Windows XP update crashes some PCs

Some Windows XP users are having trouble installing the operating system's first service pack, bulging with bug fixes and updated drivers--and are judging the cure worse than the disease.

Although SP1 plugs a major hole in the OS, the fix has been painful for a tiny but vocal few of the estimated 1 million users who have downloaded the update, which Microsoft Corp. posted on September 9. For the vast majority, the download and installation has gone well, according to a Microsoft spokesperson, who calls the process "smoother than a lot of previous releases."

But Internet support forums and e-mail to PC World from disgruntled users show that many people continue to have serious problems with the update. The chief complaint: PCs that run like molasses after installing SP1. Running a close second are reports that PCs refuse to restart after installation or become highly unstable. Some systems continuously reboot. Other users complain that applications won't start or now crash repeatedly, including Microsoft's own programs.

"My 1.9-GHz Dell 8200 computer runs slower than my 800-Mhz laptop. Outlook won't start, and all programs either take forever to start, or just won't start," says Christopher O'Connor, a doctor in Chicago.

A San Diegan echoes the problem: "After [installing SP1] several programs began crashing unexpectedly, or locking up, including any Office XP application--basically everything but the OS started to freeze or experience fatal errors," says Philip Treinen, project manager at Genesis Associates, an architectural design firm.

Some Just Say No

Other reported troubles--including problems in switching user identities, failure to install, disappearing screen icons, and loss of both broadband and dial-up connectivity--are causing some users to shun the service pack, at least for now.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" says one post on an Internet discussion board. "Stay away from SP1!" reads another.

Indeed, Treinen fixed his problem by unfixing Win XP, and is now running the OS without SP1, as are many others. "Since removing the service pack, everything works fine--seems like it created more problems than solutions," he adds.

That is not a long-term fix, however. Microsoft officials say future Win XP updates will require that SP1 be installed.

"That's going to leave a lot of people in a lurch," Treinen notes.

And users shunning SP1 are vulnerable to the major flaw that Microsoft addresses in the service pack. A recently discovered glitch in Windows XP's Help and Support Center functions could enable a malicious cracker to delete files off a user's hard disk remotely.

But even the update holdouts have an alternative, although it's not sanctioned by Microsoft. Last week, security expert and software developer Steve Gibson released a freeware program to patch that specific bug for users who either cannot or do not want to install SP1.

Still, Microsoft representatives say the company has not seen an undue number of users reporting problems. And, in fact, for the vast majority of users, Win XP SP1 fixes many more bugs than it creates. The update addresses hundreds of fixes, including all of the company's previous security patches for both the system itself and for Internet Explorer 6.

"Windows XP Service Pack 1 is a well-tested release that corrects hundreds of bugs, including security-related ones. We encourage customers to install it at the earliest opportunity to ensure that their systems are fully secure," reads a Microsoft statement on the corporate Web site.

Seeking Alternatives

Some users are trying to work out their problems using free help boards or Microsoft's paid technical support.

"I'm in the process of communicating by e-mail support with Microsoft, an enormously inefficient and time-consuming process that has yet to yield a solution, despite promises to the contrary," O'Connor, the Chicago doctor, says.

And posts are proliferating on Microsoft's Windows XP Community Newsgroup from people experiencing the same or similar problems.

Treinen declined to pay for tech support to solve his problems. "It's a typical Microsoft thing: 'We'll just ignore it and it will go away," he said. "We're really happy with XP but when you get things like this, I'd love to see Microsoft step up to the plate and say, 'Yeah, we'll fix it.'"Despite Microsoft's ongoing endorsement, some users say they will wait to see if Microsoft comes out with a second release of SP1. On Internet support boards, the most common suggestion about installing SP1 is to first save a "restore point," a Win XP function that essentially takes a snapshot of the PC's drive and specifications. Then, users are advised, they should reformat the hard disk, reinstall Windows XP, and then install SP-1--and, of course, install applications and restore data files.

That advice infuriates some users who say a service pack should not require that users completely reinstall their systems. Or as one wag quipped on one Internet site: "MS = Mighty Shakey."

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