Windows XP Service Pack 2: Is It Time Yet? - InformationWeek

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10/19/2004
04:29 PM
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Windows XP Service Pack 2: Is It Time Yet?

A Desktop Pipeline reviewer invites readers to step into the SP2 waters, and offers some suggestions on how to do it as safely as possible.

It's been a little over two months since Microsoft released Windows XP Service Pack 2. My position on this major update to Windows XP may have seemed a little contradictory to some of you. On one hand, prior to the release, I said that everyone should install this update. On the other hand, the day after it was released I sent you a special edition of this newsletter advising that unless you were prepared for problems or severely unprotected security wise, you should wait at least 30 days. In the last issue of the newsletter, I didn't make a hard recommendation. Instead, I reported my lack of any serious issue on nine PCs, and also reprinted some tales of trouble sent me by many readers who had tried SP2.

Now 60 days later, it's time to come clean. Should you install Windows XP Service Pack 2?

Before I give you my answer, you need to know some of the background that went into my thinking. The two main reasons not to install XP SP2, at least not right away, are:
1. Installation Woes and Other Problems
2. Web Browsing, Email, and Other Application Inconveniences

1. Installation Woes And Other Problems
Some people are having very serious problems during installation of XP SP2. In fact, there are several different install problems have been identified. Some research a few weeks ago turned up four different SP2 install problems that Microsoft had acknowledged, and that number has probably risen since. You can be sure that there are other problems as well that haven't been identified yet.

To help readers of my PC Today column and Scot's Newsletter navigate any troubled waters they may encounter with XP SP2, I've put together a list of Microsoft SP2 resources: 60 Useful Windows XP SP2 Links

This links page covers:
- Pre-Install Must Reading
- Installation Issues
- SP2 Problems/Solutions
- Uninstalling SP2
- Internet Explorer
- Outlook Express
- Windows Firewall
- Networking/Wireless
- Miscellaneous
- Microsoft Knowledge Base Searches

A look at this list will also show you some of the trouble spots, which extend into areas beyond installation.

Update for XP SP2
Microsoft recently released Update for Windows XP Service Pack 2 (KB885894), designed to solve what's probably the most common installation problem with XP SP2: A freeze part-way through the setup process, leaving you with a failed installation. If that happens to you, Microsoft is offering this 760K download. You install it, restart your machine, and you should be able to complete your XP SP2 installation successfully.

Note: This installation bug fix is poorly named. "Update for Windows XP Service Pack 2" sounds like it's something everyone should download and run, but that is not the case. It's only if you run into trouble with a hung installation.

I'd like to thank SFNL reader Mark Brent (A.K.A "markb") for bringing the Update for Windows XP Service Pack 2 to my attention so quickly. Thanks, Mark!

Darker Reader Reports
You should be aware that the tenor of the XP SP2 emails from Scot Finnie's Newsletter readers over the last 30 days has been increasingly negative -- including more varied installation problems and other issues after installation. The thing is, that's the normal course of events with a Windows service pack. There is always a long list of problems, but the number of people who actually experience the exact same problems isn't usually large. Microsoft knew this would be the case when it decided to go with a more ambitious release. This is a bite-the-bullet upgrade. They bit the bullet in delaying Longhorn significantly to bring it to you; and you should approach this upgrade with a bite-the-bullet mentality too.

The primary goal of providing a significantly greater degree of security for all Windows users is a worthy one. But no pain, no gain. XP SP is in no way a painless upgrade because it makes many under the covers changes for security sake. I believe that 60% of the people who install it will wish this or that worked like it used to, or have more fundamental problems.

2. Web Browsing, Email, And Other Application Inconveniences
I wrote a feature story for the January 2005 issue of PC Today magazine that you should keep an eye out for. It details the "10 Things You Need to Know About Windows XP Service Pack 2." In particular, it charts some of the changes in behavior under Windows XP SP2. And that's the second area of "reasons not to install XP SP2" worth considering before you install it. In particular, I'm talking about the way things work in Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and issues with application incompatibility. Many people have reported problems with Norton AntiVirus 2004, for example -- in some cases, serious issues. Symantec has been pretty quick to release patches for things they know are wrong, but everyone -- including third-party software makers -- are still climbing a learning curve in the wake of XP SP2's wide release.

My personal pet peeve is intermittent pop-ups that temporarily block file downloads from some shareware sites. The problem doesn't appear universally, and it depends on the way download sites serve up files. But some people are reporting serious issues related to this too, like the inability to install or run files they download. And anyone who downloads frequently could quickly find themselves using an alternative browser after installing XP SP2. (SP2 is clearly going to drive additional acceptance of the Mozilla Firefox and Opera browsers; all of my computers are running Firefox as a secondary browser.) Some people have already reported that this or that problem or inconvenience caused them to uninstall XP SP2 entirely. I can sympathize with that inclination, although I have not felt compelled to do that (I've just tested it to ensure Uninstall works properly).

Because I have had no trouble installing XP SP2 (on 12 machines now and counting), it's this second area -- inconveniences and changed behaviors -- that I find to be a larger, longer-term concern. Another pet peeve is the changes that SP2 brings to the Internet Control Panel's Security tab settings. The settings are not explained well, the words are ambiguous in some places, and there's little of use in the Help text, which in many contexts offers nothing but the same generic sentence or two. What becomes clear is that some of the most annoying protect-you-from-yourself security settings don't come with any way (at least via the user-interface) to change their defaults. Most of the security changes I agree with, but some of them border on paranoia.

If you know of Registry hacks that allow us to revise the behavior of security controls under SP2, I'm very interested in anything you can pass along. I hope to cover customizing SP2 in future. You can email me at [email protected].

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