and two standalone installers that are provided to system administrators so that they can deploy SP2 to multiple machines. The Windows Update download will vary in size according to which updates are already installed on the client machine; this can range from a minimum of 41 MB to a maximum of 90 MB, depending on your configuration. One or two reboots will be required during installation.

SP2 will be delivered via Windows Update as an optional update at first. After that first phase, it will appear on Automatic Updates (AU), again as an optional update. Eventually, Microsoft will make SP2 available more prominently. As always, businesses that wish to prevent SP2 from being offered to client machines can install an SP2 Blocking Tool, which will work for 1 year from the general availability of SP2. (The SP2 Blocking Tool is not required in environments that utilize System Center or WSUS.)

The standalone installers are, as always, quite a bit larger because they support multiple languages. The smaller of the two, which supports 5 core languages (English, German, Spanish, French, and Japanese), weighs in at about 302 MB for the x86 (32-bit) version and 508 MB for the x64 version. The complete version, which supports 36 languages, comes in at 390 MB and 622 MB, respectively. The 36-language version of SP2 will trail the release of the other version by several weeks.

The standalone installers work with both Windows Vista and Server 2008. Additionally, the standalone installers include a pre-installation analyzer that will block SP2 installation or warn the user if an incompatible driver is detected.

Note: Remember that Windows Vista/Server 2008 SP2 requires that SP1 be installed first. Microsoft will not be providing a rollup version of SP2 that includes all SP1 updates, primarily because such an update would be too large.

Going forward, Microsoft will of course integrate SP2 into Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 Setup DVDs. These integrated DVDs will be made available to customers via MSDN and TechNet subscriptions, via volume license media kits, and will ship with new PCs.

Windows Vista SP2Windows Vista with Service Pack 2.

Availability

If you're interested in testing SP2 and aren't on the technical beta, Microsoft should be making the RC1 version available via MSDN and TechNet soon. (Currently, only the December Beta 2 release is available.)

Note that no pre-release (Beta 1, Beta 2, Release Candidate) versions of Windows Vista SP2 will be upgradeable to the final release. If you do install a prerelease version of SP2, you will need to uninstall it before installing the final release. You can uninstall SP2 via the Program and Features control panel; to do so, check View Installed Updates and search for Service Pack for Microsoft Windows (KB948465).

Final thoughts

Microsoft notes that organizations and individuals interested in running Windows Vista (and Windows Server 2008) do not need to wait for the Service Pack 2 (SP2) update before moving ahead. This is good advice as SP2 does not appreciably change the Windows Vista experience in any measurable way in my experience. (I have not tested SP2 heavily on Server 2008 yet.) Anyone hoping for dramatic improvements in the client OS should look to Windows 7 instead of Windows Vista with SP2. But that said, SP2 fulfills the requirements of a traditional service pack by aggregating previously-shipped updates into a single, easily deployable package that does not disrupt or dramatically change day-to-day use. With that in mind, SP2 is exactly what it should be, and appears to be of the high quality we've come to expect from Microsoft service packs.

An edited portion of this article originally appeared in the February 24, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul