Is XP’s fix safe?

Windows XP Service Pack 2 promises to protect you from the most pervasive worm attacks, stop pop-up ads, and tighten security in Windows’ Achilles’ heel, Internet Explorer. But given the problems many users experienced with XP’s first service pack, some people have been waiting to hear whether this update is more likely to hurt than help.

The news is mostly positive: With SP2 finally making its way onto millions of computers, early reports suggest that the upgrade has gone smoothly for the majority of those who have installed it. But for at least a significant number of people, SP2 has spelled trouble, triggering software conflicts, system slowdowns, network outages, and in some cases boot failures. Blame for the difficulties (some of which are still emerging) may rest with software and hardware vendors, or with Microsoft Corp. itself. But regardless of who’s at fault, if you were hoping that the decision to install SP2 would be easy, think again.

SP2’s street cred

By all accounts, Microsoft went to considerable lengths to work the bugs out of its latest bug fix in hopes of avoiding the slowdowns, crashes, and boot-up problems that bedeviled SP1 in 2002. Although SP2 was widely expected to appear in June, the company delayed the launch twice to address last-minute problems before releasing it in August. Since that time, XP users have downloaded SP2 manually through Microsoft’s Windows Update service or automatically via XP’s update feature. A Microsoft spokesperson predicts that the service pack will be installed through automatic updates on about 100 million PCs by the end of October.

To find out how some of these early adopters fared with SP2, we surveyed 3,421 Windows XP users about their attitudes toward and experiences with the update. (Because the participants in the survey were self-selected — they responded to an invitation on our Web site to report on their experiences with Windows XP — the results cannot be generalized to all users of Windows XP.) Though Microsoft’s rollout of the patch through Windows XP’s Automatic Updates feature had barely begun, more than 60 per cent of the survey’s respondents reported that they had already installed SP2.

But of those who hadn’t installed SP2, more than a third reported that they feared the update would impede system performance. Michael Rask of Killeen, Texas, says he’s waiting until he’s sure SP2 won’t interfere with his installed software. Rask, who manages an automotive repair shop, is confident enough in his own ability to maintain adequate security to hold off on installing SP2.

“Security is not a problem, since I run up-to-date firewall and antivirus programs, delete 90 per cent of my e-mail, and run Firefox as my browser,” Rask says.

Of the survey respondents who did download and install SP2, about three-quarters detected no problems afterward. The remaining respondents experienced some postupgrade fallout, though 10.3 per cent described the problems as mild, having little effect on their ability to use the PC. Another nine per cent, however, reported experiencing moderate difficulties, and four per cent encountered problems that made the PC difficult or impossible to use.

Of those who reported snags, 31 per cent experienced malfunctioning software, 14 per cent had system slowdowns, and eight per cent reported having trouble connecting to a home or office network. Of the 2,106 respondents who installed SP2, 34 (1.6 per cent) said they’d run into the worst-case scenario: Their PCs wouldn’t boot.

Ed Norris of Logansport, Indiana, an employee of the state’s department of health, found himself in this unfortunate predicament. “The computer got partway through rebooting but then kept shutting itself down and attempting to reboot again. It wouldn’t even go to Safe Mode,” Norris recalls. After working on it for several hours, his computer dealer got the PC going again by booting with a rescue disk, uninstalling SP2, and reinstalling both Windows XP and SP2. No data was lost, and Norris’s bill came to only US$45. The dealer blamed the trouble on a conflict with Zone Labs Inc.’s ZoneAlarm firewall, which Norris had installed.

Microsoft says that older versions of ZoneAlarm are among the many third-party applications that are incompatible with its new service pack. Zone Labs vice president Fred Felman says that the problem may lie elsewhere. “I’d say it’s a relatively small group of people that have had trouble with our firewall,” he says, adding that at least some conflicts that on the surface appear to be software-related may actually be caused by hardware. “The first thing you blame is your firewall,” says Felman, “but the conflicts with SP2 are on every level.”

We warned you

Indeed, Microsoft has also identified incompatibilities between SP2 and AMD 64-bit processors and certain Intel Pentium 4 and Celeron D processors that prevent Windows XP from booting normally. And besides backing up your hard disk and eliminating spyware and adware (which tend to lock up IE after you install SP2), Microsoft recommends that you update your hardware drivers before installing SP2. The company even provides links to SP2-related sites posted by major PC vendors.

To be fair, Microsoft has made it clear that installing SP2 carries some risks. Shortly after launching the service pack, the company posted a list of 50 applications that appear to stop functioning after the Windows Firewall in SP2 starts working, along with the necessary steps to get the programs running again. Many items on the list are corporate editions of backup, antivirus, or remote-access programs that await incoming connections from servers — the exact activity that the firewall blocks.

Also present on the list are several popular networked games, including Unreal Tournament 2003. Another Microsoft Knowledge Base article lists dozens of other common applications that “experience a loss of functionality” on Windows XP SP2 systems. In addition to boot-up errors with ZoneAlarm, the list describes such severe conflicts as complete loss of network activity when a PC attempts to use Eset Software’s NOD32 antivirus program, and the disabling of scheduled scanning in Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus 2003.

Still, Service Pack 2 is an important upgrade with many desirable features, especially for the security-minded. If you follow Microsoft’s installation guidelines and check the lists of known conflicts in advance, you’ll probably get through the experience unscathed — or at worst have to overcome only mildly irritating conflicts.

Longhorn to arrive short on features

Since releasing Windows XP in 2001, Microsoft has devoted the lion’s share of its development resources to the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn. The company earlier this year previewed some of the new technologies, including a graphics system code-named Avalon that makes better use of today’s powerful graphics processors; a file system called WinFS that is intended to speed data access; and (of interest primarily to programmers) the successor to Microsoft’s .Net application development model, WinFX.

But with SP2 siphoning unanticipated levels of development resources away from Longhorn, Microsoft had to choose between releasing the next OS with all the promised new features and releasing it in what Microsoft’s vice president Jim Allchin terms “a reasonable time frame.” With Windows XP already nearing its fourth birthday, Microsoft chose the latter. Longhorn will ship in early 2006 with WinFX and Avalon in place but without the vaunted WinFS file system. Microsoft says that WinFS will appear — perhaps as an extra-cost add-on — sometime after Longhorn ships.

It’s hard to say whether the changed plans matter to the average Windows user, primarily because it’s unclear whether WinFS alone would have delivered any benefits. “Until there are applications that take advantage of WinFS, what are you missing out on?” Al Gillen, IDC research director, queries.

Corporations find Windows 2000 Professional and Windows XP good enough already, he says, and long lines of eager upgraders like those who embraced Windows 95 are unlikely. “A lot of people —Microsoft included — have been waiting for the next Windows 95. We don’t see that scenario happening with Longhorn,” adds Gillen.

But releasing Longhorn without WinFS may signal a trend toward software modularity that could bode well for PC users, Gillen adds. In addition to unyoking WinFS from Longhorn, Microsoft announced that it will release versions of Avalon and WinFX for Windows XP and 2003 Server in 2006, so you won’t have to upgrade to Longhorn to benefit from those technologies.

Gillen predicts that repackaging core features as bolt-ons will relieve some of the pressure on users to upgrade their entire OS — an undertaking many people are happy to postpone for as long as possible.

The SP2 index

— Percentage of PC World survey respondents who installed SP2: 62 per cent

— Percentage of those respondents who had no problems: 74 per cent

— Percentage who reported mild problems: 10.3 percent

— Moderate problems: nine per cent

— Severe problems: four per cent

— Most common problem: Malfunctioning software

— Favorite new feature in SP2: Pop-up blocking

— Least favorite feature: New security features that conflict with third-party security software

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