Microsoft is making a major push to get Windows users to embrace the security-focused overhaul to its XP computer operating system. But while most consumers are advised to upgrade to Service Pack 2, there are a few things to keep in mind. Here are the answers to some common questions about the free SP2 upgrade.
Q: What are the basic requirements?
A: The upgrade is compatible with all flavors of XP (Professional, Home, Media Center and Tablet). You will otherwise need a system with a minimum 233-megahertz processor, 64 megabytes of memory and 1.8 gigabytes of hard disk space during installation.
Q: I’ve heard this is a massive update. Is it too much to grab in one gulp?
A: The full corporate install is on the order of 265MB, though the typical home edition is about 80MB. That is why Microsoft is distributing the update in three ways. Consumers who want it immediately can download the whole enchilada from Microsoft’s Web site (www.microsoft.com).
You also can order a CD from the Web. But the most common method of download distribution is to turn on “automatic updates” and receive SP2 as part of a phased rollout. How quickly SP2 arrives on your system depends on your connection speed, how often you use the Internet, Internet traffic and other factors.
Q: How do I know when the download begins?
A: A small icon that looks like a shield appears in the Windows system tray.
You can place the cursor over this icon to monitor progress.
Q: Do I need to fret about compatibility issues with the programs on my PC?
A: Whenever you update your operating system, it is prudent to back up key files and personal data in case unexpected glitches arise.
Many corporations are proceeding cautiously. Companies can install a key in the Windows registry (a file that stores operating system settings) that will block the automatic delivery of SP2 while accepting other automatic updates from Microsoft. This allows them to continue to test the compatibility of SP2 with other software before committing to it.
Microsoft says consumers are not likely to encounter trouble. But you might have difficulties with instant messaging or while competing in multiplayer games over the Internet. It is also quite possible that SP2 will butt heads with existing software on your machine. Microsoft has posted a list of a few dozen programs known to malfunction in some manner on an SP2 machine.
The roster includes the AOL Toolbar, the 2000 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe and Electronic Arts NBA Live 2000. The list changes, so check with the individual companies to see if they have issued any SP2 fixes.
During installation, SP2 will set up a “restore point” that will roll back your PC to a previous state if you do run into snags.
Q: Will my machine be really safe with SP2?
A: Safer, anyway. But the computer is far from invulnerable. SP2 addresses common intrusions and reduces risks. It includes a pop-up blocker, all the “critical” security patches Microsoft has issued since the original XP’s debut three years ago, plus a new Windows Security Center that lets you modify settings on the machine (for example, making sure the firewall and automatic updates remain on). It helps you screen e-mail attachments and block potentially nasty downloads. It flags you if your anti-virus program is turned off or not up-to-date. And it improves Windows’ own firewall, which is turned on by default.
Still, the Windows firewall isn’t as effective as third-party firewalls such as ZoneAlarm. That’s partly because it cannot block outbound data that a spyware program lifts from your hard drive. Without such protection, one of these stealth programs could capture the keystrokes used to type in your credit card number and secretly send them to another machine on the Internet.
You also will have to buy clean-up software to remove existing spyware and viruses on your hard drive.
There have already been some reports of potential SP2 security flaws. Microsoft has released a “hotfix” to correct an issue some SP2 customers encountered running certain applications over private corporate networks.