The just-released Windows Vista SP1 Release Candidate (RC), like the previous beta, does more to improve the internal plumbing of Windows Vista than it does to make any major changes to the interface. SP1 RC targets performance, reliability and security, leaving the operating system's features and functionality largely intact, with the exception of allowing users to substitute an alternate search tool for the one built into Vista, and removing the Search link from the Start menu.

When the final version of SP1 (currently slated for next year) is released, the big news will be the death of the so-called Kill Switch, which Microsoft prefers to call "reduced functionality mode." Whatever you call it, though, the elimination of the switch will be good news. Currently, if you don't activate your retail copy of Windows Vista after 30 days, your desktop turns black, and your icons and the Start menu vanish. You can't open your files (although you can copy them). You're able to use a Web browser for only an hour before you get logged off.

The same thing happens if Windows Vista decides that you've installed it on a different PC than your original one, and you ignore a three-day grace period for contacting Microsoft. Vista might also decide it's been installed on a different PC than the original if you make a substantial number of hardware changes to your original PC.

In the shipping version of SP1 (though not in the current RC version), the Kill Switch will become more of a "Nudge Switch." You'll be frequently reminded that you need to activate Windows, and the desktop background will turn black. Try to change it to another background, and an hour later Windows will turn it black again. In addition, you won't be able to download signed drivers and optional updates via Windows Updates, although you'll still be able to get critical security updates. Not a pleasant experience, certainly, but at least you'll still be able to use the operating system.

For more details about the Kill Switch and new anti-piracy measures baked into SP1, read our article Vista SP1 to contain tougher anti-piracy checks.

Changes since the previous beta

Not much has changed in the RC version of SP1 compared to the previous beta, although there are slight differences. Installation on my 1.83GHz Core Duo laptop took under an hour; the previous beta took an hour and 15 minutes. The previous beta didn't clean up after itself, and left about 1GB worth of files in a folder that was no longer needed after installation. RC, on the other hand, deletes that directory and files.

A bug I found in the previous beta still remains: On my home network, which uses a Linksys WRT54GX4 router, I couldn't connect from my SP1 RC test machine to any other Vista PCs on my network. And I couldn't connect from Vista PCs to the test machine, either. However, I could connect to XP machines, and from XP machines to my test machine. That bug appears to be an isolated one, because other reviewers have been able to connect to Vista PCs on their networks.

Overall, in RC, Vista seems a little zippier when it connects to XP PCs. Copying files between PCs seems faster, and the time estimates that Vista gives for how long that copying will take seem to be more accurate.

Microsoft claims there have been other, minor changes as well, including a reduction in the size of stand-alone installers. It says that the RC stand-alone installer packages with 36 languages are 50 percent smaller than the previous beta, and the stand-alone installer packages with five languages are 30 percent smaller. In addition, the company says, disk space required for installation has decreased, and in RC, if SP1 discovers there's not enough space to install, it will tell you how much extra space you need. Microsoft also claims that the installation is more reliable, with a higher percentage of successful installs.

Otherwise, the RC version of SP1 offers the same changes to Vista that the previous beta did. One of the biggest changes is in the way search works. For example, you can now use a third-party search technology, such as Google Desktop Search, as your default search engine, by choosing Start --> Default Programs --> Set your default programs. You'll see a screen that allows you to change which search tool to use by default.

In addition, if you choose Start --> Default Programs --> Associate a file type or protocol with a specific program, you'll see a new entry in the protocol section, called Search. It lets you configure which program opens when you click on a file that uses the Windows Search protocol.

In addition, the Search link has been removed from the Start menu, and when you enter a search in the Start menu search box and results appear, the names of the links to additional searches have changed from "See all results" to "Search Everywhere."

If you want more information, Microsoft offers an overview of Windows Vista SP1 desktop search changes in its Knowledge Base.

There are a variety of other small changes to Vista that still appear in the RC version, including to the Disk Defragmenter, which now lets you choose with volumes to defragment, and to BitLocker, which lets you choose which drives to encrypt.

Where Vista goes from here

Microsoft is about to ramp up the beta program for RC SP1. It is now available for subscribers to TechNet and MDSN, and it will be freely available for anyone via Microsoft's Download Centre the week of 10 December 2007. Microsoft is still targeting the final release of Vista SP1 for the first quarter of 2008.

If you're looking for more information about SP1, check out this Vista news blog.