Windows ‘service packs’ and why you want them

12:00 am Articles, Ask the Geek

If you use Windows XP and you’ve turned on “Automatic Updates,” you already know that Microsoft sends updates for Windows fairly often. Aside from “Update Tuesday,” the second Tuesday of every month when Microsoft releases important security-related updates, other patches and bug fixes trickle down throughout the month as well.

A “service pack,” for Windows, is a massive update comprising all the smaller updates that preceded it. If you want to install Windows XP from scratch today without any service pack whatsoever, brace yourself: You’ll easily have more than 100 critical updates waiting on you, then updates that depend on those updates. Then more updates.

If, on the other hand, you install Windows XP from scratch, then apply the latest service pack, you will save yourself a lot of work. You’ll still have updates to grab, but the amount is nothing compared to a “service-packless” installation.

These updates don’t simply fix minor annoyances. Often, they protect your computer from known exploits that could crater your system and leave your data vulnerable.

More than just a bundle of smaller updates, some service packs add new features and functionality. Notably, Windows XP Service Pack 2 included the new “Windows Security Center,” which actively managed the new Windows Firewall, Automatic Updates, and your own anti-malware. It also included a spiffy new wireless network manager that made it a breeze to attach to wireless networks.

However, Service Pack 2 was released in August of 2004, and there have been a significant number of important updates since then. Thankfully, Microsoft released the latest service pack for Windows XP in early May of this year.

Unfortunately, not all service packs leave users with a fresh, tingly feeling after installation. It’s usually best to let others try one on for size before you install it, just in case. Overall, after some initial problems after the rollout, SP3 hasn’t been shown to wreck much of anything, and it does tighten security a bit.

According to some tests, you may even notice a slight increase in speed after installing SP3.

There are a few things to consider before upgrading to SP3. One thing that rubs a few users the wrong way is that you will no longer have the ability to uninstall Internet Explorer 7 (or the beta version of IE 8). Make sure you’re committed to IE7 (or don’t care either way) before installing SP3. This doesn’t effect your ability to run another Web browser like Firefox, so if you don’t use IE, this shouldn’t be a concern.

Also, the installation takes a while, so don’t plan on using your computer for an hour or so. If you’re installing it on a laptop, make sure you plug it into the AC outlet. You don’t want to lose power during a major operating system update.

Finally, as with any major update, be sure you’ve backed up important software and documents. I don’t want to scare you into avoiding important updates, but it never hurts to be safe. (You need a backup anyway.)

The easiest (and recommended) way to get SP3 is to point Internet Explorer (not Firefox or Opera, they’re not supported) to the official Windows Update site. If you haven’t updated in a while, there’s a chance you’ll have to update a few pieces of supporting software before SP3 can be installed.

Personal tip: Don’t look to SP3 as a magic bullet to fix problems with your PC, if you have any. More than likely, if you’re having problems with your PC, SP3 won’t fix them. It shouldn’t make them worse, but it probably won’t fix them, either. Your best bet is to get your problems resolved before potentially exacerbating them by throwing another wrench into the works.


Kevin McDonald: Writer and professional computer/network administrator. He lives in Amarillo with his wife and children, and owns and operates Definition Computers. E-mail Kevin at with questions you’d like to see answered in this column.

(This article was originally published in the Amarillo Independent newspaper.)

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