XP Service Pack 2 released in phases

Microsoft finally released the long-awaited Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) to manufacturing, initiating a set of release-related activities that will likely continue well into October. SP 2 beta testers and MSDN Universal and Professional subscribers were the first to get access to the download on Aug. 6. Since that date, Microsoft has been staging the release of SP2 to the rest of the world.

Here’s the schedule — and what you can do to get SP2 yourself as quickly as possible.

Aug. 6: RTM (release to manufacturing)
Microsoft finalized Windows XP Service Pack 2 on this date. The company issued at least three versions of the service pack:

  • The full network installer (about 272 MB). This version is aimed at IT administrators, but it can be used by anyone who needs to install XP SP2 on more than one computer.

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    This file can have two names: The version found on the Microsoft Web site is named WindowsXP-KB835935-SP2-ENU.exe. The version found on the XP SP2 CD-ROM is named xpsp2.exe. Despite the name differences, both files are identical. This file is available for download now. Download the file

  • The express installer. This 1.6 MB utility will download only the files needed to install XP SP2 on your system. The amount of data you actually download will vary depending on how up-to-date your system is.

    If you installed a Windows XP S2 beta or release candidate (RC) build, for example, the express installer will have to download very little to update you to the final version of SP2. If, however, you’re still working with an SP1 or pre-SP1 version of XP, you’ll need to download up to 200 MB of files.

    The express installer file is available for download now. Download the file

  • The CD installer. Microsoft will soon offer a CD-based version of Windows XP SP2 for users who lack broadband connections. This CD will include the 272 MB, full network installer. It will also have a front- end installation application, which launches when the CD is inserted in your system, and some updated support tools that are largely aimed at corporations.

    Today, only MSDN Universal and Professional subscribers have access to this CD, via a 474 MB ISO image on the MSDN Subscriber Downloads Web site. If you’re not a subscriber, Microsoft will soon make the CD available for order from its main Web site. It’s being offered free (including shipping and handling). We’re told that customers will start receiving the CDs in October, but to our knowledge, it’s not possible to place orders yet.

Aug. 9: Public availability of full network installer
The full network installer, described above, was posted publicly on the Web on August 9. Microsoft prefers that individuals use the express installer or install SP2 through Automatic Updates or Windows Update (see below), when the update becomes available via those routes. But we feel broadband-equipped power users should download this version and install SP2 immediately. You can find out more information about this version of SP2 at the Microsoft Download Center.

Aug. 16: Software Update Services (SUS) release
On Monday, Microsoft made a version of Windows XP available to small business users who utilize the company’s Software Update Services. SUS is a Windows Server add-on that makes it easier to deploy patches and other updates to a group of managed computers. If you’re running SUS, you should now have the option to deploy SP2 to your client machines.

Aug. 18: XP Home users get SP2 via Automatic Updates
Yesterday, Microsoft started enabling users running Windows XP Home Edition to “drizzle download” Service Pack 2 via Automatic Updates. XP SP2 will download over time to XP Home users who’ve enabled Automatic Updates. (To do this, right-click the My Computer icon, choose Properties, then navigate to the Automatic Updates tab.)

The Automatic Updates version of SP2 is based on the code for the express installer, described above. Only the bits you need will be downloaded, so the download size will vary from machine to machine. If you’d like to get SP2 this way, just ensure that Automatic Updates is enabled.

Aug. 25: All XP users get SP2 via Automatic Updates
Next Wednesday, Microsoft will widen the release of SP2 to all XP users who’ve enabled Automatic Updates. (This adds the Automatic Update capability to users of XP Professional, Media Center, and Tablet PC Edition.) The process for enabling Automatic Updates on these systems is the same as it is for XP Home, described above.

Late September: New wine in old bottles
At great expense, Microsoft will replace all retailed boxed copies of Windows XP with new boxed copies of XP upgraded to Service Pack 2. These new versions will be differentiated by a graphic touting the included “advanced security technologies.”

October: All OEMs switched over
By October, all new PCs from major PC makers should be switched over to Windows XP SP2. Some PC makers will switch to SP2 much more quickly, however.

Worried about SP2 incompatibilities?
Many of you are likely to be concerned about potential problems caused by the installation of Windows XP SP2, and with good reason. Though the upgrade will make your PC more secure, it definitely causes issues in some cases. We’ll be tracking the problems as they arise. But so far, the issues are relatively minor, with more serious problems confined to a few specific programs.

First, Microsoft has published a list of third-party applications called Programs that behave differently in Windows XP Service Pack 2. Of the three dozen or so apps on this list, most of them exhibit symptoms that are irritating but not fatal. In other cases, such as Adobe LiveMotion 1.0, Softwin BitDefender 7.2, and ScanSoft PaperPort Deluxe 8.0, the programs no longer install and/or run. You should definitely examine the list in this document to check for programs you may be using.

The document links to three other Knowledge Base articles with related information about known incompatibilities. The most interesting of these is KB article 842242. This document currently lists about 50 programs that require exceptions to be made in the Windows Firewall. Some major Microsoft apps are in here, such as VisualStudio.Net, SQL Server, and SMS 2003 Server. Other well-known programs on the list are Symantec AntiVirus Corporate Edition 8.0, AutoCAD 2000 (and higher), and Veritas BackupExec. This is yet more required reading for harried Windows admins.

These and other programs will need upgrades or other tweaks to operate successfully with XP SP2. If you’re using XP, you should collect the names of the vendors whose programs you depend on, and start checking their Web sites for SP2-specific downloads, many of which are already available online.

Second, while problems actually installing and running SP2 seem to be rare, it’s wise to approach this update as if it were a full-blown Windows upgrade. That means you should backup your important data before installing SP2. You should also use the upgrade for a few days before installing any other applications on top of it.

Third, remember that SP2 isn’t a panacea. It’s not going to suddenly fix all of your problems or cure all of your security concerns. As we’ve noted previously, one obvious deficiency in SP2 is that it includes only a one-way firewall, not two-way. This means XP’s renamed Windows Firewall has no ability to prevent applications on your system from communicating with online servers and services. This can be a problem if you inadvertently catch a nasty worm or Trojan horse.

Get 12 months of antivirus protection for free
If you’re not running any antivirus software when you upgrade to Windows XP SP2, the new Security Center will prompt you to install some. It provide a Web link where you can download time-limited versions of various antivirus solutions.

Most of these solutions expire in 30 to 90 days, including McAfee VirusScan and Symantec Norton AntiVirus. The F-Secure product, however, lasts for six months, and Computer Associates’ eTrust EZ Antivirus lasts a full year. That’s a great deal no matter how you slice it (the retail value is $49.95).

Best of all, anyone can take advantage of these free antivirus trial periods, simply by visiting the download page — regardless or whether or not they’ve installed SP2. We’ve been testing the download procedure and it appears to be solid. At the very least, the download page is a good way to test various AV solutions for free and then pick the one you want after the subscriptions run out. More info

Want to wait?
If you’re interested in putting off the SP2 install, Microsoft is providing a mechanism that will disable the delivery of SP2 via Automatic Updates for 120 days (starting from August 16). You can find out more information about this mechanism in a TechNet article and download it via a download page.

Our advice: Install XP SP2 ASAP
While it’s still early in the Windows XP SP2 rollout, we stand by our earlier contention that all XP users should download and install SP2 as soon as possible. We haven’t heard about any major, widespread problems caused by SP2 yet, though that could change at any time. For now, however, the goal should be to get your system as secure as possible, as quickly as possible. And installing SP2 is an excellent first step.

To send us more information about SP2, or to send us a tip on any other subject, visit WindowsSecrets.com/contact. You’ll receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of your choice if you send us a comment that we print.