Microsoft has shipped the "RTM" build of Service Pack 1 of Windows Vista, meaning that those of us running this operating system soon will have some relief. The "release to manufacturing" version means that Microsoft is satisfied that this is the correct version that everyone should use, that PC makers should ship in new PCs and consumers should download.

"With Service Pack 1, we have made great progress in performance, reliability and compatibility," said Mike Nash, of Microsoft's Windows Product Management Group, in his public blog. "One of the great things about my job is that I get to play with the latest builds of our products. I've personally been running Windows Vista SP1 pretty exclusively for a few months, and I've noticed that my systems run faster and more reliably than they did with the 'Gold' release of Windows Vista."

Reliability is the major flaw in Vista for many corporations. Microsoft is quick to point out that it has licensed more than 100 million copies of Vista to date, but that does not take into account the number of computers, including mine, that have Vista stickers on the bottom and XP on the hard drive.

Most companies won't even think of moving to Vista in the enterprise until after the first service pack, so next month's consumer release is huge.

Microsoft says it bundles more than 300 patches and improvements in one bundle, which will be welcome. One of my Vista laptops, for example, won't run Windows Media Player; another won't run Word (it says the problem is caused by "Microsoft Word, a product of Microsoft Corporation" and suggests I contact them for advice.)

The biggest improvements? File copying, both locally and via a network, is up to 50 percent faster under SP1. Secondly, resuming from sleep, which is death on one of my Dell laptops, is now supposedly fixed in the new service pack.

If you're looking for new features, this is not the service pack for you.

The downside? There are some device drivers identified during the beta process that do not work well with SP1. The issue was with how the drivers were installed and not with the drivers themselves, so while Microsoft works with the vendor on a new process, the service pack simply won't install for now if it detects any of the affected drivers. (Microsoft, for now, has not released what drivers are involved.)

The Service Pack will be released via Windows Update in mid-March for customers who proactively run the update. In April, the Service Pack will be "pushed" to computers that have automatic updates turned on, as most computers do.

"The result is that more and more systems will automatically get SP1, but only when we are confident they will have a good experience," Nash wrote.

My recommendations have not changed. Install the Service Pack immediately when it is released, but back up all of your important data first. If possible, back up your entire PC, if losing all of your settings would be an inconvenience. Installing SP1 is a big deal, so take it seriously.

WEEKLY WEB WONDER: Look at the Vista blog at

James Derk is owner of CyberDads, a computer repair firm, and tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is [email protected]