Windows XP SP3 is now available through Windows Update.

The new service pack brings a handful of new security related features, a whole host of bug fixes, and a purported speed boost as well. As always it’s probably a good idea to install it if you’re running Windows XP on your machine. Microsoft has also re-released Windows Vista SP1 which was pulled after some compatibility issues. Both are available through Windows Update.

Windows Vista SP1 released to manufacturing, available in March.

The first service pack for Windows Vista has been finalized and is headed to the CD presses for distribution. It’ll also be available as a Windows Update download sometime in mid-march according to Wired.com:

Windows Vista Service Pack 1 has been released to manufacturing, Microsoft says, pegging the software update to a public roll-out in March. Along with Vista SP1, Windows Server 2008 is also said to be finished and set to arrive in the very near future.

Mike Nash from the Windows Product Management group at Microsoft confirmed Vista SP1’s arrival on Monday, saying that update contains “reliability and performance” enhancements as well as improved hardware support. Nash says that Windows Vista SP1 will be released via Windows Update and the Microsoft.com download center in mid-March. A month later, in mid-April, Vista SP1 will be served to customers who chose to have system updates downloaded automatically.

Good news not just for Microsoft, but for Vista users struggling with the latest version of Windows. Although precise details of what will be in Vista SP1 are not yet available, judging by the beta releases, the update will address a number of common Vista headaches.

Aside from the promised improvements outlined in Nash’s blog post, Vista SP1 is also said to improve hardware compatibility, one of the chief problems for many that made the leap from XP only to find that their peripheral devices wouldn’t work under Vista.

Other changes include speeding up core system tasks, including sleep, hibernate, resume, start up and shut down. Copying or transferring files should also be sped up and there are also said to be support for new file formats in Vista.

It’ll be interesting to see if this will result in more folks making the switch to Vista as there’s a common feeling among some in the PC industry that you wait until the first service pack before adopting a new version of Windows. This service pack isn’t expected to be a big change in the way the first one for XP was for that OS, but it should help smooth things out a bit.

Consumers choosing Vista over XP at a 7 to 1 margin.

There were a lot of articles written during the year 2007 that claimed Windows Vista as being just this side of a total bomb in terms of the number of folks switching to it. It appears that those articles aren’t entirely accurate:

Despite problems, consumers choosing Vista over XP – ArsTechnica.com

Windows Vista didn’t make a smooth market entrance; in fact, nearly every aspect of the operating system has been attacked since its release on January 30, 2007. Multiple SKUs allegedly confused customers, anti-DRM groups disliked Vista’s Protected Video Path and its overall DRM friendliness, and Microsoft’s definition of “Vista Capable” got the company sued. Toss in a plethora of bugs and the usual consumer backlash over GUI changes, and you’d think consumers would be avoiding Vista in droves. According to new information, however, they aren’t—Vista’s adoption rate over the past year actually exceeded XP’s in 2001, and consumers apparently choose Vista over XP by a 7:1 margin.

ZDNet’s Ed Bott has assembled a database of information drawn from Dell’s Outlet Center (full details on his methodology and results are available here). While small businesses definitely prefer Windows XP to Vista (70 percent to 30 percent), only 7 percent of consumers appear to be opting for Windows XP over Vista.

For all the bad press that’s a pretty good adoption rate, but then, as I’ve pointed out previously, we’ve been here before with the launch of Windows XP. When that OS launched there were tons of articles about how terrible it was compared to previous versions of Windows, how slow and resource intensive it was, and how some folks were swearing they’d never leave Windows 98 and so on and so forth. After awhile the noise died down and Windows XP went on to become the dominate Windows platform as more and more people bought new PCs that were built to handle it.

I’ve been running Vista for several months now and I have to admit that I think it’s a decent upgrade to XP. More telling to me, however, is the opinion of my wife who got used to running Vista during the period that she was without her own PC. When we got the generous donation of parts for her just before Christmas she told me that she’d rather have Vista on her PC even though the Socket 754 based motherboard she’s using doesn’t have active drivers being developed for it (it’s considered a Legacy device according to nVidia). Turns out the drivers built into Vista handles her motherboard just fine. Oddly enough it was two minor features of Vista that she’s grown to love that made her ask for it. First was a sidebar gadget called Notepad that works like an electronic post-it note and the other is the new Windows Calendar built into the OS. Trivial as they are she finds them useful enough to prefer Vista over XP. If Vista was truly problematic on her hardware she’d probably want to go back to XP, but it runs fine if a tad slow which is to be expected on Legacy hardware.

The biggest issue either of us have had with running Vista so far has been RAM. One gigabyte of RAM under Vista is about the same as running 512MB of RAM under XP. Both are the absolute minimum either OS should be run with. We’ll be bumping the RAM on both machines up sometime later in the month or early February as we get our finances on track after Christmas. Anne’s PC could do with a new SATA HD as well to take advantage of the speed boost that would give over the PATA drive she’s using now. If you’re running newer hardware that uses DDR2 RAM then this shouldn’t be much of an issue as DD2 RAM is dirt cheap these days. We’re still running DDR RAM so prices are still a bit high—$139 for 2 GBs as opposed to as low as $49.99 (after rebate) for some flavors of DDR2 RAM.

If Vista were half as bad as some of these articles make it out to be then I’d be back in Windows XP myself, but the truth is the hype over how horrible it is is more a statement of how much people hate change. Sure there’s enough stuff in different places that there’s a learning curve and some things, sharing printers and files, is slightly more complicated because they’ve increased the security granularity, but that’s just an education issue. As more folks upgrade their hardware to models that are built to run Vista properly a lot of the noise you’re hearing will once again die away and by the time Windows 7 comes along everyone will be ready to start the bitch fest all over again.

Which brings us to the question of whether you should make the switch. The answer I give most folks these days is the following: If you’re running hardware that’s a year or more older then you may want to stick with XP depending on how high end it was when you bought it, but if you’re building/buying a new machine and plan to get at least 1GB of RAM in it then there’s nothing so wrong with Vista that you should avoid it. It’s going to be the default Windows platform eventually anyway and businesses will eventually be switching as well. Here at The Automotive Company™ we’re still migrating some users from Windows 2000 (a dead OS as far as Microsoft is concerned) to Windows XP (which Microsoft considers all but dead) and they’ve been testing Vista builds for quite awhile now. Chances are they’ll make the switch to Vista with the next two years, if not sooner. Big business is always slow to upgrade so the fact that they’ve not rushed to Vista doesn’t really mean a thing, but that 7 to 1 ratio of consumers making the switch does.

 

Want a “free” copy of Windows Vista Ultimate?

The folks at Notebook Review have an entry up about a way you can score a “free” copy of Windows Vista Ultimate Edition or one of five additional packages including Office Ultimate 2007. So what’s the catch? The catch is it’ll cost you some of your privacy for a few months:

Need a free copy of Windows Vista Ultimate? Are you incredibly trusting of big corporations? Well I have the deal for you, with a new program through Microsoft called the Windows Feedback Program. For the small price of privacy and perhaps some dignity, you can let Microsoft watch your every move for 3 months, in return for some software of your choice. Surveys are also required, one at the start, and then another in 2 week intervals, but compared to the bigger issue those are pretty painless. Some might find this to be an excellent deal, with software prices high, and cost of your free time to be almost nothing at all.

Through the following link http://wfp.microsoft.com/ you can sign up for this program, which has the following rules:

  • Participation is currently limited to US residents of 18 years and older.
  • You are the owner of the computer you use for this program.
  • The automated feedback program is offered to Windows Vista and Windows XP customers only.
  • The survey feedback program applies to all versions of Windows.
  • Microsoft, comScore, and MarketTools employees are not eligible to participate.

You can choose to sign up for just the surveys or just the automated data collection, but to get the free copy of Vista (or any of the other programs offered) you have to agree to both. Vista already has a Windows Feedback Program built into it and when you first start using Vista it asks you if you would like to sign up to provide said feedback. I believe this is the same application that they’re talking about in the offer above and the big question is: ?

Ok, tell me more about the automated feedback program – how does it work?
If you agree to join the program, a small amount of data will be collected using the Windows Feedback Program software. That data will be sent to Microsoft so we can monitor how your computer is working and better understand how you are using Windows and Office. This data is collected every time you use Windows and Office. We use this data to help make future versions of the software better and more useful for you and other users.

What types of information will you collect and why?
We are looking for information that will help us understand problems you encounter with Windows, how you have configured your computer and Windows, what hardware you are using, and general information about how you are using Windows and Microsoft Office products on your computer. You can see a list of examples of the data we collect in our
FAQ.

How often will Microsoft collect data?
How often you will share data depends on how actively you use your computer and how often your computer is connected to the internet. In general, the data is shared once per day.

The FAQ goes into a fairly general overview of the data collected and it’s broken down into three parts: Windows Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP), Office Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP), and Additional data collection which consists of the following:

The following list describes some examples of additional data collection our software performs:

  • Windows settings and usage, such as the number of user accounts on the computer and the view settings for Control Panel (that is, if you use the default Category view or the Classic view to display Control Panel).
  • Details about your computer hardware, such as processor type and speed (as well as the number of processors), system memory, video memory, and other hardware configuration information.
  • File and folder information, such as the number of files and folders located in common places (for example, in Documents).
  • Which programs you open (for example, which application you use to read your e-mail).
  • Changes you make to your hardware or software.
  • Problems you encounter, such as application crashes.

This type of data collection can provide Microsoft with useful data, such as:

  • Identification of top user problems; for example, how often does a computer crash or stop? How often do customers update Windows? How often are problems reported?
  • How customers use their computers; for example, how often do customers use their computers? How often do they connect to the Internet? How long do they stay connected?
  • How users store files on computers; for example, how much storage space do customers have on their computers? How much storage space is used? Where do customers store their files?

We do not intentionally collect sensitive information, such as the passwords on the user accounts, the contents of any of your personal files, the name or HTTP address of any of the websites you mark as Favorites, or what websites you visit.

It sounds like pretty standard stuff and not much more than would be shared if you ever participated in any of the Windows Improvement programs in the past. If you’re willing to give up that kind of info then you can score a legit copy of Vista Ultimate. Personally I’m pretty sure I’ve participated in two of the three improvement programs in the past so I’ve probably already revealed all my dirty secrets to MS and thusly have nothing to lose and a free copy of Vista Ultimate to gain.

With computers it’s the little things that make you pull your hair out.

Just the other day I mentioned how I might have to switch back to using Windows XP as the Vista audio drivers were causing my system to crash after an hour or so of use. Turns out it wasn’t the audio drivers at all, but — as is often the case — my own actions that brought about the instability.

I’ve mentioned previously how Vista runs pretty well with 1GB of RAM, though that’s the absolute minimum I’d recommend having for Vista, and I’ve been running at that level for some time now. I am, as you already know, a gamer and it turns out that trying to be a gamer under Vista with only 1GB of RAM is often annoying. This is mainly due to the simple fact that Vista is just like every previous Windows release in that in uses up more resources than XP did so a game that ran great with 1GB of RAM ended up acting like a game running with only half that much memory. World of Warcraft is notorious for lag when you enter one of the capitol cities because that’s where the greatest concentration of players tends to be and that means loading a whole bunch of custom textures due to the variety of armors on the avatars. This generally happens on systems with only 512MB of RAM and the simplest solution is to bump up to 1GB at which point the problem pretty much goes away. Well running at 1GB on Vista makes WoW act like you’re running with only 512MB on Windows XP. The solution was obvious and simple: Time to bump up the RAM in this box to 2GB.

It’s always the simple solutions that end up being hideously complex in totally unexpected ways. RAM is dirt cheap these days. Or at least it is if your motherboard is capable of using DDR2 RAM. It should go without saying that mine isn’t one of those motherboards. Mine still uses the previous generation DDR RAM. 2GB of DDR2 RAM (that’s two 1GB sticks sold together) can be had for less than $40 these days whereas 2GB of DDR RAM goes for around $140 or so. Yes, that’s a $100 difference in price and we’re talking the “cheap” DDR RAM as the premium stuff is even more expensive. That is more than enough for a decent new motherboard that runs DDR2 except you’d also have to buy a new processor which pumps the price up a bit more. I already had two 512MB sticks to make the 1GB I had in my box so I thought I’d try to save a few bucks by buying two more 512MB sticks — which would be cheaper than buying two 1GB sticks — and put them in the remaining two slots.

This simple decision was the beginning of my folly, though I wouldn’t realize it for days to come.

When I got home and slapped the new sticks in my system I found that it no longer wanted to get past the POST sequence. I had bought a high end DFI motherboard when I built this system which means it’s somewhat fussy about what you put into it and it didn’t like having two sets of RAM sticks from different manufacturers in its slots (the initial RAM I bought was also high end stuff). I locked the machine up badly enough that I had to reset the CMOS to get it working again, which meant that a few settings in my BIOS needed to be reconfigured. Being that I don’t tend to mess with my BIOS once I get things working properly I’d long forgotten what settings I’d used and as I was poking around in the BIOS one of the things I did was to disable the SATA RAID controller so the system wouldn’t waste time checking for a RAID array during boot up. I could’ve sworn I’d done that previously and I had, but not on this motherboard. This was my fatal mistake though I wouldn’t realize it for quite some time. I took the two 512MB sticks I’d bought back to the store and exchanged them for two 1GB sticks which I slapped in my machine in place of the original 512MB sticks I had in there.

Everything seemed fine when I started up Vista and I didn’t receive the first sign that something was wrong until I started playing World of Warcraft and I got my first lockup. My system froze and the audio made a terrible clacking sound. This also happened while playing Call of Duty 4 and because of the racket that was being made I assumed that it was my audio drivers suddenly acting up, which confused me because they’d been working fine for quite awhile. Still I poked and prodded and downloaded the latest drivers and generally grew more frustrated. If not the audio then the only other thing that had changed recently was the RAM so I started poking around in the BIOS to see if I had misconfigured one of the RAM settings and, after several attempts at tuning the RAM didn’t work, I ended up yanking the new RAM and put the old RAM back. It didn’t help that I found a couple of forum posts that suggested my DFI Lanparty SLI-DR Expert didn’t like the Corsair Value Select RAM I’d bought.

Only the problem didn’t go away. After yet more RAM timing tweaks in the BIOS I began to think that maybe it was the audio drivers after all so I decided to back everything up and restage to Windows XP. You can imagine my surprise when, after the initial OS install was done and I was in the middle of reinstalling WoW while copying data from the backup hard drive to its proper place on the main drive, my system once again locked up in the very same fashion as previously. Something it had never done previously. This was when I started yelling my what-the-fucks at my PC as I was beginning to wonder if I’d somehow done some damage to the PC when I had mixed the two RAM types earlier. Now one thing I didn’t mention is that during all this putzing around I was also taking time between crashes to scour the web looking for info on issues with this motherboard and Vista drivers and RAM timings, etc. and it was during one such session this evening that I happened upon a passing comment by some forum poster on DFI BIOS settings in which he mentioned he always left the SATA RAID enabled.

That’s when another detail that had been rattling around in the back of my head came to the forefront. Anne had been using the PC the past couple of days as well without experiencing a single lockup. The difference being that she wasn’t doing anything particularly disk intensive. She was browsing the web and checking email whereas I had been playing games and moving huge amounts of data around when the lockups occurred. I recalled that I had disabled the SATA RAID thinking it would improve performance. So I went into the BIOS and enabled it once more and proceeded to do a fresh install of Windows Vista.

The true test would come after the OS was loaded and I decided to go all out. First I put the new 2GB sticks back in the PC and then, after applying the initial Windows Update patches, I went ahead and launched a new install of World of Warcraft while simultaneously copying all 16GB of MP3 files back from the backup hard drive, playing some of said MP3 files in Media Player 11, while browsing the web and whistling Dixie just to put the icing on top. My system ran smooth as silk without so much as a hiccup whereas just installing WoW under XP had brought on a lockup. And it has continued to run just fine during the entire time I wrote this entry while completing the rest of the data restores to Anne’s account and installing the Burning Crusade expansion while listening to multiple plays of Green Christmas by the Barenaked Ladies.

It’s always the little changes that you’re absolutely certain you’ve done in the past that trip you up and make you yank out what little hair you still have on your head. So I’m back to running under Vista with a healthy 2GB of RAM to give it some elbow room. I already know that WoW runs great on Vista with 2GB from the small sessions I had between crashes earlier so I’m looking forward to experiencing it without the periodic lockups. The lesson to be learned here is that I should probably take notes on what my BIOS settings are before doing things that might cause me to have to reset them.

Yeah, like that’s going to happen. I’m just stupid that way.

Windows XP SP3 gives a speed boost. Vista SP1 not so much.

If Microsoft is serious about having Vista supplant XP as the dominate OS they sure are going about it in an odd way. This Yahoo News article on testing by Devil Mountain Software says that the upcoming Service Pack 3 for Windows XP improves performance by some 10% whereas Vista’s SP1, which was touted as improving performance, fails to do so:

The news comes as a “nice bonus,” the research staff said on the blog, because SP3 was expected mainly to deliver bug fixes and consolidate various patches. “In fact, XP SP3 is shaping up to be a must-have update for the majority of users who are still running Redmond’s not-so-latest-and-greatest desktop OS,” the company said.

These results run in stark contrast to tests conducted on Vista SP1. On November 18, Devil Mountain Software reported that performance gains under Vista SP1 were negligible and that Vista continues to be slower than XP.

“The hoped-for performance fixes that Microsoft has been hinting at never materialized,” the testers reported. “Vista + SP1 is no faster” than out-of-the-box Vista, they said.

“If you’ve been disappointed with the performance of Windows Vista to date, get used to it. SP1 is simply not the panacea that many predicted. In the end, it’s Vista’s architecture—not a lack of tuning or bug fixes—that makes it perform so poorly on systems that were ‘barn-burners’ under Windows XP,” the research staff said.

There’s no real details on the configuration of the PCs used in the tests so it’s hard to say if there’s any flaws in them, but my experience on my machine with both Vista and XP is that the amount of RAM you have installed makes a big difference. XP runs at it’s best with 1GB of RAM, but to get Vista to perform at a similar level takes a minimum of 2GB. Alas I’ll probably have to switch back to XP in the near future myself as the audio drivers for my motherboard are causing lockups after an hour and a half or so of use. At least until new drivers come out from the folks at nVidia to address the issue.

Still if the reported speed increase actually comes to pass then a little more time under XP won’t be a bad thing. SP3 is expected out early in 2008.

ArsTechnica looks under the hood of Windows Vista.

The folks over at Ars.com have their second article on the changes under the hood that come with Windows Vista up that covers the topics of security, networking, and storage. Here’s a sample:

Internet Explorer is different. In Internet Explorer you actively seek out pages written by other people. And so your browser is vulnerable, because any of those pages you visit could be owned by a bad person (or hacked by a bad person) and so could exploit flaws in your browser. You solicit all this input from other locations, and there’s no real way of trusting any of it.

To that end, Internet Explorer Protected Mode creates for Internet Explorer an environment that’s even less capable than the normal UAC environment. It can write to a handful of hard disk locations (primarily its cache), and it can write to a small number of registry locations and… that’s about it. It has the access it needs to browse the web, but nothing more. What this means is that if some Internet Explorer flaw is found and exploited, it can’t even harm the user. The browser may crash or otherwise go haywire, but if it’s restarted, everything should be okay again, with no damage done. This should make Internet Explorer a great deal safer than it is today and perhaps the safest browser for Windows, at least until other browsers adopt a similar mechanism.

That was one aspect of Vista I hadn’t previously been aware of and it’s weird to think that Internet Explorer under Vista may actually be the safest browser in user at the moment, but there you have it.

The article also details how Vista makes working with a standard user account (as opposed to Administrator) a lot less painful by using techniques such as virtualization to trick poorly coded programs that want to write to shared areas of the system into thinking that they’ve successfully done so when, in fact, Vista has redirected the data to the user’s profile folder. Additionally Vista brings address space layout randomization to the table to prevent one of the most common vulnerabilities used to launch malicious code: the buffer overflow error.

If the attacker no longer knows where in memory he has to go, he can no longer write a successful exploit. He can still make the flawed program crash (which going to a random memory location will tend to do), but he can’t use it to compromise the machine. His only hope is to guess at the memory location he has to go to, but most of the time his guess will be wrong.

ASLR provides significant mitigation against attempts to exploit buffer overflows and should significantly reduce the exploitability of Vista. ASLR is not a new concept—OpenBSD and certain “hardened” Linux distributions have been doing something equivalent for a number of years now—but it’s good to see it on a mainstream OS that will get wider usage than OpenBSD or secure Linux.

Whatever other criticisms one may have of Windows Vista (the DRM implementation is one we’ve discussed at length here on SEB) the fact is that Vista does bring with it quite a few improvements that should make it more secure and robust than XP.

The Ars article also covers the improvements to networking, storage, and I/O prioritization under Vista that make reading the whole article worthwhile. I don’t want to cut and past too much of it here, but there’s some good bits you’ll want to check out to have a better understanding of why, for example, Vista has a much larger memory footprint than XP (it’s to do with the new storage system). Go check it out.