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A new reason not to install XP SP3

When Windows XP is mal-functioning SP3 can be used as a great repair install

The September 11th edition of the Windows Secrets newsletter included a couple stories about Windows XP SP3, trying to answer the questions of when and whether to install it. Back in April, when Service Pack 3 was released, I advised against rushing into it. But, it's been almost five months, is it safe to go into the SP3 water?

According to Scott Dunn, who wrote the lead article, you don't need to install Service Pack 3 for another year and a half. He says "... overall support for SP2 expires in early 2010, [so] you'll need to have SP3 installed by that date if you want general support for XP."

I view the SP3 issue as a risk vs. reward decision and the reward still seems small compared to the risk. But there can be a Defensive Computing advantage to not installing SP3 that has nothing to do with avoiding potential problems.

The risk of SP3 causing a problem, while persistent, decreases daily as more software, people and hardware get acquainted with it. You can get a sense of the risk involved by reviewing the Microsoft Knowledge Base article Steps to take before you install Windows XP Service Pack 3. As for reward, in one of the articles Scott Dunn tries to make a case for the upside of SP3. I wasn't impressed.

A New Reason To Wait

But, this assumes you're dealing with a normally functioning copy of Windows XP. Installing SP3 can be a great ace in the hole to have when dealing with a problematic or infected copy of Windows XP. I learned this hard way working on a couple computers for clients. In each case the near total refresh of Windows that SP3 provides proved invaluable.

One computer had been sent to the hardware manufacturer for repair and when it was returned, it was forgotten about, since it was old and just serving as a backup. But, when it became important again, it needed 99 bug fixes. Downloading the patches went fine, but only seconds after the installation process started, it ended with a useless error message and no error code.

Suspecting that the install logic for 99 concurrent patches might not have been well-tested, I tried installing just one patch and it worked fine. Then I removed a few that I suspected might be problematic but the remaining 90 failed to install. A random clump of 5 patches installed cleanly, but I wasn't going to sit around installing a couple patches at a time.

Service Pack 3 to the rescue. It downloaded and installed just fine.

Another computer was blue-screening at startup, just after the Windows desktop was displayed. By the time I got it, things had improved, only a background process was crashing, Windows itself remained up. But, as soon as I clicked OK to the warning about a serious failure, it failed again. The Microsoft online crash debugger reported that the offending driver was for the WiFi network adapter. But, updating the driver didn't fix the problem. In fact, the new driver had a new name but the crashes kept occurring in the old driver according to Microsoft.

There were dozens of available Minidumps, but I didn't feel like tracking down and installing the software to read and format the dumps. Much of the information in the dump is over my head anyway.

Here again, Service Pack 3 came to my rescue. Since it was installed, no more crashes.

SP3 is like doing a repair install of Windows, only better. It's a nice fallback option to have when things go wrong.

What To Do?

There is no one right answer for when to install Service Pack 3. Me, I'm hanging back for now. But one thing every techie can agree on, is the need for a disk image backup before installing any service pack.

If you haven't installed SP3 yet, then be aware that Microsoft offers free technical support for installing it until April 14, 2009. Depending on where you live, you may be able to speak to someone from Microsoft on the phone, use an online chat or communicate with them by email.

And take a look at the Windows Secrets newsletter. I find it worthwhile.

Updated September 12, 2008: Re-wrote introductory paragraphs to make things clearer.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.