Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 3 review

Amazingly, it’s been almost four years since the last Windows XP service pack. The near-legendary XP SP2 appeared with huge fanfare in late 2004: it was a big change and shored up an OS looking increasingly insecure in a world moving towards always-on internet connections.

Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 3 review

The arrival of SP3 is much quieter. After one false start, systems running Windows XP should automatically be offered it via Windows Update as of a few days ago. It’s also available as a standalone executable, coming in at 314MB in total.

The standalone installer is cumulative, so if you have an ancient pre-SP1 copy of XP you can still reinstall your OS from that, and then simply apply SP3 to update everything in one go. It works with any variation of XP too, including XP Home and Media Center editions.

The installation process itself is standard Windows Update fare. On a well-used and fairly fragmented Core 2-based PC in the PC Pro office, the process took 18 mins 30 secs. After restart there’s none of the fanfare of SP2 that brought with it the new shield icon and the full-screen reminder about turning on automatic updates. The system simply reboots as normal and you’ll be hard-pressed to see any difference.

As with Vista SP1, which adds very little in the way of new features, XP SP3 is a return to the old days when service packs were just that. Windows XP SP2, with its raft of new extras, was an anomaly on the service-pack landscape. If you’re expecting features from Vista to have trickled down you’ll be disappointed too: unsurprisingly, Microsoft’s stance is that it’s “not adding significant functionality from newer versions of Windows”.

With SP3, the primary focus is rolling up the hundreds of hotfixes and security patches that have been released in the years since SP2, giving a more secure baseline installation.

In fact, SP3 is so determined not to give you anything new it won’t even install the latest version of Internet Explorer. If you have IE6, that’s what you’ll still have after the update, albeit fully patched. If you’ve installed IE7 manually, that will be updated too.

There’s a further change you won’t see if you’re updating an existing installation; it’ll only be apparent when you install XP from a CD with SP3 already integrated. You should find you no longer need to enter a product key. As with Vista, you can now install the OS without one and you’ll be prompted to provide it later.

Microsoft is keen to point out that this isn’t a move to the same activation system used in Vista, whereby keys expire if they’re re-used. The official Microsoft line is that, “This update affects the installation media only and is not a change to how activation works in Windows XP”.

A primary focus of Vista SP1 was improving the laggardly performance of Vista. There are no claims about improved speed with XP SP3, and our tests bear this out. Running our application benchmarks on a clean installation of XP SP2 and then updating to SP3, the performance results are near enough identical.

Remember though that XP remains faster than Vista in almost every area: our test PC scored 1.46 overall in Vista against 1.58 running XP SP3. We installed the service pack on several machine and experienced no nasty problems with corrupt installations or unbootable PCs.

New features can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and you’ll still have a couple left over. The headline is the Network Access Protection (NAP) client. NAP is a system introduced with Windows Server 2008 that blocks or restricts network access to client machines that aren’t recognised or don’t pass a minimum configuration level.


Software subcategory Operating system

Operating system support

Operating system Windows Vista supported? no
Operating system Windows XP supported? yes
Operating system Linux supported? no
Operating system Mac OS X supported? no

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