Now that I’ve been using XP SP2 for a bit longer, I’d like top present a fuller review of what’s new.
First, the bad news: Microsoft didn’t take the time to fix IE’s CSS bugs, nor the bug with changing the font size where absolute font sizes are specified, so us web designers don’t get a break with this release.
The good news is that the popup blocker is included, and it’s turned on by default. It’s quite intuitive – when a popup is blocked, an icon appears on the status bar and a message appears below the toolbar saying that a popup window was blocked. If you click on the message, the popup is opened. A sound, which defaults to the popping noise made when new notifications appear, also sounds. The sound and message can be disabled in the options screen, which also lets you specifiy a whitelist of sites that can open popups. Popup controls can be accessed either using the new submenu on Tools or by right-clicking the status icon.
- New dialog for controlling popups
- New submenu showing access to popup controls
- Popup blocked message and status bar icon
Another new feature is the Add-ons manager, which also appears on the Tools menu. It includes all of the BHOs (Browser Helper Objects) and extensions currently installed, and allows you to enable/disable them easily. It also allows you to update them if an update is found. This should help people who want to remove those annoying spyware toolbars, although it could be improved – as you can see from the screenshot below two of these merely showed up as a GUIDs, which doesn’t really help the user in any way. A better way of identifying these would be a welcome improvement.
Another change is the removal of the Media Bar, which was only introduced in the first release of IE6. The official line from Microsoft on this is that it has been removed as a security feature, and that users can now use Windows Media Player instead. It’s not a feature I’m going to miss as in the 2 1/2 years that’s it been around I can’t say I’ve ever used it.
As well as blocking popups, new extensions are blocked by default, as exhibited when macromedia.com tried to install the Flash plugin on my machine. They are blocked in the same way as popups. Clicking on the message allows you to permit that site to install extensions, which then reloads the page and brings up another new dialog asking you whether you want to install the extension. As the screenshot shows, the dialog is much improved – it makes it clear that you should only install this if you trust the author. The option to always trust content from this author is now only shown if you select ‘More Options’.
- Message reporting that IE has blocked an extension from being installed, and the menu that appears when you click on the message
- The confirmation dialog shown when installing an extension
A new icon in Control Panel, both in Classic and Simplified mode, creates a central control system for security – in this case, Windows Firewall, Automatic Updates and Anti-virus. When you boot Windows for the first time after installing SP2, the Out of Box Experience appears to ask you whether you want to enable Automatic Updates. The default is Yes and it warns of problems if you change it to ‘No’. I didn’t get a screenshot of this unfortunately.
Since I like a bit of control over what gets installed, I have Automatic Updates set at its most manual state short of disabling it altogether. It will check to see if updates are available, and if they are, ask me if I want to download them. If I say yes, it’ll download them, and then ask me if I want to install them. Then, once they’re installed, I can reboot when I’m ready. Security Center gives this a yellow colour – it really wants me to use Microsoft’s default of downloading and installing updates automatically, and only then telling me that updates have been installed and I need to reboot. While I don’t mind using this for my anti-virus scanner, since the updates are never too large to download on a dial-up connection, Windows updates can be several megabytes. On the plus side, the updates are downloaded in the background at a throttled speed so they shouldn’t severely impact web browsing on slow connections. You can also run the new Windows Update and download the updates at full speed should you want to.
Security Center also didn’t pick up McAfee VirusScan Enterprise as my virus scanner. Whether this is because I had on-access scan disabled or just because it didn’t notice it, I don’t know. Security Center will also happily recommend a wide range of anti-virus tools, including feebies like AVG.
The Firewall has seen big improvements. It now has its own control panel applet instead of being burried away like it was before, and also right-clicking on any connection in the notification area will allow you to configure the firewall settings for any connection. The firewall is on by default and includes basic outbound protection, although the free version of ZoneAlarm gives you more control.
- The Windows Firewall control panel applet
- Alert window shown when a program tries to act as a server without permission
- Giving Windows Messenger permission to use the internet (this was the only program I encountered when this window appeared)
It’s also possible to only allow services to run on certain IP ranges. By default, only Remote Assistance and File & Print Sharing are allowed to receive connections, and this is restricted to computers on the same subnet, but this can either be turned off, turned on to allow connections from any IP address, or from a specific IP address or range. More services can be added, and specific ports can be opened (they’re closed by default).
Should you wish to disable Windows’ own firewall, and have another recognised firewall program, Windows will pick this up. For some reason, when trying out a wireless network later on in the review, I had to disable the Windows Firewall before I could do anything. When I did, Windows realised I was using ZoneAlarm so the Security Center didn’t totally freak out.
I did find a couple of issues with the security center however – the first is that ClearType font smoothing didn’t work in it and the second was that the Windows Update link always opened the default browser. In my case, Firefox is the default browser and so I got a message asking me to upgrade to IE. I’m sure it should load IE by default, and hopefully Microsoft will fix this.
Just to show you how committed I am, I actually got out of bed and went to the library to do this section of the review. There’s a new notification area icon in this service pack, making it stand out from other connections. Bearing in mind that many laptops now come with a dial-up modem, ethernet and wireless, this is welcome from a usability point of view as it’s easier to tell what is what. It’s just a pity that I think the icon is a little ugly.
- New Wireless Networking icon (top left)
The big change comes when you view a list of wireless connections. The interface here is much improved, and makes it much easier to use. There’s also a link to a wizard which helps you set up a wireless network.
I don’t use Outlook Express, but apparently it will now, by default, block remote images in emails. While this will make newsletters like Lockergnome look ugly, it will stop web bugs inserted into emails from sending information back to spammers. It will also optionally block .exe attachments, which I hope is turned on by default.
Add/Remove Programs has seen a small change – by default updates to Windows are now not shown, which is a good thing because unless an update causes a major regression you shouldn’t need to update it, and after a few months of using Windows you’ll end up with hundreds of these. Ticking the box groups them all together, and shows when they were installed.
There’s also an icon that appears on the desktop which lets you report bugs to Microsoft, using your .Net passport. I used this to report the two Security Center bugs – it’s quite similar to BugZilla.
Windows Messenger has two changes – one to warn people about opening potentially unsafe files that people have sent them and another to remove the Add-ins functionality. This was only ever used for adding MSN functions, such as Hotmail, to the client, and it’s now clear that Windows Messenger is aimed at corporate end users and MSN Messenger is aimed at everyone else.
There are also improvements Bluetooth support, but I can’t review that since I have neither a Bluetooth dongle nor any device to use it with, as yet.
Performance and Trivia
I’m not seeing any major performance hit after installing SP2, although the bootup process does take around 5 seconds longer than it used to. Installing the service pack isn’t exactly quick – leave around half an hour for a relatively modern machine or up to an hour for a slower one. You’ll also need up to 800MB of free disk space – this is to allow the installer to unpack its compressed files and then backup your existing system files. In the release candidate, you cannot choose to not have a backup created. It’d be nice if the installer had an ‘estimated time remaining’ function added.
As for stability, I’ve had no problems so far – nothing has crashed. However, I only installed this yesterday so time will tell.
Like the previous service pack, the Windows XP version number of 5.1.2600 is unchanged, although IE is now up to 6.0.2900. The full build identifier for this release is 2600.xpsp_sp2_rc1.040311-2315, though I imagine the final release will be slightly different.
That’s about it. Note that some of my screenshots were altered to only use 256 colours to make the files smaller, so in reality some of the dialogs may look better.
For more screenshots, check out Paul Thurrott’s SuperSite for Windows, specifically this and this older article. Note that some of the dialogs in the older article have been changed in the release candidate.
Update: There is now a postscript to this review with updates.