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Windows XP Unwired

An Inside Look at XP SP2

by Wei-Meng Lee, author of Windows XP Unwired
05/04/2004

Microsoft has been readying its update to its flagship Windows XP operating system -- Windows XP Service Pack 2 (XP SP2) -- for some time now. At the moment, it is in Release Candidate 1 (RC1) status, which means the product has reached a certain level of stability and is more or less feature-complete. In this article, I'll walk you through some of the features you can expect to see in XP SP2 when it is finally released in the second half of this year. For now, if you are interested to see for yourself what XP SP2 will look like, download RC1 yourself.

This article is based on the RC1 release of the SP2; be forewarned that you should not install RC1 on your production machines. Install it on your spare machine or better still, a virtual PC.

When SP2 is installed, you will find the Windows Security Alerts icon in the Tray (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Locating the Windows Security Alerts icon in the Tray

Clicking on the icon will reveal the Security Center window (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. The Security Center

The Security Center revolves around three main areas that protect your computer:

  1. Firewall: This is an improved version of the Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) in Windows XP (prior to SP2).
  2. Automatic Updates: Updates are by default automatically downloaded and installed on your system.
  3. Virus Protection: SP2 will scan for an anti-virus program on your system. If none is found, it will constantly remind you that your computer is at risk.

You can also find the links to the following in the Security Center:

Windows Firewall

The Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) in Windows XP is now called Windows Firewall, and is enabled by default (see Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3. Windows Firewall

By default, Windows Firewall blocks all outside traffic, with the exception of the ports used by the services listed in the Exceptions tab (see Figure 4). The Exceptions tab lists all of the programs and services that you will allow traffic to pass through your computer. You can manually add applications into the list, or explicitly grant the port number.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The Exceptions tab in Windows Firewall

When an application (for example, ICQ) requires a particular port number in order to communicate, Windows Firewall will display a prompt asking for your permission to block/unblock the port (see Figure 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5. Unblocking or blocking a port used by an application

If you unblock the application, Windows Firewall will automatically add the application into its Exception tab (see figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6. Adding an application into the Exception tab

Virus Protection

SP2 has been designed to check whether your system has virus protection software installed, and if it has, whether it is working. Unfortunately, this part of SP2 RC1 is particularly buggy in this beta release. Many users have reported that SP2 has not been able to detect their anti-virus software packages, and in cases where it has been able to detect the anti-virus software, it has not been able to determine whether it is running. Some people have also reported that SP2 has disabled the automatic update feature of Norton Anti-Virus. Presumably, this will be fixed before final launch.

Blocking Pop-Ups in IE

Pop-up windows are some of the most irritating experiences of surfing the Web. Microsoft has finally taken the right step in solving this problem. In XP SP2, Internet Explorer automatically blocks pop-ups from web sites (see Figure 7). To view the blocked pop-ups, you can click on the message under the URL and select the necessary actions.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Blocking pop-ups

Internet Explorer is now very cautious about executing scripts and applications. If you load a page that contains active contents (such as ActiveX controls or Macromedia Flash), it will always block them by default. Only when the user is certain that the content is safe will IE then load the application (see Figure 8).

Figure 8
Figure 8. Restricting active contents

Bluetooth

Using Bluetooth in Windows XP (prior to SP2) is not a terribly good experience -- you have to install the necessary Bluetooth drivers and then wade through the various steps to pair up devices, etc. In XP SP2, using Bluetooth is a breeze. To test out the Bluetooth support in XP SP2, I plugged in my Billionton Bluetooth USB adapter. To my surprise, XP SP2 automatically installed the necessary drivers for it, and within seconds it was ready for use. (I tried this process using my older 3COM Bluetooth adapter, but the XP SP2 prompted me for drivers; I guess older devices would still require drivers from vendors.) Microsoft has finally given Bluetooth native support in SP2.

To pair up devices with your computer, simply click on the Bluetooth icon located in the Tray and click the Add... button (see Figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9. New native Bluetooth support in SP2

When a device is located, it offers you a pre-generated key to pair up with your device (see Figure 10). Of course, you have the option to use your own passkey (or not to use one at all).

Figure 10
Figure 10. Pairing a device

Wireless Networking

Wireless networking is another area that receives improvements from Microsoft.

In XP SP2, you now have a much more user-friendly user interface for connecting to your wireless network (see Figure 11).

Figure 11
Figure 11. Wireless network support in SP2

One particular feature that caught my attention was the "Set up a wireless network" item shown in Figure 12.

Figure 12
Figure 12. Wizard to help set up your network

Using this feature, you can set up a wireless infrastructure using a wizard. It automatically generates the WEP key and takes away the burden of keying in the WEP key on all of the computers in your network, by saving the configuration information to a flash drive (see Figure 13). You could then plug the flash drive into the other computers, wireless access points, or wireless devices (such as printers), and they would be automatically configured using the information stored on the flash drive.

I had limited success with this feature during my testing, but the idea is useful for network administrators who need to set up a wireless network infrastructure. I only hope it actually works in the shipping service pack.

Figure 13
Figure 13. Saving the configuration information to a flash drive

Automatic Updates

Microsoft has realized that most users do not really take the issue of software updates seriously. This is especially true when it seems as if there are new software updates to download every other day. So in SP2, Microsoft has streamlined this process and makes it automatic by default (see Figure 14). This is useful for people who don't want to be bothered with updates, since everything is done in the background.

Figure 14
Figure 14. Automatic update is now the default

One thing to note, though, is that once an update is installed, Windows will prompt you to restart the machine. If you keep on delaying the restart, Windows will ultimately override your decision and perform the restart for you. This is particularly worrying for me, as once I was away from my computer and the system restarted without my permission (apparently after hearing no response from me for a while).

Outlook Express

A lot of emails sent today are in HTML, using embedded graphics. However, a lot of spammers take advantage of this and send HTML emails to recipients. When a recipient opens up an email using Outlook Express, the images are retrieved, allowing a spammer to get notification that the recipient is indeed an active user.

Outlook Express in Windows XP SP2 now supports the blocking of images in email (though Outlook already has this feature). Figure 15 shows Outlook Express blocking the pictures in an email. To load a picture, simply click on the message.

Figure 15
Figure 15. Pictures are blocked in Outlook by default

However, like most features in XP SP2, you have the option to turn off this feature in the Options menu in Outlook Express (see Figure 16).

Figure 16
Figure 16. Configuring Outlook Express

Summary

In XP SP2, Microsoft is making a conscientious effort to let users play a more active role in protecting their machines. While ultimately the user needs to decide whether to allow a seemingly harmless application to execute or not (but then again, how can a user tell?), the user is at least educated of what is happening behind the scene.

Windows XP Unwired

Related Reading

Windows XP Unwired
A Guide for Home, Office, and the Road
By Wei-Meng Lee

Security seems to be the primary focus of SP2, but improvements in areas like networking make SP2 a compelling upgrade as well.

Wei-Meng Lee (Microsoft MVP) http://weimenglee.blogspot.com is a technologist and founder of Developer Learning Solutions http://www.developerlearningsolutions.com, a technology company specializing in hands-on training on the latest Microsoft technologies.


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