Microsoft rolls out third public XP SP3 build

No word on wrap date, but reports peg RTM in April

Microsoft Tuesday released a new public version of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), saying it was again testing the update's online distribution.

Dubbed Windows XP SP3 RC2 Refresh, the new build is the second one offered to all XP users in the last five weeks. "The purpose of RC2 Refresh is to validate improvements to the Windows Update experience with Service Pack 3," a notice on a TechNet support forum read Tuesday afternoon.

The refresh, which is also tagged as Build 5508, will be available only as a Windows Update download, and only in English, German and Japanese versions, said Microsoft employee Chris Keroack in the TechNet announcement. There are no significant differences between this build, said Keroack, and Build 3311, released February 19, except for the addition of high-definition audio support.

A slightly earlier build, labeled 5503, had been issued to a subset of Microsoft's beta-test group two weeks ago. It promptly leaked to the Internet, where users were able to locate and download it using BitTorrent search sites.

As with the February Windows XP SP3 RC2, users must download, install and run a small registry hack available from the company's Download Center to force their PCs to "see" the newest build on Windows Update. Users must also uninstall earlier versions of SP3 before applying the hack, Microsoft said.

This is the third time that Windows XP users have had the chance to try out SP3, the last scheduled major update to the six-year-old operating system. Although Microsoft has not budged from its stated intention to deliver the update sometime before the end of June, some sources have recently reported that the company will wrap up SP3 in the last two weeks of April with a first wave of seven languages, then follow that with the remaining supported languages three weeks later.

Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), which hit Windows Update a week ago Tuesday, used the same "Refresh" label for the last preliminary version released to the public. That version went public a little more than three weeks before Microsoft called Vista SP1 done and slapped the release to manufacturing label on the code.

Using that rough timetable, Microsoft could declare XP SP3 as reaching RTM around the middle of April.

Once SP3 ships, the next major milestones for Windows XP are June 30, when the popular operating system is set to drop off the availability list for resellers and retailers, and January 31, 2009, when it will be taken out of all distribution channels.

Mainstream support for Windows XP will continue until April 14, 2009, according to Microsoft's schedule, with free support after that limited to security patches.

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Gregg Keizer

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