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One heavy pack

Windows XP Service Pack 1 is almost as big as the original OS.

As any other Microsoft service pack does, Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Windows XP promises to fix various bugs and glitches and to update many Microsoft programs. Unlike other service packs, it also makes it possible for consumers to ditch once-mandatory programs (often referred to as middleware) such as Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, Microsoft Messenger (the company’s free instant-messaging service), and Outlook Express. The reasons for bug fixes and patches are obvious. The reasons for middleware management are not; in a nutshell, Microsoft is trying to comply with the spirit of its proposed antitrust settlement.

SP1 is in beta as of this writing and thus, some options discussed here may be changed or eliminated, but the final release should be available to the public by the time you read this. The idea here is to give you a plan of attack regarding SP1. All the bug fixes and patches in the release will be available on Microsoft’s download site by the time SP1 is officially released. This makes getting the 120MB service pack on CD something less than a no-brainer.

Is it worth loading this monster on your machine (and risking further bugs and patches), or should you just keep the status quo (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it) approach? If you’re of a mind to customize your machine and avoid Microsoft programs wherever possible, you will want the service pack. Even if you really don’t care what the default programs are on your desktop, you will want all the features SP1 adds in. It’s as if Microsoft made a whole new OS and just kept the name. Or better yet, it’s what XP should have been in the first place.

Installation was super-easy with the beta CD that I received, and will probably be even easier with the final release. There really isn’t much to it; just insert the CD (or activate the downloaded file via Start and Run) and follow the instructions to begin the upgrade. You should probably back up your registry just in case, but the updating process should run without a hitch. And once you’ve installed SP1 you’ll have all sorts of new options to play with.

Is Justice served?

The update is, in part, a response to the deal Microsoft made with the Justice Department to settle the antitrust case filed against it more than four years ago. The service pack actually goes beyond the original agreement in that users are not only able to hide the icons and shortcuts that load the programs but also able to physically delete the utilities themselves. (Of course, anything deleted can easily be restored from the Windows XP CD or the CAB files that are probably already on your hard drive.) Finally, users everywhere can be Microsoft-free-or at least as Microsoft–free as you can be while running a Microsoft operating system.

But deleting these programs isn’t exactly easy. The menu for getting rid of the Microsoft add-ons, for example, is confusing and more than a little annoying. When you install SP1, you’ll find a new entry in your Start menu and in the Add or Remove Programs applet in Control Panel called Set Program Access and Defaults. This feature offers four different choices, detailed below.

Reconfiguring your configuration

This option is designed to restore the configuration back to the default setting as determined by the PC manufacturer. If Dell had a deal with AOL, for example, this configuration could be used to hide Internet Explorer and instead promote AOL as the default Web browser. This obviously won’t come into play if you’re just updating an existing version of Windows XP, but you can bet that PC manufacturers will take full advantage of the option in future off-the-shelf systems.

Microsoft options

This default option uses all of Microsoft’s middleware and is probably how most new PCs will be shipping. If you use all the standard Microsoft middleware and are happy with the way your Windows XP system is currently configured, then you’ll probably want to stick with this option.

Non-Microsoft options

If you don’t want to use any Microsoft products (aside from the OS itself, of course) this is the option for you. Selecting this option will hide all of the Microsoft middleware products. In order to delete them you’ll have to actually remove the programs, but choosing this option effectively rids the system of the utilities while leaving you the option of going back to them later.

Custom options

Choose this option to control your own defaults. All middleware, regardless of who makes it, can be selected or deselected however the user sees fit. Future versions of third-party middleware will be able to add themselves to the list of programs under the custom option automatically but, as it stands, you have to add them manually if you want them to appear in your menus.

As I stated above, selecting any of these options won’t actually delete any programs, but will instead just hide the icons. If you want to completely delete the Microsoft middleware files from your hard drive, you’ll have to select and remove them manually through Add/Delete Programs in the Control Panel.

Updates and bug fixes

While arguably the most exciting feature of the new update is the ability to delete the formerly permanent Microsoft programs, Service Pack 1 also updates the OS to include such niceties as DirectX 9 (which enables high-quality 3D graphics in certain games and utilities), a new version of Windows Messenger (WM), and support for Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0. There are already many peripherals on the market that use USB 2.0 and it’s nice to be able to take advantage of them under Windows XP. Windows Messenger 4.7 will include updated security features as well as the Add/Remove capabilities as required by the Justice Department agreement. (You can also download WM 4.7 independent of SP1 in the event that you decide the other updates aren’t for you.) Microsoft also has an eye toward the future by offering support for Mira, a new wireless monitor technology that’s almost sure to be the next big thing for power users; Freestyle PCs, a system that marries your computer to your television; and Tablet PCs, which will offer pen-based computing and all but eliminate the keyboard. If you don’t plan to take advantage of this new technology, however, don’t worry about excessive code bloat. While SP1 updates Windows XP to take advantage of the new options, the actual code necessary to make everything work will come with the hardware devices.

SP1 will finally implement Microsoft’s long-awaited .Net framework as well, but interestingly, the upgrade will be optional and not part of the standard download. Responding to critics, SP1 will also change Windows XP’s controversial product-activation scheme. The service pack will now allow a three-day grace period for reactivation if you make major system changes (that is, install a new hard drive) or reinstall your copy of XP.

The service pack also fixes a number of minor snafus found in the original release of Windows XP. Thankfully, someone at Microsoft finally wised up and built in support for Java, which is once again a part of the OS. Security issues have also been addressed, and the resulting product (due to Bill Gates’s January 2002 mandate that Microsoft programmers go through the XP code with a fine-tooth comb) is a tighter, more secure system.

SP1 will also include greater peripheral support, fixes for various system crash issues, patches for problems like USB data transfer issues and FTP connection instability, and more. The bugs that are addressed in SP1 are so numerous that listing them here would take up this entire column, and then some.

Should I upgrade?

Should you upgrade to Service Pack 1? Yes, except in the special instances described above. SP1 makes an already stable system even more so, updates existing programs, brings back native Java support, and adds protocols for new technology. Moreover, the annoying product-activation scheme, if not eliminated, is at least curbed a little, giving you more time to finish whatever changes you were in the process of making that activated the flag. The update is free to download (file size should be around 120MB) and available on CD-ROM for a nominal shipping fee, so the upgrade cost will be negligible.

If your Windows XP system is already stable, adding the service pack won’t hurt anything and might help you to take advantage of new options. If you’ve managed to run into a few bugs or security issues, or just want to be able to ditch Microsoft’s middleware without too much of a fight, then the upgrade is an absolute must. Download the file or order the CD-ROM today. You won’t regret it.

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