So what has changed over RC1 and earlier builds?
Firstly, the image size is reduced by a fraction to 3.69GB - not a great change, but still smaller than the 3.76GB of RC1 and the 4.4GB of Beta 2. Installation is quite straightforward as well and has been tidied up and is better presented than earlier builds. It's clear Microsoft is heading for the finishing line with this build.
While we're on the subject of installation, this build took about five minutes longer than RC1 did to install, but still finished in around 25 minutes, about half the time it took me to install XP on this same machine the last time I had to.
As with RC1, once installed, the Windows Experience Indexer was run and I was treated to some graphics showing the advantages of Vista, and then we were into the system proper, which automatically connected to Windows Update and installed drivers for my sound card and the latest updates for the built-in anti-spyware software, Windows Defender. Nice touch.
So how does it perform?
Overall, the system is even more responsive than RC1. Graphical windows are smooth and snappy and have even lost the slight lag' associated with earlier builds. Networking was a breeze and I only had to click once to tell the system that I was using a home network and off it went and configured everything automatically.
Other improvements include the built-in unzip utility, which seemed to cause OS stutters in RC1 but works just fine now. User Account Control, the new security feature included with Vista has also been tweaked somewhat. A pet hate of mine from the early days, this seemed less intrusive than on earlier versions. Upon using the system for most of the day I realised that I either got a download warning, or a UAC popup - but not both as we experienced with RC1. Ultimately, I still think UAC will be a big turn off for users and become self-defeating, as most people will probably still be too annoyed by the popups it generates and opt to turn it off altogether.
One nice surprise in this build is that memory usage has been reduced significantly. Earlier builds used 55-65% of system memory just for the OS with no other software loaded. RC2 brought my memory usage down to 46% of the 1GB installed, hinting that even more of the code has now been compiled and in final form. I still think this is a little on the high side, but have hopes that the memory footprint will have been reduced even further once the final build is released.
As with earlier interim builds, the new Vista sound scheme has been omitted, although there is a new, two-note sound which plays just before the familiar XP shutdown music. Microsoft has said that the startup music will not be able to be turned off in Vista, and sure enough the control panel options allow you to change the sounds for everything else except that, although there is the option to turn off sounds altogether, at least for the time being.
Drivers are still required to be signed before the OS will allow you to install them, although there is an option in the advanced boot menu to override this should you be brave enough to risk it.
64-bit drivers are still a cause for concern. My printer - not the latest model (in fact, Epson EOL'd it a long time ago) didn't install automatically and I had to search for a driver from Epson. Luckily, the driver for XP x64 edition worked fine with earlier builds and worked again with RC2. Not so luckily, my tv card didn't install at all. I really think hardware vendors should get up to speed with releasing 64-bit device drivers, although the lack of 64-bit hardware support is more likely to impact the professional and enthusiast communities who will specifically want to run the x64 edition of Vista, not least of all because of the greater memory addressing it provides. µ
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