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A Quick Preview of Service Pack 2

First of all I think I should address the question, what is a "Service Pack"?

A Service Pack basically includes all previous updates to an Operating System, and can add new features and functionality.  Microsoft generally release a Service Pack for Windows every year or two.

    What's so special about Service Pack 2?

Service Pack 2 is absolutely massive.

Last year Service Pack 2 was an entirely different beast than it is today, it wasn't anything more special than Service Pack 1 had been, just a routine set of (boring) updates.  Then the Slammer worm hit, everything changed.  Microsoft already had planned a sweeping reform of security for their next version of Windows (code named Longhorn, due for 2006).  However this was too far away to stop future Slammer like attacks.  Finally, Microsoft decided enough is enough and pulled out the big guns, redirecting the Windows team, bringing Longhorn development to a virtual standstill, to re-develop Service Pack 2 (which was then slated to be released late 2003) to carry Longhorn's improved security enhancements as well and do it as soon as possible, so the Windows team got to work on trying to bolt Longhorn's security enhancements onto Windows XP, the *new* Service Pack 2 is the result, and which is why it's so important.

The primary reason the Slammer worm was so successful was because people didn't visit Windows Update to get the latest security patches, or have Windows set to automatically download the new patches and the built in Windows firewall was disabled by default.

Service Pack 2 will now help to make this clearer to people.

Auto update in your face

After installing Service Pack 2, before you even logon you're presented with this window.

Auto Update window
Click to see in full size.

Kudos to Microsoft.  Unlike the previous little box in Windows XP that would pop up explaining about auto update.  You can't click this one away, you can't close it, you can't just ignore it, you have to answer YES or NO.  After all how many computer users do just close things that pop up never reading them?

Automatic Updates doing it's thing.

New updates

Installing updates

Installing updates

Restart me

A Unified Security Centre

This I think is quite a nice addition, giving the user information on security matters all in a single place.

It reports status of the built in Windows Firewall, Automatic Updates and Virus Protection.  A nice touch.

Security Centre

A few new additions to the Control Panel as well.

New additions to the Control Center

A built in firewall

This is probably the single most important feature of Service Pack 2.  Windows XP came with a built in firewall anyway, however by default it was switched off, do users actually bother to switch the thing on?  Ha!  This new firewall is much more advanced, yet easy to use and is enabled by default on all network adapters.

A firewall basically monitors traffic going to and/or from your PC, it only allows through traffic that you have specified to have access.  Although not the final solution to security it's an important part of it none-the-less.

The firewall kicking in when I try to run MSN Messenger:

Firewall in action

The firewall configuration Window:

Firewall control

Brand new Windows Update website

Much easier to use and better looking now.

Windows Update
Click to see in full size.

A pop-up blocker for Internet Explorer

It's been a while since Microsoft have done much with Internet Explorer, after reaching version 6 it hasn't seen much attention lately, that's all changed now.  Probably what most users will like the most, no more damn pop-ups appearing all over the place when you're browsing the web.

Pop-up blocker

The pop-up blocker in action.

Pop-up in action

Seamless, if the page attempts to open a pop-up a bar appears just under the address, informing you that it's been blocked, clicking the bar brings up a nice little menu of useful options.

Unfortunately we'll now see advertisers move to trying out different ways of making money, expect full page adverts to start becoming common, but at least we won't have crap appearing all over our desktops anymore!

Also a plug-in management system has been included, much welcome now we can check to see what is running with Internet Explorer and disable any unwelcome applications.

IE plug-in display

A few enhancements to Outlook Express

Long been on the backburner for Microsoft it's finally getting some changes.

The most important is how it handles images and code pulled from websites, by default this is now disabled.  This is a very important privacy enhancement, spam pulling images from on the web could in theory track what e-mail addresses were valid simply by the page being opened.

OE image blocker
Click to see in full size.

Like the Internet Explorer pop-up blocker, a bar comes up stating the some pictures have been blocked, simply clicking on the bar will enable the pictures to be downloaded.

This doesn't effect images that are actually attached to the e-mail, as these are safe, only ones that are pulled externally from the web where someone could track who is opening what and so forth.

Potentially dangerous file types (.exe .scr etc) are also blocked by default.

Other improvements

Service Pack 2 also now comes with "out of the box" support for Bluetooth devices. 

A major improvement to wireless network interface, this will make it easier to understand and use wireless networks.

As well as a whole range of other tweaks and fixes.

Where to get Service Pack 2

It's available for download through Windows Update, for those on slower connections a CD-ROM with Service Pack 2 on can be ordered from Microsoft also.  The entire network install can also be downloaded.

Last updated 27th of September 2004.