The Dark Side of Windows XP Service Pack 2

by [Published on 26 Oct. 2004 / Last Updated on 26 Oct. 2004]

Although I haven’t had any problems with Windows XP Service Pack 2 myself, for many people, installing the service pack has become a nightmare. In this article, I will explain how you can better prepare for the Service Pack installation to minimize your chances of having problems.

As a Microsoft MVP, I had the opportunity to be actively involved in beta testing Windows XP Service Pack 2. Between the beta testing and the actual deployment once Service Pack 2 was finally released, I only experienced one minor problem on my systems. Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2004 tends to have some video problems on my machine if I spend more than about five or ten minutes flying in close proximity to the ground. Aside from that one issue, I have had nothing but good luck with Service Pack 2. On my machines, Service Pack 2 solved several problems for me and also helped increase the security of my network.

About a week ago however, one of my neighbors called me and asked me if I thought that she should load Service Pack 2 onto her machine. My neighbor is a flight attendant and she gets so sick of flying that she would be the last person on earth to have Flight Simulator 2004 on her machine. That being the case, I told her that Service Pack 2 was the greatest thing since sliced bread and that she should load it immediately. That’s when the problems started. In spite of my good luck with Service Pack 2, many other people, including my neighbor, have had severe problems with Service Pack 2. In this article, I will explain some known issues with Service Pack 2 in an effort to help prevent you from having the same types of problems that so many other people have had.

The Prep Work

Before you even think about upgrading a machine to Service Pack 2, it’s a good idea to take a few minutes and properly prepare the machine. Yes, you can technically install SP2 without doing anything special to the machine ahead of time, but you are far less likely to experience problems if you plan ahead.

Spyware Removal

The very first thing that you should do is to scan your machine for spyware and remove any that you might find. The reason why this is so important is because spyware typically latches itself onto the registry and onto various system files. Installing Service Pack 2 replaces most of your machine’s system files. If a spyware module has altered aspects of your system and then you start replacing system files, there is a good chance that Windows will lose network and Internet connectivity. If this does happen to you, you can fix the problem by downloading and running a utility called WinsockXPFix.exe. You can download this utility from http://www.iup.edu/house/resnet/winfix.shtm Even though this utility will usually fix the problem, it is better to just scan the machine prior to installing the service pack and avoid the problem completely.

For more information about spyware and how to remove it read the article here.

Update Drivers

The next thing that I recommend doing is to update the computer’s hardware drivers. To do so, you should first make a list of the hardware contained within the system. You can find out exactly what hardware the system contains by opening the Control Panel, clicking the Performance and Maintenance link, and clicking the System Link. When you do, Windows will open the System Properties Sheet. Select the properties sheet’s Hardware tab and then click the Device Manager button. The Device Manager, shown in Figure A, will display a list of all of the hardware contained within the system.


Figure A: The Device manager displays all of the computer’s hardware

Once you have made a list of all of the devices in the system, you can usually find device driver updates on the hardware manufacturer’s Web sites. It isn’t necessary to find driver updates for things like keyboards, mice, hard drives, and CPUs. The general rule of thumb is that you should only worry about updates for devices that plug into an expansion bus in your system (such as a PCI card) or that attach to your system through an external port (such as a USB port or a parallel port).

Once you have downloaded the necessary device drivers, you can update the device drivers directly through the Device Manager. To do so, simply right click on the device that you want to update the driver for, and select the Update Driver command from the resulting shortcut menu and follow the prompts.

Realistically, there aren’t a whole lot of outdated hardware device drivers that will give you problems when you install Service Pack 2, but they do exist. One of the most common ones is the nVidia graphics driver. If your machine has a nVidia graphics card, you may experience problems similar to my Flight Simulator problems unless you install the update found at: http://h10025.www1.hp.com/ewfrf/wc/genericSoftwareDownloadIndex?lc=en&cc=us&softwareitem=pv-19853-2  Even if you don’t have a nVidia video card, it is still important to update your device drivers though because Service Pack 2 is designed to prevent legacy drivers from loading if they are known to cause stability problems. You can read more details at: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/883775

Prepare For Disaster

As I stated earlier, I haven’t personally had any problems with Windows XP Service Pack 2. However, before you install Service Pack 2, I recommend taking a look at http://reviews.zdnet.co.uk/software/os/0,39024183,39163261,00.htm This Web page contains reviews from people who have downloaded and installed Windows XP Service Pack 2. Although there are reviews on the page from people who are happy with Windows XP Service Pack 2, there are many more reviews from people who are not so happy. The underlying thread seems to be that for many people, the service pack dramatically impacts system performance and / or system stability. People writing reviews on the Web site have mentioned things like getting the Blue Screen of Death every time that the system is booted and systems that run so slowly that they become unusable.

Don’t let those reviews scare you though. Most of the negative comments can potentially be attributed to not removing spyware prior to deploying the service pack. Even so, you simply can’t ignore the fact that so many people have had problems with Service Pack 2.

My personal feelings are that Service Pack 2 is too important of an upgrade to ignore. However, since so many people have had problems with it, I suggest taking some steps to insure that you can recover your system should something go wrong.

Windows XP contains a System Restore feature that you can use to revert back to previous restore points should something go wrong. The problem is that once Service Pack 2 is installed, you can’t revert back to any previous restore points. The problem comes into play because the restore point format has been changed in Service Pack 2. The good news is that there is a fix for the problem. You can download the fix at http://h10025.www1.hp.com/ewfrf/wc/genericSoftwareDownloadIndex?lc=en&cc=us&softwareitem=pv-22793-4 Keep in mind though that this fix must be applied prior to installing Service Pack 2.

I also recommend performing a full system backup prior to installing Windows XP Service Pack 2. If you are running Windows XP Professional, then you have a copy of NTBackup at your disposal. You can access NTBackup by clicking on the Start button and selecting All Programs | Accessories | System Tools | Backup.

For some reason though, Microsoft omitted NTBackup from Windows XP Home Edition. If you are stuck running Windows XP Home Edition, all is not lost though. The NTBackup program is actually hidden on your Windows XP installation CD. You can install NTBackup by inserting your CD and running the NTBACKUP.MSI file found in the CD’s Valueadd\msft\ntbackup folder

Misc. Service Pack Problems

Microsoft has acknowledged several different problems that can cause the Service Pack 2 installation to fail. However, fixes are available for those problems (http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=36dd19df-bc5e-44b7-a339-6794d97994a2&DisplayLang=en) and even if the fix doesn’t work for you, you still have the backup that you made, right?

For most people, the biggest problems that you will have from Service Pack 2 involve some of the new security features. The fact that the Windows XP Firewall is enabled by default seems to be causing issues for a lot of people. The reason for this is because a lot of applications rely on being able to receive data through obscure TCP or UDP ports. Since the service pack closes most TCP and UDP ports by default, applications depending on those ports do not function correctly. This particular issue isn’t a big deal though because Microsoft makes it easy to open ports in the XP firewall.

Another minor issue involves the pop up blocker. The pop up blocker is designed to keep you from being flooded with pop up windows while browsing the Internet. The problem is that some Web sites use pop ups legitimately. For example, if you attempt to download a file, the download may open in a pop up.

If you are used to having a pop up blocker on your machine then these issues are probably nothing new for you. Again, the issues aren’t anything catastrophic. You can temporarily disable the pop up blocker with a click of the mouse when necessary. It’s more of an inconvenience than a major problem.

One thing that does tend to be a problem though is Internet Explorer’s new security settings. Internet Explorer now restricts the use of ActiveX controls on Web pages more so than ever before. This is done because ActiveX controls are the mechanism of choice for installing spyware onto your machine. Again though, some Web sites make legitimate use of ActiveX controls. I recommend restricting ActiveX controls if possible, but you can always adjust Internet Explorer’s security settings if you absolutely have to run ActiveX controls.

Conclusion

Although I personally have had no major problems with Windows XP Service Pack 2, there are a lot of people who have. I personally believe that upgrading to Windows XP Service Pack 2 is worthwhile, but that you should take some precautions before attempting the upgrade. For more information on issues with Windows XP Service Pack 2, check out the article at: http://www.desktoppipeline.com/operatingsystems/49900718

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