News
10/19/2004
04:29 PM

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].

The Bottom Line
Despite all of the above -- and despite numerous reports posted on beta sites, forums, and newsgroups about dire or just messy problems with XP SP2 -- I believe that the time has come for at least some people to install it. I've been through many service packs and Windows updates and similar changes with several other operating systems over the last 25 years. Sixty days later, it doesn't look to me like Windows XP Service Pack 2 will stand out as one of the more problematic Windows upgrades. That said, here are my specific recommendations:

1. Any IT person reading this who is responsible for rolling out XP SP2 on multiple seats, test the heck out of this upgrade before you do so. In particular, test it with unique, low-cost, regional, or outdated hardware that you may be using. Hardware support is changed with Windows XP Service Pack 2 -- probably almost as much as with your average major point release of Windows, judging from the mail I've been getting lately. That's been a little surprising to me. But application issues are the ones that are even harder to fix. Do your homework by checking the functionality of all your apps first. Be sure. If your environment is secure and you encounter app and/or hardware problems, the benefits of XP SP2 probably do not outweigh the disadvantages. I'm not saying never install it. I think everyone should eventually install this release. But business environments are probably the riskiest ones for XP SP2. Hang back until additional problems are worked out, newer drivers are available, and application patches become available.

2. Individual users who are experienced, if you have not already installed this service pack -- and especially those who stay on top of issues with your computers -- the time has come to consider installing it. The vast majority of people have encountered no serious issues with SP2. Remember, people who have no problems don't post in newsgroups, etc. It's just another day for them. And this phenomenon, that negative experiences are magnified, skews our sense of the real-world experience toward the negative. Be careful not to get sucked all the way into the buzz; it's not statistically representative.

For most people, the negative results, if any, are a bevy of small annoyances (most of which are not universal at all). It's just not enough to keep you from exploring SP2. The update is also fully uninstallable, and the Uninstall seems to work pretty well (although it does leave Internet Connection Firewall turned on). If possible, install it on a machine other than your main machine first to see how it goes. But I don't think you should hang back any longer just because of potential major universal problems. After 60 days, the threat of that is less apparent.

There's one caveat to my recommendation to go ahead and install: If you are fully protected with a software firewall, an up-to-date always-running antivirus program that scans your email at least inbound, and you have installed all critical security updates (other than SP2) for Windows XP, there's also no wild rush to install SP2. There are numerous vulnerabilities that Microsoft has plugged in XP SP2, but the majority of those have been previously released. If you have a solid understanding of the Internet and the threats it poses, delaying your installation of SP2 for a while longer is not the end of the world at all. If you don't feel like dealing with a potential hassle, hang back. Every day that goes by, Microsoft and OEM PC makers are learning more and more about the issues that some people have with XP SP2. And they're working on solutions for them. A few months down the line, many problems that some people are having now will be avoided by subsequent patches and workarounds. So long as your security is sound and you're savvy about Internet threats, do not feel compelled to install this update right away.

3. Relatively inexperienced users or those who are not very confident about their ability to extricate themselves from computer problems, you represent the toughest choice. This user group, which is by far and away the largest group of Windows users, stands to gain the most from Windows XP Service Pack 2. I can't promise you an easy installation experience of Windows XP Service Pack 2. I can tell you that the majority of people have literally no problem whatsoever. It's been estimated that only 10 percent of people who install this upgrade experience a serious problem. My data shows the success rate might even be slightly higher than that.

So, it's my considered opinion that for you, the overall threats from the Internet and how you might interact with it outweigh the potential trouble you might encounter during or after installation of Windows XP Service Pack 2.

There is one thing you can do to help yourself: Bone up on XP SP2 before you install. Start by consulting these documents and review the rest of the documents on this page as well. Arm yourself with information. Plus, review the following pre-installation tips.

Pre-Installation Tips
Before you install SP2 (or any Windows upgrade), please follow these steps:

1. Consult Scot's Newsletter's 60 Useful Windows XP SP2 Links. Also, check the Scot's Newsletter Forums' Windows Forum for the latest word on issues and known problems.

2. Back up your personal data. My preference is for using imaging software like Norton Ghost for this purpose. Your backup should be made to a separate hard disk (another partition is OK, but a separate physical hard drive is better), network volume, or writable DVD.

3. Check with your system manufacturer about known issues with SP2 and your machine. Specific models of PCs may be more prone to SP2 trouble than others. So consult with your system manufacturer or major component makers.

4. Temporarily disable or uninstall software firewall and antivirus software before installing. I can't tell you how many times people have come to me with Windows upgrade problems who have not followed this step. If you neglect to do this, it doesn't mean an automatic meltdown of your PC, but the incidence of woes is very high if you don't -- higher than even many experienced PC users realize. After installation is complete, be sure to re-enable your security software.

Remember, Windows XP SP2 turns on its own Windows Firewall automatically. It is possible for two running software firewalls to conflict with each other, so that's a second reason to disable your firewall.

5. Check your hard drives for disk errors. In XP, that means running "chkdsk /f" from a command line. You'll need to restart your machine to allow this process to run on your boot volume.

6. Make a named Windows XP System Restore point beforehand: Basic Instructions on Working with System Restore.

7. Shut down all unnecessary applications. This comes under the heading "don't tempt fate." The admonition includes software with open windows and also those running in background. Most Windows services are not at issue, but application-installed background applications should be dumped where possible.

The easiest, surest way to do this is with the System Configuration Utility. Click Start > Run > Type "msconfig" and press Enter. Click the Startup tab. Remove checks beside items that you want to temporarily disable. If you're not sure whether to turn something off, don't. After you install SP2, remember to come back here and set things back the way they were. (Or uninstall some of these things if you don't want them. Before you uninstall, though, turn them back on on the Startup tab.)

For more information about items you find in the System Configuration Utility's Startup tab (or on the Ctrl-Alt-Del Windows Task Manager's Processes tab), please consult Scot's Newsletter Link of the Week-Award-winning Startup Contents' Full Database of background applications. It gives you information about programs running on your system based on the cryptic names that Windows reports. Startup Contents, by Paul Collins, is one of the most valuable Windows helps sites on the Internet.

Scot Finnie is Editor, Pipelines and TechWeb, as well as the author of Scot's Newsletter and previously an editor with Windows Magazine, ZDNet, and PC/Computing. He has been writing about Windows and other operating systems for two decades.

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