BOOT CAMP 339 (17/08/04)




XP has proved itself to be a huge improvement on previous versions of Windows, at least as far as reliability, stability and flexibility are concerned, but in one vitally important area it has been found wanting.


Security was touted as one of XP’s main strengths but that was like a red rag to a bull and even before it was officially launched a small and determined army of hackers and virus writers were busily probing for loopholes in the system. Since then XP has been under more or less constant attack but Microsoft are now going on the offensive with a major security update called Service Pack 2 (SP2), due for release anytime now.


SP2 was originally scheduled for launch in autumn 2003 but a spate of attacks on XP computers and networks last summer forced MS to revise its plans. Everything is now back on track and if you are using Windows XP you can expect to see a few changes once SP2 is installed, and hopefully your PC will be a lot more secure, but few expect it to go smoothly…


It’s a huge chunk of software and ‘beta’ versions have topped 250Mb, though the final release should be a lot smaller, nevertheless it has prompted some experts to describe it as more of a Windows XP upgrade than just a security update. Don’t even think about downloading it on a dial-up Internet Connection; details of how to obtain SP2 on a free CD-ROM should be announced soon.


Microsoft has acknowledged that despite lengthy testing by hundreds of thousands of software developers SP2 could ‘break’ existing applications with weak or flawed security. This could cause problems, especially on PCs set to download updates automatically and the first thing some users will know of SP2 could be a string of error messages or unresponsive programs.


For most home PC users it should proceed without a hitch, though and SP2’s first task is to bring your PC up to date with all of the security updates and bug fixes for XP so far. SP2 will be using a new version of Windows Update and this should help to speed up the downloading of automatic ‘Critical’ upgrades and there are improvements to the way optional updates are handled, both for Windows and other Microsoft products.


A new feature called Security Centre brings together Windows Update, the Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) and options for some third-party anti-virus software on an easily accessible control panel or ‘dashboard’. ICF has undergone several important changes. It will be enabled by default, it also starts earlier during the boot-up process and remains on longer, whilst the PC is shutting down to provide extra protection. There are a lot of additional configuration options too and as soon as SP2 is installed users will be faced with a stream of pop-up boxes asking permission for various applications to use the Internet. However, ICF still doesn’t block outgoing connections, which means you may still be better off using a commercial Firewall or one of the freeware offerings like Zone Alarm, Outpost or Sygate.


Internet Explorer’s notoriously weak security receives an overhaul from SP2 but the most noticeable changes are a pop-up stopper and ad-blocking facilities. If a web page tries to open a pop-up or new window you’ll get the option to allow or disable it and you can create a list of trusted sites. IE also prevents those aggravating windows that open full screen, with no way of getting rid of them. Crafty web page designers will no longer be able to position windows with the title and toolbars off the screen, so you can’t close them. Extra behind the scenes security will make it harder to unwittingly download dangerous plug-ins, add-ons, spyware and Active-X controls and malicious software that could compromise system security. It should also be easier to remove suspicious or unwanted components.


Outlook Express is another very popular target and long overdue for a security revamp. SP2 will tighten up the default settings to help stop worms and viruses getting though on the backs of emails. Anything suspicious is automatically isolated and images in emails will no longer be displayed by default.


Network users will benefit from more sophisticated protection against attack and it will be harder for hackers to tinker with an XP computers memory by taking advantage of security features built into many recent Intel and AMD microprocessor chips.


If your PC is set up to download updates automatically SP2 will be installed whether you like it or not but if you have disabled this feature (see Tip of the Week), the question is whether or not install SP2?


All of the features outlined should be genuinely beneficial but in spite of the extensive testing there are bound to undiscovered bugs and glitches that will only come to light when SP2 is installed on a few million PCs. There’s also potential for unexpected interactions with existing software, especially older programs that breach new security rules. In some cases fixes will be available from day-one, but it may take a while for some companies to catch up and there are bound to be a few that won’t bother because the program is no longer supported or they have simply gone out of business.


On balance my advice is to install SP2, but I would definitely wait a couple of weeks for the dust to settle, and before you do make absolutely sure that all of your irreplaceable data is safely backed up! 


Next Week -- Recording Internet radio






Programming tools used to integrate multimedia components and features into web pages



A near final version of a program or application, made available to testers and volunteers to help identify any remaining bugs and conflicts



Patches and fixes for the most serious vulnerabilities in Windows that can affect its security or operation




Generally speaking Windows Automatic Update is a good idea that can help to keep you PC fixed and patched without you having to do anything. However, if you want to take charge -- at least until SP2 has proven itself and any bugs have been eliminated -- then you can switch it off by going to Control Panel, double-click the System icon. Select the Automatic Updates tab and deselect the item ‘Keep my computer up to date…’. To check for the latest updates go to Help and Support on the Start menu and under Pick a Task click ‘Keep your computer up to date with Windows Update’. Or go to:

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