Microsoft's first service pack update to Windows XP - sporting dozens of security and bug fixes, additional driver support, and interface changes, plus one minor change to the Windows XP activation feature - is scheduled to be available for download now.
For corporate customers wary of initial releases, the appearance of a first service pack often represents a green light for upgrading. But the debut of Service Pack 1 may be a nonevent for home and small office users, especially if they have kept their versions of Windows XP up to date through the Windows Update site.
However, Microsoft has also modified its controversial Windows Product Activation anti-piracy mechanism in a small but still welcome change. The Windows Product Activation function was intended to prevent people from installing the same copy of the OS on several PCs, by checking certain hardware specifications. Users worried that upgrading their system memory or adding hardware would prompt Windows XP to assume it was running on a new PC and lock them out.
Now, if Windows XP detects changes that may indicate installation on a new system, WPA will have a three-day grace period before it locks up your machine. This is intended to prevent unexpected hardware changes from rendering a legitimate PC installation inoperable and gives you a few days to contact Microsoft by phone and assure them you just have a new motherboard, not a new PC.
Many non-critical parts of SP1 add support for Microsoft's still-emerging .Net Web services platform, and for new hardware platforms, including Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, Windows Powered Smart Displays, and XP Media Center Edition. Other elements, including a restoration of Microsoft's Java virtual machine (which Microsoft says it removed from Windows XP due to a Sun lawsuit), are unlikely to arouse much interest from the average Windows XP user. The service pack also includes interface changes meant to satisfy government antitrust lawyers.
In addition, SP1 includes support for USB 2.0 devices, an enhancement already available as a downloadable add-on from Microsoft's Web site.
The 133MB Windows XP SP1 is downloadable in its entirety from Microsoft's Web site. You can also order it on CD for about US$10 plus shipping and handling.
A test installation of the Windows XP Service Pack 1 was painless and error-free. Unless you know where to look, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between updated and non-updated versions of the OS. The place to look is in the Control Panel's Add/Remove Programs applet, which sports a new "Set Program Access and Defaults" section, a change intended to comply with the November 2001 antitrust settlement agreement between Microsoft and the Justice Department. The new settings allow end users and system vendors to specify which programs handle key tasks, such as Web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, media playback, and Java interpreting.
Besides designating default applications, the new feature lets you hide installed programs--including bundled Microsoft apps - by deselecting an "Enable access to this program" option. Though it seems unlikely that they'll do so, PC vendors armed with the updated version of Windows XP could begin selling systems that default to browsers, media players, and other tools that come from Microsoft competitors such as Netscape and Opera, instead of to Microsoft's own utilities.
Tests of the new settings successfully banished all traces of Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Messenger, and Windows Media Player from the Start menu, the desktop, and the Taskbar. The new feature didn't do a great job of finding installed third-party applications, including the Netscape and Mozilla browsers or the QuickTime and Winamp players, though it didn't prevent them from functioning as the default applications in their categories when configured to do so.
Contrary to some published reports, the new settings don't remove the Microsoft programs, but merely hide them from the user's view. Microsoft has claimed repeatedly that Internet Explorer can't be removed from Windows.