Is XP's Fix Safe?

Windows XP Service Pack 2 promises to protect you from the most pervasive worm attacks, stop pop-up ads, and tighten security in Windows' Achilles' heel, Internet Explorer. But given the problems many users experienced with XP's first service pack, some people have been waiting to hear whether this update is more likely to hurt than help.

The news is mostly positive: With SP2 finally making its way onto millions of computers, early reports suggest that the upgrade has gone smoothly for the majority of those who have installed it. But for at least a significant number of people, SP2 has spelled trouble, triggering software conflicts, system slowdowns, network outages, and in some cases boot failures. Blame for the difficulties (some of which are still emerging) may rest with software and hardware vendors, or with Microsoft itself. But regardless of who's at fault, if you were hoping that the decision to install SP2 would be easy, think again.

SP2's Street Cred

By all accounts, Microsoft went to considerable lengths to work the bugs out of its latest bug fix in hopes of avoiding the slowdowns, crashes, and boot-up problems that bedeviled SP1 in 2002. Although SP2 was widely expected to appear in June, the company delayed the launch twice to address last-minute problems before releasing it in August. Since that time, XP users have downloaded SP2 manually through Microsoft's Windows Update service or automatically via XP's update feature. A Microsoft spokesperson predicts that the service pack will be installed through automatic updates on about 100 million PCs by the end of October.

To find out how some of these early adopters fared with SP2, we surveyed 3421 Windows XP users about their attitudes toward and experiences with the update. (Because the participants in the survey were self-selected--they responded to an invitation on our Web site to report on their experiences with Windows XP--the results cannot be generalized to all users of Windows XP.) Though Microsoft's rollout of the patch through Windows XP's Automatic Updates feature had barely begun, more than 60 percent of the survey's respondents reported that they had already installed SP2.

No rush: Michael Rask of Killeen, Texas, is holding off on SP2 until he's certain that it won't conflict with software at his auto repair shop.
No rush: Michael Rask of Killeen, Texas, is holding off on SP2 until he's certain that it won't conflict with software at his auto repair shop.
But of those who hadn't installed SP2, more than a third reported that they feared the update would impede system performance. Michael Rask of Killeen, Texas, says he's waiting until he's sure SP2 won't interfere with his installed software. Rask, who manages an automotive repair shop, is confident enough in his own ability to maintain adequate security to hold off on installing SP2. "Security is not a problem, since I run up-to-date firewall and antivirus programs, delete 90 percent of my e-mail, and run Firefox as my browser," Rask says.

Of the survey respondents who did download and install SP2, about three-quarters detected no problems afterward. The remaining respondents experienced some postupgrade fallout, though 10.3 percent described the problems as mild, having little effect on their ability to use the PC. Another 9 percent, however, reported experiencing moderate difficulties, and 4 percent encountered problems that made the PC difficult or impossible to use.

Of those who reported snags, 31 percent experienced malfunctioning software, 14 percent had system slowdowns, and 8 percent reported having trouble connecting to a home or office network. Of the 2106 respondents who installed SP2, 34 (1.6 percent) said they'd run into the worst-case scenario: Their PCs wouldn't boot.

Crash victim: After Ed Norris of Logansport, Indiana, installed SP2, his PC wouldn't boot up. His dealer suspected a ZoneAlarm conflict.
Crash victim: After Ed Norris of Logansport, Indiana, installed SP2, his PC wouldn't boot up. His dealer suspected a ZoneAlarm conflict.
Ed Norris of Logansport, Indiana, an employee of the state's department of health, found himself in this unfortunate predicament. "The computer got partway through rebooting but then kept shutting itself down and attempting to reboot again. It wouldn't even go to Safe Mode," Norris recalls. After working on it for several hours, his computer dealer got the PC going again by booting with a rescue disk, uninstalling SP2, and reinstalling both Windows XP and SP2. No data was lost, and Norris's bill came to only $45. The dealer blamed the trouble on a conflict with Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm firewall, which Norris had installed.

Microsoft says that older versions of ZoneAlarm are among the many third-party applications that are incompatible with its new service pack. Zone Labs vice president Fred Felman says that the problem may lie elsewhere. "I'd say it's a relatively small group of people that have had trouble with our firewall," he says, adding that at least some conflicts that on the surface appear to be software-related may actually be caused by hardware. "The first thing you blame is your firewall," says Felman, "but the conflicts with SP2 are on every level."

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