Windows XP SP2: almost here

Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) promises serious security fixes, and it's almost here. But you may not want to jump on it too fast. We'll tell you why.

Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) promises serious security fixes, and it's almost here. But you may not want to jump on it too fast. We'll tell you why.

Every time a virus or a worm makes the rounds, users throw their hands in the air. And by now, their arms must be exhausted. Seemingly every week, holes in Internet Explorer and Windows itself let new attacks through. And with each new attack, we see Microsoft release a patch instead of the service pack we've all been clamouring for.

Well, the wait for a long-promised security fix might finally be over. SP2 is expected to be released (and made available for download) very soon, and Microsoft will roll the service pack out to its Windows Update service later in the month. Boxed retail versions of Windows XP with SP2 are expected to hit store shelves by the end of October.

We suggest you update your PC with SP2, since it promises to make your Windows XP Home or Professional system more secure and give you better control over your security settings. And we recommend that you use Windows' built-in update system to do the update. You can get the update more quickly if you seek out the download from Microsoft's site, but by waiting for the automatic update (it might be a few weeks), you give Microsoft time to fix its fixes, if need be.

Advantages of SP2
SP2 will protect your PC better against intruders and unwanted software than past versions of Windows did. The new Windows Firewall replaces the old Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) and is turned on by default. In our experience with a beta version of SP2 (Release Candidate 2), Windows Firewall was more vigilant than ICF in blocking unwanted programs, although sometimes a bit too vigilant. For example, Windows Firewall blocked programs that had legitimate reason to access our test system, such as ActiveSync software for a Pocket PC handheld. Thankfully, you can easily make exceptions from the Control Panel to allow through programs you know and trust.

Windows XP SP2 makes improvements to Internet Explorer, too, including a long-overdue pop-up ad blocker. Like the new Windows Firewall, IE's pop-up blocker is turned on by default -- part of what Microsoft is calling its new 'shields-up' defence for Windows XP. Similarly, SP2 questions email and IM attachments more rigorously and warns you against opening suspicious file types such as executables (EXE files).

SP2 also introduces the Security Center, which organises all of SP2's myriad security features and provides a snapshot of your system's firewall (either Microsoft's or a third party's), Automatic Updates and third-party antivirus program. The Security Center keeps you abreast of the status of each security tool and alerts you to any needed updates.

Windows XP's Automatic Updates feature gets a few tweaks of its own in SP2. You now get four options for how you'd like to receive updates from the Windows Update service: download and install immediately, download and wait for you to initiate the installation, just alert you to updates available for download, or turn it off completely. Microsoft hopes that this more flexible control will encourage more people to use Automatic Updates to install the latest patches.

There's also an update to Outlook Express that lets you block images from HTML email, which will be helpful in blocking pornographic images sent as spam. It will also keep spammers from identifying an active email address whenever such images are downloaded from the spammer's server.

Other SP2 goodies include Windows Media Player 9.0, Bluetooth Client 2.0, DirectX 9.0b, and a new wireless LAN client with an improved interface. In addition, Tablet PC users who download SP2 will receive the latest OS for such devices: Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005. Similarly, SP2 will upgrade first-generation Media Center PCs with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004.

Disadvantages?
For one thing, this service pack is late. Had it arrived just three weeks earlier, the world may have been spared damage from Sasser and other viruses. And the download isn't small. For someone who hasn't downloaded a Windows update for eons, the file can top off at 270MB, although Microsoft estimates that most downloads (for people who have been good about running Automatic Updates) will come closer to 100MB.

As with any service pack, we wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of compatibility issues between SP2 and some programs already installed on your PC. Microsoft assures us it's doing everything it can to combat application compatibility issues, but we suggest exercising caution and waiting a few weeks to see if there are any major problems with SP2 before installing it.

You're likely to experience a wait for the service pack anyway. Microsoft is encouraging everyone to enable Automatic Updates (if you haven't already done so) and wait to be asked to upgrade to SP2. The company estimates that it will roll its updates out over the course of a couple months. We suspect that if every Windows XP user rushed to Microsoft's Download Center at once, Microsoft's servers might catch fire and explode.

Conclusion
What's not to like? Microsoft Windows XP SP2 is a free download and fixes many security concerns that Windows XP users have. We see no reason why you shouldn't join the rest of us in the queue for SP2. We wouldn't rush to download it from Microsoft's Web site, though -- it would be better to wait until the company has had a couple weeks to identify any major problems. By the time the offer for SP2 arrives via Automatic Updates, however, Microsoft should have a handle on any problems that crop up. Also, with Longhorn not likely to debut until 2007, if you are running an older version of Windows, now might be the time to switch to XP.

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