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Evaluating Windows XP Service Pack 2 RC2

Remember when Microsoft said service packs wouldn't deliver any new functionality? That lasted for about six months back in 1997. Windows XP Service Pack 2 is jammed-packed with both invisible and visible improvements to Windows XP. The biggest boon is that the free update, which will probably ship some time in September, does in fact make Windows XP far more secure. Many of the other user interface bits are aimed more at protecting Microsoft, you, me, and everyone from what consumers don't know about securing their computers. As a result, they just don't matter that much to IT shops.

But Microsoft isn't wrong on that point: Many home and casual users really aren't paying close enough attention to security. And when blended-threat household-name viruses and worms start using multiple means of spreading themselves around the planet, the fact that several million consumer boxes have been plugged up (as soon as SP2 ships!) is a very good thing indeed.

Nevertheless, just how much might all that consumer touchie-feelie stuff get in the way? I'm going to explore all major aspects of the service pack in a multiple-part series on Windows XP SP2, based on the recently released RC2 code.

Windows Firewall
In retail boxes, Microsoft is enabling its revised Windows Firewall software firewall utility by default. Large enterprise customers will, of course, be able to disable the new Windows Firewall on network installations. But not every company installs or updates Windows that way.

Windows Firewall's high water mark is probably its ability to be turned on when mobile PCs are the most vulnerable, out of the office, passing from one hotspot to the next. The ''Don't Allow Exceptions'' check box adds extra protection for the road or home environments.

For the rest of us, some consideration may be in order to avoid potential software firewall conflicts. In my tests, the problem never cropped up. So the firewall is on. Turn it off if you're running another one. Microsoft provides a new Windows Firewall Control Panel just for that purpose.

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