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Keeping Up To Date

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No doubt you treat Windows Update as a necessary evil when it pops up a warning on your screen at least once a month with the latest batch of security alerts and critical updates. Well, that’s true if you have a Broadband connection, but if you’re on dial-up you’ll probably get that sinking feeling when you see that you have to download many Megabytes of updates, but you’re a fool to yourself if you don’t keep your Windows PC fully patched, and common sense says that you should also use antivirus software and a Firewall.

This is not to suggest that Windows Update is foolproof. A few years ago I ran Windows Update on a Windows Me PC and unthinkingly followed its instructions to install a WHQL chipset driver which was older than the unsigned driver that I was running at that time. When the process was finished the PC restarted and promptly blue screened, and that was the end of that. The only cure was to format the hard drive and start from scratch, but Windows Me was always shockingly unstable and doesn’t begin to compare with Windows XP when it comes to reliability. At the time I had put this disaster down to experience and laid the blame at the door of Windows Me, so I took note when I ran Windows Update on a Windows XP Home PC recently. The Windows installation was about four months old and was fully updated after installation, so I was amazed to see that Microsoft had 21 important updates listed. More worryingly Windows Update suggested that we update the C-Media driver for the integrated audio on the MSI KT6 Delta motherboard.

The integrated audio is unusual on this motherboard as it can’t be turned off in the BIOS so instead we have disabled it in Windows as the PC has a PCI SoundBlaster Audigy2 ZS card installed. Naturally we ignored the suggestion to update the driver, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we had pressed ahead.

So, Windows Update is imperfect yet unavoidable, but you may not realise that Microsoft doesn’t just use it as a support tool, oh no. Windows Update is also a marketing tool that can be used to drive Windows users (i.e. all of us) to update/upgrade as Microsoft has a policy of offering ‘a minimum of 10 years support (5 years of Mainstream support and 5 years of Extended) for Business and Developer products 'but only' a minimum of 5 years of Mainstream support for Consumer, Hardware, Multimedia products, and the Microsoft Business Solutions products,’ which includes ‘Security update support.’

It is clear that Windows 95/98/98SE and Me are Consumer products, and that Windows NT4 and 2000 are Professional products, but is XP Home really any different to XP Pro, or might Microsoft end support for one version of XP before the other. Considering that Windows XP was launched in October 2001, and that Longhorn isn’t due until late 2006, you might think that Microsoft would leave well alone until October 2006 at the earliest, but once again, no. Microsoft has now stopped supporting PCs that run Windows XP at the Windows Update site unless you have either SP1 (Service Pack 1) or SP2 installed.

Now it may not sound like a big deal that Microsoft is forcing Windows XP users to ‘upgrade’ to either SP1 or SP2, but I beg to disagree. For one thing this is effectively withdrawing Windows Update support for PCs that were built before SP1 was released in September 2002, and potentially they could be younger than that if businesses took the deliberate decision to stick with the tried-and-trusted basic XP until they knew more about SP1. Remember, SP1 doesn’t do a great deal apart from roll up security patches, and add support for USB 2.0 and hard drives over 137GB in capacity, and those aren’t issues that affect most office workstations. SP2 is a huge update that dwells on security, but if you have a decent anti virus package and a firewall, and you resist the temptation to install software that you’ve downloaded from dodgy web sites, then perhaps the most significant feature of SP2 is its support for the NX bit which prevents some buffer overflow attacks.

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