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Just what service packs do I need?


I’m running Windows XP Pro, Service Pack 2. When Service Pack 3 came out several months ago, I dutifully installed it and
several of my apps quit working or didn’t work properly. So, in my usual “I hate MS” fit of anger, I restored to a good SP2 version
and checked “Don’t bother me about this update again” on the Windows Auto Update site.

I still get a nagging reminder occasionally, but I choose not to install. My concern is whether or not I’m spiting myself by
leaving myself vulnerable without SP3. Assuming I have a decent firewall, AV software, and security checker software, and I run
Malicious Software Removal tool every Wednesday morning, I’d like your thoughts on this matter.

I agree that the whole service pack situation can be both frustrating and confusing. In an ideal world we’d just use “always
update to the latest” as the rule of thumb, and all would or should be well. Sadly, it’s not an ideal world.

Unfortunately, software vendors, including both Microsoft and third party vendors, often need to set a minimum required
installation as something that their additional software can rely on.

Let’s look at the bare minimum, and what you should be at least attempting to do.

And some thoughts on how it might be before the rules will, of necessity, change.


Windows XP

SP2: install it.

That much is easy. It’s been out for years, many other software packages expect it, and Microsoft doesn’t formally support XP without it.

“‘Most’ people install SP3 without a problem but if you’re not most people that’s not much consolation.”

SP3: so far it’s my understanding that SP3 is not actually required. If you just have SP2 you’ll still get all the necessary security updates. That being said, I don’t expect that situation to last forever, and someday SP3 (or perhaps a successor) will end up being required.

I know that, like you, some folks have had difficulty with SP3 and there’s no blanket answer as to what to do about it, as the problems seem to stem from different causes. “Most” people install SP3 without a problem but if you’re not most people that’s not much consolation. See my tips for ensuring the smoothest possible install, below.

Windows Vista

SP1: Neither SP1 or SP2 are “required” at this point, with one notable exception which I’ll get to in a moment. My position on SP1 right now is that it’s very likely to be safe to install. It was finally offered to my Vista laptop several months ago, and the installation went off without a hitch.

In a very odd break from tradition, SP1 is apparently required before you can install SP2. In the past service packs were “cumulative” from the original release of the operating system they were patching and did not rely on any prior service pack having been installed.

SP2: is, as of this writing, a relatively recent release. It’s not required, and isn’t even being offered to all systems yet via automatic updates.

Since SP1 and SP2 are not required, my assumption (admittedly a dangerous path) is that security issues, especially those deemed “critical” by Microsoft, will be available for your system regardless.

Skipping Service Packs

When you elect to skip a service pack that’s not required you’re generally missing non-critical fixes and new features only.

That being said, in my opinion it’s only a matter of time. By that I mean that eventually you will want, or need, to install the service pack that you skipped. Either its installation will become a pre-requisite for continued updates, or you’ll find yourself in need of a fix or feature only included in the service pack in order to use some aspect of your machine or third party software.

Installing Service Packs Safely

As we’ve seen, service packs can, in fact, occasionally cause more trouble than they fix. As I said earlier, even if “Most” people install a service pack without problem, if you’re not most people that’s not a lot of consolation.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Wait a while after a service pack is released. If that means telling Automatic Updates to not install or stop nagging you, so be it. Pay attention to “the buzz” from mainstream technical press – don’t be too alarmed if you see some catastrophes – that can happen with the best of service packs for a variety of reasons. But do pay attention to the number and severity of problems, and how they might relate to your computer and its software or hardware.

  • Back up. As I said, even with the best of service packs a change this large is bound to cause someone problems. If that’s you, you’ll want to be prepared, and that means having a full image backup taken immediately prior to the service pack installation. If all goes well, you’ll never need it. If all hell breaks loose, you can revert completely – as if it never happened.

  • Tread lightly for a while. Even after a successful install, it’s worth not planning any large scale changes or additional installations until you’re sure that things are working as expected.

So, what if the worst happens, and your Service Pack install resulted in a disaster? You’ve reverted to your backup, but now what?

Service pack installs fail primarily for two reasons: problems with specific hardware, and problems with – for lack of a better term – messy systems. I don’t mean your mess (documents and the like), I mean operating system mess from prior and perhaps incomplete software installations, leftovers and what I lovingly refer to as “software rot”.

Start by doing a little research to see if others with machines or other hardware similar to yours are having problems. Manufacturer’s support forums are a great resource for this.

Finally, consider a clean install. That’s the “reformat and reinstall everything from scratch” approach. It ensures that your system is in it’s cleanest possible state prior to installing the service pack.

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17 comments on “Just what service packs do I need?”

  1. As far as I am aware, service packs are cumulative and include everything from previous service packs, therefore if you install XP Service Pack 2 without installing Service Pack 1, the end result is the same as if you’d installed SP1 before SP2 (except that the latter case would be a bit more messy because there’s be two sets of uninstallation backups).

    As I said in the article, that is indeed the previous norm. However Vista SP2 does not follow that rule – it requires SP1 to be installed frist.


  2. Hi Leo

    (Concentrating on Vista).

    I kept my eye on SP1’s progress for ages before the final release (not wanting to install a Beta, I opted to wait for the RTW).

    As I remember, the Service Pack install first required some (3, as I remember) pre-requisite updates from Windows update before the Service Pack would install. (One of them was called pre-requisite for Vista Service pack 1, I think), but the other 2 were just ‘updates’ with KB numbers. The SP would, apparently, not install without them anyway.

    As far as you (or anyone else) knows…is this still the case? Or would a more recently downloaded full-installer already include those pre-requisites and just install from a clean install of Vista itself?

    Just wondered!
    Thanks for any input.

  3. I suspect, as Leo mentioned, that older machines have to gulp twice when a new service pack is installed. My 2003 Dell Dimension (XP Home) won’t take SP3 at all. It installs up to the almost the last moment and then uninstalls itself. (I do this about once a month, just to test if anything has changed.)

  4. I have 5 PC’s running XP Pro. 4 installed SP3 perfectly but unfortunately my No.1 PC (the most important) just won’t take it. I’ve tried 4 times & I’ve just about had a heart attack when it’s finally said that the machine may no longer work after restarting! Fortunately it has, but I’m done trying various Microsoft & other suggestions. Interestingly, this No.1 PC has had way less stuff installed on it than any of my other machines & it’s blisteringly fast too.

  5. From what I’ve been reading lately, there is a consensus among security experts that unpatched systems and software are the single greatest security threat, and keeping them up-to-date is the single most effective way of keeping malware out – more than antiviruses, firewalls, etc. (though I wouldn’t go without them either). In spite of an alarming growing number of “zero-day attacks,” most malware out there exploits vulnerabilities that have long been patched.

    It’s not guaranteed that service packs are part of that equation, but it’s also not guaranteed that Microsoft and other vendors will send you all the proper security patches if the latest service packs are not installed. I would strongly recommend everyone to install them (and I never had a single problem installing them – and mind you, I use A LOT of software from many vendors and for multiple purposes).

    If you are having problems with just one specific application, replace it or contact the vendor – probably, lots of people will be having the same problem, and they will quickly have a fix. If lots of applications break at the same time, then most likely there is something wrong with your system – either software rot or outdated software and/or drivers. So, first try to be sure to update EVERYTHING you have (this doesn’t mean you need to have major paid upgrades like, for example, going from Photoshop CS2 to CS3 or CS4, but it does mean having all the patches and updates for CS2 installed). Secunia Software Inspector, which is free for personal use and I always recommend to everyone, will help you detect most outdated software, but a direct check at each vendor’s Web site (usually in the “Support” page) won’t hurt either.

    If it still doesn’t work, I agree with Leo: backup your documents and data, then format the disk and perform a clean install. Apply the service packs and all security patches BEFORE installing anything else (in the most up-to-date versions, of course), and my bet is that everything will work.

  6. I’ve had a realy mixed-bag of results from XP SP3.
    We run a 30 unit network, domain controlled and Active Directory. When SP3 was applied, some units improved but some lost access to network printers and I could not restore them. So now, we’ve blocked SP3 from installing. I’ve posted this a few times and have had consultants here with not results on how to overcome the problem. Would love to hear if anyone else experienced or fixed this issue.
    Great great site Leo – I recommend it to everyone who ask me techno questions.

  7. You can also try slipstreaming SP2 and SP3 into an XP CD so that when Windows is installed the Service Packs are also installed.

  8. If SP3 won’t install or would corrupt the system, there was only one way of installing it without problems.
    * Denny the sp3 download and choose not to remember me again,…
    * After few minutes or max a day, you would be promped again to install updates, but this time the SP3 would be broken into pieces-updates one by one
    * installing them like 1/3 now reboot and 1/3 later, do a reboot and then the final 1/3 and reboot will do the trick

    This way, it allways worked for me on like 15 problem pc’s

    Keep up the good work Leo !

  9. With regard to W XP Pro SP3 I tried to read everything available on MS and other tech web sites before attempting to install it along the way I read that it was problematic with AMD CPU’s . In my case this proved to be the case it completely killed my system and required a complete reformat and re install with SP2 , have any other readers had a similar experience .
    Thank you Leo for a very informative site .

  10. “You also cannot update from XP (sans Service Pack) straight to SP3. You must install SP2 first.”

    Not true. After doing a format and reinstall of Windows XP/with SP1, I installed SP3 from the CD and everything went fine. I bought the CD from Microsoft for around $7. It saved me a lot of time downloading updates. It probably is a good idea to do a reinstall every couple of years. My computer ran a lot better after the clean install.

    It would be nice if Microsoft released a new CD of service packs every year to make reinstalling easier.

  11. I’m still a little confused with service packs.
    I just recently installed vista home premium and then went to windows update. It didn’t say anything about vista service pack 1 when it checked for available updates. It just said basically that I required many updates. After I download the numerous updates it said that windows is up to date. I am just wondering if I still need service pack 1 or is my computer up to date? When I check system information under vista version it doesn’t say anything about service pack 1 being installed on my computer. Basically what I’m asking is, are all those individual updates I downloaded, included in service pack 1 for vista, which means I do have service pack 1 anyway?

    Essentially: don’t worry about it and let Windows Update inform you of what you need. It’s likely that your Vista was one with SP1 pre-installed (most are now).


  12. I recently did a pretty intensive update on my home PC, running Vista 64 Home Premium. It was pre-installed with SP1, but I noticed SP2 was amongst the updates, so I ticked everything.
    At the end of the long update process, and a few reboots later, I noticed the automatic update reminding me about new updates – it hadn’t installed SP2. I did some checking, and found a ‘hot-fix’ for people having problems with SP2, so I downloaded and tried to install that.
    It failed to install, and so does SP2.

    Any ideas?


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