This week, Microsoft shipped the Release Candidate 1 (RC1) version of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), a near-final look at the last XP service pack. I've categorized XP SP3 as a long, final goodbye to an old friend, and booting into XP to install this update certainly brought back some nostalgic memories. But seriously, folks: It's time to walk away. There's just nothing compelling here when you compare XP with SP3 to its much newer and improved counterpart, Windows Vista (see my Vista Activity Center).
The XP SP3 RC1 release comes about a month after a private beta release of the software to 15,000 beta testers. This time around, it's been made public: RC1 is available for download to MSDN and TechNet subscribers interesting in kicking the tires and seeing whether SP3 can extend the life of Microsoft's Grand Old Dame of operating systems another year or two. Early evidence suggests that it will do just that, at least for slow-moving corporations and some consumers.
Unlike the massive SP2 update (see my review), XP SP3 consists of no major new features, at least from an end user standpoint. It does include the several hundred fixes that Microsoft has shipped in the vast gulf of time since XP first rolled out the doors in October 2001, over six years ago. As such, the combination of XP and SP3 represents the height of security that's possible on the aging XP platform. And that's a pretty solid system, frankly, though it still falls short of the security and stability inherent to Vista.
There have been reports online that SP3 improves the speed of XP by about 10 percent over SP2. I haven't seen any performance improvements personally, but then I have only upgraded a single XP SP2 system so far and have no plans to run this configuration in any day-to-day use. Certainly, XP is faster than Vista on the same hardware, regardless of which service packs are installed. But that's the nature of upgrades, and Vista more than makes up for any benchmark deficiencies by providing far more important functional and security improvements.
XP SP3 supports a Product Key-less install option, as does Vista (and Windows Server 2008). I have yet to slipstream SP3 into XP, but will do so to both test this option and to document the XP slipstreaming process for a final time. However, I know that XP SP3 does not install newer versions of Internet Explorer or Windows Media Player. So if you were to slipstream XP and SP3 together, you'd still have to upgrade from IE 6 to IE 7 later.
For the few people running x64 versions of XP, XP SP3 does not apply to you: Your OS is updated via Window Server 2003 service packs. The latest Windows 2003 service pack is SP2.
In actual use, XP SP3 doesn't really change the XP experience, but then that was the plan all along: As with Vista SP1, XP SP3 is envisioned as a "true" service pack that rolls up previous fixes and adds just a few minor new features.
Here are a few shots of the XP SP3 install experience.