My normal policy is not to review beta releases of any software. But because Windows XP SP2 is so important I decided to break away from the norm. Readers should be aware that a release candidate is not a final release and this in should no way be construed as a review of the final product.
Microsoft has made great strides in improving the user experience and to help protect from the worms and viruses that inhabit the net. From the most part I have had no problems with this service pack besides a couple of annoyances that accompany beta software.
This is nothing unusual about the installation, it is the average Service Pack installer script. But the RC1 installer will not let you choose not to archive the files because before you install the final build you will have to uninstall the beta build. There was no unusual occurences during the install and of course after you install you will have to restart the machine.
The neatest part of SP2 is the new security center. This feature adds a friendly user interface to the normal security components of Windows, Automatic Updates, Anti-Virus and Firewall. Some Anti-Virus programs like the one that yours truly has, are not picked up by the security center. To increase your chances of Microsoft including your Anti-Virus program notify Microsoft about this and they should include support in the final release. Updates are a necessary evil in all Operating Systems so this should be turned on anyway whether you use Linux, Windows, Solaris, JDS whatever you use make sure you have the updates. From the security center you can also enable your IE internet zones and also take advantage of the firewall configuration utility and manage the security settings for the system. There are some improvements that can be made to the Security Center. I think they need to add a shortcut to the Security Center to the My Computer Taskpane or add a short cut to the cointext right click menu of My Computer to make it more accessible to users. I also had no weird experiences with the Security Center.
The New Windows Firewall
The new firewall is much improved and actually works like a firewall now. It includes a neat little configuration utility. The firewall is shipped turned on and it allows you to allow access for programs and other incoming and outgoing traffic. It finally acts like a real firewall should instead of acting like it knows whats better for you. You can also choose exceptions for the firewall, exceptions are basically Firewall Rules. You can enable programs to access the internet and if you change you mind later, remove them from the exceptions list. I did have a problem with the firewall, it will sometimes ask you if you want to unblock a program and if you take awhile to answer the dialog it will go ahead and allow access for the program anyway. Microsoft needs to change this behavior really quickly and make the dialog box WAIT for an answer before automatically assuming the answer is a yes. My suggestion is that if you decide to run the Release Candidate use another software firewall alongside the Windows firewall. On one of my test machines tho I have run the Firewall by itself for over 2 weeks and have not had a compromise and on that specific machine I was getting a lot of TCP port scans before SP2 and they have since ceased.
Internet Explorer and Outlook Express
Internet Explorer and Outlook Express have undergone some changes. A built in pop-up blocker for IE and stronger mail handling for Outlook Express. The pop-up blocker for IE works very well and blocks many of the pop-ups that the Google and MSN toolbar do. The only thing I would do different is add Tabbed browsing but considering how long it took Microsoft to put in a pop-up blocker, I wont hold my breath and wait for tabbed browsing. Outlook Express has undergone several changes that makes it not such a virus ally. Outlook Express will no longer automatically launch file attachments and has a different handling for HTML e-mail. Windows itself has safegaurds when you are launching downloaded attachments. Unfortunately the only ones who will be able to take advantage of these new features are Windows XP and Longhorn users. Internet Explorer and Outlook Express will no longer be developed as a standalone product for previous versions of Windows such as 9x/Me/NT 4/2000. We will soon see how this works out for Microsoft.
Ok this is my section where I get to tear into Microsoft for bugs and other things that they got wrong. Being as this is a beta I will not be as brutal as I normally would be. First, the beta of Windows Installer 3 does not work with older programs. I was unable to Install Adobe Acrobat 6, CDBurnerXP Pro, Easy CD/DVD Creator. The installer kept telling me I was trying to install in Safe Mode which I wasnt, after further testing anything with a .msi extention was not going to cooperate. My Netgear wireless router quit working and I couldnt bring it back up, uninstall the service pack it worked just fine. My CD Burner would not work at all with Microsofts internal CD Burning software it would not detect the disk. Uninstalled Service Pack 2 and it worked again. On my Dell Inspiron that I used as a test laptop my D-Link wirless PCMCIA card kept telling me I had to reinstall the drivers everytime I would boot up the computer, uninstalled Service Pack 2 and it worked fine again. I also like the Microsoft Dialog that asks you what you want to do when you insert removable media and that has been taken out in Service Pack 2 (or it just wasnt working). I did report everythng that went wrong to Microsoft and the respective companies so there should be no reason why it will not work in the final SP2
The much improved firewall and the Security Center are very big highlights, both are easy to use and configure. Pop up blocking in Internet Explorer is definitely a plus. As for application compatibility all of my installed applications worked very well even my Open Source applications such as The GIMP, OpenOffice, Firefox and Thunderbird worked and did not have any ill effects because of the update. Speed of the systems tested also seemed to be better.
For the most part besides a few problems I did enjoy testing Service Pack 2. Microsoft has really focused on the security side of things in this service pack but they need to improve functionality. As always in regards to beta software, my advice is if you have the time and the patience as well as an extra computer, help beta test and be sure to send feedback to Microsoft. There are a hundred different computer configurations out there and the more people that help beta test helps ensure that Microsoft “gets it right”. Do not use this Release Candadite on a production main machine otherwise you are just inviting disaster into your life. Furthermore, even when the final version comes out be sure you test everything before you upgrade your machines just to make sure all your major apps still run, or install. I will revisit XP Service Pack 2 when the final version comes out to let everyone know what has been fixed.
About The Author
Roberto J Dohnert is a Unix/Linux and Windows Consultant and software developer. His first introduction to Unix based systems dates back to NeXTStep. He is a member of the GNU Darwin Distribution and has made several contributions to that and other projects. His personal webpage is here.
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