It's an unsafe world out there for Windows-based computers. Microsoft wants to address the problem with its new megapatch, Service Pack 2 for Windows XP. Does it succeed? Not entirely. But the big fix does so much to close security holes and to make protecting your PC simpler that it's still an essential upgrade.
As we went to press, Microsoft was predicting that SP2 would get to consumers in August. This giant patch--the biggest single update since Windows XP itself was released--promises to cure many of the known security ills that have befallen XP since it debuted in late 2001, and to preemptively put a stop to a still-unknown number of others.
But it's not just a big security fix; SP2 makes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks easier to navigate, adds new features to Tablet and Media Center PCs, and updates XP's multimedia components. It all comes in a 220MB package that (at press time, when we saw only the Release Candidate 2 beta version) installs in under an hour over broadband.
We tested a beta version of SP2 on a handful of systems and encountered no major problems. However, it's impossible to know how the finished product will do when people load it on millions of different computers built in millions of different configurations. You should be sure to take the usual precautions whenever making a major update: Back up crucial files, create a System Restore point before you start--and don't begin the installation if you have a pressing deadline looming. Microsoft will provide free phone support for SP2.