Windows XP service pack gets face-lift

Microsoft releases a close-to-final version of Service Pack 2, which includes several significant changes from the test version released last year.

Microsoft on Wednesday released a close-to-final version of the second major update to Windows XP, adding new security tools to the operating system.

The Release Candidate 1 (RC1) version of Service Pack 2 (SP2) for Windows XP includes several significant changes from the test version released last year. RC1 versions of software releases are typically bridges between the beta and the final release, incorporating changes based on tester feedback. The final version of SP2 is set for release in the second quarter of this year.

Service packs are roundups of bug fixes and product updates Microsoft periodically releases for major products.

The new version of SP2 is available now to registered Microsoft testers and will later be given broader release through the company's TechNet and Microsoft Developer Network sites.

The biggest change in RC1 is the addition of Windows Security Center, a new tool that simplifies access to security settings in various Windows components, said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Microsoft's Windows division. Instead of having to root through separate "preferences" menus for Internet Explorer, network connections, Windows Update and other tools, Windows Security Center will allow XP users to manage everything from one place.

"The challenge we're addressing is that today in Windows, if you want to manage the various security settings, there are a bunch of places to go...and it's not always immediately apparent to even a sophisticated user where those places are," Sullivan said. "There's technology in Windows that would protect folks, but we haven't done a good enough job of making it obvious,"

RC1 also expands the use of a new tool to block pop-up ads in the IE Web browser. Based on positive user feedback, the pop-up blocker will now be turned on by default, except for a company's intranet sites, Sullivan said.

RC1 includes enhancements to the Windows Update service that are intended to make it easier to automatically install critical updates to the operating system.

"This is partly in response to some of the high-profile exploits that happened last fall," Sullivan said. "We want to make it easier for folks to get to that state of shields up."

Microsoft also is launching a Technical Preview Program to enable information technology managers to test SP2 in their corporate environments. RC1 will be available through the new program, starting Friday.

Plans for Windows XP after the final release of SP2 have been clouded in recent weeks by suggestions that Microsoft may release an interim version of Windows, tentatively dubbed "Windows XP Reloaded," to bridge the growing gap between XP and the long-awaited Longhorn operating system.

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