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Windows XP SP3: A quick, painless upgrade

With fewer new features than its predecessor, XP SP3 offers more for network administrators than for home users.

On Monday, Microsoft released to manufacturers (RTM) the final code for Windows XP SP3. The upgrade provides support for WPA2 and the Peer Name Resolution Protocol (PNRP) used in Windows Vista, among other things. The public version will be available for download via the Web on April 29. Based on our initial installation, the upgrade will be effortless for most Windows XP users.

The last Service Pack for Windows XP, SP2, was released in August 2004. The initial release took some users all night to download and install. The company pushed back the initial public release from June 2004 originally. Despite numerous glitches still present in the code, Windows XP SP2 was formally made public on August 20, 2004, and Microsoft had to work hard to convince users to upgrade.

Windows XP SP2 featured a new Security Center, an improved firewall, and other tweaks.

That's not the case with SP3, which was delayed several years while Microsoft did work on Windows Vista.

Microsoft says the service pack includes functionality previously released as updates. Perhaps that's why the download and installation for SP3 was effortless on our test system. XP SP3 took only 30 minutes to download, and 10 minutes to install.

Some updates relevant to the home user include:

  • Support for WPA2, the latest standards-based wireless security solution derived from the IEEE 802.11i standard.

  • Improvements to black-hole router detection (detecting routers that are silently discarding packets). Windows XP SP3 turns this protection on by default.

  • BITS 2.5, which is required by Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007 and Windows Live OneCare.

  • Peer Name Resolution Protocol (PNRP), which allows Windows XP applications to communicate with Windows Vista programs that use PNRP.

  • Windows Installer 3.1, which contains new and enhanced functionality and addresses some issues that Microsoft found in Windows Installer 3.0.

  • Digital Identity Management Service (DIMS), which allows users who log on to any domain-joined computer to silently access all of their certificates and private keys for applications and services.

However, the balance of these improvements are not necessarily relevant to the home user. For example:

  • MMC 3.0, which is a framework that provides common navigation, menus, toolbars, and workflow across diverse tools.

  • MSXML6, which provides better reliability, security, and conformance with the XML 1.0 and XML Schema 1.0 W3C Recommendations as well as System.Xml 2.0.

  • IPsec filter creation and maintenance. XP SP3 reduces the number of filters that are required for a server and domain isolation deployment. Also, the Simple Policy Update removes the requirement for explicit network infrastructure permit filters and introduces enhanced fallback to clear behavior.

  • The Security Options control panel includes more descriptive text to explain settings and prevent incorrect settings configuration.

  • Network Access Protection (NAP), which is a policy enforcement platform built into Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, and Windows XP SP3 to better protect network assets by enforcing compliance with system health requirements.

Starting April 29, all Windows XP SP2 users should upgrade to SP3, if only to get a complete set of Windows XP patches installed.