Don’t let XP Service Pack 3 hose your system

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

From the moment Microsoft released it, Service Pack 3 for Windows XP has been the subject of almost daily reports of bugs, incompatibilities, and general headaches.

You can install SP3 with confidence — providing you take certain precautions — or, if you prefer, use Windows’ Automatic Update settings to keep the service pack off your system.

Multiple problems plague SP3 adopters

Windows Secrets has been reporting problems with Windows XP’s Service Pack 3 almost from the instant the patch collection was first distributed. In fact, so many readers have contacted us with questions or complaints about SP3 — the last major update to Windows XP — that we’ve synthesized everything you need to know about this update in a single column.

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Here are the most glaring SP3-related problems:

• Internet connectivity fails when using black hole routers, which drop packets (see Susan Bradley’s May 1 column in our paid content and Microsoft’s Knowledge Base article 314825).

• False positives are generated by Norton Internet Security and other security applications (see my May 2 Top Story).

• Device Manager settings go missing, especially in connection with using Norton Antivirus (see Susan Bradley’s column in the May 29 newsletter as well as KB 953791).

• Repeated rebooting occurs on machines using an AMD processor (see Susan Bradley’s May 22 column and KB 953356).

• You can’t install any new updates (see KB 943144).

• Third-party visual styles encounter problems (see the Support Alert Newsletter of June 19).

Making an upgrade decision that works for you

In light of these and other problems, you may wonder whether you ever want SP3 at all, especially given that many of its enhancements focus on networking and IT-level administration. Here’s the case for SP3:

Think security: In addition to new features, SP3 — like most service packs — includes numerous security updates that were available individually in the past.

Consider support: If you think you might require Microsoft’s assistance to install SP3, you need to add the service pack before April 2009, when the company will end such support. And because overall support for SP2 expires in early 2010, you’ll need to have SP3 installed by that date if you want general support for XP.

Be prepared: Before you install SP3, take a few precautions. First and foremost, perform a full system backup. Microsoft has digested all recommended pre-install steps in KB 950717, which also includes troubleshooting information if all does not go well.

How to remove SP3 from your Automatic Updates

If you decide you don’t want SP3, Microsoft offers a tool for suppressing the automatic installation of the service pack. The Service Pack Blocker Tool Kit won’t prevent you from downloading SP3 manually from the company’s site, nor will it stop you from installing the patches from a CD or DVD. All it does is stop the service pack from being installed via Windows’ Automatic Updates.

In addition, the Service Pack Blocker postpones the installation for only a year from SP3’s release date last April.

Surf over to Microsoft’s Service Pack Blocker download page and click the Download button for SPBlockerTools.exe. Click Yes to accept the license agreement and type in the path to the folder where the files will be stored (click the Browse button and navigate to the folder if you want to avoid typing).

Now open the folder containing the extracted files and double-click SPBlockingTool.exe. A command prompt window appears for a few moments and displays the statement “Action successfully completed.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell you very much. The action the message refers to is the addition of a Registry entry instructing Windows Update not to send you SP3. (The same setting on Vista blocks SP1.)

If you want to see the code that is added, do the following:

Step 1. Choose Start, Run. Type regedit and press Enter.

Step 2. In the Registry Editor, navigate in the left pane to this entry:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE  SOFTWARE  Policies  Microsoft  Windows  WindowsUpdate

Step 3. With the WindowsUpdate icon selected in the left pane, look in the right pane for a key named DoNotAllowSP.

If you later decide you want Automatic Updates to offer you Service Pack 3, simply select the DoNotAllowSP key and press Delete (or click Edit, Delete).

If you’re concerned about editing the Registry (which involves risks of its own), the Service Pack Blocker can also undo the block:

Step 1. Choose Start, Run. Type cmd and press Enter.

Step 2. At the command prompt, either type the path to the SPBlockingTool.exe file, or drag the file into the command prompt window and let Windows do the typing for you.

Step 3. At the end of this command, type a space followed by /U and press Enter.

Once again, you’ll see the “Action successfully completed” message and Windows Automatic Update will no longer be blocked from installing the service pack on your system.

The other tool included with the download, SPreg.cmd, is a batch file useful for administrators who want to block the service pack on remote computers; this utility requires that the machine name be specified in the command line.

Even though most of SP3’s problems should now be in the past, these precautions can help ensure that you aren’t one of the service pack’s installation victims.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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