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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

'SP2' a Must For XP Users

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page F01

To get an idea of how Windows got to be such a mess, think of it as a house that was built on an island in the middle of a lake, deep in the countryside.

Because you're so isolated, you don't need to worry about keeping strangers out -- your security rests on being physically separate from the rest of the world.

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So it doesn't matter that the windows can only be latched shut with great difficulty, that locks were picked to match the decor (no ugly deadbolts here!) and there's an extra key hidden under the doormat.

Now take that house and move it into the city. Shopping or socializing no longer requires a long drive; all the distractions you might want are right outside. But there are a few burglars in town, and they all know how easy your house is to break into.

In this case, security means making sure that nobody can get in the house unless you open the door yourself. You need to hire a good locksmith.

With a new update called Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, Microsoft is trying to perform the same repairs, making software once built for isolated desks safe on the crowded, bustling Internet.

Service Pack 2, "SP2" for short, is Microsoft's most important release since XP itself. It aims to stop viruses, worms, browser hijackings and worse by including security features that people had to add and adjust on their own. (Users of Windows 2000, Millennium Edition, 98 and 95 will still need to do that, since Microsoft has no plans for a comparable update of those systems.)

The most important part of SP2 is an new firewall program to stop break-ins by network worms such as Blaster. Unlike XP's earlier firewall, this one is turned on automatically and protects every connection on a computer -- even if you already have another firewall active. It also watches what your programs do; if one wants to open its own channel of communication with the Internet, you'll need to approve this action.

The need to make this choice for potentially dozens of programs, even Microsoft's own, can be a drag, but the decision should be fairly simple: If you recognize and trust the program, it should be safe to "unblock" its access. But if you've never heard of it, keep blocking it unless things stop working.

Automatic system updates are just as important in Service Pack 2. The first time you boot up a computer after installing SP2, a can't-miss, full-screen alert asks you to allow Windows to download and install Microsoft's security updates automatically.


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