- ✓More than 300 security and other patches in one installation
- ✓easy deployment instructions for network installations
- ✓Java Virtual Machine included.
- ✕Huge download and installation footprint needed
- ✕not all of the features worked as well as expected on our test systems.
For a big package of bug fixes, the first Windows XP Service Pack (SP1) has certainly drummed up a lot of interest in the media -- and rightly so. Not only does Service Pack 1, released on 9 September, make changes demanded by Microsoft's settlement with the US Department of Justice, it also crams in more than 300 bug fixes, security patches and OS updates. On the other hand, we didn't notice improved speed or stability in informal tests, and SP1's highly touted ability to change Windows' default applications for services such as Web browsing and instant messaging don't amount to much at this point.
Also, the service pack weighs in at a whopping 133MB (although you can get a scaled-down 20MB -- 30MB version if you've been regularly downloading Windows updates), and it demands more than 500MB of free disk space. Get it for the security patches if you have a fast connection and a roomy hard drive, but note that you can get the crucial security fixes from Windows Update. You can also order SP1 in its entirety on CD from Microsoft Connections (0870 601 0100) -- currently there’s no shipping charge for this.
Once you download SP1 or insert the CD, Microsoft puts up a wordy autorun screen that essentially instructs you to proceed with caution before hitting the setup link. On the plus side, if you're maintaining a network of computers, the service pack includes clear and helpful instructions for deploying it across networks both large and small.
Get SP1 up and running, and you'll immediately notice -- nothing. The service pack barely changes XP's interface. And despite Microsoft's claim that the SP1’s profound code changes may make some applications run faster, we found no obvious performance differences in our (admittedly limited) testing.
The service pack also includes Microsoft's Java Virtual Machine (JVM), albeit as a stopgap in continuing consumer-unfriendly legal action between Microsoft and Sun. We're happy to see JVM in SP1 (since you'll need it to properly view a wide variety of Web pages), although Microsoft says that it will remove it after 1 January 2004. The SP1 inclusion isn't crucial, either; you can download JVM for XP directly from Sun without the fuss of the huge service pack.
But SP1's biggest news lies tucked away in the control panel's ‘Add or remove programs’ dialogue box. Here, you'll find a new button labelled ‘Set program access and defaults’. This feature aims to tackle another of Microsoft's legal issues: the government's antitrust suit against it.
This control panel offers three options for the way you view and use certain software on your PC: Non-Microsoft, Microsoft Windows and Custom. These options allow you to change your default Web browser, media player, email client, instant messenger and Java Virtual Machine -- all in one place. So, if you prefer Netscape 7.0, AOL Instant Messenger, Eudora and MusicMatch, you can -- in theory -- choose the non-Microsoft option and hide (but not remove) XP's bundled Internet Explorer, Windows Messenger, Outlook Express and Windows Media Player. Or you can choose Custom to select whichever defaults you want. Computer makers such as Dell can add a fourth default option called Computer Manufacturer, with yet another set of bundled applications.
Although this tool can indeed hide Microsoft's options from the menu, the really anticipated feature was a disappointment. Despite having AIM, MusicMatch Jukebox and RealOne Player installed on our test computer, the only media-player and instant-messaging options we could see were Microsoft's. In fact, we couldn't get XP SP1 to actually display any software other than Microsoft's, which rather spoiled the antitrust effect. Here's the catch, according to Microsoft: the company says that it's up to third parties -- such as Real, MusicMatch and AOL -- to plug their products into these features. Apparently, many of them haven't yet. Until they do, the bundle situation won't change much.
The good news is that XP SP1 is a risk-free endeavour, thanks to its elegant uninstall feature (assuming you've been saving your backup data). When we attempted to uninstall on our test machines using the Add/Remove Programs control panel, SP1 put up a dialogue box warning that some software may not run properly afterwards. Despite this notice, uninstalling the service pack did not cause problems and even restored previously installed hot fixes and security patches.
As long as you can install SP1 with the confidence that you won't permanently damage your system and you have the bandwidth and the free disk space, you might as well give it a shot. But if you don't have the patience or the connection for such a huge package, and you don’t want to wait for a CD to arrive by post, you can get most of the fixes and patches piecemeal from Windows Update.