Power User: The Windows XP SP2 bell finally tolls

John McCormick

As you stalk the aisles of FOSE this week, something may be stalking you back at the office. If you haven't already installed it, Windows XP Service Pack 2 is coming. On April 12, the grace period ends for organizations that wanted to test out SP2 before Microsoft's Automatic Update service pushes it out to users.

In light of this, I thought it appropriate to take another look at XP. By the way, if you still don't want the upgrade and are connected to the Internet, you need to opt out by going to the Control Panel, opening Automatic Updates and changing your update preferences'before April 12.

Now a special warning to small offices with dial-up access or other slow connections, and to offices involved in mission-critical tasks: Even with a selective automatic update, paring down the 260M of the full SP2, you probably have to wait through a 50M-plus download and installation. That could be prohibitive in your environment.

Personally, I installed SP2 from a CD that came with MSDN Universal'a set of first-look tools for developers'and have experienced few of the much-discussed legacy problems, none of which were serious. I believe SP2 is an important upgrade, but that doesn't mean everyone has tested it or is ready to deploy it. Although I haven't had any difficulties, the program can definitely cause problems with some existing applications.

So why get the update? As I'm sure you've heard, it's more secure. Internet Explorer has two big changes: one provides pop-up protection and the other helps you manage add-ons. You can allow pop-ups just for specific sites and enable or disable add-ons (but not, for some reason, delete them). Outlook gets an even more critical up- date'a plain-text mode that eliminates the risk of malicious scripts carried by HTML code.

Among the more high-profile tweaks, the built-in XP firewall has certainly caused a sizeable number of problems in SP2 installations, but not because of any big changes; SP2 just turns it on by default. If you have a good firewall, you probably want to shut down Windows Firewall to avoid conflicts. If not, the free one is certainly preferable to using nothing on your laptop or any non-networked PC.

In addition, the new Security Center does little more than bring all security functions onto one screen and lets you configure local security alerts. The best I can say about it is that it does no harm.

That said, Microsoft offers a number of reasons to upgrade to SP2. To read them, go to www.gcn.com and enter 395 into the GCN.com/box.

Now that you probably have'or will have'added to your XP operating system, it is time once again to look at some ways of cutting unwanted features and otherwise speeding things up.

For example, if you've opted for the wonderful new Google Desktop Search tool, you will probably never use the Windows search feature again. So do yourself a favor and turn off automatic file indexing if you have it running. This feature speeds up Windows searches but also forces a system slowdown while each new file is added to a database.

Select Start, Search, For Files or Folders to open the search Window. Click on Change Preferences, then select the Indexing Service option and make sure you've checked 'No, do not enable Indexing Service.' Indexing is supposed to happen during idle time but, unlike the Google search tool, Windows' always seems to slow down my system when I save any big new file.

And in case you still weren't sure, you do want to use XP's NTFS file system instead of FAT or FAT32. NTFS is better for speed and reliability, although you may only notice it with big hard drives or partitions. If you have an old machine it probably doesn't matter. You normally take care of NTFS conversion during Windows Setup, but if you're still running FAT or FAT32, you can change to NTFS by running convert.exe from the command line.

John McCormick is a freelance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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