Kicking XP SP3's Tires

Users won't see XP SP3 until sometime in 2008, but Microsoft has released a release candidate of XP SP3 to Microsoft MSDN and TechNet subscribers.

Microsoft released a release candidate of the long delayed Windows XP SP3 to Microsoft MSDN (Microsoft Software Development Network) and TechNet subscribers on Dec. 3. The release comes about a month after a beta release of SP3 was made available to about 15,000 users.

With customers still showing no eagerness to move to Vista, interest has been building in XP SP3. While there's little when it comes to new features in SP3, it does include a roll-up of the several hundred fixes that Microsoft has published for XP since XP SP2 arrived in August 2004, significant security and stability fixes, and a handful of new features.

While there have been reports that XP SP3 also increased its application speed by about 10 percent over SP2, this isn't an attempt to benchmark or review XP SP3.

Betas and release candidates are, by their very nature, subject to a good deal of change between the version that a small group of testers sees and what will finally end up in users' hands. It is noteworthy, though, that in a later apples-to-apples comparison Office 2003 on Vista SP1 vs. Office 2003 on XP SP3 on the same PC-XP still ran faster than XP SP2 and almost twice as fast as Vista SP1.

What we can say from our own experiences, after upgrading two copies of XP SP2 to the release candidate of SP3, is that SP3 does seem to put a bit more pep into Windows and its applications' overall performance. For our testing, we used the last two of my systems that were running XP SP2 on native hardware rather than a virtual machine running on VirtualBox or VMware.

The first of these PCs was a heavily modified Gateway 503GR. This system uses a 3GHz Pentium IV, 2GB of RAM, an ATI Raedon 250 graphics card, and a 300GB SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment). In other words, it's an upgraded state of the art system for 2005. The other PC was another 2005 special, without any hardware improvements. This was a HP Pavilion a350n. This system has a 2.6GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of dual-channel DDR333 SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM) and a 120GB SATA hard drive.

While far from the cutting edge, I considered them near-perfect for XP testing. They're typical of office systems that many businesses still use and will almost certainly never be 'upgraded' to Vista.

Installation of the service patch from its compressed 350MB executable download went in less than half-an-hour on the 503GR. On the a350n, however, it was a different, and far longer, story. That installation finally completed in just under two hours. If you're running older, slower systems in your office, get ready to spend a long weekend of updating your PCs to XP SP3.

Read more here about why we ought to have more roll-up updates.

Once in place, nothing really jumps out at you either as a user or a system administrator. This is not XP SP2, where the upgrade was almost as dramatic as moving to a new operating system. As eWEEK columnist Larry Seltzer said recently, SP3 is the kind of update we should have more of: a simple roll-up of updates since the last major update.

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Not everyone seems to have gotten that message though. For example, some people think that XP SP3 will include IE (Internet Explorer) 7 and Windows Media Player 11. It doesn't. What it does include, if you have those installed on your system, are new patches for these newer Microsoft applications. This is all for the best as far as I'm concerned since even now there are Web-based applications that were designed for IE 6 that do not get along well with IE 7.

Improved security, not innovation, is the name of SP3's game.

The one major additional feature is that SP3 does include NAP (Network Access Protection) which can take advantage of new features in the forthcoming Windows Server 2008 operating system. NAP is a protocol, which makes sure that a PC joining a NAP protected LAN is 'healthy.' That is, to say, for example the PC must show the server that it has the most up-to-date security patches installed before it's allowed to join the network.

It also includes some improvements to older applications. For example, it includes MMC (Microsoft Management Console) 3.0 and Windows Installer 3.1. SP3 also adds some functionality to existing protocols. For instance, it supports WPA 2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access version 2).

Another nice small change is that you won't need to dig up the product key to install SP3 if you elect to do it from a network share or a CD rather than upgrading via Windows Update. As someone who's always losing product keys, this is a very handy feature.

In practice, I found that XP SP3 works the way it should. Once installed, my applications, including-I checked-open-source programs such as OpenOffice 2.3, Thunderbird 2.0.11 and Firefox 2.0.11 ran flawlessly. In addition third-party applications, such as Adobe Photoshop CS3, Intuit Quicken 2005, and Google Desktop Search, worked the same as always with SP3.

The one exception was that Windows Explorer would, at times, have fits when I used it to view network drives. There was no rhyme or reason to this that I could find. Whether the drive was on a Samba, Windows 2003 or W2K server, it would just freeze up. It also didn't matter whether the drive was mapped by an NT/Domain style network or by AD (Active Directory). At the moment, I'm putting it down to a beta quirk, rather than a serious concern.

While I've only used SP3 for a few hours, so far I've been impressed by what I've seen. While not a "significant" service patch in the way that XP SP2 was, which added important new features to XP, this appears to be a very solid update.

While Microsoft hasn't given a hard release date yet for XP SP3, I can see this SP being released in 2008's first quarter rather than in the middle of the year. I can also see though why they might not want to do that. This SP will give XP users even more reason to stick with XP rather than moving on to the more profitable, for Microsoft, Vista even with Vista's SP1 on its way.

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