FAQ: Windows XP SP3 ships -- finally

Microsoft declares the service pack done, but when can you get it?

Microsoft Corp. today finally slapped a "Done" sticker on Windows XP Service Pack 3 and pushed it out the door. The designation of SP3 as RTM, short for "release to manufacturing," wasn't much of a surprise, given that the company's schedule was leaked last week.

SP3's path has been long and sometimes tortuous -- Microsoft often simply seems to ignore XP, preferring instead to trumpet Vista -- but it looks like Microsoft's aged, and aging, operating system is wrapping up with the release of its certain-to-be-the-last service pack.

Despite the focus on Vista, there have been a ton of questions about SP3.

Fortunately, we have the answers, too.

Can I get Windows XP SP3 today? Depends on who you are. Microsoft said that it is shipping the code to computer makers and making it available to volume licensing customers.

"SP3 has released to manufacturing," said Chris Keroack, XP SP3's release manager, in a message posted on a TechNet support forum. "Windows XP SP3 bits are now working their way through our manufacturing channels to be available to OEM and Enterprise customers."

So, when do I get SP3? Microsoft said it would put SP3 on Windows Update (WU) on April 29. Starting then, you'll be able to update by calling up WU, then selecting the download.

For several weeks, SP3 will be optional, just like Windows Vista SP1, which still hasn't come out of its manual WU mode.

Wait a minute. I'm a TechNet or MSDN subscriber and I can't get SP3 today? Apparently not. And apparently Microsoft didn't learn a lesson from the February debacle, when it first denied Vista SP1 to the IT professionals and developers who pay hundreds annually for the right to download the company's software for testing purposes.

As a recap, two months ago TechNet and MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) subscribers raised a stink when they weren't allowed access to Vista SP1 after it was marked RTM; Microsoft took nearly two weeks to change its mind and release the upgrade to the services.

A reprise appears to be in the works. Today, Keroack told TechNet/MSDN subscribers, "Not yet. This will be available within the next month," when asked on a support forum when the service pack would be available.

What if I want to wait for WU to do the heavy lifting for me? Just sit tight. Microsoft will begin pushing SP3 to most users -- all those who have set WU to automatically download and install important updates -- sometime in "early summer," according to Microsoft's Keroack.

Unlike Vista, which was held for weeks after it went RTM, XP has no balky device drivers that will prevent users from upgrading in large numbers.

Microsoft didn't get back to us when we asked why it's postponing automatic updating of SP3. But while Microsoft has offered up a vague delivery date, others have pinpointed June 10 as the flip-the-switch date.

What's new in XP SP3? Not much.

As befits a service pack, SP3 is mostly about patches and hotfixes and other updates that have been issued incrementally since 2004, when Microsoft pushed Windows XP SP2 out the door.

But there are some new features, which Microsoft spelled out in release notes that it's been tweaking for months. Probably the biggest, at least in terms of the number of users it will impact, is the change in product activation.

New installations of Windows XP SP3 will give users the same 30-day grace period currently offered to Vista customers before they're required to enter a product activation key.

Microsoft made it plain that the change is only for new installations and doesn't come into play when users upgrade from SP2 or an even earlier edition of XP. "As with previous service packs, no product key is requested or required when installing Windows XP SP3 using the update package available through Microsoft Update," the SP3 release notes read.

What versions of XP will I be able to update to SP3? All of them, with the exception of Professional x64.

Every edition of Windows -- which includes Home, Media Center, Professional and Tablet PC -- can be updated using WU.

Is Microsoft finished with SP3 for all the Windows XP language packs? Yes, says the company.

"All languages for Windows XP SP3 will be available simultaneously at the RTM and RTW [release to the Web] milestones," a Microsoft spokeswoman said.

That's different than earlier speculation from independent sources, which had claimed XP SP3 would be delivered in multiple "waves," with the Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Spanish versions available first.

Do I need to install SP2 first? No. We don't know how you managed not to update to SP2, but it's not a prerequisite for this upgrade. Microsoft put it succinctly in the release notes it has prepared: "SP3 is cumulative, so users can install SP3 on top of Windows XP SP1 or SP2."

How long will it take to download SP3 when it reaches Windows Update? That depends on the speed of your Internet connection, of course. The package, Microsoft says, will be about 70MB or so.

Ironically, that's slightly larger than the 65MB average for Vista SP1. Go figure.

I'll want to update several XP machines. Do I have to use Windows Update on each? No. Microsoft will also post a stand-alone installer for XP SP3 to its Web site next week when it releases the service pack to WU.

The installer will be about 580MB in size, Microsoft says. Again, that's brawnier than the 32-bit Vista SP1 stand-alone.

Do I need to prep my PC for the final version of SP3 if I've installed one of the early versions? Yes, you need to uninstall any now-superseded release candidate or beta of SP3 that you've stuck on the system.

Here's how:

Click on the Start menu; choose Settings, then Control Panels. Launch the Add or Remove Programs applet by double-clicking. Make sure the Show Updates box is checked, then scroll down -- all the way to the bottom, most likely -- until you find the Windows XP Service Pack 3 item. Select it, and click Remove.

From there, it's more or less automatic, although you have to click the Next button in the ensuing dialog box. Windows will restart automatically at the end of the uninstall.

You're now ready to update to the RTM version of XP SP3, assuming it's available to you.

I'm running Windows XP Professional 64-bit. What do I do? Nothing. There is no SP3 for you.

Instead, hotfixes, updates and enhancements for your OS were delivered in March 2007 as part of Windows Server 2003 SP2. You can download a 351MB installer from here.

I'm leery of XP SP3 because I don't want Internet Explorer 7 on my PC. What do I do? Stop worrying, for one. Microsoft's not including the newer browser -- which is run by just 30% of business users more than a year after its debut -- with the service pack.

Instead, it includes fixes for IE6 and IE7 but doesn't disturb whichever version is currently installed on the PC.

Will Microsoft give in and extend Windows XP availability? Although we're tempted to say, "Only Steve Ballmer knows," we're not even sure of that.

This is what the company's CEO said last week during a talk at the its annual MVP -- Most Valuable Professional -- confab at its Redmond HQ. "We have a lot of customers that are choosing to stay with Windows XP, and as long as those are both important options, we will be sensitive, and we will listen, and we will hear that," Ballmer said.

So although he said he'd listen, he didn't promise to let OEMs sell systems with the aged operating system past the current June 30 deadline, or keep selling XP at retail after that date either.

"I know we're going to continue to get feedback from people on how long XP should be available," Ballmer added. "We've got some opinions on that. We've expressed our views."

One thing we do know: Microsoft said nothing today about granting another reprieve.

Will Microsoft offer free technical support if I have problems with installing SP3, or after installing the service pack? Excellent question; you must have heard that Microsoft isn't charging for Vista SP1 calls.

The short answer: Yes.

The long answer, courtesy of a Microsoft spokeswoman: "XP SP3 support will be free, conforming to standard Microsoft life-cycle support for all service packs. You'll be able to find detailed support information on the support life-cycle page after XP SP3 RTMs."

Normally, Microsoft refers users who obtained XP as part of a new PC to the computer manufacturer or reseller when problems pop up; the company's for-fee support runs $59 per request unless the user or business has a prepaid support plan with Microsoft.

XP SP3 queries, however, will be free for one year from today. Users can contact Microsoft by phone, e-mail or online chat.

Will XP SP3 be available at retail? That's unclear. But because Microsoft has set June 30 as the drop-dead date for XP in retail -- and for that matter, is banning large-scale OEMs from installing it on new machines -- that's very doubtful.

That means if you buy a copy of XP between now and ... whenever, since we're sure it won't vanish overnight from store shelves or from eBay, you'll have to do an after-the-fact update to SP3.

Can I roll back XP to its pre-SP3 condition if I want to? How do I do that? Yes, and it's easy.

To ditch SP3 and return to (presumably) SP2, open "Add or Remove Programs" from Control Panel, check the Show Updates box, then scroll to the bottom of the listing. Select "Windows XP Service Pack 3" and then click the Remove button.

The PC needs to reboot, but after that, the machine should return to its pre-SP3 state.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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