Windows XP SP2 Hits The Streets

Scot Finnie offers advice on whether you should wait to download the finished version of Windows XP SP2.

August 10, 2004

10 Min Read
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After a brief last-minute delay on Wednesday, August 4, Microsoft at last released the final version of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) to manufacturing late Friday morning (Pacific Time), August 6.

Unlike some other major releases from Microsoft, this one was tough to find for the first few days after it was finished. Late in the day Monday, August 9, Microsoft posted a download link for IT pros and developers that delivers the 266MB "network install" version of the large service pack release. The much smaller-in-size end-user release of SP2, which will be distributed via the Windows XP's built-in Automatic Updates feature or Microsoft's Windows Update site, was not widely rolled out at press time.

How Microsoft Is Rolling Out SP2
One of the more complicated aspects of XP Service Pack 2 is that it will be available in a variety of forms, and it doesn't have a single release day. If you get the new code through either Windows Update or XP's built-in Automatic Updates feature, you won't get it on the same day everybody else gets it. Why? Because Microsoft is staggering installation over a period of weeks and even months. According to Microsoft product manager Greg Sullivan, the software giant expects to deliver tens of thousands of installations the first day, millions installations per day after it ramps up, and eventually to have delivered 100 million installations of SP2 via Windows Update and Automatic Updates.

According to a Microsoft press release, "The timing for customers to receive the Service Pack 2 download through Automatic Updates depends on a number of factors, including the customer's Internet usage, location, language, and the [overall] level of Internet demand for Service Pack 2." Microsoft's chief concern in staggering the release appears to be its own server load. The company is expecting huge demand for this release -- it is not a small release.

The best way to get Service Pack 2 for many people may be to request that Microsoft send it to you via mail on CD. The Request Page for the Windows XP SP2 CD is live, but at press time, Microsoft had not yet turned on the option to make the request. The page was little more than a placeholder.MSDN and XP SP2 beta testers were offered a straight download link for SP2 last Friday evening. This network install version, which is now publicly accessible, is much larger than the incremental-install download required for Automatic Updates or Windows Update, both of which check to see what security patches you already have installed. The network install contains all the code, and is primarily designed for IT admins who are installing SP2 to multiple PCs over a network. Note: You do not have to have Windows XP Service Pack 1 installed in order to install SP2. Microsoft service packs are supersets that include previous service packs.

The Real Details

The final build number of Windows XP Service Pack 2 is 2180. Internet Explorer's new version number in SP2 is 6.0.2900.2180.xpsp_sp2_rtm.040803-2158. (It's likely that the characters after "xpsp_sp2" vary.)

If you have access to the new Windows Update version 5.0 or if you have Windows XP SP2 Release Candidate 2 (RC2) installed — and you want to be an early adopter (think twice though) — the word is that you should turn on Automatic Updates all the way, and that if you do that, Service Pack 2 will automatically install at some point on Tuesday, August 10.

Unverified information from a source who requested anonymity asserts that Microsoft is working on this schedule for releasing Windows XP Service Pack 2: August 9, release network installation package to Microsoft Download Center; August 10, release to Automatic Updates (only for machines running pre-released versions of Windows XP Service Pack 2); August 16, release to Automatic Updates for machines not running pre-released versions of Windows XP Service Pack 2; August 16, release to software update services; later in August (to be determined), release to Windows Update for interactive user installations. So far, this information has been mostly accurate.

I'm now going to pull the "Do as I say, not as I do" thing on you. Unless you have a compelling reason to do so sooner, I recommend you wait 30 days to install Service Pack 2. Because some of you are going to want to try it for test purposes, I'm also going to give you a method that I think will get you the smaller interactive online installation sooner than most people. But if you're just curious, and especially if you have only one PC, please, wait 30 days to see how things shake out.Let's face it — everyone should be running a firewall and antivirus software at all times. Most Pipeline readers already know this, already do it, and know why. If you're not sure and don't have security protections in place, perhaps you should install SP2 from Automatic Updates as soon as it becomes available.

TIP: Installing Windows Update v.5.0
This is an as yet unconfirmed theory, but it seems likely that anyone who has Windows Update version 5.0 installed, and who has Automatic Updates turned on, may receive XP SP2 on or shortly after Tuesday. Windows XP users (sorry this does not work for Windows 2000) have a very easy way to upgrade their PCs to Windows Update version 5.

This tip is for experienced users. There have been some reports of dire issues with Windows Update v.5.0, but I remain more or less unconcerned about the new Windows Update. For more information on Microsoft's new online update site, check out Fred Langa's article on InformationWeek. To install Windows Update v.5.0 right now, follow these steps:

1. Launch this URL: When prompted to accept an update to Windows Update, accept it.

3. You should also see a message reading "Get the latest Windows Update software" and an "Install Now" button. Click the button. That will install the new v.5.0 code on your system, and poof, you're running version 5.0 of Windows Update. The whole thing takes about five minutes.

So the only other step required to entice Microsoft to extend you access to the SP2 code is to turn on Automatic Updates. It's unclear whether you need to turn on Automatic Updates to its fully automatic install-at-will mode or whether you can turn it on to any flavor of "on" (notify only, download automatically but prompt before installing, or full automatic). For what it's worth, I use the second one. And if I didn't have a fast broadband connection, I would use the first option.

Microsoft has an elaborately crafted Protect site that explains how to turn on Automatic Updates and do other things to secure your PC. The "let us do it for you" option on this site is similar in functionality to the Windows Security Center.

Interesting Details
A few random bits of information recently gleaned from various sources:

Internally, Microsoft beta testers have been told that the final version of SP2 will upgrade Release Candidate 2 (RC2) just fine. And, in fact, computers running RC2 with Automatic Updates turned on in full automatic mode will receive SP2 upgrades automatically. I will be testing how well that works on one machine. But I do NOT recommend that you upgrade to Windows XP Service Pack 2 that way. At the very least, you should uninstall XP SP2 RC2. A far better approach would be to wipe your disk and start over or revert to a previous Norton Ghost (or similar) backed-up version of your entire disk contents.Non-Microsoft sources tell me that the final build of Windows XP Service Pack 2 will only block the same widely distributed pirated Windows XP Product IDs that Windows XP Service Pack 1 blocked. If that's true, it's probably because Microsoft has decided to get SP2 onto as many machines as possible. I completely agree with that decision, if true. Microsoft is unlikely to comment on this point, but I intend to ask the company at the next opportunity.

Finally, what's the difference between RC2 and the final version? According to Microsoft's Sullivan, there are no significant new features, visual changes, or user-interface differences. The primary differences were invisible changes to improve application compatibility and SP2 installation. There was also a last-minute deal breaker, a change that took about 48 hours to complete, that was never explained.

It's still not clear to me whether the background installation of Automatic Updates on Shutdown of Windows XP with SP2 was modified or disabled in the final version of the code. My guess is that this behavior is still in place. For details on this issue, see the "Automatic Updates" section of my review of Windows XP Service Pack 2 RC2.

Microsoft never did enable sample updates during the RC2 timeframe. As a result, beta testers weren't able to check out the operation of Automatic Updates in conjunction with shutting down Windows. I found the functionality in Beta 1 and Release Candidate 1 to be overly aggressive and especially frustrating to dial-up users. With one specific Automatic Updates setting, it could potentially take hours for your machine to shut down. While most people wouldn't experience that either at all or would only experience it infrequently, it wasn't an acceptable user experience.

Wait 30 Days!
Unless you're evaluating Windows XP Service Pack 2 for your company or you're installing it on a second or third PC that's not relied upon for daily use by anyone, you should hold off on installing Windows XP Service Pack 2. I guarantee you that there will be howls about problems installing it, using it, issues on some PC makes or models, issues with some important applications, etc. There are always issues with operating system service packs. This one, which is far more significant than most, is even more likely to cause problems. Web-based applications and network-related software packages are most likely to be broken by this release. But there will be unanticipated problems. Lots of them. You don't want to discover these problems for Microsoft.The smart people know to do this: Hang back, let other people be the guinea pigs. Your computer isn't going to keel over and die if you wait for a few weeks to hear what people like me —

who will be installing right away — will say and write about the new release. So long as you have a firewall in place and you're running up-to-date antivirus software, you're already doing your bit to save the world. Not to make light of the security issues, which are quite real, but a lot of what's new in XP SP2 is aimed at inexperienced computer users. If your machine is protected already and you are at least moderately experienced, take the wait-and-see approach.

In an upcoming issue of my newsletter, and also here on TechWeb, I will report on the final version of Windows XP Service, both in terms of what's new and also potentially any problems of note. So stay tuned.

In the meantime, please check out the XP SP2 articles and perspectives previously published in Scot's Newsletter:

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