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Once you download SP1 or insert the CD, Microsoft tosses up a wordy autorun screen that essentially instructs you to proceed with caution before hitting the setup link. On the plus side, if you're maintaining a network of computers, the service pack includes clear and helpful instructions for deploying it across networks both large and small.
Get SP1 up and running, and you'll immediately notice...nothing. The service pack barely changes XP's interface. And despite Microsoft's claim that the service pack's profound code changes may make some applications run faster, we found no obvious performance differences in our limited testing.
The service pack also includes Microsoft's Java Virtual Machine (JVM), albeit as a stopgap in continuing consumer-unfriendly legal action between Microsoft and Sun. We're happy to see JVM in SP1 (since you'll need it to properly view a wide variety of Web pages), though Microsoft says that it will remove it after January 1, 2004. The SP1 inclusion isn't crucial, either; you can download JVM for XP directly from Sun without the fuss of the huge service pack.
Trust or antitrust?
But Service Pack 1's biggest news lies tucked away in the control panel's "Add or remove programs" dialog box. Here, you'll find a new button, labeled "Set program access and defaults." This feature aims to tackle another of Microsoft's legal issues: the government's antitrust suit against it.
This control panel offers three options for the way you view and use certain software on your PC: Non-Microsoft, Microsoft Windows, and Custom. These options allow you to change your default Web browser, media player, e-mail software, instant messenger, and Java Virtual Machine--all in one place. So, if you prefer Netscape 7.0, AOL Instant Messenger, Eudora, and MusicMatch, you can--in theory--choose the non-Microsoft option and hide (but not remove) XP's bundled Internet Explorer, Windows Messenger, Outlook Express, and Windows Media Player. Or, you can choose Custom to select whichever defaults you want. Computer makers such as Dell can add a fourth default option called Computer Manufacturer, with yet another set of bundled apps.
Although this tool can indeed hide Microsoft's options from the menu, the really anticipated feature proved a bust. Despite having AIM, MusicMatch Jukebox, and RealOne Player installed on our test computer, the only media-player and instant-messaging options we could see were Microsoft's. In fact, we couldn't get XP SP1 to actually display any software other than Microsoft's, which rather spoiled the antitrust effect. Here's the catch, according to Microsoft: the company says that it's up to third parties, such as Real, MusicMatch, and AOL, to plug their products into these features. Apparently, many of them haven't yet. Until they do, the bundle situation won't change much.
The good news is that XP SP1 is a risk-free endeavor, thanks to its elegant uninstall feature (assuming you've been saving your backup data). When we attempted to uninstall on our test machines using the Add/Remove Programs control panel, SP1 kicked up a dialog box warning that some software may not run properly afterwards. Despite this notice, uninstalling the service pack did not cause problems and even restored previously installed hot fixes and security patches.
As long as you can install SP1 with the confidence that you won't permanently damage your system and you have the bandwidth and the free disk space, you might as well give it a shot. But if you don't have the patience or the connection for such a huge package, you can get most of the fixes and patches piecemeal from Windows Update; SP1 isn't crucial enough to pay $10 for a CD.