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Windows XP Service Pack 3

Tuesday, Microsoft released its last big update to Windows XP--Service Pack 3.

Like Microsoft's two earlier Service Packs for XP, "SP3" packs earlier bug fixes and some new features into a single download. But unlike Service Pack 2, a must-have update that added numerous, badly needed security upgrades to XP's fragile defenses, SP3 isn't that big of a deal. Its primary value, as I write in this Sunday's Help File column, is giving Windows users a single downloadable file that can get any XP system up to date.

As you might guess, that single file is on the large size. Its "Network Installation Package for IT Professionals and Developers"--the standalone installer that can be used to upgrade any 32-bit edition of XP--weighs in at 316 megabytes.

If you only need to update a single computer, you can also visit Microsoft's Windows Update site (Internet Explorer required) to get a smaller file tailored to your system. Or if you prefer to wait, later this summer, Microsoft says it will provide SP3 via its automatic-update system.

A Microsoft paper summarizes (PDF) the changes in SP3, including a handful of security upgrades not offered in earlier fixes. The company's release notes offer advice on issues that may come up in some circumstances; for example, if you're running XP Media Center Edition 2002, you must have XP's Service Pack 2 update installed first.

Earlier Service Packs have drawn criticism for blowing up the occasional computer, and now SP3 has too. But in my own testing, I haven't encountered any serious issues. (Neither has Security Fix blogger Brian Krebs, as he noted earlier this week.)

So far, I've installed it on five different XP systems---four copies of XP Home Edition running different combinations of security software, plus one copy of XP Professional. All had the previous SP2 update installed and most of Microsoft's subsequent patches to Windows, plus a wide assortment of third-party programs.

On the XP Home systems, everything worked pretty much as advertised.

The installation itself took about an hour, with much of that taken up by a lengthy system-inspection and backup process, in which the installer verified that the system was ready for the update and then made copies of some system files. Afterwards, the only visible evidence of SP3's presence was minor shifts to the Start Menu's "All Programs" list: The borderline-useless "Set Program Access and Defaults" control panel had been added to the top of that sub-menu, and the Accessories folder included a new Remote Desktop Connection item.

The XP Professional system was a different story. That's because it was already largely destroyed when I began the test. Windows Explorer, the program that runs the Windows desktop and lets you browse through folders, crashed repeatedly; I couldn't get to the Add or Remove Programs control panel; and Windows's System Restore utility had stopped working. I figured that SP3 would only make the rubble bounce.

Somehow, it did not. Although the computer froze up on its first two restarts after the SP3 installation, on the third try I was able to boot the machine into "Safe Mode" and could then finally browse the desktop, open the control panel and fire up Add or Remove Programs. The computer is still horribly broken--it stalls out when I try to log into my user account outside of Safe Mode--but at least I can try to fix it now.

Have you installed SP3? How has it worked out for you so far?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 9, 2008; 6:45 PM ET
Categories:  Windows  
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