Behind the improvements in Windows XP SP3

Preston Gralla, who writes for our Computerworld counterpart in the U.S., published a story this week that examined the benefits of SP3. Well worth a read.

“Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), just out from Microsoft as ReleaseCandidate 2 (RC2), may not necessarily be worth the download now, butwhen it’s finally released, it’ll be worth the effort. It won’t makeany noticeable cosmetic changes to your operating system, butunderneath the hood are several security improvements worth having. Inaddition, one researcher claims it will slightly boost XP’s speed aswell.

“Microsoft is using an interesting method to distribute XP SP3. Youdon’t download it as a separate .exe file — instead, you download asmall executable file that, when run, changes your Registry so thatWindows Update will download XP SP3. If you are comfortable withediting the Registry, you can instead use a hack to tell your Registryto download SP3. (You can find the instructions on my blog).

“The actual download of the Service Pack weighs in at 65.6 MB. OnceI downloaded it, it took about 30 minutes to install on a 1.83 GHz CoreDuo laptop with 1 GB of RAM. Reboot after the install, and you’re inbusiness.

“Don’t bother looking around for any visible changes to theoperating system; you won’t find any. You’ll have to go to SystemProperties and check your OS version just to make sure it installedproperly. Microsoft claims there is one, exceptionally minor interfacechange — according to the Release Notes, a Security Options ControlPanel applet “offers more descriptive text to explain the settings andprevent incorrect configuration of settings.” Doesn’t make the pulserace, does it? But I couldn’t find even that — my version of XP doesn’tseem to have the applet in question. If you install a copy of SP3, andmanage to track down the screen, please add a comment to this storyletting me know how to get there.

“One of the biggest changes to XP won’t affect people who alreadyhave the operating system — it’s to do with product activation andGenuine Advantage, Microsoft’s way of validating its OS. Before SP3,when you installed XP for the first time, you had to enter a validproduct key or else you couldn’t install the operating system. WithSP3, you’ll be able to install XP for 30 days without the key. If youalready have XP, of course, you won’t need a product key to upgrade toSP3, so it won’t really affect upgraders.

“Most of what’s new has to do with security. In fact, five of theseven changes Microsoft lists on its Release Notes are security-related.

“Particularly notable is Network Access Protection (NAP), which isavailable on Vista and on Windows Server 2008, but until now was notavailable on XP. NAP gives network administrators a way to determine acomputer’s access to network resources based on the PC’s identity, andwhether the PC complies with security policies set by theadministrator. With NAP, network administrators can set this kind ofaccess at a finely granular level. In addition, NAP gives theadministrator tools to bring the PC into compliance with the securitypolicies, and then give the PC access to the network.

“In addition, Microsoft has beefed up security by upgrading therandom number generator. Last November, Israeli researchers said thatattackers could exploit a weakness in Windows 2000’s [[AND WINDOWSXP'S?]] pseudo-random number generator (PRNG) and be able to predictencryption keys. In SP3, Microsoft claims that flaw is fixed.

“SP3 also rolls up a variety of previous patches and hotfixes.Particularly noteworthy for Wi-Fi users is Wi-Fi Protected Access 2(WPA2), which supports the new Wi-Fi Alliance certification for securewireless networks. WPA2 is already available in Windows Vista andWindows Server 2003 with SP2.

“Microsoft did not claim any performance boosts for SP3, but onefirm, after testing an earlier version of SP3, claims that in fact,users of Microsoft Office will see a moderate speed boost .

“Using a previous version of SP3, Devil Mountain Software Inc. ranits OfficeBench suite performance tests pre-SP3 and post-SP3 on anOffice 2007-equipped notebook with a 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processorand 1GB of memory. The company found a 10% speed increase compared tothe pre-SP3 version of XP, which was equipped with XP SP2.

“Craig Barth, Devil Mountain’s chief technology officer, wrote inhis company’s blog, “Since SP3 was supposed to be mostly abug-fix/patch consolidation release — unlike w/Vista SP1, Microsoftmade no promises of improved performance for XP — the unexpected speedboost comes as a nice bonus.”

“On my test machine, on a 1.83 GHz Core Duo laptop with 1 GB of RAM,I didn’t notice a perceptible difference in performance betweenMicrosoft Office 2007 pre-SP3 and post-SP3. But I’m not sure that a 10percent difference would be noticeable.

“The bottom line? If you’re an IT pro and need to test out SP3before its official launch, it’s worth trying out now. Others might aswell wait for the final version — there’s nothing that’s an absolutemust-have right now, but the improved security will be worth it in thelong run.”

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