Microsoft recently released the first beta of Service Pack 1 for Windows XP, to some 10,000 beta testers. The software is available in three versions. A stand-alone single executable, weighing a hefty 120MB, contains all the files in the service pack and can be applied by running the executable; the files can also be extracted separately, for individual patching, or for "slipstreaming" into existing installation images.
An express version will update your system across the Internet, by first downloading a small executable. Finally, OEMs are given a "slipstreamed" (patched) installation image of SP1.
Microsoft has confirmed to beta testers that SP1 will contain more fixes than are available through Windows Update, without specifying which ones. Unofficial lists indicate that over 250 bug fixes have been rolled into SP1, a large number that nevertheless pales next to the 800+ in Windows 2000 SP3.
New stuff in SP1 includes support for USB 2.0, Mira cordless monitors' and Freestyle digital media PCs. The two latter technologies won't be visible to normal PC users, of course; instead, there will be separate editions for Mira and Freestyle later this year.
Microsoft confirmed that DirectX 9 won't be ready for SP1 release, and will instead be released separately.
Internet Explorer and the adjunct e-mail program, Outlook Express, have received subtle makeovers, mostly on the security side. OE has a new message delete feature, and finally, Microsoft gives you the option of reading mail and news in plain-text only - yes, that's right, no more forced display of HTML messages that threaten system security and your privacy. OE also now defaults to not opening attachments, perhaps in response to all the e-mail-borne viruses targeting Windows users.
The biggest news is Microsoft's attempt at complying with a legal agreement reached in 1995 about not bundling applications with its operating systems. However, Microsoft's solution doesn't mean Windows XP will be shipped without bundled applications, or even that users will be able to uninstall them - instead, Microsoft has kludged up a new section in the Add/Remove Programs Control Panel applet, which hides the icons of Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Media Player, and Messenger. Microsoft's Java virtual machine can also be hidden, but will still remain on the computer.
Beta-testers remain unimpressed with this hiding - many were hoping to uninstall the second-most-hated component of Windows XP, Messenger. It's also doubtful whether the US District Court will think Microsoft's attempt obeys the spirit as well as the letter of the agreement.
Microsoft is also taking the opportunity to tweak the most-hated feature of Windows XP: Windows Product Activation no longer locks you out of the PC if the hardware configuration changes so much it has to be reactivated. There's a three-day grace period now. However, pirated copies of Windows XP, with the leaked corporate keys that allow multiple installations without activation, will not upgrade to SP1.
Upgrading a retail copy of Windows XP Professional to SP1 was a smooth manoeuvre, with few things going wrong. The worst that happened were browser and printing being reset to defaults (e.g., the paper size went back to Letter, and I lost my proxy and home page settings).
Other than that, SP1 beta looks and feels identical to the retail version. The major breakage seems to be in System Restore - if you try to uninstall SP1, you can end up with an unbootable system.
In brief: Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 1, beta 1.
Microsoft is looking at addressing its legal agreements, as well as fixing over 250 software bugs with the first service pack for Windows XP.
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