Home Office: Your XP Service Pack 2 Survival Guide

Illustration: Zohar Lazar
Give me a choice between chopping onions and installing Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, and I'll be in the kitchen in a nanosecond--either way I'll be crying. I finally managed the upgrade, but not without a few bumps that I'll show you how to avoid.

There are enough good things about SP2 to make the upgrade hoops worth jumping through. SP2's strength is behind the scenes: more protection against Internet thugs. For instance, the new ActiveX warning in Internet Explorer--called the Information Bar--alerts me whenever a site tries to download software to my system. But the browser's new pop-up blocker is too little and way too late. (The free Google Toolbar is a better pop-up popper.)

Before you take the upgrade plunge, breathe deeply, clear your mind, and follow these suggestions.

Save this phone number: To its credit, Microsoft provides free chat, e-mail, and phone support for problems that make you want to cry. The toll-free number is 888/772-4357; see Microsoft's "What to Know" page for other SP2 installation details.

Get the CD: Microsoft recommends that you use Windows XP's Automatic Update feature, which will download SP2 in the background while you're on the Internet. I prefer upgrading from the company's SP2 disc so I can upgrade my notebook, too, without another download. The CD arrived four days after I ordered it. See "Get Service Pack 2" for the disc (head for the 'order a CD' link).

Prepare your PC: Update all your critical applications before loading SP2. Most vendors have released SP2-compatible versions of their programs. (Check Microsoft's list for known application conflicts.) Spyware is a common cause of installation problems, so update your firewall, antivirus, anti-spyware, and other security programs, and then do a complete scan with each one.

Not using antivirus software? Try Trend Micro's free, Web-based HouseCall. For anti-spyware, download the free Spybot Search & Destroy. SpywareGuide.com's X-Cleaner is an online spyware-blasting alternative. If you find spyware or a virus, remove it and then reboot your system.

Back up: I can't emphasize this enough: Back up your system before you load SP2. You can buy Norton Ghost (about $70), or get a copy of Acronis's $50 True Image. Then back up your data on an external USB drive or to CDs.

Disable your auto-start apps: Turn off all the programs running in the background on your system, including your antivirus program, spyware monitors, screen savers, and system utilities. They may throw SP2 for a loop. Download WinPatrol, a free tool that temporarily disables background programs. Once everything's off, install SP2 and then use WinPatrol to re-enable the programs. If you have a finicky PC, Microsoft advises you to boot your system in Safe Mode before installing SP2 (not a bad idea). To get to Safe Mode, press F8 just before Windows loads.

Finally, grab something to read, or get ready to take a snooze. SP2 can take 2 hours or more to install. And be careful--it may look as if the upgrade has frozen. SP2 is actually doing lots of shoveling and shuffling, so don't interrupt it.

You may see a nagging Windows Security Risk warning pop out of the system tray. I actually like the feature because it warned me that Grisoft's AVG, my antivirus program, was disabled. AVG had updated itself and wanted a reboot, something I hadn't done yet.

The alert might indicate that you don't have a firewall installed, or that yours is disabled; you'll get nagged until you enable a firewall. I told SP2 that I'd do my own firewall thing, but it duly ignored both my response and my firewall. Also, SP2 will definitely be unhappy if you disable Windows' Automatic Update feature. Open Control Panel, click or double-click Automatic Updates, and then uncheck Turn off automatic updates. You can also activate SP2's update protection (along with its antivirus and firewall features) via Control Panel's Security Center applet. Go along to get along, I say.

Contributing Editor Steve Bass is the author of PC Annoyances, published by O'Reilly. Contact him at homeoffice@pcworld.com.
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