As you read this, Microsoft is getting set to deliver the final bits of what has become an increasingly controversial patch cycle. Windows Vista Service Pack 1, which went "gold" a few weeks back, was finally made general available via Windows Update yesterday. Meanwhile, Windows XP Service Pack 3 is nearing its final release, with the RTM drop rumored to be making an appearance sometime this week.
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The controversy stems from the relatively lukewarm reception of Vista in the enterprise. As I noted in my Enterprise Desktop blog, the vast majority of IT shops will be sticking with Windows XP for the foreseeable future, giving Service Pack 3 a higher profile than would normally have been afforded to a set of patches for a now "obsolete" OS. At the same time, Service Pack 1 for Vista has been drawn, measured, and found wanting, putting yet another nail in the coffin of the would-be replacement for XP.
As we wait for that next Service Pack to drop, let's take a look at what you can expect from Windows XP Service Pack 3 and Windows Vista Service Pack 1.
Windows XP Service Pack 3
Windows XP Service Pack 3 has been the recipient of copious undue attention. After all, it's just another compilation of patches and minor tweaks – for an obsolete OS, no less. However, with so many shops bypassing Vista, the release of Service Pack 3 has taken on new levels of importance: This may be the last Service Pack they see for their chosen platform before Windows 7 arrives in late 2009.
Fortunately, SP3 manages to deliver. For starters, there's the usual roll-up of fixes. Currently, Windows XP SP2 users face a deluge of "high priority" patches when they first connect to Windows Update. Maintaining a current installation image – with all of the required patches "slipstreamed" into the mix – has become a job function in and of itself. Having SP3 as a starting point will reduce the support hassle and minimize the security exposure for newly minted (and, as yet, unpatched) systems.
Feature-wise, XP SP3 is short on headliners (view a table of highlights). There's the revised network stack with better Black Hole router detection (lower overhead, on by default). Some new cryptographic modules allow developers to better secure their driver code. And you'll find Network Access Protection (NAP) support so that Windows Server 2008 environments can lock out unpatched PCs or systems that otherwise are not up to standards. There's nothing earth-shaking here, just solid fixes to basic limitations in the OS core.
Of course, one feature IT shops weren't expecting – a 10 percent performance advantage over SP2 – managed to slip in as well. And while the performance boost measured by an independent testing entity (see my blog entry "XP Widening the Gap vs. Vista") may be nothing more than the accumulated impact of all those post-SP2 Hotfix tweaks, it certainly doesn't hurt and helps make the case for sticking with Windows XP that much stronger.