SP1 might only be three characters, but it's make or break time for Microsoft. The corporation clearly remains hopeful that the Vista stragglers will want to make the transition once it has ironed out all the creases in an operating system riddled with tiny bugs.

Microsoft is making the Release Candidate (RC) of Service Pack 1 - the post-beta, pre-release version - available next week to the public via Microsoft's Download Center.

If you're lucky enough to have an account, you can get it today via Microsoft Connect or tomorrow via TechNet and MSDN. According to Microsoft blogger Nick White, the release indicates "that the code has attained a significant level of performance and stability".

The full RTM (Release to Manufacturing) version of SP1 is still slated for early next year. Although SP1 contains some fixes that have already been released, the key is that the release guarantees a certain level of stability and reliability that will be required by some software. And then there are users such as businesses, which need an OS to be a stable property before rolling it out across their networks.

We already know that as well as the performance enhancements and bug fixes, SP1 will bring further anti-piracy measures.

You don't have to install it

And, if you've splashed out for Office 2007 this year, you can also get an update for that. Indeed the final version of that Service Pack will be available from 11 December. It includes various changes including a compatibility fix for previous Office file formats.

In a post on the Windows Vista Experience Blog, White says the size of the standalone installers for SP1 have decreased significantly by as much as 50 per cent since the beta programme. "Previous SP1 versions left behind a directory of files that wasn't needed after installation and occupied about 1GB of space; the RC includes automatic disk clean-up to remove this directory," says White.

Interestingly, Microsoft won't be making SP1 a necessity upon release - instead, administrators can choose whether to install the patch or not.

Both x86 and x64 versions of the SP1 RC will be available. An RC version of Windows Server 2008 has also been made available.