Guy’s Ezine 157 – Service Packs in General and Vista SP2 Beta in Particular
As of December 2008, Vista SP2 is only available in beta and Microsoft don’t plan to release the final version until about May 2009. You could think of SP2 as a classic service pack which ‘rolls-up’ all fixes and updates since Vista SP1. Each service pack has its own personality, some are like whiz kids and many are like a ‘Mr Fixit’, so far Vista SP2 has the personality of an accountant – efficient but boring. Also note that Vista SP2 is NOT Windows 7.
My mission is simply to give you early warning of Vista’s SP2. Here is advice from the horse’s mouth. "For most customers, our best advice would be to wait until the final release [of SP2] prior to installing this service pack," said Mike Nash of Microsoft.
General Advice on Beta Software
In a nutshell, those with a manager’s mentality are correct, it really is best to avoid beta software and wait for the final version. As for me, when I reviewed beta software such as Vista and Server 2008 I enjoyed the feeling of being a pioneer. However, there was an even greater feeling of pain when features were not available and the beta software crashed. Working with beta software does give early warning and early experience of new products, yet, it can result in confusion when features get removed from the final version.
I do hate it when managers are wiser than techies on computers matters, but in the case of beta software, the managers win, it is best to wait for the final version.
The gung-ho approach to service packs is to install them then ‘suck it and see’. If it works – great, if not, then you look for Uninstall (best), backup, or a restore point. Should you be tempted by this bullish approach at least start on a test machine; ok, if you are really gung-ho please apply the service pack to only ONE machine, and don’t use WSUS to apply to everyone’s machine, until you see what happens during the first week.
The alternative, and more thoughtful approach, is where you trawl the internet for ‘problems with Vista SP2’. This is a worthy idea, but don’t get paralysed by research to the point where you won’t take action. Also make sure that the ‘problem’ affects your Dell machine with Office 2003, and is not a minor issue confined to some rare breed of computer running an application that you have never heard of.
In recent years there has been a rash of service packs doing unexpected stuff and causing distress to those affected. From reading the press it’s hard to believe that XP SP3 and Vista SP1 worked perfectly on ten times more machines than they caused problems.
The real lesson was that problems affected specific combinations of hardware and software. Because the affected minority became so vocal all the conflicts caused by SP1 are well documented. Any nasty side-effects surface within a week of release; thus at the risk of stating the obvious, if you Google ‘Vista SP2 Problem’ you will get instant feedback. If all is quiet a month after release you should be OK. Examples of early problems with Vista
If you need Uninstall a service pack then go to the Control Panel, Programs, right-click on Installed Updates.
Should Pirates Walk the Plank?
One urban myth doing the rounds is that service packs make pirate software crash. There has long been a dark threat that Microsoft, and other software manufactures, would add code to service packs that detect pirate product keys and then cause the system to lock until the person buys a genuine licence.
Microsoft has flirted with such ideas to tackle piracy, for example, in XP they introduced the Reduced Functionality Mode (RFM) and Non-Genuine State (NGS). The problem is that this also irritated people with genuine licences when things went wrong, for example internet connection problems when authenticating genuine product keys could lead to NGS.
My friend ‘Barking’ Eddie tells me that if you have a copy of Vista that hasn’t been activated, and you then apply SP1 (or SP2 beta) you get annoying pop-ups every 5 minutes*, but the operating system works fine.
*Another source told me that the activation balloon appears only every hour.
There is also the reverse of this myth; that applying service packs to 30 or 120 day evaluation copies of software like Vista will break the time-locks and thus give a fully functioning version. Not true. This myth started in NT4 days, and even then I did not believe that a service pack could transform an evaluation copy into a fully functioning version.
Perhaps I am reflecting my own experience here, but it seems to me that those who want to beat the licensing system are the young who lack money, but have plenty of time and skill. Old-timers who maybe slowing down, but are wiser, and have now have more money, think that hacking evaluation software is a waste of time.
Which SP is Best? Even or Odd?
Another myth that you can trace to NT4 days is that odd numbered service packs were good, whereas even numbered SPs were dodgy. However, the problems with XP SP3 (odd) and Vista SP1 (odd) tend to torpedo this theory. Moreover, XP SP2 (even) was one of the longest lasting, and least troublesome service packs.
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Microsoft has gained valuable information for fixes from those Vista users who tick the box which allows utilities such as WER (Windows Error Reporting) and OCA (Online Crash Analysis) to report problems to their Microsoft mother ship.
Windows service packs contain hot-fixes, security updates and sometimes enhancements for existing features or menus. Actually, your computer may already have 95% of these fixes and updates; however it’s handy to have them all in one file when you are rebuilding a machine. For me a service pack also provides peace of mind.
I don’t often check my Vista’s Windows Update History, but when I did I was shocked to see that some updates failed. To be fair, it seemed that the Automatic Updates tried again and invariably succeed in the next update cycle. My abiding thought was that SP2 will ‘roll-up’ these updates, and thus ensure that none have been missed.
Talking of peace of mind, one 32-bit (X86) service pack covers all desktop / laptop editions of Vista, but not embedded operating systems. Naturally, there is a separate SP2 file for 64-bit operating systems. In due course home users could get a copy of Vista SP2 via Windows Update, while larger installations would benefit from rolling out the service pack with WSUS (Windows Server Update Services).
Probably most important piece of information to look out for with any service pack is, ‘Can I just apply it to a new installation without adding previous service packs first?’ No! SP2 is it what Microsoft calls a cumulative service pack, meaning that you need to have already applied SP1. But no worries, SP2 will detect the status of your computer and if necessary prompt you to install SP1. Incidentally, XP’s service packs were also what Microsoft call cumulative and Guy calls sequential.
Summary of Vista SP2
As usual, it’s best avoid the beta version, and wait for the final version of Vista SP2. Make a plan before you roll out this service pack; perhaps a little internet research, then start with a test machine.
Will and Guy’s Humour
This is maybe one of the more politically incorrect items you will see over the festive season, for that reason it maybe one of the funnier. Check out our ‘Waiter their is a fly in my drink‘ article.
See more information about Microsoft Windows service packs