XP Service Pack 2, where were you?

Box scores

When Microsoft Windows XP came out in 2001, the GCN Lab called it one of the simplest and most powerful operating systems ever.

XP struck a good balance between power and simplicity. Experienced users could do a lot of tweaking, but Sunday drivers could keep things in tune with automatic updates and feel pretty confident every time they turned the key.

I was not a big fan of Service Pack 1, a 2002 update to the OS inspired by antitrust concerns. For such a big download, SP1 did little except separate the browser from the rest of the software. Aside from executives at America Online Inc., few people wanted to take a working browser out of their OS, so the update was a bit of a bust.

It did, however, build a platform for security updates, which in recent months have become almost too numerous to count. Every hacker in the world has been gunning for XP, and some of their worms and viruses have done great damage to users.

I consider Service Pack 2 the first real, non-legally mandated update. It makes XP a lot more functional, plugs some holes and even stops some spammers in their tracks. These features should have been in the OS to begin with, but better late than never.

The biggest problem with the service pack is how it arrives: a huge, 266M download from Microsoft.com or, for users with automatic updates activated, in smaller chunks over time. Without a broadband connection, a 266M download is about as feasible as a jog to the moon, so Microsoft also offers to ship a CD-ROM for free.

Installation on one of the lab's 1.1-GHz Pentium 4 test systems took 37 minutes, not counting download time. On an older system with a 750-MHz processor, it took an hour and three minutes.

After rebooting, a big screen immediately presented this choice: enabling automatic updates'denoted by a green icon'or turning them off, denoted by a large red shield.

The default is to enable, but you must at least click Next to confirm this. Users who later complain of a worm infection because the OS was not up-to-date have only themselves to blame.

As for the nuts and bolts, the service pack is almost exclusively security-oriented. Internet Explorer now automatically rejects pop-up ads from Web pages, even those that infest the MSNBC.com site.

On a test machine with Google.com's anti-pop-up software, which counts killed ads, the new service pack caught all ads before they reached Google's blocker. I even tested Explorer in some of the Web's darkest corners, notorious for thousands of pop-ups. None activated.

SP2 sends ActiveX controls the way of the dinosaur. ActiveX can give Web sites complete access to your computer and lately has been harnessed to push viruslike programs. SP2's default is to disable all ActiveX content, though it can still run if you allow it.

Heavy-handed?

Outlook hasn't changed much, but Outlook Express has a ton of new security enhancements. One of the most dramatic is that it no longer accepts program-based attachments. Only a message saying that Outlook Express killed the attachment comes through. Even if the program is in a zipped file, you won't be able to unzip it and run the program.

Some might consider this a little heavy-handed, but computer security is a terrible problem these days, and there are plenty of file-sharing sites and programs other than e-mail that can direct needed programs to their proper destinations.

Most other files such Microsoft Word or MP3 files will still open in Outlook, but they require an extra click.

Along the same lines, images will no longer load in the e-mail window, which should block a lot of spam ads.

Because such images come from a server, spammers can verify working addresses by checking the server records to see who opened their e-mail. Now they won't be able to track whether a live person saw their message or not.

Another more general security hole is closed, too. Messenger Service, which had become the bane of some users' existence, is gone. You'll no longer see official-looking messages that seem to have come from your systems administrator yet tout Viagra.

The service can be set up to work, in case someone in authority finds it useful, but only on a LAN.
The rather powerful Windows firewall is now on by default. Before, the default was off, and most users left it like that.

There are some minor nonsecurity improvements, such as easier menu navigation in some areas and the ability to see the signal strength of all wireless connections in the vicinity. On a notebook PC, you can now connect to the strongest wireless signal when there is a choice.

Overall, SP2 patches enough holes that we won't have to install new Microsoft security updates every week.

Eight older test systems in the lab accepted SP2 without glitches, though it took a while.

That's no guarantee your installation will be flawless, but the odds look pretty good. SP2 is a must-have for Windows XP users.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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